What Happens in Vegas, Stays with The Rest of Country for the Forseeable FutureBy Nathaniel Missildine
February 10, 2010
In 1947, author and certified intellectual Simone de Beauvoir left Paris to travel America for four months.She chronicled the experience in her long-unpublished book L’Amerique au jour de jour (America Day by Day, University of California Press) making both critical and gushing observations on American culture that are remarkable in the way they still apply, as though she either had uncanny foresight or else the country has, in fact, shifted very little since the first years after the Second World War.
She points out:“Tourism has a privileged character in America:it doesn’t cut you off from the country it’s revealing to you; on the contrary, it’s a way of entering it.”This she says leaving Las Vegas , the city that has become a truer portal into the American psyche every year since de Beauvoir first visited.Sadly, she never laid eyes on Paris Las Vegas, where she could have experienced the acute ironic thrill of sitting down at a caféin the shadow of the Eiffel Tower beside eight lanes of traffic and a row of swaying palm trees.
I fantasized that Simone de Beauvoir would appear like a promotional hologram at the desert city limits, there to greet all those, like me, who’d come to Vegas for the unparalleled displays of simulacra, but would be staying for the all-you-can-eat buffets and elaborate swimming pools.
My wife and I and two unapprised daughters rolled down LasVegas Boulevard at dusk, greeted instead by circuses and then pirates and then the white steps toward Venice, Italy. Finally, we stopped at a light before Paris Las Vegas, where the streetside café offered croque monsieur and fruit des mers while white-shirted serveurs ferried trays of kir to patrons who managed themselve to look like Parisians.Possibly, some of them were.Or, at least, budding existentialists.
We continued by Tuscan fountains, a Roman palace, the Statue of Liberty, the Sphinx and a black Egyptian pyramid and, finally, the golden tropical oasis of the Mandalay Bay where we’d be staying, wondering if we’d come to the right place.
The theme of the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino is more vague.It is a Southeast Asian paradise – Thailand, Cambodia or Bali maybe – but with enough non-specificity that thoughts don’t drift to land mines, tsunamis or European colonialism.The gleaming marble lobby in gold and green tones had sky-high ceilings and the scent of lemons wafted from somewhere, giving the impression, along with all the potted greenery, of still being outside. This all made for an unusually calm environment as places on the Strip go.
But beyond the lobby most of the calm evaporated into a sensory blitz.We stood before the casino’s gaming pit, that rang with a disordered symphony of a million chimes and pings lit to flashing reds and yellows. It induced a near-instant disorientation in each of us.My oldest daughter took a single step down toward this area where minors were not permitted and intoned, “Maman, c’est beau.”
We whisked her and her sister away as soon as possible.In our room, there was more open-mouthed staring.After a month of camping in wilderness, we didn’t know what to do with a place that had a bathtub, a separate shower, two king size beds and three different plasma televisions.Our only choice was to test out all of them.
Time of day had already become meaningless.We left for dinner way past what would have otherwise been bedtime as the city was just beginning to illuminate to full wattage.On the overpass bridge, we asked a woman with a Southern accent and her date with matching sunglasses to take our picture.Instead of “cheese” she hollered “Everyone say Vegas!”We were all cheerleaders for the city by now.
We continued by foot down endless blocks, taken up by the resorts that stood as separate, impenetrable kingdoms all to themselves.Ducking in and out being difficult by design, we were meant to remain inside somewhere with a drink and a dealer.Instead we played the part of spectators who’d just come in from the remote hills.We did very little actual participating.
I passed time, for instance, reading about restaurants I could never afford.Mandalay Bay alone has twenty-two different restaurants under its roof.One of the finest is Aureole, renowned for its wine list.We walked by this establishment on our way to the all-you-can-eat buffet, back to where we started only feet from the bank of elevators leading to our room.
Aureole has a sleek and mysterious white façade.Inside, the restaurant houses a 42-foot temperature-controlled wine tower that contains close to ten thousand bottles.Not stopping there, the Plexiglas tower also includes bungee jumping “wine angels,” as they’re called, trained acrobats who fly up and down inside the tower in less than ten seconds to deliver your evening’s selection.I never witnessed this, but it’s the continued genius of Las Vegas to introduce to the world terms like “wine angels.”
After hours, my wife or I took brief individual gambling adventures, while the other waited in the room with the dead-tired children.Simone de Beauvoir’s approach to gambling was, as she wrote, to “ruin herself sparingly.”For whiskey, she seemed to guard less restraint.So I tried to faithfully follow her lead.In whatever game I played, I went up in winnings only to plummet steadily and forever back down to zippo.The whiskey was brought to me free of charge only after I’d lost the equivalent of several bottles of Jameson available for purchase at the corner convenient store.At the slots, the machines didn’t take coins anymore nor did they spew money when you cashed out.The dough had been changed to a system of credits printed out on a receipt.They’d cleverly added another trip to collect hard cash, making it infinitely simpler to feed the credit receipt back to other machines.Because only small laserjet-printed digits go up and down.In the end, my wife and I both returned to one another reporting a loss amount in the negative that was just shy of the truth.
