American Impressions, Chapter 41: Nevada
Stoned in vegas
I wasn’t planning to stop there for more than a night, on my way to more interesting destinations like Death Valley and a couple of other corners of flat-lined desert. But Las Vegas had something special in store for me. I wasn’t in town 10 hours before morphine started flowing through my veins—three successive shots, none more appealing than slipping on a banana peel and never landing.
It turns out I was pregnant. Being Lamaze-less, I needed a little birthing relief, which a set of midwives dealt me with the indifference of croupiers at Bally’s. How I conceived, all by myself, is not at all a mystery: I crossed the Las Vegas city limits. Weird things happen here. Area 51 is in the neighborhood. The site where the military exploded 300 nuclear bombs to keep the Cold War nice and chilled is 65 miles northwest of the city. And wasn’t it last week that I was abducted by aliens? Maybe they were connected with the Las Vegas tourism bureau, which wanted to make sure that my stay in town was long and painfully memorable. It succeeded.
I was asleep in my motel room far from the Strip—no MGM Grands for me—when I started feeling the contractions at about 2 in the morning. By 4 my abdomen was staging the re-enactment of a meteor impact over and over. Still under the impression that men couldn’t be pregnant, I was thinking appendix, and I was thinking that the time was nearing to haul myself to a nearby hospital for the excision. So in a flash of folly bred of maternal recall, I showered, wanting to do my part to make the surgical experience pleasant for everybody, grabbed my lap-top for lack of a teddy bear, and cringed my way to the lobby, all the while thinking vile thoughts about Vegas.
Vegas heard me and retaliated. By the time the elevator touched down I could no longer stand up. Forget driving to a hospital. I was begging Jennifer at the front desk to call one of those things with the flashing lights I’d sworn I’d never be riding. It’s when it showed up with its blue-shirted saviors, who acted more like brown-shirts, that the fear and loathing began.
I know it’s the fashion these days to praise and bow to the overworked and underpaid ranks of nurse-and-rescue angels like RNs and EMTs. But I’m not in the mood. Not after my experience at their hands, which had nothing of the angelic. In the ambulance the EMT went hunting for one of my veins like it was a crap shoot (she lost after three misses). She was much better at asking whether I had insurance. That was everyone’s specialty, especially at the emergency room, where the unsuccessful crap shoot continued on the other arm until my right wrist proved to be the winning hand.
The ER was more WB than NBC—amateurish, coarse, haphazard. One surprise: it was the only place in Vegas without slot machines. Patients must be the substitute gaming objects. I was left to writhe for a few hours while my blood and paperwork were sufficiently studied to ward off risks of litigation, and only then offered my triple cocktail of morphine and the promise of a doctor’s cameo. A good while later a doctor appeared, asked me how I was, ran out of things to say and went back to ambling about the ER with a Thirst-Buster cup in his hand and a taste for baseball chat with the staff. Finally, at high noon of course, I was told that I’d given birth to what felt like three pounds of quartz that was actually an invisible spur of silica or calcium or whatever miniature Chinese torture device kidney stones are made of. And I was told to go home, convalesce, stay in touch.
Welcome to Vegas.
Pill-popping aside, convalescence in Vegas could mean only one thing: weaning myself from morphine by way of the city’s sensory drugs. Naturally, I began with a dose of Liberace.
--- By then my girlfriend, Cheryl, had landed for a weekend’s worth of emergency care, so we did Liberace together. His collection of self-referencial treasures isn’t exactly Graceland. It’s two flat-roofed buildings that could have been a Taco Bell and Fashion Bug, lost in a strip mall of 7-Elevens and gas stations on Tropicana Avenue. We declared the Middle Eastern Market and Deli across the parking lot our post-Liberace reward, since we could balance out the impending saccharine with actual baklava there, and took the dive into the late showman’s wardrobe and garage and warehouse of fancy pianos.
