Last week Valarie and I flew to Las Vegas for her cousin's wedding. We'd been there a couple years ago and had enjoyed the city just for its uniquely surreal and kitschy splendor, even though we had our fill after a day or so. Well, this time it only took us a matter of minutes to run back to our room to hide.
Here's an episode I think crystalizes the city in my mind: three beautiful and fancily-dressed women in high heels were walking near us along The Strip, at about 11:00pm and 95 degrees on a Friday night. Suddenly, one of the women let fly a gigantic belch. I looked toward her to see what she'd do: say "Excuse me," perhaps beg her friends' pardon, maybe even laugh with embarassment at her faux pas. But this woman didn't even bat a single fake eyelash. Nor did her friends feel that rhinocerous-like bellow was remarking upon with even the slightest change in facial expression. (Maybe it was just the Botox.)
Seems fitting, I think, for a city that--at least along The Strip--could have all the money in the world being willingly tossed into its glittering coffers, a host of upscale retailers added to the plethora of chintzy knicknacks, and yet Las Vegas still wouldn't have any class.
In fact, I almost want to reject that this is a real city at all. Sure, it's now home to millions of people and continues to grow rapidly. But where is the city hall? The public library? The park? I know they're all there somewhere amidst all that desert sprawl, but I don't respect a city where you enter its heart and find none of these cultural and societal cornerstones so much as nearby. And no, KFC doesn't count.
To be honest, Valarie and I agreed that night as we walked through casinos from the upscale Venetian to the bargain-basement Imperial Palace, holding out for as long as we could in an outdoor climate not meant for mankind, that we'd rather visit even America's so-called urban armpits than come to Vegas again. Gary, Indiana? Punch my ticket. Newark, New Jersey? I'm there. East St. Louis, Illinois? See you at the airport. At least for all their problems those places actually feel like genuine places. But Vegas feels like one of those fake Hollywood backdrops of a city, where you go past the front facade and see that's all was there. Better yet, Vegas reminds me of the end of The Wizard of Oz, when the pomp and circumstance were exposed for all their hollowness.
Now, I know many people like Las Vegas. Some of them are friends or (to a lesser extent) family whose opinions I often share. If you enjoy Sin City, more power to you. But I feel dirty when I visit Las Vegas, and not because of the porn or drinking or gambling. I have no interest in moralizing -- leave that to the conservatives. As much as The Strip is not my scene, I'd respect that city if there were a place just as recognizable within its borders that was about something else, something that balanced your soul a little bit after too many flashing lights.
The wedding we went to there was the only tonic. First, it was an hour outside of Vegas in the beautiful desert mountain area of Mt. Charleston. Second, Valarie's cousin (the groom) and his new wife are both cops. There are some cities in America, many in fact, where I'm inclined to often sympathize as much with those being arrested as those putting on the cuffs. But to be a cop in Las Vegas is something I admire. Aside from putting people away or preventing crime, they are one of the only symbols I found there that the city was organized with the least bit of collective good in mind.