I pity people who’ve never been to Vegas. Who dismiss the city without setting foot on its carpeted sidewalks. I recognized myself in the town the first time I laid eyes on it, during a cross-country trip the summer after college. My friend Darren had a gig writing for Let’s Go, the student-produced series of travel guides. Let’s Go: USA, Let’s Go: Europe, Let’s Go: North Korea (they always lost a few freshmen updating that one). The previous year his beat had been New York City. We’d spent the summer eating 50¢ hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and “researching” dive bars like Downtown Beirut and King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, which were beacons of pure, filthy truth in a city still years away from its Big Cleanup. This summer he was assigned the Southwest. The subways didn’t run that far out, but his roommate Dan had a car, a brown ’83 Toyota Tercel, and the idea was we’d hit the open road and split the writing duties and the money three ways.
It was 1991. We’d just been diagnosed as Generation X, and certainly we had all the symptoms, our designs and life plans as scrawny and undeveloped as our bodies. Sure, we had dreams. Dan had escaped college with a degree in visual arts, was a cartoonist en route to becoming an animator. Darren was an anthro major who’d turned to film, fancying himself a Lynchian auteur in those early days of the indie art-house wave. I considered myself a writer but hadn’t got much further than wearing black and smoking cigarettes. I wrote two five-page short stories, two five-page epics, to audition for my college’s creative-writing workshops and was turned down both times. I was crushed, but in retrospect it was perfect training for being a writer. You can keep “write what you know” — for a true apprenticeship, internalize the world’s indifference and accept rejection and failure into your very soul.
First thing, Dan hooked up our ride with new speakers. We didn’t have money or prospects, but we had our priorities straight. I couldn’t drive. That spring I’d sworn I’d get my license so I could contribute my fair share, but no.
I promised to make it up to Dan and Darren by being a Faithful Navigator, wrestling with the Rand McNally and feeding the cassette deck with dub. Dub, Lee “Scratch” Perry, deep deep cuts off side six of Sandinista! — let these be indicators of the stoner underpinnings of our trip out west. As if our eccentric route were not enough. From New York down to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to visit a college pal. He took me to my first mall. Even then, I had a weakness for those prefab palaces. “I asked Andy why there were no security guards around,” I wrote in my notebook. “He told me I had a New Yorker’s mentality.”
Then hundreds of miles to Chicago for a disappointing pilgrimage too complicated and inane to detail here. We bought two tiny replicas of the Sears Tower as consolation. Veered south, taking in the territory, cooking up plots. Inspiration: “discussing the plot of the movie Darren wants to write, about 7-Elevens that land in cornfields.” Down to New Orleans, where we slept in a frat house, on mattresses still moldy and damp from the spring floods. One of Darren’s childhood friends belonged to the frat. His brothers wanted to know why he was “bringing niggers and Jews” into their chill-space. We sure were seeing a lot of America on this trip.
Then west to tackle our Let’s Go assignment proper. We wrote up the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead. Decided to keep driving so we could spend the night in Las Vegas, the camping thing not really taking. (“Hours of agony. Impossible to sleep. Bugs. A consistent feeling of itchiness.”) Miles and miles of black hills and winding roads, and then at one crest it manifested, this smart white jellyfish flopping on the desert floor. We suited up in a cheap motel downtown. Anticipating all the sweaty, laundryless days and nights we’d spend in the Tercel, we’d hit Domsey’s, the famous Brooklyn thrift store, before we left New York City. We required proper gear for our Vegas debut. Dead men’s spats, ill-fitting acrylic slacks and blazers with stiff fibers sticking out of the joints and seams. Roll up the sleeves of the sports jacket to find the brown stains corresponding to the previous owner’s track marks. We looked great.
The whole trip out I’d maintained that I wasn’t going to gamble. Gambling was a weakness of the ignorant masses, the suckers inhabiting the Great American Middle we’d just driven through. I was an intellectual, see, could quote Beckett on the topic of the abyss, had a college degree and everything. I can’t remember the name of our hotel — the place was long ago demolished to make way for the Fremont Street Experience. It wasn’t a proper casino, just a grim box with rooms upstairs, but the first floor had rows of low-stakes gambling apparatuses to keep the reception desk company. On our way to check-in, we passed the geriatric zombies in tracksuits installed at the slots, empty coin buckets overturned on their oxygen tanks. These gray-skinned doomed tugged on the levers, blinked, tugged again. Blink. Tug. Blink.
Grisly. We were about to get our first glimpse of the hurly-burly of downtown Vegas. Before we pushed open the glass doors, what the heck, I dropped a nickel into a one-armed bandit and won two dollars.
In a dank utility room deep in the sub-basements of my personality, a little man wiped his hands on his overalls and pulled the switch: More. Remembering it now, I hear a sizzling sound, like meat being thrown into a hot skillet. I didn’t do risk, generally. So I thought. But I see now I’d been testing the House Rules the previous few years. I’d always been a goody-goody. Study hard, obey your parents, hut-hut-hut through the training exercises of decent society. Then, in college, now that no one was around, I started to push the boundaries, a little more each semester. I was an empty seat in lecture halls, slept late in a depressive funk, handed in term papers later and later to see how much I could get away with before the House swatted me down.
Push it some more. We go to casinos to tell the everyday world that we will not submit. There are rules and codes and institutions, yes, but for a few hours in this temple of pure chaos, of random cards and inscrutable dice, we are in control of our fates. My little gambles were a way of pretending that no one was the boss of me. I hadn’t had time for driving lessons before our trip because I’d been too busy cramming a semester of work into exam period. It had been touch and go whether I’d graduate, as I’d barely shown up for my final semester’s religion course. The last thing I’d wanted to hear about was some sucker notion of the Divine. There’s a man in the sky who watches over everything you do, as all-seeing as the thousands of security cameras embedded in casino ceilings. So what? Nothing escapes his attention, and nothing will move him to intervene.
