This past weekend, Kyle Cassidy enlisted me as his videographer-in-tow to Las Vegas-- yes, the one in Nevada-- to shoot interviews for his "This is What a Librarian Looks Like" project. It's shaping up to be much bigger than a photo essay: something like a documentary is in the works, and I'm hoping that I can bring enough skills to make it look pretty decent.
But anyway, Las Vegas. We didn't see that much of the place because we were busy _working_. We arrived at nighttime on Thursday, and took a cab directly to the Las Vegas Hotel. At the time, I thought it was pretty convenient that it was located right next to the convention center... but later I realized that nearly every sizable hotel in Vegas has its own convention center. Vegas operates on a mammoth scale in many ways, and the LVH would be outsize in most US cities. Its front sign alone was the size of a small office building by itself.
Now, while the LVH wasn't a bad hotel by any means, it certainly wasn't one of the glamour palaces that George Clooney's crew would be raiding to David Holmes music. As you enter, you're greeted by a lot of sensory material. There are glass cases containing Elvia memorabilia, including the last Cadillac he ever bought. (It reminded me of the Caddies that my Dad used to buy, and I had a memory of coming home from the Shore, sitting in a bathing suit in the rear leather seats.) There's a churning sea of LEDs in the casino proper, where hundreds of poker and slot machines glare twenty-four-seven. And there's something I hadn't smelled in years: _indoor cigarette smoke_. It wasn't overwhelming, but it was a actually shocking to smell cigs in a hotel after years of indoor smoking bans.
As I said, the LVH is lower-tier Vegas-- not that I'm suddenly an expert on the place. There was a theater someplace showcasing something called "Raiding the Rock Vault," where musicians with some claim to "having rocked it" were playing covers. There was also a restaurant with Vince Neil's name attached, and the walls and video screens were Motley Crue-riffic. There was a massive Race and Sports Book room, with walls covered by massive screens showing races and soccer games, which looked like the War Room in _Dr. Strangelove_.
But the LVH was not a happy place. Maybe it was the jet lag, but it was really easy to be in the casino, and feel as though it was past midnight, even though it was still a bright and sunny 4 p.m. outside. (Which made the pool a GREAT thing to have.) The place's eateries were overpriced and terrible. Kyle's a vegetarian, and the closest place one could find a decent meal for him was in the food court at the Riviera casino across the street and a loooong city block away. (I fetched him some masala dosa. That was part of my job.) The hotel was the best place for the job, as it was right next to the librarians' convention, but if I were to advise on Vegas trips I'd push people to the bigger, gaudier places on the Strip.
And the casino provided one of those classic Vegas images for me. No, not the guy in Elvis drag stalking through the lobby. This was the elderly lady sitting at a slot machine, cig dangling from her mouth, her right hand on the machine's arm, and believe it or not, an oxygen tank near her left. And sitting beside her, her husband, bent my age and weight, just slumped over and staring into eternity as he spent his golden years waiting as his beloved pumped dollar bills into machine.
On a more cheerful note, I did take a short walk on Friday morning to the nearest CVS. As I said, the LVH was across the street from the Riviera. And on the other side of the Riviera was Circus Circus, one of the first casinos to let parents bring the kids inside while they gambled away their futures. And there was Hunter Thompson's line about the place: "The Circus Circus was what the whole hip world would be doing on a Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war." So it was Selfie Time.
Notice that I'm not saying much about Kyle's project. That's mainly because I don't wanna _jinx_ it by getting it wrong in some way. The main work was helping Kyle carry his photog stuff to the convention floor. We set up an interview station in our room, so we could have controlled lighting and get decent quality video interviews.
At one point, Kyle wanted to go to where the librarians had set up a gaming room, and take portraits there. The gaming room was in Caesar's Palace, which meant taking a cab to the Vegas Strip.
Oh, my God.
Forests have died to showcase the words others have assembled to capture the Vegas Strip. About the best that I can say is this. Imagine if you lived in America in 1893. For the most part, your surroundings are pretty frickin' drab. Farmland. Tenements. The Life of the Mind is limited to religious revival and horrible memories of what Dad endured in the Civil War. Maybe a train whistle floats by on the wind. And then, you take a trip to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago-- the Great White City, full of Belle Epoque buildings that are LIT UP EVERY NIGHT WITH FABULOUS ELECTRICITY. And even though we're Americans of the 21st century, and we've lived in cities and watched spectacles and maybe gone to Disney World and heard of Dubai... well, The Vegas Strip can _still_ feel like the White City would have to some poor Victorian-age yokel.
And yes, it's gaudy, and fake, and one massive capitalist effort to drain your pockets and blast your senses with flashy entertainments. But in many places, it's _well done_. I didn't get to see the Venetian up close, but at a distance, it struck me as a well-made knock-off of Italian Renaissance styles-- amped up for modern vacationers, of course. Caesar's Palace sported statues that, to my untrained eye, didn't look like shitty plaster or injection-molded plastic-- they looked as though someone had taken the time to make good statues, place them carefully, and light them well. Other places along the Strip were just delightful to me: the way Gilley's overlooked the street, the block-long waterfalls the Mirage set up so pedestrians could enjoy some cooling spray in 100-degree heat... Okay, throw in whole buildings covered with LED networks sweeping colors all over the place, dramatically-lit fountains, gigantic street signs playing mini-movies forty-feet tall... and as long as you're not among the crowds of pushing, shoving, vomiting people on the sidewalk, it is an amazing spectacle.
Inside Caesar's was a fascinating mix, too. Yeah, the first thing you meet (other than the bronze Caesar statue) was the floor of slot machines. Move along, and you find that the place is a combination of several things. There's the casino, the hotel, the convention center... and a high-end shopping mall, far closer to Rodeo Drive than to the Gallery. I mean, how many malls have cocktail bars in their midst, two stories high, arranged in tiers of bottles and glass sculptures?
This is what was so much fun for me in Vegas, just as a spectator for an hour or two. Most of my friends have a set of opinions about the place-- gaudy, cheap, gimcrack, inauthentic, trashy America fit only for rubes and unsophisticated Republicans. The same stuff you hear about shopping malls and Disney World. Maybe the smarter ones can throw off some Baudrillardian yabber about horizontality, simulacra and the Spectacle. And it's real easy to feel that way if you're used to everyday malls, hotels, and Disney. But Las Vegas is _overwhelming_. Within minutes-- assuming you didn't have some pedestrian throw up on your shoes on the way in-- you wonder _why_ you're sneering at the carpet patterns and wondering if the marble is authentic to Italy. Me, I'd wanted to wander down to the Paris casino, and spend some time in the fake Parisian street; hey, I ain't getting to Paris anytime soon, and it'd probably be as renovated as Tati's _Playtime_ by the time I got there... so I'd be happy with the fake stores and Art Nouveau knockoff designs.
Don't get me wrong. There's a lot of shit in Vegas, too. There was a big Trump building, shaped and glazed to resemble a gold brick on its end... but it was about three blocks west of the Strip proper, as though the town fathers felt that Trump was too classless for their own palaces. And further still is the low-income landscape we all know: shuttered storefronts, check-cashing places, lots of billboards for lawyers.
But you can get that anywhere.