Well, I am writing this from Las Vegas, Nevada. In fact I am actually on The Strip. What am I doing there far from my usual haunts? Well, my parents are residing now in Arizona. It is a little hard to see the parents I grew up with as cowboy and cowgirl sorts, but the Fates frequently must have their little jokes. So my staid parents are now living in a cowboy state, even if not a cowboy state of mind. Another joke of fate is that to visit them in Arizona, it makes sense to fly into Las Vegas rather than into Phoenix's perfectly good airport. However, it is cheaper and probably more interesting to fly into Las Vegas and drive to Arizona. So in the years to come I expect to be in Las Vegas frequently.
Why are the rates lower to fly to Las Vegas? It could be the random vagaries of scheduling, but I suspect it has a more logical reason. I think the casinos subsidize the airlines to keep the rates into Las Vegas low. Decisions in this part of the world are made on the sound principle that what is good for the Las Vegas gambling industry is also good for Nevada. There is no big industry in Nevada of any productive sort. You don't find farm implements being made in Nevada. There is very little software written here. There are no cars built in Nevada. For most of us the only nationally respected professionals who reside in the state seem to be some fictional crime scene investigators. The prosperity of the State of Nevada is just about entirely bound up in the setting of casino house odds. That seems to be what Nevada does best. They are very good at setting house odds. They must have the best odds setters in the world.
The other thing they do very well is in providing innocents like myself the opportunity to gamble. That makes my trip to visit my parent cheaper. It is because my parents live a few hundred miles from a place where it is legal to gamble. The entire area for hundreds of miles around is financed by the largess of the big casinos and in turn funded by little people who come here to turn over their savings in the hopes that a few will occasionally come away with more. And when they do win that is a big day for them. They will remember it more than all the times they lost. The few times they won will stick out in their memories. They will probably remember everything about that trip to Vegas. They will forget the other times, but that time they won and it will stick with them. It is like people remember when psychics guess right and forget when there was nobody in the audience who knows any recently deceased Aunt Miranda.
The moment you land in Las Vegas airport and are walking down the gangway you can almost hear the slot machines jingling already. It isn't your imagination. When you get to the are at the end of the gangway the waiting room is filled with slot machines. "Hey," it calls to you, "it may take some time for your luggage to be unloaded, why not feed your pocket change into a machine in the meantime?" Actually they put the machines in the wrong place. If they put them on the OTHER side of the security check you could put your coins in a slot machine rather then letting them set off the metal detector.
Now, Las Vegas is just the sort of vacation spot when I grew up I always expected not to like. I was never that fond of the Disneyland/world/whatever experience. It seemed like a very artificial sort of place. Why travel to an invented world where everything is predictable when you have a whole real world out there. Why see a half-scale Temple of Heaven in the Epcot center when you can see the real one? But Las Vegas is an equally artificial world. Its scale models are of New York buildings and the Eiffel Tower. I have known people who come all the way from the New York City area to visit the scale model Empire State Building. I wouldn't expect to like Vegas all that much. I don't gamble since I tend to expect to lose just a little more frequently than the laws of probability say I should. I don't know why that is, but it seems to be true of me like the character in the film THE COOLER.
But there is something intriguing about Las Vegas that I was not expecting. This is a place where private enterprise has gone manic. There is apparently big money in being the casino that attracts the greatest number of gamblers. There must be at least decent money in being the casino that attracts at least some gamblers. But you see fabulous buildings being built in the hopes that when they are opened, they will be THE PLACE TO GAMBLE. And if they make it to the top they seem to be on top for only about six months. Then someone else's fabulous casino hotel is opened and the one that was opened six months before is demoted to being just another one of the biggees. When it stops earning it is torn down, usually with a spectacular dynamite detonation, and another giant casino hotel is built in its place. It is like private enterprise gone time lapse. Every time you come to Las Vegas it is a different town from what it was the last time. Things happen fast here. Come back in a year and the town will be noticeably changed.
I commented in my Japan trip log that Japan is to the United States as the United States is to Canada. Actually it might be better to say as the United States is to Western Europe as Western Europe is to Eastern Europe. Japan is vibrant, exciting, changing. People are anxious to try out the new. The United States is a little more laid-back and casual. But at least in the 20th Century the United States was more vibrant than Western Europe. Newt Gingrich as a boy spent time in France and was surprised to see buildings that were still, as he was told, "damaged from the war." He was even more surprised to find out that they were talking not about World War II but about World War I. In America those buildings would be repaired or gone in less than a year. In Tokyo it might be even faster.