We both wanted to understand the real Liberace. The man behind the rhinestones. The man who so brilliantly played his life like he played the piano, pulling off a Rachmaninoff prelude with his left hand while tinkling “The GodfatherÓ theme with his right, being flamboyantly gay on one hand and denying it on the other. So we looked closely at his collection of grand pianos, including a couple that were played by Chopin and Schumann and Gershwin before graduating to Liberace; we looked at the giraffe-shaped piano and the rhinestone-covered piano; we looked at the Rolls-Royces and listened to his piano-playing, which sounds like Niagara Falls if Niagara Falls were, God forbid, an Andrew Lloyd Webber score; we studied his awards and recognitions, including his life-time membership to the West Milwaukee Lions Club and the key to the city he received from Daytona Beach in 1976; we looked at his outfits, some of which match the folds and girth of the Appalachian Mountains; and we listened to him, on videotape, describe how the heaters hidden in the trees around his Beverly Hills home could keep the outdoors warm to 70 degrees even on chilly nights.
I can’t say that we understood him, or whether so much Liberace was safe to mix with my antibiotics. We settled for loving him wholeheartedly, even though he seemed to have no identity past his strata of make-up and fabric. But we understood that just as the St. Louis Arch is the Gateway to the West, the Liberace Museum is Las Vegas’ spiritual welcome mat. Going through it inoculates you against surprises in the rest of the city, which, we soon found out, has become a dressed-up version of a self it never had.
We looked for the gaudiness, the sin, the vice, the neon that identified Vegas from the ‘60s to the early ‘80s. Most of it is gone except in coy snippets here and there, like the street peddlers handing out free catalogs of lushly illustrated girls making their way through college by way of private hotel rooms. (Prostitution is legal in Nevada, but soliciting in the flesh was banned inside Las Vegas as the city began slouching away from Gomorrah in the ‘90s). Gambling is still the center of it all, but framed in the veneer of hotels pretending to be Europeanly classy, in glittering shopping malls, in video arcades and rides and day care for the kids, and in the strangest development of all: Las Vegas, like Manhattan and San Francisco, has become a city of sidewalks, alive day and night with swarms of walkers hopping from one hotel-casino-mall to another the way they would from one amusement park to another.
Vegas is the most democratic city in America. It can ruin you in an hour—its predatory instinct is still to go after the family till—but it also leaves you free to roam (the ratio of gambling to non-gambling spending has fallen from about 66:34 to 50:50 in the ‘90s). No place is off limits. Free entertainment is everywhere. The Mirage has its erupting volcano. Excalibur has battling ships. The Venetian has its canal and gondoliers. Old downtown has a nightly light show.
It would take several days to explore every major hotel on the Strip. Even though most of the new ones basically look alike, X- or Y-shaped scrapers like architectural chromosomes from the same parent (a handful of holding companies own all the Strip’s hotels), each billion-dollar resort gives the illusion of being a different world, from The Luxor’s version of Egypt to The Paris’ half-size replica of the Eiffel Tower, from the Bellagio’s impersonation of a rich Italian resort to New York New York’s Cliff-noted Manhattan skyline. The worlds are actually all the same shops and slots alternately up- or down-scaled according to the hotel’s theme. As illusion, it works with the charm of a Penn and Teller trick but—unfortunately—with none of its subversiveness. It is Vegas-lite, a Strip-full of G-rated banana peels.
--- Beyond losing $30 for good form, Cheryl and I couldn’t very well afford the five minute, $500 interludes at craps tables or the six-hour coin-bucket commitments slot machines require of the pious gambler. So we walked from one chromosomal biosphere to another. The point wasn’t to check the replicas against the originals. The originals would lose: At the Paris the skies are painted blue instead of the real city’s perpetual gray, and the personnel’s disposition is just as anachronistically sunny; the Venetian’s canal is not a toxic dump; the rides at New York New York’s Coney Island actually work; and the Luxor is terrorist-free. Good things, all. The point was to inhale the illusion as a harmless narcotic (my weaning, continued).
But the merging of imitation with pretensions to reality produced strange moments. At Vegas’ McCarran Airport an Asian couple was admiring a huge, model-size replica of the Paris resort. “Look at Paris!” the couple’s young daughter said, pointing to the way the Eiffel Tower straddles the casino. “That is so cool,” her mother said. We were all looking at a replica of a replica, never once wondering which Paris we were thinking of anymore. Paris itself, the one Bogart and Bergman will always have (wasn’t it, too, imagined?), no longer mattered as much as the brand it has become, Las Vegas’ version of a colorized, improved, accessible production, with us visitors as its 30 million paying extras a year.
