Though I had been in town for a few days already, I really hadn’t seen Las Vegas. The cab from the airport took Swenson to my hotel, the LVH, and from that vantage point the town basically looked like another arid, sprawling desert city. The hotel was flashy yet bland, in that early 70’s kind of way, the lobby sprinkled with display cases filled with various Elvis artifacts (The King’s gold-plated Walther PPK, the King’s army scout/Indian costume, etc.). The casino floor was a few acres of video slot machines and some gambling tables that were almost always empty. In fact the coolest part of the hotel was the Benihana Village, which I imagine looked much like it did when the hotel opened. The food at the noodle bar was good. You could have a drink at the Zen Bar, sunk in a sofa somewhere near the eternal waterfall, and almost forget you were in Vegas.
On Friday night after work it was my intention to catch one of the free shuttle buses from the convention center that went to Paris Las Vegas, which was across the street from the Cosmopolitan. The Vesper Bar there was supposedly one of the best cocktail spots in town. Traffic was terrible and the bus took a loping, roundabout route to the Strip. It was a slow trip. This allowed me the experience of viewing some of the most terrifying vistas I’ve ever seen. Approaching the Strip as I did you are suddenly confronted with a soaring canyon of massively scaled buildings that seem to come out of nowhere. The Strip is predicated on a whole scale of monumental architecture in which humans are almost completely insignificant. Even the streets that thread between the buildings seem designed merely to stay out of the way rather than serve the people who need to use them to get around. It is the cityscape of Blade Runner come to life, claustrophobic and intimidating.
I got off the bus and went into Paris, the only way I could actually get to the bridge that would take me across the street to the Cosmopolitan. Just walking through the casino, trying to get my bearings, was nearly impossible. My first impulse was to sit down at a slot machine to catch my breath, maybe feed a few dollars into it to soothe myself. The casino floor is an enormous space, with multiple warrens, designed to look like a Paris landscape at twilight. In its own way, the illusion is almost complete. It’s chilling. It’s also, well, inspiring. And awesome … really, awe-inspiring. Human imagination and ingenuity accomplished this. In order to make money. No altruistic impulses whatsoever contaminated the decision-making process. You can take in the spectacle for free of course, like I did. But unless you maintain iron-like willpower, it’s really tough not to spend money. 100% artificial, every aspect of the environment has been meticulously calibrated to part your cash (and/or the balance from your debit card) from your pocket. That’s what’s awe-inspiring. All this work and effort to maximize profit.
It worked. Though it took nearly ten minutes just to find my way across the street and then to the correct part of the hotel, I finally found the Vesper Bar and took a seat. Exquisite decor, solid cocktail list, and a clientele made up largely of bros, d-bags, and their ladies. I ordered a riff on the Jungle Bird called Streaker with a Cause, watching the bartender as as he made it:
Streaker with a Cause
1.5 oz. El Dorado 12-year rum
.5 oz. Amaro Montenegro
.5 oz. Hum liqueur
.5 oz. lime juice
1 oz. caramelized pineapple puree
.25 oz. cardamom ginger syrup
Shake with ice, strain over fresh crushed ice in a collins glass. Garnish with a kaffir lime leaf.
It was a fine drink, though I found it a hair too sweet and might adjust the lime juice by another quarter ounce. It was also, with tip, $19.
My spot at the bar was prime for people watching. As I sipped my drink a herd of beefy guys in their early 30’s waved their credit cards at the bartender, and when they’d gotten his attention one of them said, “Five Sailor Jerrys and ginger ale, three vodka sodas, and a Long Island.”
As he started to mix the drinks the bartender said, “Long Islands, that’s what my sister drinks.”
“Yeah man, she loves to have a great time. You wanna start a tab, or … ?”
“Here’s three cards. Just split it. But on this card, here’s $20 and just charge whatever’s left.”
After my drink I caught a cab back to my hotel. I could tell my driver was giving me a drive-around, deliberately taking an indirect route in order to drive up the fare. But what could I do? I didn’t know the city, couldn’t tell him to take this street or that street. All I could do was watch the meter climb. My final fare, with tip, was $18. Despite all the “low” airfares and “cheap” hotel rooms, all the Happy Hour specials and the all-you-can-eat buffets, Vegas is easily the most expensive city I’ve ever been to. You’re captive and you have no choice but to spend money.
The place is exhausting. When everything around you is fake, and everything is an ostentatious display, larger than life, quote unquote outrageous, at a certain point it all just becomes an endless shopping mall. You get tired of staring at yet more slot machines (“Wheel … of … Fortune!”) and chain stores. And the ubiquitous air conditioning just gives you a sore throat.
But Vegas wasn’t all bad. There was Frankie’s Tiki Room, a loveable dive with $8 drinks. And on my last night in town a friend and I had dinner and drinks at a wonderful little place called Herbs and Rye. Very tasty cocktails and steak. There were also no TVs or gambling machines of any kind.