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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Squalor in Las Vegas

Across the USA Dept.: Another installment from the series I wrote describing a cross-country camper-bus trip my wife and I took in 1989. This was written on 18 September 1989. Since then, the Desert Inn and the Sands are no more, the Aladdin is now Planet Hollywood, and a whole new strip of even more mega mega-hotels has opened.


SOME THINGS ARE CLICHÉD only from a distance. Up close you find you're dealing with the real thing. At a visitor's center in Las Vegas, where we stopped to pick up some brochures, three people rushed to the counter. A middle-aged man accompanied a young couple. He spoke with an Hispanic accent. He addressed a bored-looking clerk.

Las Vegas, 1989
“Can you tell me where we can get a marriage, tonight?”

The clerk, a woman who’d heard it all before, named three locations.

“How much will it cost?”

“They pick you up in a limousine and take you to the chapel, and that’s 45 dollars. The license and everything is 27 dollars. That’s a total of 73.”

He accepted her freewheeling math with a nod of the head, arrested as she continued: “Then it’s customary to tip the minister and the driver.”

“Do we need to have the limo?”

“Oh, it’s included.”

He translated for the others, then asked, “How much do you tip? We don’t want to do anything that isn’t right.”

Her nasal drone was stupefying. There was absolutely no expression in her voice: “You can tip anything you want.”

“Yes, but how much is customary?”

“Ten for the minister, five for the driver.”

Again some hurried conversation in Spanish. Then, “Will this marriage be legal in Mexico?”

“As long as they have proper ID.”


“Driver’s license is okay.”

Nods all around. “Okay. What do we do?”

After a honeymoon in Las Vegas a couple should be ready for almost anything. Marriage may not be one of those things. My own parents were wed in Las Vegas and probably would agree with me that it wasn’t a well-thought-out move (except for the eventuality of me, of course), although the occasion itself was marked by the frivolity of Las Vegas in the 1950s. “There was a group of tourists at the next table,” my father remembered, “and when they found out we were honeymooning they pretty much adopted us. And it was exciting to see Nat King Cole perform in person.” Cole even sat and chatted with them between sets.

The glamour has eroding into gaudiness. Where once you could spend an evening with Noel Coward at the Desert Inn, you’re now reduced to celebrating Mexican Independence Day with Vikki Carr.

It starts when you first set eyes on the Strip, that blinding succession of hotel-casinos and tourist joints. Where even McDonald’s has a sign of flashing neon. We left gaudy way behind: this is a unique and astonishing dimension of showiness.

Our plan was simple: get a cheap hotel room and see a Vegas show. Maybe even gamble a little. Billboards in California promised great hotel deals, but we neglected to write them down. And when we pulled in, at 8 p.m. on a Sunday, all the rooms at the mammoth Stardust hotel were filled. On a Sunday.

We could have gone over to the Sands or any of a hundred other costly places, but we instead took the ten-buck camper hookup behind the Stardust. And even that huge lot was almost filled.

Walking the Strip is a soulless experience. Neon lights are like fireworks and made-for-TV movies: after a while they begin to look the same. You marvel at the garish shamelessness of Caesar’s Palace, white spotlights playing on the Roman-ized front, a steady green glow illuminating the rest of its buildings. At the mock Arabian facade of the Aladdin, and at the too-dignified dressing of Bally’s, the Sands, the Desert Inn.

Latest evidence of the soullessness were the picket lines in front of a few hotels, the ones that have done away with live music for their shows. Bad enough that the bands themselves have dwindled from orchestra-sized to a half dozen or fewer; now Bally’s, the Tropicana and other well-known houses are playing tapes. The union is so desperate to bargain that they’re asking to be allowed at least to provide the recorded music.

A Las Vegas show without live music? The place is artificial enough without succumbing to the plastic sheen of recorded synthesizers. We wanted to see a real Vegas show, and live music is part of the image.

“Try Abracadabra over at the Aladdin,” said a bright-eyed young woman named Jeannette. She worked for an entertainment broker that places info booths in hotel lobbies. We suspected her to be a hotel employee until she pooh-poohed the offering at the place where she sat. “It’s not what you want to see. You want the whole Vegas thing, right? Magic, comedy, dancing?”

“Nude women?”