There was more wallet-vaporizing fun the next day.The Mandalay Bay Shark Reef boasted Komodo dragons, albino crocodiles, stingrays, jellyfish and the finale of a glass tunnel where the especially surly-looking sharks swished over our heads.Afterward, the pool was closer to all this action than I was comfortable with.
By the end of the day walking through the lobby again, wet and broke, we ran into a woman trying to sell timeshare visitation sessions.She proposed we sit through two hours of a lecture about an exciting new property still nearing completion in exchange for gambling chips and an extra hotel night at a reduced rate.She leveled with us when we expressed our disinterest. “You don’t have to buy a thing, but I get credit for it if you show.C’mon, you don’t want to help me out?” she laughed, not attempting to hide her desperation.
She pushed units in a high-rise residential condo development dubbed CityCenter.She gestured to a mock-up of the finished structure, proclaiming CityCenter as a visionary “city-within-a-city” that would transform the Strip into a major urban center.
To me, the idea did nothing but let the gas out of the high times of Vegas.Would we still shout “Everybody say Vegas!” about a bustling residential urban center?And unless your name is Louie Anderson, does anybody really want to live on the Las Vegas Strip?Aren’t all the people from all over the world coming to Vegas for the once-in-a-lifetime bender, whereyou could be everything but yourself for a few days and then return to your life elsewhere, letting what happened there stay there, as the saying goes? An oversized complex for timesharers and condo-dwellers would significantly choke the worldwide draw.It even knocked the unreal nature of Vegas down a few notches toward something more staid and practical.It was a little disappointing to see Sin City, the one place you expected never would, in the processing of growing up.
In the year following our visit, the CityCenter project became plagued with various investor and real estate disputes. The tourism that de Beauvoir spoke of, that provided an entrance to the country, continued as before though.And the city had remained emblematic, this time in the form of a stalled and vastly over-budget work-in-progress that had plenty of space left to fill and needed desperately for people to buy in.
We said sorry and goodbye to the woman selling CityCenter timeshares and the next day left town on a long road toward another campground in the Sierra Nevada mountains.I didn’t know when I’d ever have reason to return to Las Vegas, but if and when I did the city would likely be on the verge of change once more. But, Vegaswould continue to provoke the same giddiness and disbelief. Tourists would continue to visit in order to say they’d seen the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.The place just may sustain itself, despite its improbability, despite the borrowed time it may exist on sprung up as it is in the middle of an arid nowhere. It’s enough to make a person believe in wine angels.
Great piece, you captured the weirdness so well.
I’m so going to have to get to Vegas… I love fake things almost as much as I love real things.
I hope that like Simone and you, I can resist temptation and simply ruin myself sparingly…
Yes, it may be the weirdest and fakest place on earth and deserves to be visited at least once in everyone’s life. Good luck doing any resisting when you get there. Thanks for your kind comment.
Great piece, Nathaniel.
I loathe Las Vegas. It’s a police state disguised as a playground, a place that, as you observe, vacuums in your money, but sends large men to harm you if you try to win at blackjack by utilizing that skill that five-year-olds possess, counting.
Reading your piece, it struck me that if Vegas means anything in the context of the larger country, it’s the death of the imagination. That’s why people go there. They are told that they will have a good time there, so they don’t have to think about it, beyond deciding whether to lose at the $20 or the $50 craps table. Not only do they not have to think for themselves; if they do, they are punished (see counting cards comment). Any place that has THAT many rules — this line not that line; cash on the table not in your hand; no counting — is no anything-goes free-for-all.
Other than Havana, it’s the only place on earth that actually got worse after the Mob stopped running it.
Oh – I like how you referred to Simone as a “certified intellectual.”
Nathaniel, it was really nice to see Vegas through your eyes, and to see all the twinkling lights and jangling noises from your daughters’ P.O.V. To a young family, esp. one that just spent a month in the woods, the first sight of the spectacle must be pretty magical.
But I agree with Greg; for me, Vegas is Hell. It’s Disneyland without even the diluted and bastardized fairy tales. Maybe it has something to do with the choices I’ve made in life, but I don’t like being in places where your only worth comes down to how much cash you can access at an ATM.
Indeed, the experience can be magical and horrifying. Though, hell? I don’t know. Now, Niagara Falls, that is surely one of the darker hells on earth.
