I could not have written a more poetic arrival in Las Vegas than the one reality presented me with. I deplaned at LAS, which looks like any other major airport in America save for the enormous banks of slot machines evenly deposited about. Each row ends with a sign that reads “seats are for slot patrons only,” after spending three days in Vegas I’m certain that rule is ruthlessly enforced.
The slot machines at the airport, like in the rest of the city, do not portray the true Las Vegas. Nor are they the poetic arrival I mentioned. That occurred when I reached baggage claim. Here LAS set itself apart from other major airports I’ve visited. Baggage claim occupied a cavernous three story space that housed the numerous carousels. As I entered my eye was drawn to the twenty foot diagonal television screen mounted on the ceiling playing a loop of Las Vegas tourism propaganda. Accompanied by the happy poppy music that pervaded the epic baggage claim arena, the TV spit images of young sexy men and women lounging around a pool in skimpy swimwear, dining in fashionable evening wear, and enjoying opulent hotel rooms. As I panned my vision back to ground level, leaving the dream of Vegas, I observed the truth of Vegas. Middle aged men and women in baggy shorts and beer bellies groped for cheap luggage, wrangling children that were either screaming or eating boogers. Rather than being well-heeled fashionistas, I was surrounded by average people drawn by the dream image of Vegas.
Walking The Strip was a similar experience. The hallmark of The Strip is that everything is accentuated, and this feeling received such a treatment. The sky was aglow with the lights, glitz, and glamour of Vegas. Even during the desert daylight the digital billboards were bright to the point of painful. Back down to earth, The Strip is four miles of grime, sex, solicitation, and stink. The nonstop solicitation in particular aggravated me. Solicitation for your money directly, but sometimes solicitation for your money by way of first soliciting your time. Everyone in Vegas, it seems, has a timeshare. Everyone, it seems, desperately needs to sell their timeshare.
“If you come to a short presentation I’ll give you free lunch and two tickets to such-and-such famous show.”
“It will just take a minute and I’ll give you twenty dollars cash!”
“Where are you staying?” is the pervasive question in Vegas. When asked by a waiter or retail employee it is a polite inquiry. When asked by a random individual on the street it is a question with no correct answer, because by virtue of the question being asked you can not respond with “In your timeshare,” which would be the only acceptable answer. Walking The Strip inevitably forces everyone to either be rude or lose hours each day to dodgy conversation and timeshare presentations.
Though the legendary Strip falls far short of the beauty portrayed in tourism promotions and Hollywood, the numerous shows of Vegas exceed all reasonable expectations. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Vegas tourist is that shows only happen at night, meaning that even the best scheduling master who is willing to run from hotel to hotel can at best see three shows in one night. For mere mortals it is a one show per night affair.
Whether acquiring tickets through a timeshare presentation for purchasing them like a rational human being, undoubtedly the best performances on earth are presented nightly in Las Vegas. To my mind the redeeming part of Vegas is the shows, and I encourage any visitor to see a show every night they are there. When purchasing tickets it is never necessary to pay full advertised price, and never buy tickets before arriving in Vegas – with the exception of purchasing tickets for a limited time show, such as when an international superstar has a two week nightly engagement. Major hotels on The Strip have concierge desks that can sell tickets for that night or the next at large discounts. We purchased ours at Caesars Palace despite the fact that we weren’t staying at Caesars Palace. There are no gimmicks when purchasing tickets at the concierge desk, it is simply a concerted effort by all of Vegas to sell out every show every night and make a minimum acceptable profit on each seat. As such, ticket prices in Vegas fluctuate wildly even within the same show on the same night, so pay only what you are personally willing to pay and accept it. For instance, my wife and I saw Blue Man Group (which I can not recommend highly enough – it was an absolutely magical performance), which on their official website states that Las Vegas tickets range from $86 to $150 for VIP seats. We were in the back row of the theater in the Luxor so were firmly in the $86 seat range. Purchasing tickets from the concierge we were able to see a show the next night for $53 a seat. (An aside about purchasing seats. The seating floor chart that comes up is intentionally deceptive in making you think that a back row seat is in the nosebleeds. In particular the theater in Luxor is very intimate and I’m pleased that I didn’t pay a penny more for a row closer because even the back row had an outstanding view.) A good concierge can also recommend shows based on what you’re interested in, which is how we ended up seeing “V – The Ultimate Variety Show,” which was an insane performance in the best possible sense.
