Spring 1999, Volume 16.3
Curious Abrupt Questionings: The Lure of Glitz and Glam
Philip Heldrich teaches at Emporia State University in Kansas. His recent work has appeared in North American Review, South Dakota Review, Chariton Review, and Southwestern American Literature. He also serves on the editorial boards of Flint Hills Review and Bluestem Press.
The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join'd scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part
of the scheme…What is it then between us?
—Walt Whitman "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"
We wait together, including our pilot with the stars & stripes tie, for the next plane out of DFW's Gate 57 to Las Vegas. We're a big family with a common goal. The check-in line winds down the terminal, as if for a ride on a roller coaster at Six Flags. Though nothing seems to be happening too swiftly, my fellow travelers on this holiday weekend in July seem more relaxed than during the hectic Christmas season. They even look relaxed, women in sundress with spaghetti thin straps, husbands in Dockers leisurewear, children in t-shirts advertising Disney movies. For this brief moment before our trip begins, we share The Dream—lights, neon, whistles, cheap prime rib, sirens of all shapes. We can't wait for our fist pull of the one-arm bandit, our first throw of the big red dice, a double-down on tens. There's no place on the planet that compares; it's perhaps the most notable stretch of desert besides the Egyptian pyramids—and there's even a pyramid there now—we're off to Fantasy Island, or what my father used to call on his yearly pilgrimage, Disney Land for Adults, but now families come with children. It's been called other things over time—Sin City, Paradise Valley, City of Broken Dreams, and my personal favorite, Lost Wages.
Such trips—and I also mean trips in the way Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson used to mean—need to begin somewhere, some place. On a trip to Vegas, there's no place like the airport, the moments before anticipation becomes satiated. While Vegas certainly caters to the latter, it remains alive most fervently in the former, because as Michael Ventura has so elegantly written, it's a city of controlled anything. I'm willing to bet most folks waiting in line are return trippers like me, people who don't get enough satisfaction on a three night stay so they keep going back for more, some even retire there, literally whittling away their health and retirement savings in front of the hypnotizing slots. We returners are the survivors—some lucky, some not—we already know about the perpetual $1.99 steak and egg breakfast, which used to be a buck. We know about the complete prime rib dinner for $5.99, the white tigers and volcano at the Mirage, Siegfried and Roy, the pirate show at Treasure Island, even the circus acts that now seem dated by Vegas standards. Before all this, Frank, Sammy, Liza, Red Fox, Wayne Newton, even Elvis, each caught the fever. Nothing lasts long in Vegas, where the sun bleaches everything. To think that Nevada had once been a humid land of dotted lakes seems almost impossible on a dry, windy summer day in the low hundreds. A better name for a town that continues to re-invent itself might have been Phoenix, but that was already taken.
Controlling anxiety is key to any Vegas trip.
Our plane is already an hour late, not unusual by DFW standards. In fact, I've never taken a plane in or out of Dallas that was ever on time. For tardiness, DFW beats LAX, ORD, and Kennedy combined, though Atlanta might be pushing it. DFW could well be the slowest, most delayed, inefficient airport on earth, perhaps even in the entire universe. The acronym might just as well stand for "Do Finish Waiting." I've waited so many minutes in the crowded terminals of DFW that I've come to feel sentimental about it. Perhaps, I've even speculated, the airport merchants have a hand in such delays, an implicit agreement with the major airlines—you delay, we'll reel them in. But who actually buys stuff in airports? I've never purchased anything other than a few Rolaids, food, or a newspaper, never a suitcase, a briefcase, a t-shirt, or a bottle of Channel No. 5 at twice the already inflated price, though I have sat by a few women who might have benefited from a few squirts. Who in their right mind would pay such exorbitant prices? Of all shops, restaurants, and services, I'm willing to bet McDonalds rakes in the most cash, perhaps nearly as much as the hotels in Vegas, spitting out Big Macs that way slots do quarters. Taco Bell runs a close second. I have to admit in my years of flying out of DFW, the food has improved, though at the expense of some of the best local refried beans I ever tasted, served by an old woman possibly named Consuela, if my memory is correct. Where did she go after being pushed out by big corporations, by Gatti Pizza's mob tactics?
