I have always thought of Vegas as a place to avoid. Until recently, Las Vegas was stuck in my mind as a slightly bigger version of Reno; not today’s Reno, mind you, but the Reno I remember from 30 years ago when I first came to California, with dingy casinos in which old ladies with blue hair stooped over slot machines smoking incessantly and looking as if they had not seen daylight in decades.
So recently, when I made plans to attend a conference, I wondered what an outdoorsy person like me would do in a place like Vegas.
As my shuttle pulled up to a monstrously hideous behemoth lit with columns of red, purple, and blue, I exclaimed, “They couldn’t have made this place uglier even if they had tried.”
Seeking a breath of fresh air, I stumbled outdoors that first evening, only to discover that the way out was by a shuttle to another casino. Dislodged behind Harrah’s a half-an-hour later, I wandered inside, negotiating a maze of slot machines and gambling tables, trying to find my way to the street.
It was then that Sin City zapped me with an invisible beam and converted me into a Vegas zombie.
Let me explain.
Since I am the kind of traveler who never goes anywhere without a guidebook, I had purchased a book about Vegas. Reading it on the plane, I had stumbled upon a chapter on the game of “21.” My curiosity aroused, I had tried to memorize the odds. And now here I was, watching live people play the actual game at real tables. What was more, some of the players, particularly women, were doing rather well. Much to my surprise, not only did they not have blue hair, but casual conversations revealed many to be average moms out for a weekend.
When I eventually ventured outside, the sidewalks were bathed in white light and the day seemed to have just begun. There were mothers with strollers, grandmas shuffling toddlers by their hands, and couples on romantic getaways. What was more, the visitors seemed as multi-ethnic as the population of California; Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, you name it; every racial group was present.
Something had happened to America. Why were all these people out here, walking this jungle of concrete and neon?
The irony was, I was here to attend a conference on energy efficiency. “Isn’t it funny,” I said to a colleague, “that here we are in this wasteland of energy?” He muttered something about needing a Vegas someplace.
As soon as you arrive in Vegas, you notice that this is an entertainer’s Mecca. Seinfeld and Elton John and Monty Python beckon you from oversized billboards; Broadway musicals dumb themselves down here for the public. Gone are the days of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and the rat pack, when the casinos gave you cheap rooms and free food to tempt you to gamble. Casinos don’t have to try to lure people anymore because Vegas is now Convention Central.
Because American lives have become so demanding, I think, that a trip to Vegas for many is like a journey into wonderland, complete with magical card games, mad waitresses dancing atop slot machines, and pink flamingoes. There are bottles here beckoning you with messages of “drink me,” and foods begging you to “eat me.”
And somewhere along the way, even as you observe the exploitation, the greed, the corruption, even as you wonder how everything that is illegal everyplace else—like gambling and prostitution—can be legal here, even as you ponder as to what sorts of strings the mafia had to pull way back when to get it fixed this way, you get drawn in because you want to forget your day-to-day life and frolic in this fairyland.
So I spent a small fortune on a ticket to O, one of the five different permanent productions of Cirque du Soleil in Vegas at the Bellagio, where fountains danced to the tune of Gene Kelly’s “Singing in the rain,” and where a glass-domed atrium and gambling tables lined with velvety, cream-colored felt made a departure from other casinos vying to be the tackiest. While I was sitting at a sushi bar beside a dad from Modesto, who, curiously, was not wearing cowboy hats or boots with spurs—my mental image of a Vegas patron—he made my day when he asked me if I were a fashion designer.
No amount of hype could have prepared me for the subsequent eye feast—a stage interchangeable into water or land, acrobats performing breathtaking feats on the trapeze or taking daring dives into the pool or simply dancing to the live music, creating a dream world so surreal that the neurons in my brain got rewired, creating a feeling of lasting happiness.
Normally, the extent of my gambling consists of feeding a dollar worth of nickels into a poker machine, which I can make last a long time.
But this time a coworker asked me to accompany her to a game of 21, so we found a five-dollar table at which I pulled out my strategy guide, and lo and behold, helped her break even.
Comparing notes with my fellow conference attendee from Berkeley on the last day, I discovered that this politically correct Mom had won $400 at poker the night before.
And there you have Vegas in a nutshell. Even the most righteous let their guard down here and engage in a little bit of sin. And I think it is perfectly fine as long as they don’t lose themselves completely and get addicted to it.
As I boarded the shuttle—it was time to leave; another day would have been intolerable—I had to admit that this journey into wonderland had recuperated me and healed me like nothing else could have.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at www.saritasarvate.com