Sometimes, it just doesn't pay to be nice.
All I wanted to do was be friendly. My cab driver from McCarran airport to the Desert Inn was clearly of Middle Eastern origin -- a man of the desert, perhaps, but probably not this desert. He looked, in fact, as if he'd be completely at home in the front seat of a Manhattan taxi. So I broke the silence by asking brightly, "How long have you been out here?"
What followed for the rest of the ride in from the airport was his life story: his family's emigration to Las Vegas from Manhattan 20 years ago (my guess had been right), his constant gambling, his divorce from his wife (who also gambles), his ex-wife's remarriage (to an inveterate gambler) and his teen-age kids (who all gamble). He always loses, he tells me, except at the track. He's not bad at picking the ponies.
But he'd rather play cards. And the poker slots. "Everybody in Las Vegas plays the poker slots" he tells me. "They're addictive." (One slot for every 10 residents is the commonly quoted figure.)
What I'd done, inadvertently, was slap myself in the face with human reality the minute I left McCarran Airport. All this time I assumed that Vegas residents were sin city pros who lived to vacuum the money from all us bright-eyed, bushy-tailed tourists. In my mind, they were all as clinically competent at separating us from our earnings as veteran surgeons might be excising an infected appendix. It never occurred to me that the city's residents might be in hock to the city's major industry far worse than us naive tourists.
What happened over the next three days in Las Vegas made me love being a tourist even more. The Vegas I experienced was glorious. It was a desert paradise where an uptight Easterner could lay all standards aside and just enjoy the exhiliration of a community created by incomprehensibly vast sums of money, a community which exists for the sole purpose of relieving visitors of even vaster sums of money.
Paying for entertainment is the slow way to lose your money in Vegas. The tables are much quicker.
The genius of Las Vegas is to understand that we Americans don't want to be as morose -- or as addicted -- as my cab driver, we just want to briefly celebrate spending and losing. We want a vacation; for a few days we want the experience of vacating daily life and inhabiting another universe. Las Vegas is a universe that celebrates money, consecrates it and makes it visible -- everywhere.
In middle-class America, we scufflers, savers and toilers spend most of our lives ashamed of money -- mostly because we don't have very much. In Las Vegas, all the money we're never going to have is not only visible everywhere, it is everywhere audible ("ka-ching" go the slots) and everywhere aromatic (the smell of brazenly unhealthy cigar smoke pervades the casinos).
In the lobby entrance of the Tropicana, an older casino where sleaze is honored with community pride, $10 million in 50s and 100s was exhibited in a giant plastic cube, just for the joy of showing you what it looks like (it takes up a surprising amount of space).
There is a good reason why the new Las Vegas is the fastest growing city in America (by 1996, 6,000 new residents arrived every week) and why it surpassed Orlando as America's most popular tourist attraction, with 106,000 hotel rooms available on any given night and still more on the way. It does what resort paradises are supposed to do -- put you in another universe for a few days, a universe that promises total abandonment and license.
In Las Vegas' Moneyworld, American puritanism is knocked on its duff by capitalism run riot.
"The largest American city born in the 20th century," Andres Martinez calls it in his book "2 4/7 ," "and its fastest growing one going into the 21st."
Can't afford to go to Paris? Or Venice? Or the South Pacific? Vegas has mega-casinos called the Paris, the Venetian and Mandalay Bay (not to mention New York New York, the Riviera, and the oldest hotel in town, the Golden Gate -- or the Excalibur for would-be Arthurians, Treasure Island for would-be pirates and the Luxor for those who want a wild, Darth Vader version of Egypt).
The new Vegas mega-casinos have to be seen to be believed. They obliterate the very idea of vulgarity. All concepts of "good taste" and "bad taste" are heroically irrelevant in the new Las Vegas. Everything -- everything -- is insane excess. Steve Wynn's Bellaggio cost $1.6 billion and offers an art gallery of 25 Miros, Picassos and Van Goghs (some, reputedly, for sale for the right price). The casinos of the MGM Grand and Caesar's Palace seem to go on for miles, all thronged with people 24 hours a day flinging chips around and stuffing coins into slots. The people at the slots are every bit as mechanical as the machines which, in turn, swallow their money.
It is, in one sense, obscene to see opulence totally obliterate all notions of taste. (Who on earth wants to see a Picasso or a Miro in Bellagio? There are Picassos and Miros in major cities almost everywhere on earth -- including Buffalo. There is only one Bellagio anywhere. In Vegas, art, like everything else, is merely a subcategory of money.)
But it's all joyfully straightforward. There's something hilariously innocent about such shameless display. You go to the Venetian and see its little canals and gondolas in the middle of the Mojave and you're in the midst of delirium that rivals any '70s psychedelic drug. (Fear and loathing, Hunter Thompson style, are entirely inadequate responses to the new Vegas. They're too self-reflexive, too solipsistic as the philosophers might call it. The joy of the place is in the giggling and the gawking -- not to mention the much-fabled people-watching.)
