Heaven or Las Vegas: Loving the Disneyland of the Desert
Loving the Disneyland of the Desert
Las Vegas is the spiritual heart of America. It is our Jerusalem, our Rome, our Mecca. It looms over the desert like a neon Stonehenge, glittering and glowing, pulsating with hope, the throbbing center of the classic rags-to-riches dumb-luck American Dream. There is a very distinct possibility, however remote, that at any given moment in time some down-at-the-heels loser traveling by Greyhound in search of a future could roll into town, drop his last dollar into a slot and walk out filthy stinking rich. It has happened, and it will happen again. Such is the beauty of chaos.
The Mormons came in the 1850s to this place called "The Meadows," looking to teach the local native population the finer points of agriculture. Nothing much happened until the railroad came through in 1905. Even then, the town never really amounted to much until 1931, when gambling became legal. When the Italian mob joined forces with the Jewish mob to form the Combination, this was the ultimate fantasy, and they built a monument to vice and depravity without peer to celebrate and solidify their union.
After WWII, Las Vegas rapidly grew into one of the top resorts in the world, and by 1995 it had become the destination of choice for foreign visitors to the USA, with 100,000 hotel rooms boasting 90 percent occupancy and one of the busiest airports in the world. About 30 million people a year visit Vegas.
The history of Las Vegas as we know it today consists of two phases: pre-Mirage and post-Mirage. Pre-Mirage Vegas is the mob town, the open city, where gangsters rubbed elbows with famous entertainers and tourists reveled in the "anything goes" mentality at play. It was about gambling and showgirls, adult entertainment with a wholesome, patriotic veneer. It was about a city that celebrated the fast and loose ethics that made America great.
By the late 50s, early 60s, Vegas was firmly entrenched as the New Jerusalem, the glitzy and irresistible core of the American spirit. Sinatra and the Rat Pack embodied the hedonistic hustler ethos and swagger of a country that had never known defeat, riders on an ever-expanding frontier of growth and dominion. When Howard Hughes moved into his penthouse suite at the Desert Inn, the great opus was complete: the temple had been constructed, and the spirit in flesh dwelled therein.
If Vegas is our Jerusalem, Howard Robard Hughes is our Yahweh, the spirit of entrepreneurship run amok, devouring everything in sight. It was in Vegas that Sinatra resurrected his career with the help of his Mafia buddies, coming back with a vengeance against the vicious HUAC assault on his character. The House Un-American Activities Committee had targeted Frank based on his vigorous participation in Frank Capra's wartime propaganda effort championing the idea of civil rights. Hoover's fags at the FBI and the Joe McCarthy/Roy Cohn boytoy enterprise were gunning for anybody they could get to cover their own hideously depraved extracurricular activities, and the Sicilians salvaged the Kid from Hoboken out here in the desert just to slap J. Edgar around a little and let Tailgunner Joe know exactly where he and his punk Cohn stood in the real world.
It was in Vegas that Elvis Presley really began his last stand, the glorious run from 1970 to 1977, the frightening and weirdly glamorous transition from black leather to white jumpsuits, the drug-fueled, gun-toting final descent into his vanishing. All lines converged in Las Vegas in the 70s: Hughes, Sinatra, Presley: the Holy Trinity of American iconography infusing the Holy Sepulchre with the divine energy of the American spirit.
I first came to Vegas in 1977, traveling with an itinerant Shakespeare troupe from San Francisco. This was the New Shakespeare Company, a ragtag band of thespians with the misfortune to have fallen into the clutches of Margrit Roma, an ancient and thoroughly senile old bat whose main claim to fame was having fucked Bert Brecht back during the glory days of the Berliner Ensemble. We worked the college circuit mainly, peddling Shakespeare sight unseen to unwitting academics whose drama departments thoughtfully and quite unknowingly provided the bulk of our costumes and props. We were doing The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Brecht's The Threepenny Opera in rotation on the grounds of a ranch on the outskirts of town that had been passed along by Vera Krupp (of the Krupp arms manufacturers) to Hughes' assistant and CIA contract employee Robert Maheu, who subsequently passed it on to Fletcher Jones, who sold it to the state.