I could see the daughter’s disappointment on her junior year abroad, discovering that the “real” Eiffel Tower straddles nothing but the empty green squares of the Champ de Mars. The same discrepant effect was repeated every time we walked into a shop that hawked Parisian or New York gifts, like mugs or berets or yellow Checker Cabs (New York’s last Checker actually retired on July 26). Each object trumped its original.
I could understand why the Venetian’s owner, Sheldon Anderson, had said during his resort’s construction that he was “not going to build a ‘faux’ Venice. We’re going to build what is essentially the real Venice.” What I haven’t figured out is why Anderson and Bellagio developer Steve Wynn are fixated on European chic as a passport to class and legitimacy at the end of Europe’s most anemic—and America’s most vital—century. The Bellagio’s $300 million art collection of a few dozen tired European oldies (the usual Picassos and Van Goghs and Renoirs) displayed in two rooms for a $12 admission, more costly to enter than most New York museums, is the most pretentious objectification of art in Vegas. The exhibit has nothing to do with “the power of fine art to delight the eye and excite the mind,” as Wynn describes it. It is a show-off, a bait that says: “Look at us! We got Art!” And the atmosphere in the two rooms is as stuffy as a funeral parlor’s, its patrons rigid and silent as they listen to Wynn’s lecture under the glare of guards in each of the room’s eight corners. Anyway, what true museum pretending to “delight” with its work would, as the Bellagio’s does, forbid sketching, note-taking and even baby strollers? Give me Liberace any day. Prolonged exposure to the Bellagio would have quarried me a new kidney stone.
--- By weekend’s end casino-hopping had become repetitive, Cheryl was gone, I was dangerously close to a relapse and needed something strong in which to drown my sorrows. I hit the jackpot. The National Beer Whole
salers Association was holding its annual convention at Bally’s. I couldn’t very well pretend to write about Vegas without experiencing one of its conventions. This one, with its couple of thousand suited-up participants pretending to be sober while sampling each other’s free-flowing beers all day, would have to do.
The Vegas anachronisms, of course, continued: The NBWA’s keynote speaker was H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the retired general who—as he reminded his audience several times—led the 800,000 soldiers of the allied coalition against Iraq in the Gulf War eight years ago. What this, or he, had to do with beer, or with the convention’s running theme of keeping the association responsible in its peddling of a potentially lethal product, I had no clue before or after the talk. He didn’t once mention the word in his hour-long speech except to joke that the posting of American troops in Saudi Arabia in 1991 meant that 199 million beers were not consumed that year. The rest was a stock motivational presentation on leadership that has kept him busy on the talk circuit for years.
”I still can’t give you a satisfactory definition of this thing called leadership,” he said, comparing it at one point to pornography. “I don’t know what it is, but I recognize it when I see it.” He went on to give several definitions of leadership in fortune-cookie truisms. “The true rewards of leadership come from leadership itself.” “Failure is contagious but success is infectious.” Are kidney stones infections or contagions? To conclude he observed, with an apparent blind spot on Euro-Vegas, how the rest of the world is trying to be like America.
I took some Sulfamethoxazole and headed for the beer exhibits to look for stormin’ boredom antibodies. The Three Stooges’ beer booth looked like a good stop. The beer was launched in 1998 by Massachusetts-based Panther Brewing Co. and skipped microbrewery status by selling more than 600,000 cases in its first year. Company President Dewey Parsons explained how it happened: “I was with my partner, we were at a bar one night, got drunk, I was going to buy car washes and told him about it. He said, ‘---- car washes, let’s make Three Stooges beer.’ “ (They were drunk on Bass Ale, he said.) The name was chosen for name-recognition in an American market saturated with 2,000 brands.
