I'm now sitting in the Las Vegas airport, waiting to go home after 48 hours on "the Strip." Said stretch of road -- technically Las Vegas Boulevard -- is, quite arguably, the epicenter of Vegas; if nothing else, it's what everyone associates with the city. It's about three miles of some of the world's largest and most ostentatious casinos. It's a miscrocosm of famous world landmarks -- a faux New York skyline, a replica Eiffel Tower, an imposing Egyptian pyramid. It's a place where dreams are made and hopes are crushed.
It's also the world's biggest infomercial, advertising itself at full volume 24 hours a day.
Even by day, there are scrolling marquees with letters taller than a human; there are television billboards big enough to be seen for a mile and loud enough to be heard for a block; and every group of cars contains at least one taxi, recognizable by its rear-mounted billboard advertising some new Strip attraction. You'd be intimidated by the crowd noise if it wasn't drowned out by the traffic -- and you'd be deafened by the traffic if it wasn't drowned out by the casinos' promotions.
But it's when the sun sets that the Strip really takes over the city. Buildings glow with green light or purple neon, or are illuminated by giant floodlights from below. The fantasyland castle becomes a white, shining beacon; the Eiffel Tower a yellow spire pointing into the darkness. Shopfronts and casino entrances bedeck themselves in a thousand thousand bulbs, blinking and flashing like turbulent waves in an angry sea. Even the full moon overhead just becomes another pale light in the sky, unable to cast shadows on the ground.
It all has one purpose: To attract money. If cash had wings, the Strip would be the world's biggest bug zapper.
These days, everything in Vegas comes with a steep price tag. It used to be the case that the Strip made its money from gambling and made everything else a bargain as an added incentive for people to visit -- but now the casinos have succumbed to their greed, like sharks smelling blood in the water, and jacked up the prices on everything. Hotel rooms, once among the region's best rates, have soared; three-digit prices are the norm for Vegas' shows; the $5 buffets of decades past are increasingly vanishing in the face of big-name eateries with $40 entrees. (One hole-in-the-wall's surf and turf was even listed at $105. I once ate a full meal at world-renowned San Francisco-area restaurant Chez Panisse for less.)
Nowhere is this hunger for your money more visible than in the deliberately inconvenient architecture.
Every building on the Strip is a labyrinth. By this I do not mean "maze." By this I mean the traditional definition of labyrinth, which is like a maze except with no dead ends. Every interior is subdivided into a single tangled, twisting passageway. It's very simple to get to where you're going; it's just past the slot machines. It's very simple to find the exit; it's past everything fucking else.
The first place I went on this trip to Vegas was to the Stratosphere restaurant for my sister's birthday dinner. Here is the shortest route to the restaurant -- up at the top of a 900-foot tower -- from the parking garage:
- Down the escalator to the casino floor.
- Up the escalator in the center of the floor a hundred paces away.
- Walk a full quarter mile through a shopping mall, laid out in a single line resembling a C that doubles back on itself when it reaches the end. This quarter-mile walk leaves you approximately 100 feet from the top of the escalator (but behind two sets of walls).
- Through security (a metal detector and bag searches) then up the tower's elevator.
As shameless as this is, it couldn't quite approach the audacity of The Forums At Caesar's Palace, a three-story shopping mall built around a central ground-floor pool. The main way to move between stories was a set of curved escalators -- all of which left from the south side, arced through the middle, and arrived on the north side. There was also a broad, inviting pair of escalators at the main entrance ... both of which only traveled upward, and which did not have any accompanying stairs.
If you went up two flights on the right-hand-side "up" main escalator (say, on a quest to visit the very-well-marked restrooms at the top), the escalators stranded you on the north side of the mall. You returned to them only to find that the "down" main escalator was no such thing -- and the curved central escalator was herding people toward you. And then, due to the layout, you would have to walk all the way around the mall's open center to get to the south side to get to the curved escalators going down to the second floor. And then you would have to walk all the way around the mall again to get back to the south side for the escalators going down to the first floor.
In other words, if you made the mistake of entering for a quick restroom break, you were forced to traverse virtually the entirety of the mall in order to return outside.
If there had been a few slot machines scattered around, that would basically be a summary of the entire Vegas casino experience.
Not that it's much different outside the casinos. But at least they're trying to take your money for different reasons.
It used to be (I am informed by a member of the preceding generation) that the Strip was full of, shall we say, ladies of the night. This is no longer the case. I guess that as the city grew and lights started becoming more ubiquitous, it reached the point that there was no longer enough night to go around. These days, when you walk down the Strip, mingling with crowds of gawking tourists and gaggles of profit-seeking college kids, you merely pass by sporadic groups of enterprising young capitalists.
This polite, determined crew -- nearly all male, and overwhelmingly minority -- wanders around in loud T-shirts with handfuls of glossy, oversized business cards (and, sometimes, cheaply-printed magazine-like directories). They rarely speak, and when they do, it is to chatter briefly among themselves, not to promote their product.
When a passerby draws near, they will look up, making eye contact, and with a casual motion, strike their wad of business cards against their palm. Whap. Then they will silently offer you one of the attractive-looking cards. If you don't move to take it, sometimes they'll repeat the offer. Whap.
If you take a card, no acknowledgement is made. They immediately turn to their next target -- young or old, male or female alike. Whap. Whap. Whap.
This quiet, constant slap is the sound of the streets of Vegas. The traffic, the crowds, the commercials -- all of these things are louder, but none are more emblematic of the city's offerings, and certainly none are more disturbing at a symbolic level. A polite army of silenced minorities hawking the telephone and escort services of an army of distant, hidden starlets.
It's like some postmoral urban Disneyland show. "See? You don't have to fear our underbelly. We've harnessed it, muted it. You control your descent into sin. It's all up to you. The Strip is a defanged rattlesnake; the whap, whap, whap our paper tail -- no longer a warning, but instead an invitation into our harmless embrace."
Why, then, does the city leave so many so tainted by its venom?