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Lost in Las Vegas
Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian
(excerpt published in “Whose Panties Are These?” by Traveler’s Tales)

IT'S THE OLD chicken-and-egg question: Are people fat because they come to Las Vegas, or do they come to Vegas because they're fat? The other conundrum that plagues me in Sin City: Why am I here? More precisely, why am I -- who does not like to drink Bud or eat steak; watch TV or vaudeville; marry, divorce or pick up hookers; work on the perfect sunburn; or throw money into a hole, never to be retrieved -- here?

To answer the first engima, I approached the Vegas altar: the Buffet. Eschewing the 99-cent shrimp cocktail, I "splurged" an unlucky $13 on the stylish luncheon at the new Bellagio hotel. Its supermarket of dishes could easily give an eater an anxiety attack and put her in a diabetic coma. Bowls of mixed chocolates and baskets of focaccia, cow and pig killed and cured two dozen ways, seven varieties of seafood salad, five kinds of pickle and everything else edible, short of a partridge in a pear tree.

It was clear that people were fat here because they ate too much chicken *and* eggs. The second engima didn't surrender an answer so easily, so I set out on the town to discover why Vegas had lured me here.

The tourist's Vegas boils down to the Strip, four miles of casinos and their bewildering mazes of hotel towers, restaurants, theaters, shops, rides and chapels. At north end is the "Fremont Street Experience". This is casino skid row, the white-trash roots of modern Vegas. These joints use gimmicks like free popcorn and champagne cocktails (i.e., wine coolers) to get cheapskates to part with a few nickels.

From Rome to Rio, ancient Egypt to medieval England, every Strip hotel has a theme that recurs like a nightmare. The rooms at the Luxor (itself a glass pyramid) feature obelisk-shaped shampoo bottles and papyrus-column wardrobes. Treasure Island stages a live pirate battle in its Buccaneer Bay. Excalibur's moving walkway says, "Keep to the right in case a knight comes by to rescue a damsel in distress!" Paris!, the newest city on the block, has a rather large Eiffel Tower out front. You get it.

The constant in the Vegas equation? The soothing hum of slot machines being played en masse. From the second you step off the plane, it summons you leave time and join the trance. The lights are dim; there are no windows. Slot players are tao masters of ash. They smoke without the cigarette ever leaving their mouth. (What's not often heard is the payoff, a lovely tambourine of quarters tapping tray. )

Back in daylight, the Strip offers the best free show in town. Its soundtrack is eighties music cranked from casinos. Its sidewalks are a grotesque spectacle of rouge and hair dye, varicose and celluose. Tons of pasty flesh, splotched desert red and clad in neon, clump up at the Strip's eternal stoplights. Gals and guys, often Latino immigrants desperate for work, accost them with flyers for stripper studs and girls girls girls.

Wide roads, long lights, big people -- everything on the Strip is exponentially larger than in the normal world. At last count, the town boasted nine out of the world's ten largest hotels; its total number of rooms recently topped 100,000.

Some 50,000 people move to Vegas a year. Still, ask locals what's so great about the place and they'll answer the weather. That's like saying a blind date has a nice personality. An ex-co-worker living here gave me a tour of strip malls and subdivisions. "There is no street for window shopping," she said darkly. She left me her bicycle to explore Vegas further, if I didn't believe her.

We visited another friend's 'hood, a quiet version of Hell involving communism and Martha Stuart. She showed off her lawn, explaining the laborious process of creating green squares in a wasteland. The driest spot on the continent, Las Vegas uses more water than any other place in America -- some 300 gallons per person per day!

During my visit, Park Place announced plans to acquire Caesar's World for $3 billion in cash. AA and the FBI recently held conferences here. The area's first white settlers were Mormons.

But no one else laughed. This is the Vegas terror: no sense of the irony in this Grimm fairy tale, set in the desert; no sense of anything but what's designed to charm the eye. People buy "Rehab is for Quitters" t-shirts and ashtrays for Pat's Butts -- and mean it.

Vegas is such an easy target that I got tired of picking on it. Why was I here? Maybe to see that Sin City could bring out my worst vices, too -- judgmentalism and hypocracy. Maybe to strip away my cynicism long enough to see the beauty in the beast.

At sunset, just before the night neon takes over the sky, Vegas is gentle. Mirrored casinos catch gold clouds in their facades. Everyone holds hands and gazes at the moon, rising above the Eiffel Tower.

I peddle into the night, crickets chirping and warm wind on my face. Neon jewels -- the Flamingo's pink, feathered lotus, the Stardust's retro diamonds -- sparkle against black velvet sky. It's a new night, a fresh chance to win big. For a moment, I'm not smiling at them, I'm smiling with them.


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