Forgiving Las Vegas
I look out the window onto Tuscan gold stucco smiling blearily at me after an early spring thunderstorm. The sky is water washed blue, the clouds sheepish and dissipating. Around me people swarm, hundreds, thousands of them, here to frolic with their Vegas selves. Never far behind, in front, and beside them are the people that make this hedonism possible.
These are the residents of Las Vegas. They are what ‘stays in Vegas’. They both tirelessly replenish and support the façade that Vegas presents, and dispute it with their unassailable humanity, their essential realness.
Theirs is the flesh and blood that animates this iconic place where people come to forget themselves. While we blow our budgets and behave badly they must make ends meet out of our forgetfulness.
I failed to penetrate the Vegas veil last time I was here. That time I couldn’t get past the faux, the sordid, tawdry, made up face it presents to the world. Perhaps it was different when Sinatra and the gang gave this place cachet, a real reason to dim the lights and lose yourself.
Both times I’ve been here the city has screamed it’s has-beens at me loudly in brash color and lights. This time it is Barry Manilow, Cher and the now middle-aged brother and sister act, Donnie and Marie Osmond. Frank Sinatra was cool in his day. Now the performers sweating under the lights can’t get gigs on the regular circuit.
There are exceptions to all of the above and that is part of the reason why I am here this time; to break through my prejudices, to see past the somewhat congealed patina. I’m having no trouble this time. I can’t seem to stay on the outside of the skin of this creature that is Vegas.
I can’t stay in the congeniality of my expectations. The people keep leaking through.
First of all we’re staying at the Bellagio, a cut above the regular accommodations in this city and reminiscent of Monte Carlo and other less seedy, more sophisticated examples of this genre. So the Vegas of the Bellagio has a touch of redemptive class. Not a little. Our room is impeccable, sprawling. Even the plumbing works in a luxurious way. But, as lovely as it is, it’s just a building.
Around me courses humanity, in all it’s incorrigible shapes and forms. I even find people like me, people you’d never expect to see here in the Vegas of my media fed imagination. To my surprise there is no one particular type dominating here. I see one salon tanned bottle blonde in a tight short black skirt holding a cigarette but next to her, not with her, but sharing her milieu, is a French couple, perfectly Parisian in their understated elegance.
Then there’s the guy, he has to be a guy, he’s not a man, not a boy. He’s trudging round the endless marble malls in his sneakers with a backpack on his back and a computer bag slung over his shoulder.
And the young people, lots of them, not all sorority types either; young, fresh and still susceptible to the allure of so much manufactured glamour. Ironically they and their indomitable youth add sauce and substance to the myth. They flesh it out and give it life.
And there’s plenty of urbanity, lots of understatement, lots of black chic, the kind you associate with the world’s great cities. No-one could claim that Vegas is one of them. It’s a pretender, always has been, nothing organic about it, nothing cosmopolitan, zero heritage.
I don’t know what I expected but I expected it with a kind of non-negotiable gusto that some would call horribly characteristic. I had these ideas, I mean I didn’t study Vegas, read up on it, I had a glancing, passing sense of it and it wasn’t good. Vegas brought out the prude and the snob in me, a formidable combination.
Now, well, I’ll not rush here for a vacation, we’re here on business, but I’m somehow taken with it. Hard to explain, very hard to explain to people like myself, firm and righteous in our repudiation of this place that has been synonymous with the tawdry, commercial underbelly of society. Oh there are many words that I could apply, even now.
Yes, it’s still all here. Plenty of that. But not only that, and if you’re going to be like the me of yesterday, you’ll miss this odd, flamboyant weirdness, a kind of alchemy wherever there are people and hopes and dreams.
I have a very dear friend who painstakingly saved for months to book a vacation of a lifetime. The family would be staying in old villas across Tuscany, cycling from vineyard to vineyard, eating fresh baked, crusty, coarse grain bread, drinking local wines. It was all booked and paid for. Then the snow came, and came and came. The airport here in Denver closed down. For days. They lost their deposits, their dream was snow dumped. They were beyond disappointed.
A week later when the snow had melted some, not much, and the frigid airport opened, the whole family boarded a plane to Vegas for a week at the Venetian, a kind of consolation prize. I didn’t understand it then, how it could console in any way. Now I can.
Its not so much what happens in Vegas that stays in Vegas, its what you let go of when you’re here that allows you to see past the shabby pretence, the garish theme park. In the end, in spite of itself, humanity animates it all, emanating from even the most tawdry confections. At first the architects copy and pretend, then the people arrive and eventually it takes on life and breathes and maybe even gets a soul