I am in Vegas.
I know that it is Vegas by intuition.
I know it is Vegas from the air. The inside air. It is just a touch too cold to call comfortable and smells like absolutely nothing, even though there are cigarettes and cigars being puffed at almost every table. You might get a waft of perfume as a just-a-few-years-too-old-too-pull-that-look-off type of woman, dripping with diamonds and name brands you can’t pronounce, struts her stuff a little too obviously right in front of you and sends a wake of fragrance choking you along with everyone else that she passes, or you might be hit by a wall of cologne and booze as a slender, plucked, tanned, styled, and waxed slickster shoulders your drink out of your hand as he purposely fights his way to the high rollers room, but within micro seconds that air, which has been so recently tainted by aristocracy, is wisped away down a mind numbing labyrinth of airshafts and ducts to be recycled into slightly chilly, entirely non-remarkable casino air.
I know it is Vegas from the sirens and lights of the slot machines. They are everywhere I look, like a whirling flashing beeping ringing army that occupies the dark corners of the entire city. They are waiting to welcome you at the baggage claim in the airport, and they are lined up next to the doors of every bathroom in every restaurant, and they are sitting in the corners of the gas stations for the commuting gambler on his way home to his wife and children. The maze of machines on the casino floor chortles and buzzes and flashes like a carnival. Maybe one in five machines here actually hosts someone, has somehow lured someone into sitting in front of it and enticed them to start praying for those elusive sevens to line up. Maybe this person is feeding it nickels. Maybe it’s fifty-dollar bills. Maybe it’s a well dressed lady, sequins and high heels, diamond rings on all the wrong fingers, hoping her luck will change after a miserable night out with a flawed and hopeless lover. Maybe it’s a half drunk slob of a man in a stained tank top that doesn’t leave an onlooker any doubt as to just how hairy his back is. Maybe it’s some insignificant schmoe with four empty drinks next to him and two kids sleeping on a beige couch in the hallway between the casino and the hotel, waiting for their dad to finish gambling and take them up to the room. Maybe it’s an old lady with tubes up her nose and an oxygen tank resting below her stool. Maybe she just got there, maybe she’s been there for hours, maybe days, it’s impossible to tell by the way she’s sitting; bent, broken, and slowly turning to stone. She is blankly staring into the lights, cogs, and gears of the machine, into the abyss of hope and luck and fortune. Maybe the abyss is staring back at her. Most likely the abyss is just trying to fill it’s bottomless stomach. Maybe you know this person from high school. Maybe you wouldn’t want to say hi if you did. It’s hard to tell from here. Could be anyone. And whether they are important or insignificant to you doesn’t matter because you don’t exist to them. While their bodies go through the familiar motion of lever, button, lever, button, lever, button, their bucket full of quarters, along with the appearance of being a sentient life form, slowly dwindles away. Maybe they will be missed. Maybe not.
I know it is Vegas from floor, the oceans of brightly contrasting psychedelic carpeting that seem to stretch on for miles and miles, subconsciously averting your eyes from looking down and suffering the consequences of wall-to-wall induced vertigo. The carpets in Vegas are like none other in the world, they are designed to be visually obtuse, aggressive and mesmerizing to the eyes, gaudy and loud just like everything else in this town.
I know it is Vegas from the waitresses, the over abundance of cute girls in short dresses bringing me a seemingly endless flow of bourbon on the rocks. Of all the proof that I’m in Vegas, the waitresses are the only ones that help to quell my dread of being here. Slowly, I’m subdued… by the glassful.
I didn’t ever want to come back here. The wonders that make up this unnatural oasis are the proof that God exists and doesn’t give a shit about us; the strip that consumes enough energy everyday to power a third world country for a year, the neon lights that illuminate the sky like a beckon for the immoral, the false lakes full of water stolen from hundreds of miles away, all powered by Vegas’s own nuclear power plant tucked gracefully behind a mountain range just out of sight’s reach from the city and ticking away like a time bomb. This is all simultaneously proof of God’s existence as well as proof that He has lost faith in humanity, turning His almighty back on us forever. Proof that he has left us all to decay by our own vices, like over ripe fruit that is rotting on the ground below the tree.
If you take a look at the King of Hearts, you see a man stabbing himself in the head with his own sword. The face on the card changes from deck to deck, but that blank expression stays the same. I see it at every table, but here they call it a poker face.
Somewhere over the mechanic din of the slot machines, a desperate man has just lost the deed to his house. Two tables away from him someone has made enough money to pay off his mortgage, but won’t. That’s Vegas. Where the hardest thing to find is a clock, or a clearly marked exit, or a lover with a heart of gold. Three things you never think you will need to look for until you get here, and then spend unbelievable amounts of time and money searching for.
I lift up my glass of half melted ice cubes, swirl them around at the bottom of the empty glass and mouth the words, “Bourbon?” to that cute girl with a tray. She smiles, winks at me, and floats away across the casino floor to fetch me a new drink from some well-hidden barless bartender. There are no bars to be found on the casino floor, only scantily clad cocktail waitresses. The bars are tucked away in the restaurants, at least the ones with bar stools and ashtrays. The booze that makes it out onto the casino floor comes from behind closed doors, the bars themselves are accessible only to the wait staff. I find it odd that these fully stocked bars remain hidden from their potential clientele until I spend a minute trying to wrap my head around the concept of it. Who would want clients sitting at a bar when they could be pumping an endless stream of quarters into the voracious mouth of a slot machine? Besides, all you need to do is sit down at a blackjack table and some impossibly beautiful cocktail waitress will bring you drinks for free, because everyone knows that the limits on a blackjack table are considerably higher than the limits of one’s liver.