Parsons, who once jumped off the Berlin Wall in full ski gear to celebrate its impending crumbling, continued: “Beer is an identity thing. If you drink Heineken, you’ve arrived. You’ve made it. If you drink Sam Adams, you’re discerning. If you drink Corona, you’re a party guy, beach party guy. If you drink Bud, you’re a rough and tumble guy. If you drink Three Stooges Beer, you’re just another knucklehead that likes beer.” It’s all a matter of marketing, he summed up.
That’s why, I discovered, an American beer that tastes like Bellagiofied urine can brand itself the “King of Beers.” At a German booth I was given a lesson in Germany’s 1516 Purity Law, which forbids German beer makers from using anything other than water, barley and hops to make beer, a custom other European beer-makers have often adopted. No wonder their beers taste better. I made my pilgrimage to an old personal favorite, the Czech Republic’s Pilsner Urquell, where a Czech brewmaster and his sidekick export director rewarded my faithfulness with 20 cc’s of their stuff in a tiny plastic cup. I turned down the Pilsner glass, there being many more booths to visit. The rest of the day, to judge from my notes, is a copious blur, except when I talked to those producers of trendy water drinks like Energy Brands’ Go-Go drinks and vitamin waters (“a new age beverage,’ as Vice President Frank Bombaci, name-tagged “The Bomb,” described it, with a go-go girl he’d hired dancing nearby).
My convalescence had gone well, even if too tamely in a city that has become a little too proud of its squeakiness. But with an hour-long injection of George Carlin later that night, in which the godfather of the seven dirty words pulverized soccer moms, parents who turn their kids into cult objects, men who wear “lead, follow or get out of the way” shirts (“I’ll stand in their way”), women who say “you go girl,” white people who dare sing the blues, and machismo of any kind, anywhere, I was cured.
NEVADA IN BRIEF
Total area: 110,540 sq. miles(rank: 7)
Population (1997): 1,700,000(rank: 37)
State capital: Carson City
Economy: Gambling, tourism, mining, government.
Nickname & Motto: Silver State; All for our country.
Entered union: Oct. 31, 1864 (47 th).
Notable facts: Most states have legalized gambling in one form or another, yet Las Vegas keeps growing. In the 1990s alone, $16 billion was invested in mega-resort projects, bringing the town’s total hotel room census to 120,000. The average room rate at the top 10 hotels is more than $450 a night. But Vegas is only keeping up with a trend: In 1976, $17.3 billion was legally bet in America. By 1996, the figure had risen to $586.5 billion, making it, according to Timothy O’Brien’s “Bad Bet,” “more popular in America than baseball, the movies and Disneyland—combined.”
Nevada in quotes: “During the early days of the (nuclear) proving ground, I have been told, the heads of two or three of the casinos tentatively discussed some rather special civil-defense plans. ‘We were afraid the bombs might shake the tables so hard that the dice would be tipped over and the roulette balls would bounce out of one number into another,’ one of them recalled. ‘We thought we might have to post signs warning players that in such an event the house man’s ruling, as always, would be final.’ Such precautions were subsequently found to be unnecessary, and they would have been unavailing anyway on the one occasion when the physicists out at the proving grounds did disturb Las Vegas gamblers. That was last November, when a plate glass window near a crap game in the El Cortez Hotel was broken by a shock wave. The players turned briefly to see what had happened and, when they got back to their game, found that the pot was shy twenty dollars.”—From “Blackjack and Flashes,” an article by Daniel Lang, The New Yorker, Sept. 20, 1952.
”Literary Las Vegas: The Best Writing About America’s Most Fabulous City,” edited by Mike Tronnes (Owl Books, $12.95) is a rich collection of two dozen pieces on the city by top-shelf writers from Tom Wolfe to A.J. Liebling, and ultimately a more satisfying reach into Las Vegas than glossy coffee-table books.
”Las Vegas: As it began, as it grew,” by Stanley Paher (Nevada Publications, $19.95) is an attempt to redress some of the city’s bad-boy reputation by telling the story of its more traditional founding as a railway town and trading center. The book is slightly outdated.
* Las Vegas (includes links to all the completed and planned hotel-casinos): www.vegas.com
* National Beer Wholesalers Association: www.nbwa.org
* George Carlin: www.georgecarlin.com
* Nevada tourism: www.travelnevada.com