Call me Whitman of the air terminal. Tonight, I've decided to weather the delay by watching the people, something I love to do in crowded places like shopping malls. The whole world can pass you by in a terminal as big as DFW, just like it can in a city like Las Vegas. If Vegas is the city of the American dream, then all these folks at the airport will eventually get there. But first they might consider what to wear. I am reminded of an article I read a number of years ago, where a writer complained about the lack of an airline dress code, how in recent times he noticed a decline in passenger attire. He bemoaned the relaxed dress of Yuppies in khakis and polos, and lambasted those in blue jeans, t-shirts, or, god forbid, shorts too short or too tight for public display. However, tonight he might be surprised at the smattering of men and women dressed for an evening on the town. Such slovenly dress in airports appears to have improved. Gold jewelry flashes from men's and women's wrists. There are diamonds five times the size I could ever have afforded to give my wife. It seems attire changes with the economy. People are making money these days. In places like Dallas, unemployment is so low it's hard to keep a business properly staffed. But in good or bad times, Vegas is still the city of dreams. When you're poor, there is the burning desire to hit it big, and when you have money, which has yet to happen to me, there seems to be the strong need to double, even triple it. Of all the people around me, one of my favorites, besides the cowboy in the big black Stetson—a mainstay at DFW—is a women wearing her Easter bonnet. She's a rotund middle-aged gal in sandals with toenails painted gold. Such a bonnet, I know, will never withstand the strong, dry winds of a Vegas summer. In fact, her toenails look so nicely hideous, I can't imagine how much she must have paid for somebody to hold her thick feet and paint them. Yet I feel a bond with her, with the cowboy too, even with the young and the old. We are a team with a common goal, and if they hit it big before me, I'll be sure to cheer them on.
The best dressers are by far the pilots. One of ours, the guy with the stars & stripes tie, is a tall, blonde fellow with a muscular build, who looks more fit for Venice Beach than to man the helm of an airboat to Las Vegas. His companions, however, look more professional, making me feel the confidence I need when boarding a metal can that flies nearly five miles above ground. Their blue slacks are freshly pressed, their shirts crisp. Even the epaulets, a word I don't get to use often, are perfectly straight. Our lady pilot is dressed well, too, in a knee-length blue skirt and pressed blouse that looks pillowy soft. Such women pilots look sexier than their stewardesses—flight attendants these days—in their permanent press slacks and nylon scarves. I remember a time years ago when sexy stewardess seemed almost a cliché. I could get on a plane in Miami and fall in love before I landed in Chicago. Perhaps I was younger then and blood flowed more strongly in my loins, but changes in the industry, the country for that matter, have made sexy almost a crime, a crime like the pilot in the stars & stripes tie. I should forgive him because it's the Fourth of July weekend, but if Malibu Ken were a pilot, he would have been the model. If we were going to Los Angeles, I'd almost expect someone like him, but we're going to Vegas and pilots need to look more serious than the passengers.
Just less than 24 hours ago, I signedoff on my grade-sheet from my summer seminar on American literature from Walt Whitman to Raymond Carver. For four steamy Oklahoma weeks, I sat with six young women for two and a half hours a day reading the hallmarks of our literary tradition. I feigned the professor they seemed to desire, except for the tweed jacket because of the temperature and humidity in the high nineties. I think of them tonight, because they might have been the least wise to my altar ego, the Vegas gambler. To them, I must have appeared the straightest male in the entire Bible Belt, except for an inconspicuous gold loop in my left ear, wound from a frustrated teenhood I carry as some do scars. I spoke eloquently in class, restrained from the use of profanity, and made sure to treat every text and student with the respect each deserved. Tonight, however, more than any day in class, I feel the spirit of Walt Whitman in my pressing need to feel as one with the people on my flight, including that woman with gold toenails and Easter bonnet. My need to reach out and walk with them is almost overwhelming at times. We share the need to beat the dealer, to hear the ching-ching of money in the pan. We're no different than the 49ers who went West before us, only we can arrive faster than by covered wagon. The dream of seeing the elephant still lives, burning in each of us tonight, like it did for Frank Norris's McTeague in Death Valley. Whitman, too, would have loved Lost Wages, would have marveled at the lights, the glitz, the sequins, the music of Liberace or the drag revue. In Vegas, there is something for everybody and all desire shall be quenched—I am mad to be in contact with it.
