Two or three hundred years before Christopher Columbus, a lame prophet wandered the Southwest with a flute.
He told anybody who would listen that the world had radically changed. It wasn’t the world anymore. It was a wonderful and terrifying new world where false had become true and true had become false and all the old gods were dead, or maybe, best case, they had all just gone deaf, blind and stupid.
People should listen, the prophet argued. If people just listened to him, if they listened to his tunes and his stories and threw away everything they owned, down to and including their homes and even their history, they would be alright.
Today that prophet is remembered as Kokopelli. And you can get one of his fine key chains at just about any gas station in the four corners. That is one version of what happened to the Anasazi, anyway.
My overdrawn point is only that in another 700 years or so you may be able to walk into a store and buy a Bugsyseigel key chain. Ben “Bugsy” Seigel is widely, if inaccurately, credited with inventing Las Vegas. And, these are interesting times. And, Las Vegas is now the racing heart of a desperate new religion of these times.
Maybe this cult is called Post-modernism. Maybe it should just be called Vegas. Whatever you call it, it is the religion of exhausted possibilities and you will find it if you look.
Vegas reveals its mysteries and seduces you in an infinite progression of banal observations. The roads are terrible. Yeah, yeah. The traffic is terrible. Yeah. Why am I here?
Why, in the west, do they always put the on ramp, where lunatics accelerate onto the freeway, right before the off ramp to which others are desperately trying to escape?
All this while I am still on the bike. Before I even park.
Hey Kids Lets Make A Movie
Checking in I hear: “Show business kids making movies of themselves, you know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else, you know you goin’ to Las Vegas, Las Vegas.”
Then I hear it again. And again. I think, if I hear that Steely Dan song about Las Vegas one more time in one more casino shopping arcade I am going to snap. I know that song is about to become a deafening roar and then I will be blinded by a white light and when I awake I will have to convince yet another lawyer I do not know to try the PTSD defense. Again.
Steely Dan played the Palms last month and the very first words they said were, “Now you swear and kick and beg us that you’re not a gamblin’ man. Then you find you’re back in Vegas with a handle in your hand.”
Every cliché, or as intellectuals like to say, every trope of the American experience has been cannibalized to make this new place, this new faith. There is the Flamingo, named for Bugsy’s girlfriend Virginia Hill who had such great, long legs that her nickname became The Flamingo. There is a Hooters casino, a casino that looks like Disneyland, Caesar’s, Planet Hollywood, the rotting old Sahara, the pyramid, the MGM which once, in America’s glory days, was the name of a motion picture studio.
Vegas Could Be Worse
I look at New York New York and I rejoice that when it was built it did not include a World Trade Center. There is a Paris and a Venetian. And while the real New Orleans is the subject of a grotesque death watch every hurricane season, Orleans the casino, a half mile off the strip, keeps alive the memory of what once actually was.
Automatic Teller machines are strategically placed every 25 feet. Sex is everywhere. As are Donnie and Marie, Cher and Elvis. All the tropes, apparently, must be at least 21. Or maybe everything in this country worth cannibalizing came along more than 20 years ago.
Vegas is cheap and vulgar. It is not good enough for me-discerning scooter trash that I am. I can’t help but wonder, who comprises these throngs that clot the sidewalks and streets?
The Quest For Beer
A disembodied voice calls to me to enter the nearest door. The voice sounds rustic and homespun. It is a robot prospector’s voice. I must obey.
So, I wander into Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon. It is a cowboy themed casino and so I am hopeful I may meet more of my kind. I watch “Big Elvis” for a few minutes. Big Elvis differs from all other Elvis impersonators in that he weighs about five or six hundred pounds. Other Elvis impersonators seem to top out at around 300 pounds. I watch another Elvis impersonator study “Big Elvis,” and conclude that “Big Elvis” must be the Elvis impersonator’s Elvis impersonator.
I have not eaten since yesterday. I haven’t had anything to drink for five hours. I need a burger and a beer. I enter Bill’s Victorian Room. I must wait to be seated. I expect to find a Queen Victoria impersonator dancing around a pole. But, no. I am disappointed again.
Chatting With A Waiter
“I see you got a ‘Special Burger,'” I ask an old guy in a waiter suit. “What’s so special about it?” The old guy does a double take.
It is me. I know it is me. Many people dislike me. Not just the waiter. “It’s special.”
“Well does it have cheese?”
“No. Cheese is extra.” He pauses with his pen impatiently poised.
“Okay. I’ll have the special burger with cheese.”
He writes very quickly. I think maybe he knows the lost art of shorthand. “Want something to drink?”
“I want a beer.”
“A beer?” I read his face and hear what he is thinking. He is thinking, “I’ve been a waiter in Las Vegas for forty years and that is the strangest request I’ve ever heard. A beer?!’
“Is that okay? What kind of beer you got?”
He rolls his eyes. “I’ll send over the cocktail waitress.”
Still No Beer
One possibility is that the cocktail waitress is on break. Or, maybe she just now overdosed on heroin. Or, maybe she has fallen passionately in love with someone she just met who gave her a hundred dollars and she will get to me when she is done with him.