I had 35 hits of supremely potent blotter acid in my makeup kit and a roommate with a fondness for underage girls and blender drinks who'd lost the lion's share of his marbles during a stint in Vietnam. When we weren't performing, we were tripping, wandering the Strip, basking in the shimmer of the neon and floating away on the reassuring sounds of the slot machines. I don't gamble at all. It's the one vice I never got into. I've been working since I was 10 years old, I don't get anything near what I'm worth, I know damned well I'm not going to get something for nothing.
I was in paradise that summer. If you don't gamble, Vegas is probably the cheapest big city at hand. Once in a while I'd wander into a casino and drop a quarter in the slots, just to order a free drink, but that was it. Oddly, I almost always hit for some silly amount of money. I left Vegas that year about $500 up, just from the random slot machine, scamming free drinks.
Over the years I was haunted by the vision of Vegas as the true center of America and the emblem of chance. In 1995 I returned there in the company of a demented young woman who'd stalked me online with the intent of busting up my marriage. Breaking up existing relationships was a thoroughly ingrained habit of hers, as was draining her trustfund to support her poker habit. I refused to fuck her, claiming that boundary for the sanctity of my marriage, but I did allow her to practice her well-developed talent for fellatio in the room she booked for us at the Mirage Hotel. Clintonesque boundaries are more acceptable in the absence of children.
The Mirage opened in 1989 and represented the turning point wherein Las Vegas expanded its horizons beyond mere gambling and out toward the notion of a theme park for grownups. There's a volcano outside the hotel that erupts violently every 20 minutes. Treasure Island, next door, has a pirate ship engaged in a pitched battle with an English man-of-war for its front yard, and plays host to Cirque du Soleil's first permanent installation, Mystere, consistently sold out well in advance and seen by more than 2 million people thus far.
This goofy trustfund twat and I were there for the World Series of Poker, an annual event held at Binion's casino over on Fremont, the old strip. Poker players are an interesting breed. They all seem to know each other, and they seem possessed of a quirky, above-average intelligence. There's a lot of crossover with Mensa and the UNIX cult, a very high level of geekdom. Not being a gambler, I was interested in this inside glimpse of the culture. I figured it would be like dope, but it isn't. It's more like s&m; it's all about who's spanking whom. These people aren't betting against the house, they're betting against each other. It's a strange thing to do with money, pooling it and shifting it around like that, breaking it into parcels and reassembling it and disassembling it constantly, all at the whim of a shuffle.
I went back to Vegas again this past August, immediately after the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. I'd spent a lot of my summer covering the conventions, and I was so disgusted by the entire process that I felt the need to decompress in a place where chance really is a factor, to bear witness to a game that isn't fixed. Some friends of mine were staying at the Paris, an enormous elaboration on French themes, replete with a huge Eiffel Tower out front and strolling boulevardiers warbling Jacques Brel tunes in the halls of the shopping area.
I ran into this kid in the hallway outside one of my friends' rooms. He couldn't have been more than 20, and was possibly the most cheerful human being I'd seen all summer. He was smiling and pushing a cart loaded with cobalt blue bottles of imported water down the corridor, stopping to deposit two bottles in each room. To each guest he passed, he'd utter a cheerful and perfectly accented "Bonjour!" I couldn't resist this kid.
"Excuse me," I said, "but you seem like an extremely happy guy. What is it, exactly?"
"Well," the kid replied, "you'd be happy too, collecting 10 bucks an hour with full benefits and a two-week paid vacation for pushing a rack of bottles around all day saying 'Bonjour!' here in this perfect air conditioning, eh?"
I couldn't argue with that. They didn't have jobs like that when I was a kid.
