Vegas happens — to you

One writer takes a trip to the desert

W e all know the expression “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” but I think it’s about time for a rewrite. What happens in Vegas isn’t really up to you — rather I’d argue that Vegas happens to you.

But first some backstory. Las Vegas has never been on my list of places to go. In fact I can think of few places further down that list than America’s desert shrine to the Almighty buck. Yet in the name of an unbeatable bargain — an Expedia savings scheme I stumbled across during a slow morning at my occasional day job — was a week-long trip including hotel and airfare for a paltry $12. Tax included.

Unfortunately none of the friends I’d invited were able to join me. So weary of taking on Vegas alone I did what all enterprising young(ish) gay men do and put up a profile on Manhunt the top gay dating website. Amongst the ab close-ups and cock shots a simple (dead cute) photo of myself along with a request for “friends” to wander up and down the strip with. The response surprising for Sin City was overwhelming and I left the Nevada desert with not only a set of new friends (some names changed by request) but a further understanding of what pulls people towards what may very well be the world’s leading mecca of waste.

Shortly after my arrival a pair of lads from Seattle invited me to lunch at their hotel. Following a $20 cab ride we grabbed a table at a pizza restaurant smack dab in the middle of a massive gambling floor. The three of us made for a table of square pegs — obviously far better suited to a Seattle coffee shop than a gambling pit.

Darren had spent the previous year putting the finishing touches on a PhD thesis from which the overwhelming noise and exhaustion of Vegas provided a great escape. His best friend Ian had come along for the ride. I had sensed Darren’s thesis writing wasn’t going particularly well. “It’s the only place I can go to not think about it” he said. “You can’t really think about anything here.” We finished our salads (three gay men at their first lunch always order salad) and I sent them off to the airport.

Anxious to see old Las Vegas — an entirely different “strip” far past the gaudy new hotel complexes scattered along the neon lights we know and loathe today — I asked the concierge for directions to walk there. He smirked pointed then wished me luck.

After two hours of strolling a 60-something fellow sitting on a stone wall called out to me for a chat. His name was Leroy a Vegas blues musician who’d spent years playing the local circuit. A homeless dude he asked me which hotel I was staying at. Situated off the strip he scoffed “Ah one of the lesser properties — I didn’t take you for a high roller.” Jovial and kind he told me of life as a musician in old Vegas. “This city’s changed” he said. “Now you can’t even see the end of it.”

The walk there and back took almost seven hours and finally back at my hotel a friendly message from Ron greeted me. A Las Vegas social worker with underprivileged youth originally from Portland he invited me for a wandering drive up and down the strip in one of his two Mini Coopers. He picked me up in the front lobby and we drove from one end of the strip to the other. We headed to the epic Paris resort complex and paid our $15 to head up to the top of the Eiffel Tower that erupts at the top of the casino.

Built to precisely the scale of the original tower it looks over the Bellagio’s epic light-and-water show. Social work here isn’t easy he told me. Families torn apart by gambling and crime sets most under-privileged locals here off on a lifelong bad trail. Regularly swept to the margins of the city the huddled masses of Vegas are nearly invisible. “It’s not an easy place to be” he suggested looking out across a twinkling city. “Everything here is pretending to be something that it’s not.”

Sam a closeted assistant to the mayor of a major city along the Colorado River was in town for a conference on water usage. Las Vegas was miffed given the city’s placement at the end of the water supply queue and the taps dribbled forth the nation’s worst quality of drinking water. Meeting at Caesar’s Palace we went for dinner (salads natch) and discussed the city’s water woes. “We’re in the middle of the desert yet the rich people here have the greenest most manicured lawns” Sam claimed. “It’s another example of how fake this place is — it really shouldn’t even be here!” But not all was bad in Sam’s eyes: “I’m not out in my city. I can’t be. But when I come here I am who I am. As fake as this whole place is it’s the one spot where I can be real. Pretty fucked up huh?”

The week ended with a day-long wander with Josh a beautiful bearded man a local who had returned from San Francisco to take a job as a sound engineer at the Mirage hotel and to be closer to his family — all of whom also worked on various resorts up and down the strip. HIV-positive the move from San Francisco to Vegas had come with a price — the American health care system is slow-moving and a shift between states comes with a lapse in one’s medication. We didn’t bother with the city and instead drove into the desert four-by-fouring to the top of a sandy hill overlooking sweeping valleys. Whereas the visual palette of the strip is exhausting the surrounding desert is exhilarating.

Atop the hill Josh reckoned that Vegas for those who actually live there was “easy to come to but extremely hard to leave.” The downturn in the economy meant the need for fewer shows and thus fewer sound engineers and Josh had spent months unemployed living with his father. “There’s a lot of anger here for those of us who live here” he said. “But I’m not angry. I’m just looking for a way out.” We noticed then that we were standing on ground covered with bullet shells and broken glass.

The drive continued up to the top of Mount Charleston and the true beauty of Nevada state away from the strip revealed itself even further. At a cabin near the peak we drank hot chocolate and watched snow falling over the mountainside. On the way down we stopped at the public library one of the smallest in America. The man at the desk had served proudly in the air force and is now spending his retirement years checking out books in the small mountainside community. “The last librarian lady was here for 40 years” he said. “I’m hoping to stay just as long.”

One couldn’t feel further from Las Vegas and when I asked the librarian how often he made his way into town for a bit of gambling he laughed. “Vegas? I never go. With this place here why would anyone ever bother?”