Like Huck Finn, we're lighting out from the civilization to the untamed land of Sin City. Vegas appears like opportunity to me, time to forget the grind of grading hundreds of papers and quizzes, the snotty suburban kid with a pierced nose and red sneakers who thinks I'm there to coddle him, the young bimbette who would rather smoke dope than attend my lectures. Such are the fancies of university life from which I make my yearly summer escape. Little do such students know that even with my eight years of post-baccalaureate education, twice that of your average lawyer, that I'm perpetually under-paid, under-appreciated, and over-worked in an over-crowded classroom. Although I open minds, provide opportunity and the tools to successful life in business and the community, my work goes on silently without proper respect or monetary compensation. For those who say that education costs too much these days, think again. I'm here to say it doesn't cost enough. Salaries are too low compared to others with similar educational backgrounds, facilities are deteriorating faster than our crumbling highways. Education is a privilege treated like common admission to the Saturday matinee. Such a weakening of the system can only result in students receiving poor educations. The gap being created will eventually surface as a chasm. Vegas is my way to forget all that for a few days, my Disneyland, my oasis.
It seems I'm not alone in seeking temporary salvation from the rigors of our postmodern lives. Each year, while Vegas constructs more and more hotel rooms, the prices continue to climb. It seems like market economics in reverse. In our capitalist country, something might appear drastically wrong. The only answer might be that demand continues to increase, even as casino betting has proliferated in the country. Why Vegas? Why do they keep coming to this city where bell boys used to light my cigarette—when I used to smoke—and hand me a drink—I still drink—when I stepped through the casino doors? The quality of service has certainly suffered in recent years, though the crowds get bigger every summer. I should more fully lament such crowding, but in terms of the big party, it only makes it more exciting.
I still vividly remember my first trip to Vegas. I was a wee eighteen-year-old with a pencil mustache, posing as a big time gambler. In those days, it seemed they let anyone through the casino doors, as long as one was ready to play. I couldn't have weighed more than 135 pounds, and looked young enough to pose for child porn magazines. But that didn't matter. The casinos treated me with the adult respect given, in those years, to every able bodied gambler. I wasn't alone. Traveling with me from Chicago in a Jeep CJ were three other buddies of mine, some younger, perhaps one older. We had already been gone a week, freewheeling our way across the country with no particular destination. It seemed we had stopped in every bar and liquor store west of the Mississippi, not to mention we smoked enough dope to insure the stability of the Mexican economy. In my duffle, I brought along a copy of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing and another buddy was reading Kerouac's On the Road. We didn't really need the books because in many ways we were writing our own story. While tales of our road trip are certainly worthy of more detail, the point of bringing up such an illicit past is to comment on my virgin experience of Las Vegas.
