Letter from Las Vegas (Guardian Weekly)
Letter from Las Vegas
I was travelling from the airport in the back of a black Lexus limo, fiddling unsuccessfully with the seat’s electronic massage button, when I noticed the driver sizing me up in his rear-view mirror. Nodding his head slowly but rhythmically, he told me exactly where I could watch a football game and enjoy a US$1 lap dance at the same time, adding the well-oiled, almost whispered afterthought “Anything goes in Vegas, baby, anything goes.” As a local, he sounded like someone who’d seen it all before and preferred a quieter life.
Nighttime is obviously the right time to arrive in Nevada’s Sin City, where the mammoth hotel and casino complexes relentlessly wink their multicoloured neon invitations. Although it was my first trip here, I was instantly struck by the contrast between these jaunty lightshows and the dozens of grim-faced visitors shuffling past like lemmings. The best way to experience the city, it seemed, was to treat it like a human zoo: watch from a distance and try not to get eaten.
Celebrating its centenary just a few months before my visit, Vegas – a mirage-like adult Disneyland manufactured in the desert to make people feel good about losing their money – is like no place on earth. There are few cities that can boast both a rollercoaster-topped concrete tower and a fake volcano that noisily erupts every 30 minutes. But while the cavernous casinos remain the city’s main raison d’etre, there’s more to do here than simply lose your shirt.
Taking a US$2 transit bus trip along Las Vegas Boulevard – colloquially known as the Strip – seemed like a good idea for a wide-eyed Vegas virgin like me. While swanky hotels like the crenelated Venetian and the gold-windowed Wynn Las Vegas dominate the newer end of the Boulevard , the 301 bus provides a road trip into the past between faded old Strippers like Stardust and Circus Circus. Once the city’s hottest area, this paint-peeled section is now where the buffets are permanently US$6.49, the slots are dominated by old ladies in hypnotic trances and dozens of ageing, jumpsuited Elvis impersonators come to die.
I stayed on the bus as it trundled past 1950s-era wedding chapels with names like Silver Bells and The Hitching Post, before arriving at downtown’s Fremont Street, a relatively tranquil covered promenade of stores, heritage neon and original, old-school casinos like the Golden Nugget.
But when the sun began to fade, I was lured back to the centre of the action, rolling up at the doors of a new Tao-themed nightclub at the modern end of the Strip. With a towering golden Buddha statue surrounded by dozens of tiny candles and the deep red interiors of an ancient temple, the club seemed oblivious of its sacrilegious undertones. I jokingly asked a server where the Catholic theme bar was and was met with the thin smile of someone who instantly calculated my tipping ability and found it sorely lacking.
Craving some real comedy, I headed for a show. While Cirque du Soleil rules the Vegas auditoriums with a lyrca-clad fist – they operate several acrobatic extravaganzas here and influence many others – magicians Penn and Teller have a reputation for skewering the dry-ice-and-fireworks approach to entertainment.
It’s hard to explain the joy of watching Teller (the silent one) “accidentally” drop a rabbit in a wood chipper and come up with a face full of blood but it was a tonic in a city where everything calls itself the best in the world no matter how lame it is. It was Penn who did all the talking, of course, suggesting several times that visitors should take magic acts with a large pinch of salt – which also turns out to be the best way to approach Vegas.