Someday, I suspect, I’ll write a story about Las Vegas, adding my meager words to the millions that have already been spent trying to describe the place. Today, however, is not that day. I just returned from there late last night, I’m bowled over with jet lag and if I close my eyes, I can still see slot machine reels spinning on the backs of my eyelids. Writing coherently about Vegas requires time and distance — two things I don’t have at the moment.
Instead, I’m going to write incoherently about this strange world that I love so much. Instead of transitioning from one thought to another, like a proper blog post, I’m going to offer random observations, augmented with plenty of photos I took using Instagram. I’m calling it a tone poem, although in reality it’s a tired author’s way of fulfilling his blogging duties while showing off his cell phone photos. Either way, I hope you enjoy.
For those who have never been, I like to describe Las Vegas as spending a few days on another planet that’s similar to our own. The people look mostly the same, but everything else is bigger, brighter, louder. It’s a place where the Eiffel Tower looms over one side of The Strip while a fountain-spewing lake sits on the other. Both of those things, by the way, do not belong in the Nevada desert.
And that’s the glory of Las Vegas. In a sane world, nothing should be there but dirt and tumbleweeds and a few cattle ranches. Instead, we get glass pyramids and gleaming towers and exotic gardens sprouting up in the middle of casinos. It’s a mirage and a reality all at once.
I’ll never get used to the dryness.
The glitz of the city often hides the fact that it sits in the middle of a desert. You don’t even think about it when waltzing from one air-conditioned spot to another, whetting your whistle with your beverage of choice.
For me, the only reminder is the unrelenting dryness that settles into my skin almost immediately. My face tightens. The backs of my hands get rubbed raw from reaching into my pockets. A ring quickly forms on my neck where my shirt collar has chafed my neck. And all the moisturizer in the world can’t make it go away.
There’s one section of The Strip that’s almost like a gallery of Las Vegas history. There’s the Flamingo, the casino that in the 1940s helped turn Vegas into the “glamorous” metropolis it is today. The sixties are represented right pretty much across the street, where Caesar’s Palace still holds court. Just south of the Flamingo is Paris Las Vegas, which exemplifies the whole Epcot-as-casino motif so popular in the 1990s. Directly across from Paris is the Bellagio, which brought elegance to The Strip in the form of its dancing fountains, lavish interiors and art galleries. Slightly south of Bellagio is the latest incarnation of Las Vegas resort — City Center. All sleek steel and glass, it’s a strange hybrid of a casino, a luxury shopping mall, non-gambling hotels and even condo space. That’s seventy years of history, all within a few blocks.
Another interesting history lesson can be found north of The Strip, at The Neon Museum. It’s basically a boneyard where signs of Vegas’ past are brought to die. Some of the city’s most famous signs are now there, including the record-setting Stardust sign and a piece of the city’s most recently deceased casino, the Sahara.
Perhaps the strangest thing I’ve ever seen in Las Vegas was Dog the Bounty Hunter sitting at a nickel slot machine at the Bellagio. What made it strange wasn’t that none of those things seem to go together in any coherent fashion. No, the weird part comes when you realize that the nickel machine big Dog was playing was themed after The Wizard of Oz.
I am also a slots guy. Sure, I sometimes play low-stakes table games, such as Let it Ride or Three-Card Poker. But I’m not made for the high-pressure table games. I prefer the one-armed bandit, which can give as generously as it can snatch away.
Las Vegas is known as Sin City, which is true in its own self-branding way. Any sin you can think of is there for the taking. Greed? The whole damn place exists because of greed. Gluttony? Just belly up to the buffet, boys. Sloth? Envy? Lust? Yes, yes and, oh boy, yes.
Perhaps I’m naive, but I like to think there’s another reason people come to Vegas — hope. They arrive hoping to get rich, to get lucky (literally and figuratively), to escape from their plain lives. Stand in the center of any given casino and you’ll see hardened gamblers, blue-haired ladies, businessmen dragged there for a conference, tourists struck dumb by the hugeness of it all, drinkers, smokers, frat boys and housewives. All of them, at some point in their trip, will sit down at a blackjack table. Or a roulette wheel. Or a slot machine. Each one of them will pay their dollars and place their bets. And while the roulette wheel turns and the cards are being flipped and the slot reels spin, each and every one of them will think, “I hope …”
You know how we all have one special talent: the gift big enough to fill a room; or so subtle only our id knows for sure? I believe everybody has a knack, a flair, call it what you want. We each enjoy our own superpower.
