Sinless in Sin City

Most of the rest this country is non-smoking, but Las Vegas has not gotten the message. The cigarette remains king here. Smokers smoke puff away with impunity and do so openly, proudly and defiantly. It is a rare public space that does not reek of tobacco. Since you are gambling away your hard-earned dollars, you might as well gamble away your life too. So go ahead and take heaping lungfuls of second hand smoke. It is not as if you are likely to have a choice.

I am certain there is a correlation between smoking and a predisposition toward gambling. This would explain the virtual absence of any smoke free casinos in Las Vegas and the disproportionate number of smokers in the casinos. Smoke free areas of casinos apparently do exist here in some Las Vegas casinos, but your odds of finding one at random are much less than winning in roulette. Even if you are visiting Vegas and do not gamble (like me) you cannot escape the cigarette. It is everywhere along the strip, indoors and outdoors. Even so, I think there is profit to be made in smoke free gambling. If I were sufficiently wealthy like Donald Trump, I would build my own smoke free casino and hotel. I doubt I would have to round up customers.

This is my second trip to Las Vegas (the first was six years ago). Nothing has changed and everything has changed. Old casinos are being torn down. New casinos are going up. Every conceivable variation of marketing techniques is being tried, retried and refined in Vegas. Its use of energy remains obscenely reckless. It may be 110 degrees outside but to lure you inside they will have the casino doors flung open. It is a shameless city, which is okay. That is its appeal. If you want uptight morality, you go elsewhere. Vegas is all about escape. It is all about reveling in your sinful nature. While prostitution is technically illegal in the city, de-facto prostitution abounds. You are unlikely to see prostitutes on the street, but you can find their calling cards. In place of news racks, you have tart racks. Walk any block and open one of these machines to get little advertising brochures that essentially pimp women. Whoops, sorry. Not just women, but also men, transvestites, transsexuals, and pretty much any variation you can imagine. This includes, if you are age 50 like me, women in their 40s, 50s and 60s. (Hmm, I would think their rates would be deeply discounted.) I saw one today pimping young, buxom, blonde Asian women, with specials starting at $49. Granted I am not much of a world traveler but buxom certainly does not describe Asian women so I suspect they have been to a plastic surgeon. Moreover, if you want them blonde too then doubtless their color comes courtesy of a box of hair dye. And yes, they want you. They are passionate about you, even though they have never met you. They cannot wait to get into your pants, no matter how old, obese and disease ridden you may be. They may all be drop dead gorgeous, but basically they are total sluts.

Of course, they do not work for free. There is nothing free in Vegas, although there is the illusion that you can get a lot free. You can get prime rib dinners for $6.99 available 24 hours a day here in Vegas. Of course, since slot machines overrun Vegas, there is likely one sitting right next to your table. Perhaps the $6.99 prime rib applies only if it is delivered to your slot machine or roulette table. I do not have the inclination to find out.

If you are one of these rare people like me for whom gambling holds no allure, Vegas can be a cheap vacation. Room rates at many hotels are steeply discounted in the hopes that you will make up the rest in the casinos. There is shopping in Vegas too. Of course, off the strip, there are all the usual Best Buys and Targets, but you do not come to Vegas to go off the strip. You come to live on the strip. If you choose to leave the casino then you have to deal with inconveniences like the deadly sun (it was 111 degrees today). In Vegas, time ceases to exist. There is only the now: the ever-present stench of cigarette smoke, the inane tunes from the gazillion slot machines, neon-neon everywhere and the frequent trips to the cashier or the ATM where you are likely to zero out your accounts. Some part of you realizes that everything is rigged. If it were not profitable, there would be no reason to keep building new casinos. These casino resorts though keep going up, like desert cacti.

While my wife and daughter attend a convention, I am left to fend for myself. Yesterday I escaped Vegas by renting a car and checking out some of the places my wife’s indigent father haunted in his last days. I found the hospital in nearby Henderson where he died (as hospitals go, St. Rose Dominican Hospital was quite small) then drove south to check out Searchlight, where he may have spent his last years. I found a town that was half truck stop and one quarter mobile homes in perhaps the most desolate but most beautiful spots imaginable. Three thousand feet up in the mountains, it was noticeably cooler and windier than in Vegas. Searchlight came replete with a community center/library/museum (all in one building) and, naturally, a saloon with slot machines. I can imagine my wife’s father felt right at home in the saloon when he had the money.

Today, with my rental car returned there was little else to do than to check out the strip to see if anything had changed. Our hotel is about a mile off the strip. Slathered in sunscreen I hoofed west on Flamingo Road. Some things had changed in six years. There was now this monorail. It was not actually on the strip itself but a bit to its east; it sort of paralleled the strip. A new casino is emerging just south of the Bellagio, and it looks like the pirate show is still playing in the artificial lagoon in front of the Bellagio. Caesar’s Palace was as opulent as ever. Once an hour on the hour you can still watch the animatronic fall of Atlantis for no money whatsoever. I wandered the mall feeling no inclination to buy anything. This is a mall for fashion chicks with fat charge card limits. Nonetheless my second trip to Caesar’s Palace cemented my opinion that it must be the most over the top, opulent and gaudy place in America. The only place I have ever been that was more opulent was Versailles. Caesar himself could not have afforded to live in such opulence. But I doubt Caesar had casinos either. Maybe he should have.

The Bellagio, just to its south, is a close second. The Bellagio has the virtue of being a more tasteful hotel and casino. In fact, parts of the Bellagio are just plain beautiful. Its hotel lobby is a work of art, with Picasso inspired ceramics hanging from the ceiling. Yet everywhere are the omnipresent slot machines and the smell of cigarettes.

Of course, there are shows to see in Vegas. I had not planned to see any shows at all, but since Spamalot is playing here and tickets were not hard to acquire, we bought some for the 8 PM show tomorrow night. There is a “gentlemen’s club” conveniently next door should I feel the need to ogle some female flesh. Fortunately, few things bore me more. Therefore, I have ample time to blog, surf the web and walk the streets of Vegas.

I will be glad to fly home on Monday. Las Vegas must be experienced once in life. Each subsequent return though leaves me less inclined to come back. Booze, loose women (at least the kind I have to pay for) and gambling hold no appeal to me, but that in a nutshell is what Vegas is all about. I will be glad to return to Washington Dulles International Airport, where baggage claim contains exactly zero slot machines, and where I can leave my gate without being accosted by someone trying to sell me a time-share. For all its glitz Las Vegas is really an empty city, bereft of spirit. Perhaps some of these things can be found off the strip and maybe some day I will discover that side of Las Vegas. For now, I just want to go home.

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