Tuesday, March 03, 2009

What Happens in Vegas

There are approximately two billion places I would pay to visit on this globe, and another bonus billion I’d visit if someone else was footing the bill. Las Vegas makes neither of those lists so, obviously, this is where I was dispatched to a medical conference for three days last week. There were perks, of course. It was warm. It was sunny. I was staying in a hotel and tiny bottles of shampoo make me happier than they probably should. Cable. Chipotle was a reimbursable expense.

But on the other hand: Las Vegas. I did get to drive through the downtown for a few hours and totally succumbed to the appeal of the old casinos and all the lights and the wedding chapels and the kitsch, but the Strip! The Strip. It’s all the antiseptic, plaster, scale-model lowlights of Epcot Center thrown in a blender and frapped with some tequila and a few sequin fanny-packs and a crushing number of mobility scooters and as many state-fair-style comically large drinks in souvenir cups as you can cram in your luggage.

I grew up outside New York City so I don’t know if it’s the same when people visit here for the first time, but I couldn’t get over how Las Vegasy Las Vegas looked. Like, do people walk around Times Square thinking holy crap, look, they really sell hot dogs on the street, and people really walk fast, and there’s really a motherloving rat running around right there on the subway tracks? And everything becomes a musical montage set to “New York, New York” right then and there? Because I stayed at the Flamingo and it was all lit up pink outside, and when I walked through the casino and out onto the Strip at night there were so many women done up with fancy bags and tube dresses and boobs, so many boobs, like at least twice the standard issue apiece, and feather boas and sometimes even leather pants, and leopard print everywhere, and men in suits legitimately playing craps at the Bellagio with a crowd of onlookers, everything was so Vegas I heard Elvis in my head and felt the urge to duck because the next scene was clearly supposed to be fading in from the top of the screen. Total montage.

But at the same time, it was nothing like I expected it to be, because it’s actually the opposite of what everyone expects to be. Particularly the tourists trying to live up to their own expectations. If I heard one ex-frat boy say “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas!” I heard sixty yell the same thing, except nothing scandalous was ever going on. They were mostly referring to drinking a Bud Light on the street (legal and invited) or accepting one of the business cards they give out by the hundreds for hookers (also legal, and you know they’re never going to call). Everyone was going to see Donnie and Marie Osmond. Everyone was full of reasonably-priced prime rib. Minus the boozing, this could be Branson. The collective urge to feel like you’re doing something sinful while doing exactly what’s sanctioned and encouraged was a little…I don’t know, like giving in and talking back to the dummy at a ventriloquist’s show.

I think the thing that really got me about the Las Vegas strip was how nothing is old. Once a hotel hits fifty it’s time to tear it right down and build a model of some world landmark with slot machines in its base. There was construction everywhere you looked. My hotel was one of the oldest still operating and it was only built in 1946. Yeah, this is a city where the Rat Pack hung out, but I grew up taking trips to walk the Freedom Trail in Boston and buying the oldest used books I could find at the library sale, so unless I can stay where they stayed and drink on the same bar stools, it doesn’t matter much to me. It’s kind of a city with no memory.

Although that may be a good thing? Because that means that any business associates dining at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville will probably not recall me dancing like an epileptic Jennifer Beals to the Journey cover band.

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