I ask every employee who walks by if one of them will get me a beer. They all ignore me. None of them speaks English. I try French. No go. Spanish? Nope. I utter a curse in Vietnamese. An employee stops, arches her eyebrow disapprovingly, then she moves on. I walk out to the bar. I get my own beer. It is cold and I am thirsty. I should have ordered two. But I do not go back because the line at the bar is long and I am lazy. For some reason, I expect people in restaurants to just wait on me. I am hopelessly old-fashioned like that.
Of course, the fine service is not why people eat at Bill’s. People eat at Bill’s because a “Special Burger” with cheese and fries is a mere $15. The average cost of a meal at Picasso (who I believe was a painter before he was a restaurant) is $149. A steak with all the trimmings, and possibly even a beer, at Delmonico’s will set you back $76, gratuity not included. The average price of a classic American meal at Aureole is $100.
Aureole. I like that word. Aureole,
I look around at my fellow diners at Bill’s and I cannot help but notice how much more sophisticated I am than they.
I eat, go back out to the casino and watch these unsophisticated hordes throw their money into slots.
There is a brutal, mathematical inevitability to playing slot machines. If you play a 50 cent slot machine for an hour you are going to lose about $27. Your odds are slightly better on the dollar slots but you are betting more. So if you play a dollar slot machine for an hour you are going to lose $48. That’s three special burgers and a beer. Or, one special burger and eleven beers.
A few of my fellow pilgrims choose to give away their money to real live dealers. The best game to play is blackjack. If you are as skilled at blackjack as a dealer who plays blackjack for a living you can play $2 blackjack and only lose an average of $2 an hour. If you are slightly less skilled than the dealer you can lose a lot more.
The average visitor to Vegas loses about $700 gambling each time they visit the city. I don’t get it. I don’t gamble. It is one of the things that is wrong with me.
Escape From Bill’s
“Like a rock,” Bob Seger serenades, “I was strong as I could be! Like a rock, nothin’ ever got to me…”
And at the moment, old Bob is starting to get to me. Old Bob is even older than I am. Once upon a time, long ago, he and I were both autoworkers. Now we have both moved on. Isn’t his song a Chevy commercial now? Doesn’t any place in Vegas ever play any alt-country or techno? “Like a rock, I was something to see, Like a rock.”
I become part of the clotted masses on the strip. Down the street, a young African-American stereotype in a cocked red Derby throws a fistful of bills into the air and makes it rain money. His posse laughs. Most people ignore him. A few old white people chase the bills like cats chase moths.
Sixty percent of the Vegas strip’s revenues come from something other than gambling: Liquor, food, rooms, strippers, pornography, souvenirs and African-American stereotypes who like to watch their cheese dance in the breeze.
The price of an average show ticket in Vegas, and by average I mean really cheap, is $75. Back in 1992, when the Bob Seger song I cannot escape was barely old enough to vote, an “average” ticket cost $27.
Everywhere I look I see Donnie and Marie, the Mormon superstars from the big, clean city on the far side of this desert. The entire side of the Flamingo is a portrait of Donnie and Marie. I like Marie. Seeing her up there, 60 feet tall, I can’t stop myself from thinking about Marie.
Tickets to the Donnie and Marie show run $85 for a balcony seat. For $250 you get one good seat. Tickets for the good seats also include a chance to have your picture taken with Marie. Plus taxes and fees. Plus drinks. Plus a significant additional fee for Marie to take her clothes off and let you touch her while someone takes your picture.
Last month, gambling profits in Nevada declined from $960 million to a mere $949.3 million. Gambling profits on the strip were a paltry half billion bucks in August 2008. I think for a half a billion bucks a month somebody should figure out how to get me a damn beer.
A plain and easy looking woman asks me if I’ll take a survey. I say sure, but first I want to ask her a couple of questions. I ask her why it is so hard to get a beer. She cannot answer. I wonder about all my fellow Las Vegas tourists, all these overweight, poorly dressed and unhappy looking people.
Apparently, from her point of view, I am also poorly dressed and seem unhappy. Well yeah, I just rode a motorcycle across the Mojave and I can’t get a beer.
And, I have questions and I am seeking answers. Like, what does she hope to learn from me and my proletarian brothers and sisters?
She quickly reminds me that it is not only waiters who think I am trouble. I do not understand her answer. She is much smarter than me. All I catch is something about “…post-modern concepts of hyper-reality applied to hospitality and tourism consumers.” I think she probably teaches at UNLV.
“Okay. Go ahead. Ask me anything you want.”
She asks me if I have gambled yet. I say no. This disqualifies me from taking the rest of the survey.
I wander to the monorail. It is getting dark. The monorail is the first thing in Vegas I really like. And, I notice Vegas looks better in the dark than in the light. I like to ride. I think when I ride. Even if what I am riding is a train on half a set of tracks.