Yes, these are important points, especially your remark about the rules imposed everywhere you turn. Most visitors forget you are more or less under constant surveillance on a trip to Vegas.
However, my feelings still run love/hate, as I still have an incurable soft-spot for the hopelessly campy side of the city (not to mention the country as a whole that I still think Vegas reflects). That, and I’m easily dazzled by bright lights.
Thanks for your comment.
I hear you about the campy aspects, but I just can’t get past it. I feel the same way about Disneyland, as Jeremy suggests…a lot of people I like a lot enjoy both places. But I’d much rather go to Niagara Falls, to be honest.
Enjoyed the great details in this piece! Now I’m absolutely certain I’ll avoid the city. I have an aversion to architectural dissonance. Too many styles in one place. Ack.
Dissonance is a good word, architectural, cultural and cognitive. Still, the resulting chaos is something to behold.
Nice piece, Nathaniel.
The one time I went to Vegas, I won, gambling and otherwise. I had the sense to walk away while I was up. Doubt I’ll go back to buck the tiger again.
More like ‘Mammon, c’est beau!’
There it is, Simon. The single cleverest thing you will ever say. It’s all downhill from here.
That’s a good one, Simon…worth its weight in gold. Or, at least, casino chips.
i love las vegas. there’s just no pretense. and there are so many lights!
plus it has the pinball hall of fame, which, let’s face it, is the happiest place on earth.
if they had futons, i’d live there.
I totally agree with Ben, Nathaniel,
I would go there JUST to see the wine angels! What a glorious concept!
We’ve been there long ago, but with kids and before it got so wonderfully weird.
You’ve convinced me, Nathaniel.
I’m making the plans!
Very good, hope you have fun. Just don’t stay too long and let the weirdness turn sour, which it always seems to do after two or three days.
Why have I lived this long without ever hearing about the pinball hall of fame? Now I have to go back. The 1978 Nugent game alone is worth the trip.
Ben just knows stuff. I had never heard of it either, but I’ll be going there too.
Everyone has to check in now and then with Ben to see what’s new and weird.
He’s a master.
yeah man, i’m your go-to guy for info on the new and the now. !!
[…] NATHANIEL MISSILDINE leaving Las Vegas […]
I live in Las Vegas, indeed I was born here, and I always cringe when my hometown is described with words like “Hell” and “loathe.”
But then I have to step back and realize that I have never experienced Las Vegas as a tourist.
For me it’s just my hometown, where my family and friends are, and where I enjoy a lovely, lovely life.
Please understand that there is more to Las Vegas than The Strip. In fact as a tourist you could come to Las Vegas and NOT GAMBLE AT ALL. We also have amazing shopping and dining and live music and stage shows and ART (believe it or not!) and, if your tastes run that way, some fantastic dive bars. Venture off The Strip a little and you’ll experience an entirely different Vegas. Just ask me. I’ll give you tips.
So, please remember that besides The Strip, people live here and love here and thrive here.
And yes, we have a Pinball Hall of Fame and it is awesome.
This is always the danger of any place that draws large numbers of tourists every year, there’s the city as a place to live and the city as a concept or spectacle. I remember when I lived in San Francisco and listened to people tell me they “knew” the city because they’d visited Fisherman’s Wharf. I’m definitely guilty of being drawn to Las Vegas for the concept. However, I’d love to hear your recommendations on dive bars.
Cool! Here are a few:
Champagne’s Cafe: http://www.champagnescafe.blogspot.com/ (my favorite bar in all of Las Vegas)
The Double Down Saloon: http://www.doubledownsaloon.com/ (old school punk rock bar)
Dino’s: http://www.vegas.com/nightlife/bars/dinos.html (this place is actually ON The Strip)
The Huntridge Tavern: http://www.vegas.com/nightlife/bars/huntridge.html (doesn’t even have a sign on the outside kind of bar)
I’m pretty certain that Ben has played The Double Down before, Ben?
I’d also recommend hitting all the bars in the Downtown Las Vegas area known as Fremont East. These are all in walking distance of one another:
Downtown Cocktail Room: http://thedowntownlv.com/ (the darkest bar in Las Vegas)
The Griffin: http://www.vegas.com/nightlife/bars/thegriffin.html (my second favorite bar in Las Vegas – there’s one in L.A. too)
The Beauty Bar: http://www.beautybar.com/lv/home.html (yes it’s a chain, but they have lots of live music)
Don’t Tell Mama: http://www.vegas.com/nightlife/bars/donttellmama.html (piano bar run by a bunch of Lesbians who can sing their asses off!)
This is great, thanks! Now I definitely need to go back.
Oops, I thought it had lost my post, so I reposted it! Sorry for the duplicate.