Sunday, February 10, 2008

Unmoored in Vegas

Not mine, but his

What a long, strange trip it has been...

I think it was last Sunday evening that it realy hit me, when I had already been in Vegas for four days (or four nights, as it seems more appropriate to measure Vegas time in terms of nights). I was wandering The Strip, on my way to somewhere, when suddenly I came unmoored. The ching-ching-ching-whoop of the slots, the all-permeating stench of stale cigarette smoke mixed with cheap air freshener, the swirly-whirly carpets, the tight-lipped and desperate hunched like carrion crows over the gaming tables, the cheap buffets of all-you-can-eat / nothing-I-want-to-eat "food," the totalitarian architecture of Fun, the crablike Mexicans swaddled against the desert cold flick-flick-clicking cards that promised you your own private dancer (a dancer for money). And at that point I could no longer conceive of a time before or a place other than Vegas. I was adrift.

Suicide - Goin' to Las Vegas (buy here or e-here)

Indeed, seven days in the belly of that city was too much, waay too much for me. It was my second visit, and I still couldn't buy into the myth, the sacred narrative of a city where everything is possible, where you can sin without censure, where Big Brother says You Will Have Fun. To me it was all so contrived, and I couldn't help but see the manufactured sinews and muscles that held it all together, like the flayed, plastinated cadavers on display at The Tropicana. The heart of Vegas has no soul.

But Dearest Friends, don't think that I did not enjoy myself at all. Oh no, I had some good times on my trip - they were just around the edges. For the first 72 hours I had the unalloyed pleasure of Dearest T's company. As I mentioned below, we had planned on indulging in a few excesses, and I would be lying if I said we didn't enjoy a few nice meals and drank a wee bit too much (Gluttony), drop a few dollars in very half-hearted gambling (Avarice), sleep in a tad (Sloth) and admire some pulchritudinous ladies (Lust). But we enjoyed ourselves most when we were off The Strip - the further off, the better...

We escaped frequently in our big, fat rented Dodge Avenger, first to the legendary Hoover Dam. We stopped en route at Boulder City's Southwest Diner for a proper greasy brunch, and Those Potatoes were delish. The Dam is an impressive monument both to human engineering and to the socio-historic context that caused it to be built. The police checkpoints on its approach were a monument to present day politics. From the dam we drove into Arizona, then back again and around the peculiar, man-made contours of Lake Mead, reaching the astounding silence and stunningly improbable rock formations of the Valley of Fire State Park around sunset. Then we drove back in inky, velvet blackness, able to take bearings only when the neon grid of Vegas hove back into view.

Another foray to the fringe of the city saw us explore our inner Rambo at a Rent-A-Popgun range. Nevada is a gun freak's wet dream; all you need to get your own little piece of lead-spitting death is a state driving license. And for $150, anyone can have the Combat Special experience: one magazine of ammo through each of a silenced .45 pistol, two 9mm full-automatic submachine guns, and a 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun. Well, why not, we thought? When in Rome...

The Clash - Tommy Gun (buy here)

The episode left me, a believer in Draconian gun control, somewhat perturbed. Our rangemaster, a cubic hunk of muscle with a buzz-cut, commented on my weak grip as the pistol jammed round after round. I'm sure he thought my liver was carpeted in lilies. The submachine guns were frightening for two reasons. First, they were rather fun, in a Boy's Own way. Second, it was terrifyingly easy for Lily-Livered FiL to put a spray of bullets into the chest area of the paper silhouette some 21 feet away. When it came to the shotgun, Dearest T warned me that I'd feel it in my shoulder. Mister Cubic guffawed, then commented that he'd put 300 rounds through just such a scattergun and had felt nothing. He admitted, however, that he had been distracted by the people firing back at him. Ye gods!! Well, suffice to say my shoulder ached for days after, and my faith in stern firearm laws was reinforced tenfold.

Gang of Four - Armalite Rifle (buy here)

Overall, my Combat Experience left me feeing rather sordid, as if I had just partaken of some degrading yet titillating bit of pornography. I was therefore rather pleased when we got back in the Avenger and decided to drive towards California, with no particular goal in mind. We drove across the Mojave Desert on an arrow-straight, satin-smooth blacktop that unrolled in front of us from here to the horizon. Dearest T, having had a proper English upbringing, couldn't share in the cheesy perfection of the moment when Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" popped on the mp3 player several miles past the Californian border. But I did rue omitting The Normal's "Warm Leatherette" from the playlist. We eventually ended up in Baker, CA (population 914), home to the World's Tallest Thermometer and The Mad Greek Diner, who's questionable claim to serve the best gyros in America was more than offsett by the blue, vinyl booths and in-yer-face expressions of Hellenic supremacy. After (yet another) greasy meal, we hopped back into the car and red-lined it through the evening back to Sin City, where we caught a shabby but entertaining magic show at The Greek Isles, a frayed hotel just off the edge of The Strip that had, like its patrons, seen far, far more glamourous days.

Journey - Don't Stop Believin' (buy here)
The Normal - Warm Leatherette (buy here)

Dearest Friends, you would be excused if, after reading this, you were to think that my trip to Vegas was largely tolerated rather than enjoyed. But that would be incorrect. For I have neglected to tell you about the place I discovered where my spirit found comfort amidst a smoky haze, strong beer, fine folk, and righteous music.

Stay tuned for stories from the Double Down Saloon...

P.S. Oh yes, the conference. Well, the gist was: the US economy is ropey, house prices will continue to plunge, it'll take three to four years to recover, no-one is quite sure what to do, capitalism is bankrupt, and we need to find a replacement fast. Well, OK, maybe the last two points were my fanciful additions.