Japan is more vibrant than the United States in general, but Las Vegas beats Japan. That may be why you see so many Japanese tourists in Las Vegas. Or there may be another reason. Casino complexes are really big in just the way that very few buildings in Japan are. Things in Japan are very compact and cramped. In Europe the standard for showing opulence in a building is putting gold all over it. I think the French are in love with gold leaf. In Japan opulence is shown by space. The grounds of the Emperor's palace are big and spacious, but the average Japanese lives in a well designed but confined little space. The big corporations in Japan have big buildings with big open spaces in them in Shinjuku and all that space is to show off their wealth. The Las Vegas casinos are huge. A walk to a different part of the same casino complex can take twenty minutes or even more if you don't stop to look around. The rooms may be at one end of the casino and the shops at the other end. If at all possible to walk from one to another takes a long walk past hundreds of gambling machines. To Americans this design merely looks sumptuous. I would guess that to the Japanese it looks really magnificent.
Some of these casinos are so big they can build a full-sized roller coaster on top of them. One casino must have started that but apparently many others followed suit. You can be standing laughing at the garishness of some new casino and suddenly you hear a roar over head. Over the top of the casino comes thundering a roller coaster with people screaming. It may be totally out of place with the decor of the building, but there it is. Take the casino New York, York. I don't think that New York is particularly associated with roller coasters the way it is with the Statue of Liberty but there is a roller coaster over the whole affair. Maybe it is supposed to be evocative of Coney Island, but I doubt it I think it is important to attract younger gamblers. There are not that many middle-aged gamblers using the amusement park rides, but they probably bring in the kids. Get the kids gambling early. Casinos try to outdo each other. The Stratosphere has two roller coasters; Circus Circus has one; the Boardwalk and the Sahara each has one. I might guess that the Las Vegas Strip has the greatest concentration of roller coasters of any place in the world.
When we go to Vegas we usually stay at the Luxor. This is a fabulous pyramid of a hotel with an Ancient Egypt theme for decor. Even the elevators seem lined with stone tablets to give the feel of ancient Egyptian elevators. (My, the Egyptians did marvelous things with sand, didn't they?) You can find your way there at night because it has a huge beacon aimed upward from the peak of the pyramid. It creates an interesting optical illusion. We see the stars directly overhead as being closer than those at the horizon because we have no benchmarks to measure the distance overhead. The sky looks like an inverted dish with the center much closer to you than the edge. It is the same effect that makes the moon look much bigger when it is on the horizon than when it is straight up. The dust and water vapor (there is some even in the desert) in the air in the path of the beacon is illuminated and we see it at a distance, but our minds interpret it as being projected into the top of the dish. It looks like it goes to a point almost right overhead since the horizontal distance to the column is much less than the vertical distance. The beam looks almost horizontal and right over your head wherever you are outside at night. It gives the almost mystical effect that the beam is following you around.
For a while the Luxor was King (Pharaoh?) of the Hill in Las Vegas. Then someone built a more fantabulous casino and it became just one of the majors. It is still luxurious, but now it is also an inexpensive place to stay. Luxurious and inexpensive is a pretty good combination. During the week we get a fancy room for $69 a night. That is competitive with the price of a Motel 6. I note, however, one minor luxury has gone away. The bath soap in the ornate bathrooms used to have sesame seeds embedded in it to make it more fancy. I don't know what the seeds are doing in the soap, but apparently is made the soap seem more fancy. Apparently the customers did not realize this was there to impress them. You are in big trouble when your customers do not understand your soap. Now there are no longer seeds in the soap. But the bathrooms are still very nice. That luxury costs only $69 a night during the week.
There is plenty of free entertainment for those who walk around. You can watch people gamble and that is almost a study in itself. You can watch the fake volcano explode every hour over at the Mirage. It has always been the popular sixth-grade science class project, making a volcano, but here it is done on a huge scale. Everyone likes natural fireworks (if they don't get too close). The Sirens of Treasure Island have replaced the pirate battle, which to me sounds like a mistake. Sirens are just not spectacular as a rule. I don't know what the siren show is yet, but the pirate battle was fairly impressive, including a sinking ship, all done large scale outside the casino. I think with the sirens they have thrown a little bit of sex. For those of a gentler nature there is the ballet of water streams at the Bellagio, played to sumptuous Italian music.