We had been driving all day from the highs of the Colorado Rockies. Utah seemed like it might never end, and there certainly weren't enough liquor stores along the way. Most of the day, we seemed to be the only ones on the highway, the entire western desert to ourselves. While the scenery, the red rocks and canyonlands, captured our attention, we were struck, being from the wetter and greener land of Illinois, by the desiccation and desert heat. The more we drove, the more it seemed as if the desert might never end. We followed the setting sun, as we crossed from Utah for a short drive through Arizona toward the Nevada border. I remember the night falling upon us, the way our entire world seemed to darken except for our headlights. I might never have been in a darker place than that desert at night. We continued driving, planning to spend the night in Vegas and move on to Los Angeles in the morning. We drove and we drove, the miles of that day seeming longer with each passing hour until, out of the middle of nowhere, it appeared. The desert seemed to blossom with light—yellows, blues, pinks. The closer we came, the brighter the lights grew. From the darkness of the surrounding desert, Vegas appeared to us as the promised land. None of us had ever been to Vegas before and as we descended into the valley, we seemed drawn to the lights as only moths can be. I can't forget driving down the strip, the way the lights glittered and the neon beamed. We seemed to have entered a magical world. Billboards advertised for that $.99 steak and egg breakfast. There were signs for the $4.99 prime rib special, $1.00 Heinekens, and all-nude revues. It was everything teenage boys traveling all day through a desert could ever want. And when the bellhop at Stardust offered me cigarettes, I knew for sure I had found a place I would be returning to for the rest of my life.
I could go on, tell of the other truly amazing things a boy from Illinois discovered in the desert—how I washed my laundry in the tub of the cheap digs of the now demolished Jamaica Inn; how my pants that day in the hundred and fifteen degree heat took only five minutes to dry after hanging them off the balcony railing; how my buddy found four-hundred dollars in traveler's checks stashed under his motel mattress, then forged the signatures before losing it all playing poker with the professional sharks; how playing only one quarter in the slots I hit the jackpot, but since I didn't play the maximum number of quarters, I didn't receive the $10,000 in cash; how it happened to me three more times until I lost all the money I brought with me trying to hit it yet another time. The stories from that trip are endless, the women we met have grown more beautiful with time.
Nowadays, it's hard to imagine scientists once performed atomic tests only miles away from The Strip where I lost it all. To view the blasts, casinos offered picnic trips, like they do now to see Hoover Dam. A tourist could even take home bits of rock blown away by the forces of an invisible god. The city continues to offer amazing sites today. In many restrooms of the best hotels, there are still bathroom attendants to offer a towel, shine shoes, or wipe away your drips. It's a dying tradition throughout the rest of the country, a last vestige of an era when service meant something important to hotel guests. It seems today that with more and more uncouth travelers taking to the road service is in dire jeopardy. Such tourists don't seem to appreciate having a fellow around to watch you pee. These inexperienced travelers are people who wait for hours to eat at buffets or cook on hotplates in their room, sometimes even making grilled cheese with housekeeping's irons—I'm not making this up. Our TV culture has come to create this hoi polloi, people ignorant to high quality and good taste. These are folks who saw Titanic and liked it, then went back two or three times. Such people, thank your stars, you wouldn't find on a typical cruise, since it costs too much. High prices do have some benefits.
While many things are changing in Sin City these days, Vegas still has pretty girls. In the politically correct environment of the campus where I teach, such a statement might be considered harassment by some, but to the discerning traveler in Las Vegas, it is plainly the truth. I'm under the fantasy that just as with places such as Hollyweird and New York, Vegas also attracts pretty girls who seek work; perhaps these young women hope some day to be a star. I'm sure most of them come from small towns in Kansas. I can picture these girls at the bus stop, suitcase in hand, a few dollars in their pockets, not knowing which way to the Strip. Some with ample bosoms and coordination can find work in one of the rigorous dance shows. Others end up a few blocks over at the nudie bars. Those with no talent hustle drinks or take up the oldest of professions. These are women with fresh faces, who seem not to have been long in town, though there are others with faces so weathered, you have to go on faith that they once were lovely. Such hags, for lack of a more fitting term, are wise old birds with rough voices from countless cigarettes and whiskey sours. They work the buffet or make change. Some have even made their way into positions of power, coordinating the fresh faces, making sure they fill an entire tray with drinks before returning to the craps table.
