By the time I hit Sahara Ave, all of the phosphorescent glitz and glam of the Vegas Strip had petered out behind me. The streets that were teeming with fanny packs and booze-besotted flesh just a quarter mile earlier were suddenly all but vacant . All that stood between me and an empty asphalt desert were a few convenience stores and the silhouette of The Stratosphere Hotel, which jutted up into the air to my left like a chubby imitation Space Needle. After that, there was nothing but the pale glow of street lamps, illuminating the destitute and the downtrodden that pepper the streets of Las Vegas with alarming frequency. In one hand, I held a half-smoked cigarette; in the other, a 32 ounce Orange Slurpee. At half past midnight, that Slurpee represented the only nourishment I've had all day with the exception of a fig bar in the morning and about a half dozen energy drinks in the afternoon and evening. I had been too busy losing money to take time to eat. In fact, I'd lost so much money that my bank account wouldn't let me withdraw any more from an ATM, reducing me to the desperate practice of hitting up every 7-11on the 3 mile walk from the Circus-Circus back to my room at the Golden Nugget so that I could withdraw the maximum $10 cash back at each stop.
I reached into my pocket to grab another smoke and realized that my pack of Pall Mall Menthols, which had been full 12 hours earlier was all but empty now; a casualty of being purchased in one of the eight remaining places in America where most establishments still allow you to light up indoors. If there was any saving grace for my lungs and livelihood, it was that I didn't smoke the whole pack myself. As a matter of fact, I'd wager a guess that I had given away at least a quarter of my pack to other folks, most them homeless or otherwise indigent people I met on my way up and down the Strip. I had seen similar concentrations of poverty and despair in major US cities before, but none of them seemed as brutal as Las Vegas did. It wasn't so much the quantity of homeless folks, even though Las Vegas did have the 4th highest rate of homelessness in the country in 2012, as it was the conditions they were forced to endure. When someone spends all of their days outside, baking in 105 degree heat and 15% humidity, their face begins to take on the qualities of rawhide leather. They age in dog years. Their skin crackles under the relentlessly beating sun and a never ending torrent of sand and grit gets lodged in their hair and their pores.
When I lived in Baltimore, I established a loose set of rules regarding when I would give money or smokes to those who asked. According to my system, the first person of the day to ask me for change would get whatever I had in my coin pocket or, if I had no change, a dollar. After that the only people who I would give money to were those who had a compelling, well thought out pitch and those who had children with them. With regards to cigarettes, I'd give one out to anyone who asked, provided I didn't only have 2 or 3 left in my pack. In Las Vegas, all of these “rules” went out the window because the poverty there was so jarring, especially in comparison to the opulence that abounded all around them. Ignoring the pittance of tobacco I had left in my pocket, I pulled out one of my 2 remaining cigarettes and crouched over it to protect the flame as I was lighting it.
As I lit the cigarette, I heard this disembodied voice coming from a vacant lot to my right. I walked towards the lot and, as my eyes got acclimated to the darkness that lay out of reach of the street lamps, I saw a slender old man coming towards me from behind what looked to be a small fort made of splintered scraps of wood and assorted car parts. As he came closer to me, I saw that he was dressed in what looked like a black bubble vest, along with a pair of windpants and a shirt sleeve that he wore on his head as a makeshift doo-rag. He asked me if he could have a cigarette and I obliged. The man was so frail and so hard to see in the light that he seemed more like an apparition than a person. After he had taken the smoke and used my lighter to light it, he thanked me and walked back into the darkness and into his makeshift homestead. All I could see of him was the bright orange cherry of his cigarette, floating away from me.
When I got to the 7-11 at the corner of South Las Vegas and Oakey Boulevards, I found a slight, congenial young man sitting on top of one of the domed metal trashcans that flanked the double doors at the store's front entrance. Before I could make my way through the doors, the man eased his way off the trashcan and asked me if I can spare any change. I told him that I didn't have anything on me, but that I as going in to get some cigarettes and that I'd grab him something to drink if he wanted. He asked for an Arizona Kiwi Strawberry and I told him it wouldn't be a problem, only to find out when I went to buy the drink that this particular 7-11 was all out of Arizona Kiwi Strawberry. I decided to get him an Arizona Fruit Punch instead, mainly because it had a strawberry as part of the little fruit medley on the outside of the can and because none of those Arizona drinks actually have any real fruit juice in them in the first place.
