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Friday, July 26, 2013

The World Ends in Las Vegas

Las Vegas surprised me. I'd never thought it would hold any appeal to me as a travel destination, since gambling holds no appeal. Twenty years ago I was in Monaco and avoided the Monte Carlo casino; if I'd  wanted to throw money away while watching naked women, I could get undressed in front of a mirror and pitch my francs out the window. I've since placed a few bets, in various contexts, and it's left me stone cold. In Las Vegas, what else is there to do?

On this particular trip, in May 2011, someone had put up billboards in the United States announcing the end of the world. Like so many things about the U.S., this is hard to explain. It's partly that there are so many people some of them are bound to be taken in by almost anything, and partly the almost limitless space that can be put to advertising use. This combination makes for regular panics about the end of the world. It also, of course, explains Las Vegas.

I didn't convert to gambling but I enjoyed walking down the Strip, hanging out watching T. throw her money away play, and getting the odd free drink (though this didn't happen nearly often enough). I also enjoyed things I didn't expect to, such as people smoking indoors in Nevada, even cigars. I wouldn't ordinarily enjoy smoke anywhere, but being back in an environment where people were free to do so made me somewhat nostalgic.

Freedom, in fact, was the word that came to mind. Freedom to gamble and whore and "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," of course, but more than that, a relaxed attitude that really refreshed me. In trying to figure out why, I realized how debased a word freedom had become since 2000, which happens to be the last year I lived in America. Freedom became associated with the pretty much non-stop war footing the country has been on in the past twelve years. "Freedom" is why we put up with naked-body scanners and our e-mails being read, kill citizens with drones, force-feed prisoners and throw away the key, as well as the thousand little indignities of travel that have been the legacy of the Bush administration (and which Obama has, in too many cases, enhanced or continued). Whatever freedom is, it sure isn't much fun anymore.

By contrast, Las Vegas is all about fun. Apart from the odd ghastly-looking zombie who's been up all night hitting the same slot machine, everybody I see there always seems relaxed. "Good luck!" is the standard greeting, even from other visitors. Ever since I first emigrated, I've been struck on my return trips to the States by how much more people talk to you there, how they smile and say "Have a nice day!"; what seemed like insincere customer-service speak before is a nice change now that I don't get it in my day-to-day life. If America in general feels like this, Las Vegas is America to the extreme.

I cannot know how different the U.S.A. really is from how it was in the twentieth century, when I still lived there. But others' observations have strengthened my suspicion that the country I grew up in is gone. It was open, friendly, trusting (some would say naïve) in a way that it hasn't been since September 11. I don't remember seeing military everywhere I traveled in America, or the low-level anxiety. We knew that there were terrorists, of course, but mostly, growing up, I assumed that foreigners just wanted to come and live in America, not blow it up.

Las Vegas still feels like that to me. People from all over the world, even Europe, come to gaze at the fake Eiffel Tower and pyramids. There are bargains to get to Las Vegas, because they want everyone to spend money in the casinos themselves, and so travelers are its lifeblood, not feared or hated. Vegas is gaudy, unapologetic, fifty years behind the times--in the sense of a time when America was booming, its self-perception unshaken. The irony is that Vegas sits in a desert so godforsaken it was used for above-ground nuclear tests, weapons of mass destruction that were designed for foreign enemies, but killed and scarred generations of Americans instead. With this decades-old backdrop of terror, maybe Vegas is just the city of nothing to lose.

So, three o'clock in the afternoon Vegas time (not that there are any clocks) the world was going to end. I'd forgotten all about this, because shortly before the time, we were enjoying a pool party the like of which I'd never experienced when I actually was a young woman. So I was living it up in the pool, surrounded by people holding bottles of beer, when the d.j. announced "End of the world drinks, two for the price of one!" I didn't know what he was talking about. I swam away from the bar.

When the hour had passed, the d.j. told us the world hadn't ended after all. This being Vegas, everyone cheered and bought drinks anyway. T. was a little miffed when I got back to our deck chairs. "I can't believe the world was going to end and you went swimming and left me here alone!"

But that's Las Vegas. Carefree. Believe me, if I am around for the end of the world, a pool with a bar is exactly where I want to be.


M@ said...

I went to Vegas for the first time just a couple of weeks ago. It was pretty meh for me -- it was okay, but I won't be hurrying back.

The main highlights for me were two museums we saw -- the atomic testing museum and the pinball hall of fame -- and a concert by Weird Al in the utterly fantastic Smith Performing Arts Center.

The smoke, the boozing (not the drinks but the drunk bachelorette parties and douchebags), the crowds... yeah, at best it was okay.

J. E. Knowles said...

Thanks for your comment. Weird Al, eh? Yes, Vegas is definitely the place to see the weird!