Thursday, December 30, 2010

Something always stays in Vegas

LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- One would think that the international symbol for this uniquely American city would be an ace of cards, or a pair of dice, or even a roulette wheel. It is none of these.

The thing that epitomizes Las Vegas is the subwoofer.

My wife and I spent our Christmas holiday here because it was impossible this year to gather family 'round the tribal table and we didn't want to spend Christmas Day doing yard work. Besides, I figure, what better way to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ than by doubling down on a pair of aces? And so, while others were opening presents that morning, we were boarding a Southwest airliner (piloted, I later realized, by a crew unable to get the day off) for three days in Sin City.

Within 24 hours after landing in Vegas I realized we had been under constant assault by synthetic music and crashing audio effects from the moment we arrived. In the parking garages, along the sidewalks, in the casinoes, the restaurants, even in the restrooms. And I don't mean the soft, background music one hears in elevators, although there was some of that, too; I mean thumping, driving, exciting music meant to stir the soul and quicken the pace. Las Vegas is the only city I've ever visited where life has its own background music.

Technology reigns supreme in Las Vegas. The canopy that covers Fremont Street, where the original casinoes were built, bills itself as the world's largest video screen. I'm not sure what the purpose of the "Space Frame" is, but it effectively nullifies the grandeur of the Fremont Hotel & Casino. The Fremont's iconic neon sign towers, fully lit yet largely unseen, above the canopy with only the bulbous street level sign still visible. The Fremont's isn't the only sign blocked by "progress." View from the south of The Flamingo's feathery neon confection is obscured by one of the new pedestrian bridges that cross The Strip. The bridges carry foot traffic away from several six-lane intersections and toward the shops and casinoes that line the boulevard.

Las Vegas isn't a single experience, it is a collection of disjointed images, many of which don't even make sense. Here, then, is my collection of disjointed observations about Vegas:

I didn't know until I got here that The Strip isn't even in Las Vegas, it's in unincorporated Paradise, in Clark County, at the south edge of the city of Las Vegas. The only legalized gaming in the city is on Fremont Street; the rest is on The Strip, officially named Las Vegas Boulevard.

I also didn't realize that the Disneyesque family resorts hadn't completely wiped old mob-heyday Vegas off of the strip. The Sahara, famous as a hangout for the Rat Pack in the 1960s, is still here. So are The Tropicana and The Riviera.

The Strip looks very different during the day than it does at night. Like an aging hooker, she's faded and a little shopworn in the daylight, but at night, under the lights, she's breathtakingly beautiful and alluring.

Although prostitution is technically illegal in heavily populated areas of Nevada, it is apparently legal to advertise those services. One needs only a moment of thought to understand the billboard trucks trundling up and down The Strip offering to "put a lady with you in 20 minutes." Hawkers stand along the street handing out what appear to be business cards for ladies of the night. I remarked to my wife the cards looked like "hooker trading cards" and asked if I could try to collect a whole set. She said yes, providing I could discern which ones were rookie cards.

Despite the plethora of family-oriented entertainment, sex still permeates The Strip. The stop where we waited to catch a soutbound bus each morning was directly across the street from the Riviera, home of the longest-running topless revue in Vegas. While waiting for the bus we were treated to an unobstructed view of a 30-foot sign for the revue. Nearby, at street level, is a larger-than-life bronze frieze of the image with certain portions polished to a high gloss from millions of fondlings.

Most of the properties have free on-site performances of some kind. Circus Circus, where we stayed, has big top performers that give free shows into the wee hours. The Bellagio has its spectacular dancing water fountain, choreographed to music, and some of its performances will bring tears to your eyes. By contrast, Caesar's Palace has an animatronic "Fall of Atlantis," which is so overwrought, historically farcial, and trailer-park trashy that I wasn't quite sure what I'd seen. Coincidentally, this is the same property where the biggest names in show biz appear; Jerry Seinfeld was playing while we were there, and Cher is scheduled later this winter.

The Venitian features real (battery-powered) gondolas taking real passengers for rides on a real (concrete) canal that wends its way through the property. I'm not a student of architecture, so I don't know how authentic the decor is. I'm pretty sure the free entertainment lacks much in the authenticity department, however. A troup of street performers in fairly sophisticated costumes performed magic tricks while a hawker muttered, "Brava, signore," incessantly into a cordless microphone, then launched into "The Christmas Song" a la Johnny Mathis.

With temperatures in the fifties and slot machines jangling constantly, it was a little jarring to hear bus drivers, pit bosses, and blackjack dealers wish us "Merry Christmas." I had to wonder whether the hundreds of thousands of Japanese, Indian, and Malaysian tourists felt the same.

The Las Vegas marketing phrase, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" is pure genius. On the surface it hints at autoabsolution of sin because, well, why else would you go there? On a deeper level, though, it allows the permanent concealment of the embarrassment that comes of entanglement in the bizarre street scene that occurs only in Las Vegas. Ours involved a guy from Texas and an RV with a busted serpentine belt. I don't want to talk about it. Ever.

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