(This travelogue dates back from the fall of 2001 and originally appeared in e-mail form)
Last week, I went to Las Vegas for the first time. My roommate Aaron was already in Vegas for a day trading seminar, and he invited me to come out to gamble with him and exploit his luxurious lodgings at the Golden Nugget hotel and casino. So I booked a flight on Aloha Airlines and flew out Wednesday night.
It doesn't take long for the Vegas experience to begin, since the slot machines are right there in the terminal. During my time in Vegas, I also encountered slot machines in hotel lobbies, convenience stores, and one memorable occasion, next to a urinal. Any kind of vice is encouraged and enabled, as long as it's at least vaguely regulated. Smoking is allowed and prevalent in casinos, which are located next to topless bars, which sit across from restaurants offering enormous portions of fried meat at discount rates. Drinks are free in the casinos and pornography is handed out outside of them. If only you could sniff glue at the tables, the degenerate experience would be complete.
I wasn't having any of that, however. Armed with Lawrence Revere's How To Play Blackjack As A Business, I was going to clean up in the casinos. And according to Mr. Revere's rules, you don't drink while you play blackjack. You follow a strict set of decision procedures, and, if you're being ambitious, count cards to the best of your ability. I was primed to make back the cost of my trip, and more.
Unfortunately, for the first two days of the trip, I found myself Playing Blackjack As An E-Business instead. That is, I made large profits right off the bat, my confidence soared. Riding the blackjack boom, I put more money into my gambling, only to have the bottom fall out in an incredible 45-minute losing streak that wiped out my capital gains and left me with just $40. I trudged back upstairs feeling like the CEO of Yahoo, circa April, 2001.
The next day was my last in Vegas, and I woke with the foul taste of defeat and cheap whiskey in my mouth. Taped to the door of the hotel room next door was a note that read, in its entirety, "Thanx 4 the worst birthday ever. It's over." I wandered downstairs, and headed out to the famous Las Vegas Strip with Aaron's girlfriend, Kristina. In the elevator, we were treated to the strains of Paula Abdul's "Blowing Kisses in the Wind," which continued playing as we stepped out into the lobby. And then continued playing as we stepped outside onto the street. Yes, the Golden Nugget had gone through great trouble and expense to see that we could hear some of the worst music in human history, uninterrupted, all the way from the 32nd floor out to our cab. (This moment was equaled only by a blackjack dealer singing along to Air Supply's "All Out Of Love" at the tables earlier in the week.)
Caesar's Palace exhibited more of the same. Intricate architecture, elaborately costumed faux-Romans, all there to convince people to pull slot machine levers, or shop in the Caesar's Palace mall. As Kristina put it, "Vegas is really beautiful and ornate, as well as completely trashy and sad."
That got me thinking: Las Vegas is the municipal embodiment of America. Kristina's quote could apply to our country just as well as it could to Vegas. Almost everyone you encounter is middle-aged and overweight - again, just like America. America is the home of capitalism, and every single thing you see in Vegas is designed to pry money from your wallet. America has ripped off its culture from countless other nations, just as I have ripped off this Vegas-as-America metaphor from countless other, much more talented writers.
Later in the evening, Aaron rejoined us, and we returned to the casinos. I abandoned Revere's instructions, and purchased a 52-ounce plastic football full of daiquiri goodness. Thanks to a run of luck and the ineptitude of blackjack dealer/ recovering cocaine addict "KT," we all swiftly turned a tidy gambling profit, though I was almost too drunk to gather my chips by the end of the daiquiri football. It was comforting to know that, though I was carded at every single table I tried to play cards at, no one cared if I drank myself unconscious, gambled away my life savings, or even got married. We were, however, ushered outside by a floor manager for taking pictures inside the casino, a situation exacerbated by our then photographing that same floor manager on our way out.
I flew back home on Aloha Airlines a few hours later, exhausted, intoxicated, and up about $100 on the weekend. As we waited on the runway for clearance, my head was buzzing with questions. Why do casinos advertise a 98% return on their slot machines, as if that's a good thing? Is there something going on with those Siegfried and Roy guys? And was it really a good idea to purchase plane tickets on an airline whose name translates to "Goodbye" Airlines? But mostly, I wondered about the people in the hotel room next door. Was there a chance that the magic of Vegas could restore their bad-birthday-wounded love?
Just then, the plane began rolling down the runway, Vegas began to disappear, and I thought to myself, "I wouldn't bet on it."