It has been a month and a week since I closed my business, left my home and headed out into the world to see what’s what. Oddly enough, my path took me to Las Vegas – the last place I thought I would be in the midst of everything going on at the moment.
A friend invited me, and not having been there for almost ten years, it was sobering to say the least. On our last day there, while walking the strip, it occurred to me how this place was like a microcosm of our country.
I mean that on a few different levels.
On the surface, there are the notions of reinvention, survival and just learning to live life to the fullest or do whatever it takes to make a buck. There was the guy who looked exactly like Mr. T, offering photos with us ‘fools’ who were walking by. There were the two scantily clad women, dressed like cops, offering tourists a chance to pose next to their ‘glittery bosoms’. There was a Cookie Monster and an Oscar the Grouch, neither which looked like Cookie Monster or Oscar the Grouch, more like some strange, dirtier interpretation based on some far away memory. All vying for our attention, all hoping we will part with our money, as they were just trying to survive one more day.
Then, there was Charles, the guide who took us up the Eiffel Tower. A nice man, who when we asked how long he had been working there, told us 7 years. Then he added, “I was only planning on staying six months,” then he lowered his head and looked at his shoes, “but you know how things just sort of happen, and then all of a sudden, it’s been 7 years.” Then he added in a lower voice, “Life’s funny like that.”
Life is funny like that.
But the part that struck me the most is that Vegas, in so many ways, is a larger context of that whole American Dream-thing that so many of us seem to still believe in. We work our jobs in hopes that we will be promoted, recognized or maybe even just paid fairly. We play the lottery or go to casinos with just the slightest wish that we could be that person, the one that just happens to do the right thing at the right time, and all the little problems in our life, our day-to-day struggle to just survive, will be a thing of the past. We keep pushing on, sometimes content and sometimes wishing we could actually live the life we think we were destined for.
That is what Las Vegas is. It allows a man from the Midwest, or a woman from Alaska, to visit the Pyramids of Egypt, downtown New York, the fountains of Rome, the waterways of Venice and to see people who are almost the exact replica of Michael Jackson, The Bee Gees or a million other performers that are either dead, retired or way beyond our price range in real life.
Las Vegas allows us to feel like we are living the American Dream, and sadly, it’s all packaged in plastic facades, smoke-filled casinos, prostitution-gone-rampant and with the ritualistic baptism of alcoholic immersion as one of the few cities in America that allows one to open-carry in the street, inspiring the container of alcohol that is – no joke – three feet long.
It’s thousands of people paying hundreds of dollars to pretend their lives are better than they really are. It’s expensive watches worn with Bart Simpson T-shirts, Michael Jordan shoes worn with socks that have holes in the heel and it’s the notion that if one pays $35, they can eat at a buffet all day, somehow making us feel like we’ve ‘made it’ in this world.
I listened to a woman on NPR who talked about growing up in the desert outside of Las Vegas. She mentioned that her dad was in construction, he had a hand in building many of the casinos on the strip, and she shared something very interesting. She said that he told her that those casinos were built with a very specific notion in mind that they would someday be taken down. They build them knowing that the most amazing (fake) piece of architecture will one day be a ‘has-been’ a few years down the road. They build the way Americans live these days, with the notion that nothing lasts forever and it’s not always about better, sometimes, it’s just about bigger.
But then, there’s another side to Las Vegas. There’s the way the Excalibur is lit up at night, a castle in a country that doesn’t have castles. There’s the water show at the Bellagio, a beautiful spectacle to witness. There’s the evening sunset in Caesar’s Palace, above their version of the Trevi Fountain, where if you sit quietly long enough, you can actually feel like you are in Rome.
And amidst all the disgusting things Vegas has shown that humans are capable of, our waste of electricity and water in the middle of a desert and building a city that is not transportation friendly whatsoever, there is something else. It’s the same thing we saw in New Orleans after Katrina, in New York after 9/11 and what we see in Hollywood most days of the year. There’s hope that things will get better, be it with a tourist dollar or a casino jackpot. There’s dreams run amok in grand facades, 50 foot lions and a fake Statue of Liberty, and if you look hard enough, there’s beauty in the chaos.
Sometimes you might have to squint to see it, but it’s there.
And as we were leaving the Eiffel Tower, Charles, our guide, informed us that they were building the Great Wall of China in 2014 and he would “…see you guys then!” We laughed at the thought of coming back anytime soon, but then again, I keep writing my books and once in a while I play the lottery in hopes of being able to someday live the life I feel I was destined for…so who are we kidding, odds are, he may be right.
Vince is the author of Einstein’s Shutter, among other works.