by Jules Older
People seem to think that Las Vegas has no soul. There are soulless towns, but Vegas isn't one of them.
For most, the soul of Vegas is probably the Strip, that ever-lengthening line-up of grand hotels, most of them heavily themed. From a Magic Kingdom look-alike to Manhattan Island to gay Paree, to an Arabian bazaar… by the time you finish reading this, there will be at least two more gone and three more — bigger and more sumptuous — replacing them.
I love the Strip. It’s pure fantasy, a welcome break from reality. Whether it’s in a page-turning novel, a spine-tingling film or a concrete and fiberglass mirage in the desert, fantasy is something I cherish.
What's more, the Strip is a great reality learning-tool. That’s right —reality. Fantasy can reveal a lot about reality.
For starters, no matter where you place yourself on the political/social spectrum, in Las Vegas you can't ignore the fact that sin sells. And, nearly as important, that sin supports art. That’s right — art.
Just look at the musical water display in front of the Bellagio. It may not hang in Louvre, but that, my friend, is art. And what supports this jinormous, artistic, brilliant, extravagant music-and-water show in the middle of the desert? Sin. Gambling. Nearly nekkid ladies. Flowing alcohol. The ready availability of just about anything you want that you wouldn't dare ask for back home.
Fantasy also informs on the relativity of perception. Here’s a 50-ish Vegas regular: “Twenty years ago I took that moving sidewalk into the Excalibur and thought, Wow — this is pure luxury! Today, after you've walked through Mandalay Bay or New York, New York or half a dozen others, the Excalibur looks kind of tacky and tired.”
A place like Las Vegas, designed for short-lived fantasy, also instructs on the nexus of sex, lies and cell phones.
In the check-in line at the Excalibur, there's a guy plaintively talking into his cell. “Dorothy. Dorothy. Dorothy, you've got to reactivate my credit card. Dorothy, I'm begging you. I'm in Las Vegas! In Las Vegas, Dorothy! Without a credit card, I can't eat. Is that what you want, Dorothy? Do you want me to sleep on the sidewalk? Dorothy, you've got to reactivate it. Just call the bank, OK? You've got to do it, Dorothy. If you don’t, I’ll be sleeping on the… yes, I had a massage. But I had to! I couldn't get out of bed! Dorothy, I… I'm not shouting, Dorothy. I'm talking nicely. Dorothy? Dorothy?”
And on the relationship between talk and action.
Two hotel cleaners chatting: “All these guys talk about is sex. But we never have to change the sheets.”
But as educational as the Strip can be, for me, the soul of Vegas is downtown. Downtown, where it all started. Downtown, where night first became day. Where gambling went legit, or at least legal. Where America first went for a wild old time.
It’s still there. Beneath the million-plus-bulb lightshow over Fremont Street still sit Las Vegas’s oldest hotels and casinos. Like the Golden Nugget, the town’s oldest living hotel. In 1906, room and board went for a buck. Today, you can still get a (very lightly alcoholic) frozen drink at the bar for 99 cents. Across the street, there are penny(!) slots. In the old casino, a Vietnamese combo sings Country & Western. And just off the lobby, the Bay City Diner serves huge shrimp cocktails for $1.99. A full (and purty durned good) prime rib dinner goes for well under 10 bucks.
Patron to waitress: “Why are you working downtown instead of on the
Waitress to patron: “Old waitresses never die, they just move downtown.”
In downtown Vegas, the patrons are older, poorer, smokier and more soulful. The hotels are cheaper, the slots are (allegedly) looser, the entertainment hokier, the experience, in its own way, just as delightful. It’s the difference between Leaving on a Jet Plane and The Spirit of New Orleans. Between fusion cuisine and pot roast. Between a smoky-voiced jazz singer and three Vietnamese guys singing “Yellow Rose of Texas.”
It’s the soul of Las Vegas.
Jules Older is an award-winning writer, former Editor-in-Chief of Ski Press magazine and author of about 25 children’s books. He hangs at www.julesolder.com