“Las Vegas marks itself out by nothingness. All the negative descriptions that can generally be used in labeling a city apply to it, for its absence of consistency actually makes its existence doubtful: no man’s land, waste ground, non-place, ghost town, urban simulacrum, nowhere city, etc. For us it is Zeropolis, the non-city which is the very first city, just as zero is the very first number. The nothing that counts, the nothingness of neon.” -Bruce Begout, Zeropolis
I have recently returned from a couple of days in Sin City. If you enjoy going to Las Vegas on vacation, you may want to skip my column this week.
I know many folks who go to Las Vegas and love the place. While I do not count myself as one of them, this was my second trip there in as many years. The first time was to witness the marriage of two very dear friends last March. This time, it was a spur of the moment decision to take my twenty-one year old son on a Spring Break trip. I figured it was the perfect place to take someone who likes playing Blackjack, beer, and buffets. Besides, it’s March and we still have snow up to our necks here in the woods. The sunshine and bare sidewalks waiting for me there seduced me.
We stayed at the Stratosphere, the tall hotel that reminds me of something from the cartoon The Jetson’s. This seems appropriate since Area 51 isn’t too far away. On our first morning there, we took the elevator to the 109th floor of the hotel to check out the view from the observation deck. The city of Las Vegas is rimmed with desert and red rock. With the exception of the subtropical landscaping on the Strip and a couple of golf courses, there is very little green space. I know, because I looked for it from high above the city. Water is scarce in Las Vegas and it shows. I learned that 85% of the water the city uses comes from Lake Mead by way of the Colorado River. One lake and a river is all that the residents of Las Vegas can depend upon for drinking water and toilets that flush properly. Later, we walked down the Strip and saw hotel after hotel with man-made ponds, fake waterfalls and fountains galore. Minnesota girls used to 10,000 lakes and snowdrifts in March that will help to replenish all of those lakes notice things like this, I suppose.
Almost everything that is illegal in Minnesota is legal in Las Vegas. Gambling, prostitution, smoking in buildings, public drunkeness…you name it. During a bus ride, I struck up a conversation with a resident who had moved there because Chicago, his hometown, has become too dangerous a place to raise his children. We talked about the recent random killings of several young people near where he grew up and how this contributed to his decision to leave the place where he was raised. He said, “Here, my kids can play outside with their friends and I don’t have to worry about them in our neighborhood. But you know what’s crazy? About three people are hit by cars every week here on the Strip. You’d think people would be more careful, wouldn’t you?” He looked out the window and shrugged. Young men from Chicago who’ve attended too many funerals notice things like this, I suppose.
Three blocks off the Strip in any direction there are abandoned or burned out buildings, structural corpses from an economy that tanked after the housing bubble burst. However, walk down Las Vegas Blvd. and each hotel is taller and more grand than the one before it. It’s hard to square the false opulence of Caesar’s Palace with the homeless man who was digging in the trashcan at the bus stop right in front of the hotel. The one with all of his possessions in a shopping cart with a bad wheel. It’s also difficult to understand how a city with so many signs lit 24 hours a day also has an airport where at one gate, it was impossible to find a single working electrical outlet to charge a cell phone. It is a place where every hotel has a 24 hour all-you-can eat buffet with lines of people waiting to pay 30 dollars a plate and over half of the school age children in the city go to school hungry every morning (www.threesquare.org). Educators who have tried to teach students with rumbling stomachs notice things like this, I suppose.
Women are big business in Las Vegas. Walk down the strip and on each corner, people employed by this “service industry” push small cards with photos of large breasted women at passersby. Flyers advertising the services of “Asian Women Delivered to Your Hotel Anytime” can be found piled up outside of Walgreen’s and Taco Bell. Mothers of Asian daughters about the same age as the young women in the ads notice things like this, I suppose.
Maybe I should relax and not think so much about Las Vegas. Maybe I should stop trying so hard to make sense of all of this and just appreciate Las Vegas for what it is – a cheap vacation with a lot of sunshine and plenty of entertainment. A week or so of escapism for consenting adults and a great setting for movies about hangovers and bridesmaids. Maybe I should stop hatin’ on a place nobody forced me to visit twice. Maybe I need to loosen up, live a little. Not be such an old Fun Sucker. However, I’m haunted by the ironies and left trying to understand Las Vegas. All that it is, and all that it isn’t.
We came home to Minnesota on a typical March day. Driving north, we passed by Lake Mille Lacs and my son noticed that the ice houses were all off the lake. I noticed the vastness of that inland sea with the sun sparkling on top of it and thought about all the water underneath the ice. I thought about Lake Superior to the east and Leech Lake and Big Winnie, too. All of that water just there for the taking. We kept driving toward home and turned off 169 onto Sugar Lake Road. It was in the mid 30’s, and the branches of the huge pines along the road were still heavy with the seven inches of snow we received the previous weekend. Nothing I saw on the Las Vegas strip, no building or casino or fake city scape compared to the grandeur of those trees on that day along that road. Humans build cities, after all.
Home. God’s Country.
This, I understand. That other glittery place? Not so much.