I stayed at the Desert Inn, an anomalously fine and tasteful hotel that would be first-rate almost anywhere. On one's pillow every night were reminders that we were in the desert and that water shouldn't be wasted. The minute you walked out the door and down the famous Las Vegas Strip, you saw that vast quantities of water are wasted everywhere -- in the Venetian, in front of the Mirage, in Treasure Island. Fountains, moats, lagoons and canals are all around.
In the more mythic version of the history of Las Vegas (a place where all history tends toward myth), the whole point of the Hoover Dam was to divert the Colorado River to Las Vegas. Every place else is an afterthought. You scoff until you walk the Las Vegas Strip and check out all the megacasinos with their water installations and their nighttime lights which require enough hydroelectric power to illuminate most medium-size cities.
This is the new Vegas. In the old Las Vegas, before it was super-sized and made family-friendly, the lights were there and the fountains, too, but not such lavish lagoons and canals.
The kings and princes of Bugsy Siegel's old Las Vegas -- when it was anything but family friendly -- have a decidedly uneasy relationship with the New Vegas that followed on the heels of Howard Hughes' demise. When Sam Butera, the great bandleader for Louis Prima (the most influential Vegas loungemeister), performs now at the lounge of the Tropicana, he goes out of his way to tell us that in the old days, Las Vegas was "the center of American show business. Now, it's s---."
Rather than define why, he plays more "oompa loompa" music to give us the ancient shuffle-beat pleasures of the Vegas lounge, where the music was intimate or rough and ready and where comedians like Don Rickles got their start (and comics like Shecky Greene never left).
We can only guess how the new Las Vegas, which throws $1 million contracts at Streisand, etc., seems to a man like Butera, who begins his evenings at 10 p.m. and quits, four show later, at 6 a.m.
It's supported now, not by high rollers and would-be high rollers but mainstream America. It's the simple rule of the town: mathematics conquers all. It seems 99,500 cautious middle-class gamblers will lose more in one day to the Vegas money vacuum than 500 high-rollers. Mostly the high rollers are just around for decoration now -- for show.
That's one of the secret pleasures of the casinos. Every table is a show. You don't need to go to the Big Ticket Entertainments. There are little comedies and tragedies at every table. Sometimes they're helped along by the dealers. At one $5 blackjack table at the Tropicana, people were three-deep just to hear the sunny patter of Roy, a 40ish black dealer with a process and the raffish twinkle of the lead singer for some '50s doo-woppers. Some people at his table were losing badly, but Roy's panache and humor were making it fun.
He was tipped handsomely in return, whenever a hand went well.
The house always has the edge. Every Vegas gambler of measurable sanity knows that going in. They're not there for the unlikely score but for the game. That's why you can see losers, even big ones, walk away from the tables happy. They've done what they came to do -- play the game. They've experienced the highs and lows of chance. And they've contributed to the giant Vegas money machine.
Even the pols in Las Vegas are somewhat less-than-reputable.
In the old Las Vegas, the senator who gave the city's airport its name was Patrick McCarran, an arch-conservative Nevadan best known for the 1952 Internal Securities Act called the McCarran Act, which is usually considered McCarthyism as law. (Harry Truman vetoed it. Congress passed it over Truman's veto.) Whether McCarran's true relationship with the mob is reflected in the Nevada Senator played by G. D. Spradlin in "The Godfather, Part Two" is anybody's guess. Notable, though, was McCarran's lifelong preoccupation with too much immigration (compare the preoccupation of the "Godfather's" bigoted senator with the Corleone family's Italian background.)
In the New Las Vegas, the mayor is former mob lawyer Oscar Goodman.
The mob heritage, like everything else in the New Vegas -- the Picassos and gondolas and semi-nuclear explosions of neon and white tigers owned by Sigfried and Roy -- is part of the show. It's part of the town's history that people love so much and want to consume as conspicuously as they consume everything else. Who would love Vegas quite so much if it hadn't been invented by Bugsy Siegel and frequented by Sam Giancana and friends?
What other American city would elect Oscar Goodman its mayor?
For three days, I gawked. And ate fabulously (marvelous restaurants are plentiful.) And beamed with pleasure.
I left $180 of my money at the tables and in the slots -- money I was fully and happily prepared to lose. It was a small price to pay to see American Capitalism Unchained -- a tiny price to pay, really, to understand what the word "excess" really means in America.
At the end of three days, I wanted nothing so much as the American cultural equivalent of an antidote to such excess -- to sit, perhaps, in a simple Shaker chair and read some poems by William Carlos Williams or listen to some minimalist country blues by Mississippi Fred MacDowell or Robert Johnson.
The definitive wisdom about Las Vegas comes from William Blake -- specifically, one of his proverbs from Hell.
Said Blake "Enough -- or too much."
As true of Paradise, as Hell. Any day.