After I had bought my cigarettes and given the guy his juice I noticed a group of about 25 teenagers walking down South Las Vegas Blvd, heading towards us and away from the strip. At first I had a tough time making out any of their conversations, but as they came closer it became apparent that my lack of comprehension was due to the fact that they were all speaking French. There were a pair of slightly older chaperones at the head of the group, both of whom seemed perplexed as to how they had led their charges into such a desolate place. As I walked towards them, the young male chaperone was gesticulating emphatically at the fold out map his female counterpart was clutching in her hands, giving off the unmistakable body language of someone who has no idea where the hell they are. Adhering to the immutable laws of stand-up comedy gender roles, the young woman was the one to come over to me and ask, in slightly broken English, if I knew how to get to Fremont Street. Serendipitously enough, my hotel was located on Fremont Street and just so happened to be where I was headed at that moment, so I told her they could just follow me for a mile or two and they'd get there.
It turns out the two of them were leading some sort of summer cultural enrichment tour for a group a of high schoolers from the city of Nîmes in the southeast of France. What they were expecting to find in Las Vegas that was “culturally enriching” is beyond me, but I had a hard time concealing my embarrassment at the fact that their American experience was coming in the glittering asshole of my country. The male chaperone let me know how he was excited to see the Fremont Arts District and I didn't have the heart to tell him that what passed for “art” on Fremont Street at this time of night was a Guns 'N Roses cover band and an air brushed t-shirt with your face on it. This isn't like Fin-de-Siècle Paris, where the grimy, prostitution rife streets of Montmarte attracted the likes of Van Gogh and Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec and gave birth to one of the most transformative artistic movements of the past 150 years. Las Vegas is nothing more than a retirement home for past-their-prime entertainers and high-budget magicians(1). There is no culture in Las Vegas because Las Vegas is where culture goes when it retires.
In many ways it seems like Las Vegas was formed by taking all of the worst parts of 3rd century Rome, plucking them up from their moorings amongst all the worthwhile pursuits of western civilization, and plopping them down in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I realize that sounds rather melodramatic, but just bear with me for a second. The Romans had their Bread & Circuses. Las Vegas has their Krispy Kremes & Strip Clubs. The Romans erected a gigantic colosseum in which to hold all manner of vicious, gladiatorial bloodsports for the entertainment of its rulers and its citizenry. Las Vegas has a plethora of colosseums that play host to the majority of America's lucrative boxing and mixed martial arts title fights. In Ancient Rome, it was a common practice for diners to induce vomiting during the course of a large meal so that they could continue gorging themselves. In Las Vegas, there is a long and storied tradition of buying entry to all-you-can-eat buffets and attempting to eat one's own weight in overdone steak and loaded baked potatoes.
I could go on ad infinitum with the comparisons, suffice it to say that there isn't a city in all the world that can claim themselves a more rightful heir to all the storied excesses of the Roman Empire than Las Vegas. It is not coincidence that Las Vegas was ground zero for the the 2008 housing crisis, nor is it chance and happenstance that have them leading the list of cities who are blowing up the housing bubble again in 2013. All of the sub-prime mortgage lenders and hedge fund managers are little more than the ideological progeny of the money changers who once lined the steps of Herod's Temple . They have flocked to Las Vegas like moths to a flame because it is a city built entirely on impulse and extravagance. It is the naked, throbbing id of America—the foregone conclusion of Manifest Destiny once there is nothing left to conquer. It is what capitalism looks like when it begins to eat itself alive.
By the time I got back to my hotel, the promise that I made to myself earlier in the evening to not gamble away any more of my ever-dwindling bank account had evaporated. Any willpower that I had left was effectively rendered useless among the fluorescent neon facades of Fremont Street and within minutes I had managed to convince myself that it was perfectly normal to lose $450 playing nickel multiplier slots in less than 2 hours and that I had a surefire plan for winning all of the money back. After carefully assessing my options, I decided to try my luck at The D Las Vegas, an ostensibly Detroit-themed casino whose main attraction was their fleet of pleasantly proportioned ladies who danced beside all of the tables in booty shorts and fringed bikini tops, while similarly clad women dealt you cards with the wan smiles of the perpetually hit on. Of course, I didn't enjoy any of the awkward eroticism of these women because I bee-lined straight for the slot arcade on the second floor that was filled with nothing but chain smoking grandmas and blue haired spinsters clutching their giant souvenir cup of quarters like it was the Holy Grail. I like slots because they give you the illusion of control without any of its attendant responsibilities, kind of like Calvinism.