About 1.5 million people actually live in Vegas, in the county, and the stats on those people are very interesting. The average age is 41.2, the average income is $36,000 per year. A whopping 63 percent of them own their own homes, most typically detached single-family dwellings. They are 75 percent white, 11 percent Hispanic and 9 percent black, with a tiny sprinkling of Asians and "others."
They have a lot to be happy about. There is a serious shortage of labor in Las Vegas, in almost every field. The town averages 310 days of sunshine a year, and the average temperature is 66 degrees.
I visited New York, New York on that trip. It's a funny, scaled-down replica of the city, including the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, Grant's Tomb, the Empire State Bldg., the Chrysler Bldg. and a little tiny version of Greenwich Village inside, complete with steaming manhole covers. The only thing missing is Cracky. I figured I could get a job strolling around in rags with a Greek coffee cup in my hand, begging and periodically pausing to evacuate my bowels in the faux-doorway of one of the little buildings in the Greenwich Village mock-up.
The new Aladdin opened while I was there. They opened a day late, and the fire alarms kept going off. It's a Middle Eastern theme for this one, with bazaars and belly dancers in harem costumes and a thunderstorm inside the shopping mall that goes off at the top of every hour from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. The indoor thunderstorm is one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen. It would be amusing if they occasionally fried a customer with a bolt of lightning, just to keep everyone on their toes. I thought about maybe creating a job for myself as Suicide Sam the Car Bomb Man, driving a customized golf cart full of fireworks into the wall of the Casbah every hour or so to supplement my income from my job at NYNY as Cracky. Find a hole and fill it, that's my philosophy.
My most recent visit was right on the heels of this hideous election. I had a bad feeling about the whole event, and set out on a grand tour of America immediately after pulling the lever for Ralph Nader. Through a long and circuitous series of detours, I made my way back to Las Vegas, by way of Silicon Valley. I left Los Gatos, CA, on Thanksgiving Day and shot down I-5 to 15 and into the desert.
I stopped off in Primm, just inside the Nevada border, and had a couple of beers at the Primadonna Casino. I met a nice kid from New York City who'd arrived three days before and already had a really decent job tending bar in the casino. I spoke with his boss, Mike McCabe, regarding the election fiasco.
"The thing is," Mike opined, "do we really want the presidency decided by a handful of wackos in Key West? Because that's what it's come down to. This thing is out of hand, way out of hand."
I complimented him on the service and the generally fat 'n' happy attitude of his staff.
"Any honest kid with a desire to work can do well out here," he said. "All you need to make it in Nevada is a clean record and a good attitude."
I pulled into Vegas at night, like I always do, my heart soaring at the vision of this city of light rising up out of the desert like some acid-fueled hallucination. People who know me always expect some kind of major debauchery to be associated with my Vegas fixation. The reality is that 1970s-style debauchery is no longer possible in Las Vegas. If booze is your drug, this is the place. I've heard it said that 30 percent of the booze consumed in America is consumed in Las Vegas, and I'm inclined to believe it. But drugs are considered a serious crime in this town, and the cops here are nowhere near as naive as they used to be. Law enforcement in Vegas is the very model of Friendly Fascism, the Disneyfied police state. Possession of marijuana in any quantity is a felony, and you fuck with these cops at your peril.
The town is ankle-deep in methamphetamine, which is by God a powerful temptation, but I am a professional, and the idea of embarking upon the construction of a criminal record this late in life does not appeal to me in the least.
I bunked up with some buddies of mine who bailed out of the Big Apple Circus just as that scene went totally wretched, and set about exploring some of the more arcane aspects of Vegas. The neighborhood I stayed in consists of several blocks of two-story apartment buildings located just a few blocks from Las Vegas Blvd. and the new post-Mirage hotel-casinos. It's a good neighborhood, working families with kids. The ice cream man comes by twice a day playing a German drinking song with his bells, and the Mexican guy with the amazing Mexican corn on a stick comes by right around suppertime and beeps his little bicycle horn. The apartment I stayed in consists of two bedrooms, one bath, a living room bigger than my whole apartment in New York, kitchen, dining room and patio, all for $545 a month. My friends walk to work.
