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intellectual Simone de Beauvoir left Paris to travel America for four months.She chronicled the experience in her long-unpublished book L’Amerique au jour de jour (America Day by Day, University of California Press) making both critical and gushing observations on American culture that are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.