My wife is a human GPS. You could drop Mary in the deepest, darkest Amazon rain forest, and she’d find her way home no problem. Urban sprawl is a piece of cake. She pooh-poohs electronic navigation systems when we’re driving somewhere unfamiliar, finds the voices annoying no matter the gender or the accent. Mary grabs a map and takes over the navigation, which is fine from my perspective because I could get lost in our backyard.
There have been the occasional mishaps. We once drove to Gatwick, when our return flight to the USA was out of Heathrow. But that’s another story, and Mary was diagnosed with chicken pox the day after we returned. So I’m inclined to think the circumstances were extenuating. Even Superman runs into the occasional case of kryptonite, right?
This story is about Venice. The city is to tourists, I think, what the Himalayas are to mountain climbers. Don’t get me wrong. I love the place. There just happen to be enormous challenges when touring the canals. And some are more serious than the navigation.
Several years ago, we were driving through Austria en route to Italy. And true to form, Mary was scrutinizing maps and reading a travel guide that described “marauding bands of Venetian pirates.”
“Watch out,” the guide warned. “There are thieves are everywhere.”
Duly alerted, we resolved to keep our eyes peeled. But the “marauding bands of Venetian pirates” became something of a running joke during our drive. For that matter, the warnings seemed overblown upon arrival. There was a state-of-the-art parking garage on the mainland outside the water taxi stand. It was well staffed and well organized, the picture of efficiency. I think 747s would be lucky to receive the kind of guidance our parking attendants offered that day. No sign of bandits.
The drop zone for water cabs was our first hint something was amiss. Literally, it was a drop zone. The attendants—smiling and waving their arms in the manner that makes the Italian language so enchanting—guided us to the departure area, tossed our bags into the hands of the crew, and signaled for us to get in. Next stop Venice.
There was one problem. The drop was eight feet. There were no stairs or ladders, just lots of air separating us from the deck. It was, as you might guess, the kind of moment that gave us dry mouth.
We did it, grasping the walls, allowing our bodies to stretch as far down as possible, and finally dropping. Me first. I helped Mary, who stuck the landing, a couple of feet, no big deal. When we were both safe, we glanced at each other with knowing looks that said, “This isn’t right.”
Then we waited. Our boat captain explained that another family was arriving, which made me wonder what kind of monitoring system the garage used. After about 15 minutes, the couple and their kids arrived. They, too, stuck the landings, both Mary and me helping this time. The captain indicated we would go to their hotel first.
We drove across the harbor, breathtaking views of Venice, and exchanged pleasantries with the family. Like us, they were staying three days. Inside the city’s canal system, a turn here and a turn there, the captain announced to our fellow passengers with the Cheshire cat smile, “We’re at your hotel.”
That’s when Mary kicked into action. She marched up to the front of the boat and stated, emphatic, resolved, 100 percent certain, “No we’re not.”
Our captain pretended not to speak English. But he got the point. Mary gestured right, then left, and stabbed at her map of the canals with an insistent forefinger. He was cowed and, nodding his head with an expression that says “Yikes” in any language, started the boat again.
Mary tapped him on the shoulders when it was time to turn, her map and index finger always at the ready. After another twenty or so minutes, we arrived at the first hotel. The couple thanked us, packed up their kids, and disembarked. They told Mary, “Thank you. We would have been lost.”
Then came our turn. The captain turned down one canal and proceeded to a dock, which looked like all the others. “We’re here.”
Mary folded her arms and shook her head, tapping her foot on the deck. The captain shrugged and started motoring again. He had this guilty look on his face, like he should have known better than to try a second time. Twenty minutes later we pulled up to our hotel.
In retrospect, I think we charged right into the marauding band of pirates from the guidebook. They wanted a quick drop, a quick buck, and a quick getaway. I don’t claim to have any special insights into pirates. But as pirates go, I suspect these guys were fairly agreeable. They just happened to meet their match that day, my wife, the human GPS, the modern equivalent of Red Chief in the famous hostage story from O’Henry.