I went off to the Elvis-A-Rama Museum on Industrial Rd., just a block away from the Strip. They have a pretty extensive collection of E's costumes and lots of fascinating arcana and objects in cases. Sonny Boline does the E show there. He has the voice and the moves down to perfection, and chooses a repertoire that is somewhat unexpected, a more obscure song list than one usually receives from the Apostles of E. I sat outside with him and smoked a couple of cigarettes after the show. We chatted as a busload of Down's syndrome cowboys shuffled into the museum from their tour bus, guides keeping them on the path, their faces brightening with nearly uncontrollable delight as they realized that they were at a shrine to the King.
I asked Sonny if he'd ever experienced any difficulty in his love life as a result of his performance as E. It occurred to me that there might be certain women who would pursue him because they wanted Elvis, and the potential for complication intrigued me.
"Yeah," he drawled, "I had a little problem with that. Broke up my marriage of 17 years, actually. I don't think I wanna go there."
He's from Minneapolis. He left for Vegas the year it hit about 100 degrees below zero without a windchill. He hasn't been back since.
There's a boy in Las Vegas named Tony Ciaglia. Tony was out swimming with some friends at a Texas summer camp on July 23, 1992, when he was struck in the head by a Jet Ski. The injuries were so severe that the doctors didn't expect him to live. In fact, he died and was revived three times during the airlift to a Dallas hospital where he was on life support for 17 days and spent 31 days in a coma. Before the accident, he was a normal kid with normal contemporary tastes, listening to MTV crap like Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. His parents played Elvis tapes to him while he lay in the coma, and when he came out of it?he had been touched by the King.
"He just got into it," his mother says. "He had never sang before that." Tony says that when he died, he saw a bright light that offered him a choice?return to his parents or stay.
"I like to think I talked to God," he says. "It's hard to put into words, it was so beautiful. He gave me another chance. This is going to sound weird, but maybe while I was up there, I crossed paths with the King."
He got a seven-month gig at the MGM Grand channeling E for the masses, and is currently waiting for word on an extended engagement at another MGM Mirage property. The kid is good, and the Presence is there.
I headed off to the Liberace Museum, which is said to be the most popular tourist attraction in Las Vegas. This monument to the man known in his time as "Mr. Showmanship" is one of the most amazing collections I have ever laid eyes on. His pianos are here, including a rhinestone-encrusted Baldwin, a hand-painted Pleyel once played by Chopin and a Chickering grand once owned by George Gershwin. His car collection includes the incredible "Stars and Stripes," a hand-painted red, white and blue Rolls-Royce convertible, another Rolls clad in mirror tiles, and a 1934 Mercedes Excalibur covered entirely in Austrian rhinestones. His costumes are there. Liberace met with Elvis in Vegas, and it is here that he taught the King how to dress. Liberace was the first to appear in the famous gold lame suit.
On my last night in Vegas, I went to Smith & Wollensky and ate a steak the size of a human baby, perfectly prepared and delivered by a career waiter who took the job very seriously. The beauty of Smith & Wollensky, besides the magnificent food, lies in the dedication and expertise of the staff. These guys aren't actors killing time waiting for a break. This is not a "day job" for these people. The waiters at Smith & Wollensky are the real thing, and they know everything there is to know about every chop, steak, fish or wine on that menu.
I walked off my meal strolling the Strip, past the extravagant dancing waters in front of the Bellagio, past the Paris, and ducked into the Aladdin for a late-night snack of lobster caviar and smoked salmon and a martini. I went back to my friends' apartment and slept the sleep of the just on the largest sofa I have ever seen. In the morning I awoke at dawn and headed east to Graceland.
Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.
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