I'm not entirely sure what happened next as I pretty much browned out for the next three or four hours, but I am pretty sure the following things did transpire:
1. I won back every red cent of the $450 I had lost earlier in the day, tacking on about $40 in profit for good measure.
2. I printed out a ticket for roughly $500 from the slot machine and swore to myself that I would UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES use that money to gamble with.
3. After blowing through the $60 or so that I had left in my wallet, I immediately broke the vow I had just made minutes before and began gambling with the $500 ticket.
4. I acknowledge to myself that there is the distinct possibility that I have a gambling addiction.
5. I lose the entirety of the $500 I had said I would never gamble with and promptly go to withdraw $100 from the ATM machine because it's a new calender day and the restrictions on my checking account withdrawals have lapsed.
6. I confirm beyond a reasonable doubt that I do indeed have a gambling problem.
7. After losing the $100 I just withdrew from the ATM, I decide to leave the casino, but only because I was now completely out of cigarettes.
Once I had taken the gambler's walk of shame past the phalanxes of warbling slot machines and semi- nude black jack dealers, I stepped outside to find that the Las Vegas had been turned into a hyper- patriotic laser light show. In lieu of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, Don McLean's American Pie was being blasted out from the panoply of speakers that were scattered about the street, all while the massive barrel vaulted canopy covering Fremont Street draped an LED-lit American flag above our heads. I'm pretty sure that giant neon images of bald eagles were involved as well, although I can't say for certain that I didn't hallucinate them as I hadn't eaten a proper meal in over 30 hours and was relying entirely on nicotine and Red Bull for sustenance. What I do know is that I despise the song American Pie with the fire of a thousand suns and that the only two ways I could think of to put me out of my chevy to the levy filled misery were heading up to my hotel room for the night or rupturing the tympanic membranes in both of my ears with a ballpoint pen. As luck would have it, I didn't have a pen on me and had to head back to my room at the Golden Nugget by default.
I managed to stay in my room for 2 hours. About half of that time was spent in a state that could loosely be described as sleep. The other half consisted primarily of me lying in the prone position in bed, chain smoking cigarettes and eating skittles. At about 6 in the morning, I woke up with an unshakable belief that I had a divined a surefire way to beat the slots and decided that it was imperative that I get back to the casino as soon as was humanly possible. My plan involved tricking the machine by breaking up the hundred dollar bills that I got out of the ATM into twenties and then inserting them one at a time into the machine. My early morning slot logic held that if I could make the machine think that I was always just about to walk away and stop giving it my money, that it would be more likely to give me jackpots in an effort to keep me from leaving. Of course, this entire reasoning is patently absurd because it assumes that slot machines are somehow intelligent enough to tell exactly when a customer is thinking about leaving and ignores the fact that all slot machines are very specifically programmed to give out a preset backpay percentage to ensure the casino always makes money.
The only way you can make a profit playing slots is through a combination of luck and restraint. Over the long haul, the slot machine is always going to hand you back 90 cents on the dollar, but in the short term you might have a stroke of luck and win a big chunk of cash. After that, all you have to do is walk away and stop playing. My problem is I can't stop playing. Just like I couldn't be satisfied after having 2 or 3 beers at the bar, I won't be able to enjoy myself if I play a slot machine for 15 minutes and walk away with $50 profit. I want more and I always think I can get more. When I was at those slot machines in Vegas, it was as if I had just done a line of cocaine or popped a couple Adderall. As soon as I placed that money into the slot machine, it ceased being real. It wasn't the money that was important anymore. It was the winning that mattered. More specifically, it was the rush that came with winning that mattered. Every time I hit a big combo I'd just sit back in rapt ecstasy, listening to the rhythmic clinking and clanking of invisible dollars falling into my pocket and sucking so hard on my cigarette that I'd be down to the filter after 4 drags. Deep down somewhere I knew I would never be satisfied until I lost every last penny I had with me, because if there was something left, there was always the prospect of turning that something into something more.
By nine that morning I had blown through a further $200, leaving me a chip shot away from accruing four digits worth of losses in under 24 hours. At this point it had become exceedingly clear that I was incapable of spending any time alone in Las Vegas without losing alarming sums of money, so I decided to get out of town before my checking account caught fire. Leaving then would mean giving up one of the two nights I had paid for at the Golden Nugget, but the room only cost about $40 a night and I probably would've ended up losing 20 times that had stayed I another day. It was time to go. Not tomorrow, not this afternoon, not in a little bit; it was time to go now.
(1) Submitted for your approval are the headline acts in Las Vegas the night I was there: David Copperfield, Penn & Teller, Blue Man Group, Carrot Top and 4 different Cirque Du Soleil productions. I rest my case.