Everybody has his or her favorite bargain in Las Vegas. Some things are very expensive, but there are always good purchases hanging around. They are like loss leaders in grocery stores. The Luxor keeps its prices down in the hopes people will come and while here they will gamble. And they are right. Some people will. They are well aware that there are people like the Leepers who come and stay at their hotel and do not gamble, but enough people will use the casino and the house odds say enough of these people will lose that overall the Luxor's money-making machine works. They know that they could make more money if they could get rid of parasites like the Leepers, but there is no easy way for them to do that. They are content to let the gamblers subsidize both the owners and us parasites. (I would like to take a moment and thank the poor schmucks who sit down in that casino 7x24x365 (7x24x366 this year) feeding their dollars into those machines and, in part, paying to keep my vacation nice and cheap. Have a good time. Enjoy losing lots.)
People here are crazy to gamble. Both meanings of that sentence are true. The guy who would never give his spare change to a homeless man on the street will happily feed it into a machine with a long handle and with rolling tumblers in the hopes of that big payoff. It is a pity we cannot put that behavior to more constructive use. If every day we picked at random one person who gave a dollar or more to a homeless person and gave that contributor one million dollars, we could call it something like the Big Skid Row Sweepstakes, soon nobody would be poor and homeless. Of course this is starting to sound like putting the homeless into the numbers racket.
When I get to Las Vegas my first stop in town is usually Fremont Street. It isn't that it is the best place in town, but I usually arrive hungry and this is where I know I can get a good deal on lunch. Each time we come we stop first at the Golden Gate. This whole area is a relic of the Old Las Vegas. The casinos are small and dark and there is no show beyond pre-recorded music. The Golden Gate has a very good shrimp cocktail. It is an ice cream sundae glass filled with good shrimp. I mean not mushy shrimp but al dente. The cocktail costs one dollar and everyone acknowledges that it is the best deal on a shrimp cocktail in Las Vegas. Because most places would not have it subsidized by gamblers it may even be the best deal in a shrimp cocktail in the United States. I have chili and a soda. Evelyn has a glass of Chablis. (I guess I am just a chili-and-soda sort of guy and she is a Chablis sort of woman.) We each get a shrimp cocktail and one more for us to share. That comes to $8.51 and it is large enough to tide us over until dinner. And the food is good. But you have to pay them back by walking past slot machines to get it. They have a light show called the Fremont Experience, but to me cheap shrimp is the Fremont Experience. Before we eat we should fold our hands and give thanks to the suckers at the gaming tables who are keeping my lunch inexpensive.
Neil Gaiman in his novel AMERICAN GODS suggests people come to Las Vegas intentionally to lose. They may brag about the times they win, but they cherish the memory of the times they lose. Personally I think he is wrong. I think that they play wanting to win, but when they lose they somehow think it doesn't count. It is what was expected and is quickly forgotten. It is the wins that are remembered. People are willing to pay big for a few times having the thrill of winning. People want those few seconds of fame when people see them standing in front of a machine making that metallic thunk-thunk-thunk and having flashing lights and gongs. It feeds the human need for both success and fame. When you lose you are just one more person on the floor waiting for success and fame. That is my view of it as a non-gambler.
Some time this trip I intend to get one of the $7.95 Prime Rib dinners I see advertised on the road. I know what you're thinking. What kind of a Prime Rib dinner can you get for $7.95? The answer is a darn good one. Okay, so the price is really more than $7.95. In addition, you have to walk past slot machines to get to it. It's hard to believe how good the house take must be to pay for all the stuff I am getting cheap. More reason not to gamble. Just about any time of day you can find a cheap meal in a casino. Hey, they don't want to risk losing a gambler going somewhere else to eat. He might not come back. Any casino you find is anxious to keep you under their roof and will do what they can to keep you happy there. In fact they want you to get a good meal almost instantly on your arrival at the restaurant so you can turn around quickly and go back out there and gamble. That makes "buffet" the Official Town Dish.
The other nice thing about Las Vegas is the dress code. It's kinda casual. James Bond wears a tuxedo to gamble, but he is in glamorous Monte Carlo or some such place. Most people don't get fancied up in Las Vegas. I think that you could come in wearing your pajamas and bathrobe as long as you are carrying a wallet.
But that is how it is in Las Vegas. The people who run this place are used to big risks and big rewards. They shrug off my abuses. It is a town where investors are like sharks. They move forward or they die. This oasis of frenetic activity and change sits in the middle of the silent impassive desert. When your plane lands you see this time-lapse ant colony in one direction and in the other you see the empty desert of sand and rock. You can do all sort of things with a desert. But there are not many cultures that would have thought to build an entertainment center on such a huge scale. Others have tried to follow the example, and I am thinking of Atlantic City in my own native New Jersey, and they have not had the same imagination and they have failed to catch the spirit. Perhaps it is the majesty of the desert that get people to think big. Deserts give birth to religions and to colossal statues, and Las Vegas may be some of both.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2004 Mark R. Leeper