Inside the Aladdin Hotel
“Nude women, absolutely.” She spoke with air of one who’s just not too worried about what other people think, but nevertheless is entranced by the glitz of her city. “I’m going to write a column for a local newspaper,” she declared. “A sort of gossip column? I’ll talk about the, you know, behind-the-scenes stuff. I’m always hanging around the hotels, so I get access to a lot of information.”

A good Vegas attitude. Don’t take it too seriously but enjoy the nonsense of it. And make some money off it.

Another Las Vegas thrill was in store when Jeannette handed us our tickets. There are no seat assignments. “The maitre d’ will find you a place,” she explained, and I got to enjoy the experience of slipping the man a few bucks to get that, you know, real good seat.

He accepted my folded five with a murmur and leads us through a labyrinth of tiny tables to a postage stamp on a pedestal in a corner of the room. “Ithinkyou’llfindthisaverycomfortableseat,” he said, and vanished.

The waitress materialized instantly, dressed in a costume of harem pants and décolleté blouse. “Drinks?”

Back in my waiting-on-tables days we had this fear of what we called snowflakes, a nickname given to the bargain hunters, the cheapest-entree-only orderers. The folks who’ll stiff you without qualm. They descended like snowflakes all holidays and most Sundays.

And this, I saw with some horror, was how the waitress has sized us up. Susan and I each ordered a sherry. She plunked four glasses onto the table. Two drink minimum, folks.

“Take your picture?”

Another racket. The photographer was a beautiful woman, so lovely that I didn’t want to deny her anything. But I’ll be damned if I’ll be photographed with a flash camera in an ill-lighted room like some Vegas-struck stooge. She shrugged at my refusal and strolled away to lean against a railing beside our waitress.

“They’re dead in here tonight,” she said. Our waitress tee-heed agreement.

Two illusions were shattered during this visit. The first happened during the show. A fellow calling himself the Prince of Magic was featured, performing a set of textbook illusions. Wheelable boxes, long swords, wild animals and leotard-clad women were featured in this bunch of hoary old tricks that haven’t changed since we saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show.

But I was prepared for that. What bothered me the most were the topless dancers. I represent myself as an enlightened fellow, a tough thing to be in these not-so-enlightened times, but I grew up smuggling Playboy into the house and retain that hobbledehoy delight in seeing underdressed women. And in Vegas you’re allowed to do this on a date with your wife and pretend it’s an oh-so-grownup activity.

What we saw was this: a chorus of eight women and four men in exotic costumes dancing with snappy precision to rhythm-heavy songs. Then four more women entered from the wings, dropped the fans draped across their chests, and promenaded in front of us.

They looked identical: tall, high cheekbones, sloe eyes, nicely toned bodies. Their cupid’s-bow smiles were identical. Their breasts were identical. Something that doesn’t happen in nature. “It happens in Playboy,” my wife reminded me. And this back-and-forth parade they did, the four of them, was hilariously lifeless. They didn’t sing or dance. They simply exposed their breasts. It was silly.

The second disappointment comes the following morning. Las Vegas is a place to go for cheap lodging, cheap food, moderately costly entertainment and brutally expensive gambling. A croupier named Mike taught us some of the table games during the Stardust’s morning instruction sessions. He candidly pointed out that the odds in craps are carefully adjusted to make money for the house. “When the odds are 36 to one, we pay 30. It goes like that on down the line, and that’s what subsidizes your room and dinner.”

I can’t tell you what it is we were taught because the information came at us too quickly. I can tell you that we were surrounded, during the lesson, by a dozen vacationers who immediately thereafter scrambled to a working table to place some bets – and thus fund their rooms, dinners, etc.

Betting strategies became more and more complicated as Mike went along. “Your bet on the eight remains good until someone throws a seven or two – or until you tell the dealer to remove it by saying `Down on my eight.’” Fair enough. I guess. Until he got to the realm of complicated combo bets, covering peculiar phenomena I’m not sure dice even do. “Now, the four of these bets are called the horn,” he said. “You tell the croupier that you want to place, let’s say, 25 dollars on the `horn.’” He demonstrated by sweeping a short stack of chips to a specially-designated area. “This remains effect until you win or the player craps out. If you want to cancel the bet, you say to the croupier, `Down on my horn.’”

Down on my horn?” I repeated with astonishment. It sounded like a nasty high-school taunt.

“Down on my horn,” Mike repeated.

I think I’ll stick to the slots.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 10 March 1990

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