After a few phone calls, the administration released me into the world with a D minus. What was it to them? My passive-aggressive rebellion against the system was meaningless. The House doesn’t care if you piss away your chances, are draining the college fund, letting the plumber’s bill slide until next month. Ruin yourself. The cameras above record it all, but you’re just another sap passing in the night.
We hit the street.
Before we left town, we bought dozens of tiny plastic slot machines from a trinket shop. Pink, red, lime green. They joined the Museum of Where We’d Been. Everybody’s a walking Museum of Where They’ve Been, but we decided to make it literal. We had serious epoxy. Each place we stopped, we picked up souvenirs and glued them to the Tercel. Two Sears Towers sticking up over the engine, a row of small turquoise stones just above the windshield, toy buffalo stampeding across the great brown plain of the hood. Bull’s horns from Arizona, in case we needed to gore someone at ramming speed, you never know, and four refrigerator magnets with Elvis’s face on the front grille, to repel ghosts. We dotted the hood with glue and stuck the slot machines on, the polyethylene totems marking us as goofball heathens.
Weeks later, we were in Berkeley, sleeping on a friend’s floor. The friend was catsitting for a drug dealer, weed mostly. I didn’t approve of the drug dealer’s lifestyle choices — for vacation, he went camping. We wrote up our time in the land of Circus Circus and the El Cortez, the cheap steaks and watered-down drinks. Let’s Go’s previous correspondent had been a prissy little shit, filling his/her copy with snobby asides. (“But what do you do there?”) He/she wrote:
Forget Hollywood images of Las Vegas glamor, the city at base is nothing but a desert Disneyland. As a small, small world of mild, middle-aged debauchery, Vegas simply replaces Mickey and Minnie with overbright neon marquees, monolithic hotel/casinos, besequinned Ziegfieldesque [sic] entertainers, quickly marrying them in rococo wedding chapels.
Percy, where are my smelling salts?
And what’s wrong with Disneyland? It brings joy to millions of people and tutors children about the corporate, overbranded world they’ve been born into. “It’s a Small World” is a delightful ditty, an ode to that quality of everyday existence by which the soul is crushed, diminished, made entirely small. No need to denigrate it. Better to worry about the lack of a clear antecedent for “them” in that last sentence. I would protect Vegas. How about:
The magic formula of this oasis of mild, middle-aged debauchery — offer everything but the gambling cheaply, and if you gild it, they will come — was hit upon by Bugsy Siegel in the 1940s. Das Kapital is worshipped here, and sacrifices from all major credit cards are happily accepted.
Much more upbeat, although I apologize if some readers were tricked into thinking the city is devoted to Karl Marx’s book. I think we were just trying to get fancy with “capital.”
Some of the classic joints we wrote about are gone now, and we captured a time before Las Vegas made a science of demography, but most of the basic observations in our Let’s Go entry remain solid. In between games of Risk (board-game version), we cut up the previous year’s text, discarded what we disliked, and glued (more glue) what remained onto white paper alongside our revisions and additions. “But remember that casinos function on the basis of most tourists leaving considerably closer to the poverty line than when they arrived; don’t bring more than you’re prepared to lose cheerfully” became “But always remember: in the long run, chances are you’re going to lose money. Don’t bring more than you’re prepared to lose cheerfully.” No, casinos are not out to destroy you. The destroyed do not return to redeem reward-card perks and lose more money. No one forces doom upon you, folks. You need to seek it out.
We kept “Drinks in most casinos cost 75¢–$1, free to those who look like they’re playing” but added “Look like you’re gambling; acting skills will stretch your wallet, but don’t forget to tip that cocktail waitress in the interesting get-up.” Out with the general tsk-tsking and upper-middle-class disdain, in with “For best results, put on your favorite loud outfit, bust out the cigar and pinky rings, and begin.” You have been granted a few days’ reprieve from who you are. Celebrate the gift of a place that allows you to be someone else for a time.
Then Darren wigged out and caught a plane home. He still had his childhood room. Dan was going to drive back east in August, maybe get a Eurail pass that autumn and check out some fucking castles or whatever. I was out of money when Dan set off, and I asked whether he had any room in the car, as the guy we’d been crashing with, the catsitter, was bailing out of California, too, and bringing all his stuff. After all, I was a good navigator. As luck would have it, they intended to stop off in Vegas on the way back.
No one laid a hand on the Museum when we were on the road. Odd, moonfaced kids — a motel owner’s brood — gawked at it when we stopped at night but dared not touch. A cop pulled us over for speeding in Massachusetts the last day of our return trip. “What’s all this?” We shrugged. What to say? He wrote us a ticket. The Museum lasted a few days in Cambridge before teenagers or disaffected housewives or whoever stripped everything. We’d made it home, and the spell had worn off.
We grew up. Our generational symptoms faded bit by bit. I got a job working for the books section of a newspaper. We ran fiction sometimes, mixed in with reviews. When the writing teacher who had rejected my work in college submitted a story, I passed on it. Not out of revenge; it just wasn’t up to snuff. As in cards, it was business, not personal. I badgered one editor for an assignment, that assignment led to another, and soon enough I was paying my bills freelancing. Played poker at Dan’s house every Sunday for a couple years, and one day we picked up Hold’em. Dan got into computer animation and founded a visual-effects company, rendering animation for movies such as Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan, which Darren directed. We’d waited for cards, and then we played them.