Strange Escapes

I went to Las Vegas over the weekend. I've lost count of how many times I've made that trip. For the millions in Los Angeles, Las Vegas is sort of like our collective vacation home. An extension of LA culture, like Big Bear or Catalina Island. A lot of tourists, from all corners, don't often envision Vegas as having its own identity or community or culture, we see it for its function: a playground for people to let loose until the 12 o'clock check out.

My earliest memory of Las Vegas was visiting as a kid, mostly Treasure Island, Excalibur and Circus Circus. My parents would give me quarters and dollars to play in the carnival games. I never really won anything, although it always seemed close. It's an early way to build up gambling hope, that maybe this time, this would be the day I knock down those milk bottles with a baseball. There was a time as a child where we kept and collected the tiny, plush prizes until we had a drawer overflowing with small bears.

Ultimately, you can only pop balloons with a dart so many times before it stops being fun, even if there's a possibility of a stuffed Sonic the Hedgehog. I may have gone back a couple more times as a family affair, maybe strolling through the midway with limited interest, but it's only until you become interested in drinking that you get to see another angle of Vegas. There are many angles to the place.

Las Vegas as a Blur: My memories of drinking along Vegas streets vary from wildly hilarious to completely embarrassing. I remember sitting on a stoop outside of a club, striking up conversation with what turned out to be a private eye gathering intel on a cheating spouse. I remember wandering alone, in the AMs, killing time and Crown Royal Cokes. I remember spending an exact 24 hours in the city, and using every waking hour at our disposal for one really action-packed day. I remember seeing LMFAO make a surprise appearance at a club and being excited for a minute, until I remembered who they were and that I hate them. I remember being in town for Pacquiao v. Hatton, and the sidewalks being swarmed by pissed off & disappointed Brits. I remember paying too much to enter clubs, buying hundreds of chicken nuggets, and sleeping in high rises.

Las Vegas as a Home: I'm working retail, and the manager every young person gets along with says he's relocating to Las Vegas. The cost of living, he says, is way more manageable over there, and as a result a lot of Californians are heading out into the desert permanently. The summers will be terrible, but he thinks he and his fiancee are up for it. It occurs to me that Las Vegas is also a place where people live, not just a sensory overload playground for Angelenos.

Las Vegas as an Illusion: I'm driving toward Las Vegas downtown, but I need to get gas now rather than later. So I head away from the main street, away from the casinos, and it's not even a block before the whole neighborhood turns for poverty. It looks comparable to Detroit. The homeless people are gathered en masse in the streets, living in colonies in huge vacant lots. Many buildings are abandoned. There is no gas station within miles.

Las Vegas as Catharsis: Most of my trips seem to coincide with some type of internal issue I'm grappling with, but perhaps that's because I always find something internal to grapple with, just to keep myself busy. Sometimes it's as simple as money. I've lost a cool $40 in 10 seconds playing War, because for some reason 50/50 odds seemed like a sure thing in my big dumb head. I've had amateur existential crises on balconies as the sun came up. Once, mere hours after breaking up, I went on a 3 day Vegas trip where I did nothing but drink until I was uneven and sloppy, and when I came back we patched things up.

Las Vegas as Uncool: I've always thought that Las Vegas was considered "cool," if a little much. It had exclusive clubs and high risk gambling and constnat decadence. I spent early 2011 interning at a hip, high fashion magazine and one of the editors was lamenting a trip he had to take to Vegas. Someone in the office -- it might have been me -- asked him why he didn't like it. I figured, what with its new luxury spots like Aria and Cosmopolitan, its Gucci and Tom Ford outlets, it would be considered one of the more sympathetic places to his tastes. His response: "It's gaudy and tacky, full of ... porky midwestern tourists ... taking pictures." The term "porky midwestern tourist" stuck with me -- a dismissive, typical coast elitist marginalization, definitely, but somehow accurate and even poetic maybe? The angle enters the prism of Las Vegas in my mind: a tourist trap, an ugly place, a commoner thing.

This is why it's hard to think of it as anything at all. If you're only there for special occasions, it lacks permanence or point, it's just a series of functions. It's like trying to describe the character of a toolbox or the personality of a parking spot.

I think there is a part of my mind that knows I probably should object to the place on moral grounds, if I had a strict moral code about that sort of thing. I used to get sick to my stomach at malls. But there's also parts of me that just enjoys it for what it is: a place where we can all get together for exactly the same indulgent purposes and cast off our daily repressions. In marketing it's described as magical, but it's a temporary spell, and there's certainly a darkness to its casting that gets us every time.