I have no doubt these women, young and old, stay with their jobs because the tips are good, especially at tables kissed by luck. These flowers of the desert night become tip junkies, going home at the end of their shifts with wads of cash and dreams of the next day's fistful of dollars. Making money hustling vodka tonics to the rude and crude, to slimy corporate execs and ass-ogling teachers on the lamb, becomes an addiction, a cycle too difficult to break when the next best job is selling tacos or burgers at minimum wage. The math is simple, if not enslaving. Those gals who rise above the slosh, waggling their way night after night from table to table, are the truly gifted. I want to embrace these remarkable women, broads in fishnet stockings and stiletto heels, girls with more smile than a toothpaste model, women with gifted anatomy of inspiring proportions, the envy of teenagers across America. They are as much a part of the dream and fantasy of Vegas as Snow White and Cinderella are to Disneyland, and better tipped. I wish to thank them collectively for the satisfying sneak peaks, for their countless hours spent at indoor health clubs on ass-trimming treadmills. For what these women go through—pinches from dirty old men, cosmetics bills as costly as my monthly groceries, aching tits from tight bras, sore feet from hours of moving about slot zombies—they deserve every last cent of their hard-earned nightly cash.
I have been to Sin City so often over the years I've lost count. I've forgotten how much I've lost, yet can remember the exact dollar amounts of the few times I came home a winner. Such subsequent trips proved just as exciting and endearing. Throughout my college years at the University of California in San Diego, Vegas made for a cheap and convenient getaway. I would even go on occasion to spend time with one or both of my parents, a tradition I still continue on my yearly pilgrimages. While the city has its seamier side, it's also a great place to spend time with those you love. There are few places on the planet with good food, drink, and entertainment, along with a pool and warm sun for complete relaxation. On slow afternoons, there is even bingo to melt away the broiling daytime hours. The rooms I stay in at quality places like Bally's or MGM are some of the best for the price in the country. Take it from an expert because I have horror stories of the time my wife and I were given a basement room with soiled red shag at Aladdin's, how we slept on a bed with a padded headboard with our shoes on and didn't bother to stay for the buffet in the morning. Quality rooms like those in the better hotels are generally clean and quiet, the beds firm and comfortable. In fact, I've had some of my best sleep ever in a Vegas hotel room. On the whole, even the gambling district is relatively safe with cameras and security inside and on the street.
I don't think that I could ever live in a city like Vegas. The level of excitement would boil my nerves, the food expand my waistline, the sun bake my brain. However, the city never ceases to amaze me. Just when I think I understand its chemistry, it throws me for a loop, like when they destroyed the Sands hotel. I thought for sure it would be preserved as a legacy to the past, but the past is not a priority in Vegas. It's a city that looks toward the future. There are always new plans to build or renovate, plans to expand even when the strip looks like it can't grow a mile longer. I've even wondered if people will ever stop coming. I've come to the conclusion that for all the reasons I love Vegas, there will never be an end to its possibilities. As long as our nation endures, so will its crown jewel, the encapsulation of America's many paradoxes. It's a city where an honest, faithful, hard working husband can go to a convention and cut loose for a few days, a place his wife can dream big as the stars, even be treated like one.
Tonight, even though the plane is late again at DFW, even though Malibu Ken, our pilot, has a stars & stripes tie and there is a women with gold toenails sitting near me in an Easter bonnet, I, like Walt Whitman, want to embrace everyone. Together, we await the magic with a relaxed patience. We know that no matter when we arrive, the city will still be up. There will be steak and eggs at any hour. The cowboy with the ten gallon Stetson gives me a friendly nod. Some passengers are already imbibing, others like me reserving our energy for the real festivities. Instead of a ferry crossing a bay, we'll be flying over the U.S. in a Super 80. The Gold Rush never ended in America, nor has the need, instilled in us all from our infancy, to satiate ourselves on a grand scale as only steak-eating Americans like us can. Vegas is the shining symbol of our capitalist principles—competition, market demand, winners and losers, greed, and the ever-present need to consume, consume, consume. Even corporate America has become involved, taking over hotels and creating spectacle in a way that seems truly Disneyesque. Boarding the plane, I salute my pilot's tie. He wishes me well. As the bird takes off into the darkness, I wait for the magnificence of those beckoning desert lights, as if somehow it's that very first time again.