I return to loathing my surroundings until my waitress does her drink-balancing act towards me. “Bourbon on the rocks,” she says with an overly chipper smile considering what time it is. What time is it? I take the free drink cloaked in a cocktail napkin proudly displaying the hotel’s unique and highly recognizable emblem, and reach into my pocket to get a tip. I tip her in chips. It doesn’t seem like real money to me so I naturally don’t care about giving her twice what I usually tip for one drink. The skimpy outfit she has to wear and the fact that I’m already a few drinks deep doesn’t help to sway me from over tipping either. Still, my over generous tip seems to impress momentarily as she mutters, “thanks, sugar” thorough a convincing yet obviously rehearsed smile. Bright red lipstick and perfectly straight, glistening white teeth spin away from me as not even a single ice cube jingles on her overfilled trey. It strikes with sudden amazement by how many of my vices are exemplified by that drink toting beauty. I take a sip and let my Vegas angst slip away. I initially thought that I was getting the best waitress service the planet has to offer because she kept walking up to me the second I’d put my empty glass down and would ask me if I’d like a drink. Then I realized she wasn’t asking if I wanted another drink and even though my order hadn’t changed, Makers on the rocks, she continued to ask me what I would like. Wasn’t she just a bit taller the last time she took my order?
I mutter to myself, “There they are.” They are too far away to hear or even notice me, but I still say to them, “I found you.” A few hours before the cocktail waitresses and the blackjack and the slot machines, I found myself watching the wolves at the buffet line. Through all the pants-pulled-up-past-the-naval and the bright pink sweaters sporting the names of towns too small to be included on most US road maps, I was looking for a couple. I don’t ever know who they are, but I always look for them. It took me a few minutes, but I found them. I found the two people that stood out the most; a cute little lady in her mid-to-late 60’s, and her husband. Both are wearing glasses with bifocal lenses. He is tall, slender, and stoic, she is short and jovial, with soft edges to her face. They look like a modern version of American Gothic with the normal farmhouse background ripped out from behind them and replaced with a buffet line of people reaching over each other for that third helping of chicken fried steak. Rather than holding a pitchfork, the man’s hands are occupied with two heaping plates. The left one hosting an impressive tower of raw oysters that seems structurally sound enough to withstand a tater-tot bombardment from some rogue nation of drunken bachelor party goers. He must have taken his time building that spire, and during it’s creation I’m sure that many a oyster loving Vegas buffet goer was put off by the lack of materials left behind to the rest of the people with dreams of jackpots at at-least one table in this town. His other hand, the right one, is holding an identical plate piled high with pink shrimp. The shrimp tower is not nearly as impressive but would be quite a satisfying mouthful for even the most prodigious of mammals, whales included. I spent a good ten minutes looking for them and there they are, the small town community activist city council rep and the professor turned bread baker, in their home knit sweaters lined up at the raw bar relishing in the Babylonian towers of jumbo shrimp and oysters on their respective plates. Who knows what they are doing here, but they clearly look like they don’t belong here. The blandness of their appearance is what makes them stand out, that lack of glitz, the void of audacity. We don’t talk to each other, but I wish them luck as I watch her talk a mile a minute about God knows what while he slowly and silently hovers the plates over to their table. Bon appetite, my friends.
I turn around and I’m back on the casino floor. “What happens in Vegas...” I hear that everywhere I go. It’s like the I-heart-NYC tee-shirt of Vegas, no one that loves New York City wears one, just as no one who knows Vegas says that particular phrase. I spin around on my heels and stare the culprit down. This time it’s a particularly pathetic scenario. A guy, completely unexceptional in everyway, has spilled his drink on his friend’s pant leg. I can’t help myself, I approach them.
“You do know that that particular phrase is usually reserved as an excuse for people with sex, drug, and gambling addictions to do what every they feel they can get away with before having to face the music and deal with the consequences of their idiotic behavior, right?” I don’t wait for them to reply, I just walk far enough away so that they know I will hear it if they say it again.
A man is sitting on a bench near by the main entrance of the casino. He is cradling his head in his hands, his body is slouched over, his shoulders or dropped, everything about him looks heavy. He is flanked on all sides by empty glasses of beer, booze, and hope. I wonder what he lost tonight. His will power? His sobriety? His savings? His wife? His livelihood?
“Still nursing that same drink I brought you an hour ago?” I nearly jump out of my skin at the sound of her voice, centimeters away from my ear, the ice cubes rattle in my glass. Maybe a drop or two gets loose from the glass.
“Do you always like to scare the crap out your clientele?” I am trying to wipe the bourbon off the back of my hand with a ball of pulp that was, only minutes ago, my pristine cocktail napkin. She smells good.
“I’ve been on break for the last half hour and I figured, now that I’m back on the job, I’d see if you wanted another Makers.” That’s weird, she doesn’t have that southern accent she had a few minutes ago. Maybe it’s two different beautiful cocktail waitresses. Maybe this is the one I’ve been waiting days to talk to.
“Yes. Yes I would like another. But not here.”