Having talked about The Strip in general and Vegas shows in detail, I now come to the most important part of my commentary on Las Vegas. Over the last few decades, the Las Vegas tourism industry has attempted to rebrand it as a family friendly destination. They have demonstrably succeeded based on the number of young children I encountered while in Vegas. This idea, however, is absolute bullshit. Las Vegas is unquestionably the least child appropriate city in the United States.
Walking The Strip at eleven in the morning isn’t early enough to avoid men handing out business cards featuring pictures of topless women that you can see at the listed location; cards which inevitably become adhered tits-up to the ground as people discard them. One frequent sight on my three days there was the obese elderly woman handing out event cards while wearing a bright read shirt that read “ORGASM LESSONS” on the front and back.
Children can be seen accompanying their parents in strollers through the smoke filled casinos at all hours of the day and night. Time doesn’t flow right in Vegas, which adults seem to be perfectly comfortable with but this fact wreaks havoc on children. Our first night in Vegas we ate at the Rainforest Cafe, a family restaurant chain where diners eat in an elaborately decorated animatronic jungle. It’s a fun gimmick, and I’m essentially a giant child so I love it. As you’d imagine, it’s a popular destination for families with children of all ages, so while we were there I saw at least a dozen children under the age of twelve. It was sometime while we were waiting for our dinner to come out that I realized it was ten thirty at night. Many of the children looked exhausted, and the youngest ones were crying having not yet eaten. Walking The Strip close to midnight we saw numerous children in strollers and wagons gawking at the high heeled police women – who inexplicably lost every part of their uniforms save their hats and handcuffs – soliciting passing men to take pictures with them.
On our last day we decided to have a somewhat swanky lunch at the cafe attached to the botanical garden in the Bellagio, and were seated next to a baby barking happy screams. This kind of thing has never bothered either my wife or myself, so we were fine with it. Truth be told, this was a super cute baby of about nine months and was very clearly enjoying hearing the sound of his own voice. The mother and father looked financially well off. Dad wore those shiny dress pants that have come in style the last few years, along with an immaculate dress shirt and shoes to match, designer sunglasses hooked into his shirt neck. Mom looked like she’d spent the Vogue-ideal time in a tanning booth, blond hair combed and styled perfectly into rows, designer dress and shoes. Dad was trying his best to keep his son quiet, even leaving the restaurant to try and walk it out of him. Mom looked exhausted; she’d clearly had enough. I don’t fault any of these people. I certainly don’t fault the baby for babying, and I’ve been there with my own son so I feel for these parents. As I watched them struggle it became obvious what was happening. Mom and Dad were frequent Vegas visitors, but this was the first time they came since baby showed up. They probably thought, “Of course we’ll take our annual trip to Vegas! We’ll just bring the baby along.” They either didn’t think it through or they believed the hype, having seen so many other babies in Vegas. Clearly, things were not going well for them. Having a kid changes things, and I hope they accept that fact quickly, for the sake of their mental health.
Las Vegas is a place of pluses and minuses. It is a place where citizens of the world come together to collectively buy into the Hollywood dream of a place while ignoring the fact that they are walking daily through a veritable river of shit. Vegas is an exhausting experience in every way. It physically drains you due to the extreme amount of walking necessary to see various sights, and it is psychologically exhausting just being around so much stimulus.
Everyone can find their own Las Vegas. For some it’s the gambling. For others it’s living the high life for a little while. For my wife and I it was the shows, the art galleries, and the related art books we came home with. In retrospect I realize that our Vegas is a remarkably nerdy Vegas. Perhaps that is the real truth of Las Vegas; it is a place that is whatever we want it to be.
But really, I think it’s just a place run on money, sex, and alcohol. So essentially it’s the only place where Americans are honest about who we are.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.