I must be missing something. There must be something in Vegas that a quarter of a million other tourists can see that I cannot yet see. From the monorail I watch the hotels filling up. Every valet parking line is ten lanes wide and 50 cars deep. And, all the recent arrivals have dressed for Las Vegas. As long ago people dressed to get on an airplane. As long before that people dressed to get on a train.
I ride the monorail all the way to the Sahara and back. Then back all the way to the Grand. Then to the Sahara again. Sometimes I get off and wander the platform before getting back on again.
I gaze stupidly at Las Vegas’ version of the night. There are no stars or moon. It is not the New York, Paris, Venice, Rome, Cairo, Hollywood or Lake Cuomo night. It is better. It is all those nights and more.
Some French Guy
A French philosopher named Jean Baudrillard died last year. Good riddance.
Baudrillard was most famous for predicting that the first Gulf war, in 1991, would not take place. After the war broke out Baudrillard imperturbably denied that the war was actually happening. After the war, he stubbornly insisted that there had been no war.
Let me apologize for this flaming jackass as others must sometimes apologize for me. Baudrillard’s point may have been not that the Gulf War was not real. I think his point was that in this current age of wonders the Gulf War was just simply not real enough. War movies are real. Real war, not so much.
I get back on the monorail. Two young men who look like Arab terrorists with their short hair, their khakis and their arrogant sneers get on my car. I get off before I assault them and I stare out at the Ellis Island Casino.
Let a thousand theme parks blossom.
St. Paul’s Road, Rebel’s Monorail
There is something terribly religious about Las Vegas. The people who come here believe and they believe fervently. I understand that now, staring at Ellis island. I just haven’t joined the church.
I just have not yet evolved to the point where I think I am the man and this is the place where I will once and for all repudiate the laws of mathematics. Repudiate them by sheer luck. I may psychologically evolve to the point where I become convinced that I, because I am extra special, by sheer, blind luck will win. I will win and mathematics will lose. But, I am not quite there yet.
Vegas must be something like downtown Tenochtitlan on a Friday night, when the priests started ripping out people’s hearts. And, once they got started they kept on ripping out people’s hearts all through the night. And, the Aztec people all cheered and were happy.
“If I could turn back time! If I could find a way!”
Oh dear God, please not Cher! Please make the Cher song stop!
“I’d take back those words that hurt you and you’d stay! If I could reach the stars! I’d give them all to you….”
I rush to the monorail. A little rainbow of women follows me. None of them are Cher. A fat black women, wearing a thousand dollars worth of clothes looks at me. I nod and smile and she quickly looks away. The gorgeous, tiny Asian woman must have spent an hour assembling herself. For what? For this? To get on this train? A young white woman and an old white woman look everywhere but at me.
But I look at them and when I look I think of sacred prostitutes. Maybe it is just the Cher song still stuck in my head but I think they are all looking to get laid.
In ancient Carthage, on one day every year, mommies and daughters and grandmas would all go to the temple and sell their bodies. It was some weird, ancient religion thing. And, I never understood it until just now on the Vegas monorail.
More About Some French Guy
Jean Baudrillard, the dead, French, flaming jackass was the great prophet of hyper-realism. Hyper-reality is the reality that can only happen in our heads. It is the reality of video games. It is not the reality of motorcycles. It is the reality of pornography. It is not the reality of making love. For many people who love pornography, actual sex is only a poor imitation of what they can see on their TVs, of what they can grip in one hand.
Everyone knows the film The Matrix. It is practically a fucking trope. The Matrix is about a society that is actually a simulation controlled by soulless machines to keep humanity enslaved.
The hero of The Matrix is named Neo (and he is portrayed either by Keanu Reeves or by George W. Bush-I can never really tell those two guys apart). And Neo is able to pierce the evil simulation with the help of some forbidden software that works like a magic spell And, he keeps his little piece of magic in a hollowed out copy of one of Jean Baudrillard’s books, titled Simulacra and Simulation.
Neo’s comrade and boss, the rebel leader Morpheus, greets Neo with Baudrillard’s most famous quote: “Welcome to the desert of the real.”
The reality of Vegas -the religion not the city-is hyper-reality. All the desert that surrounds this place is less. It is only real. And I am still stuck out there in the real, out there in the Mojave.
The End Of The Monorail Line
I get off at the MGM Grand and wander past Emeril’s, past a Sushi bar and an upscale Italian restaurant. It is all beautiful and air conditioned and underground. I am Winston Smith in George Orwell’s novel 1984 and this windowless place is Room 101.
I begin to understand that I do not like Las Vegas because I am not pretty enough for Las Vegas. My clothes are shabby. I am wearing a tee shirt, and blue jeans, an unremarkable belt and a pair of dusty and worn cowboy boots. I look like I have been wearing the same clothes since I got up.
Jean Baudrillard once came to Las Vegas to read his poetry in a bar. When he did he wore a shiny, gold, Elvis tuxedo with mirrored lapels.
I hear the voice of a new god calling me -as the Lord called Saul on a lonely road. I would like to go into one of those fancy restaurants. That is the truth. I really would.
If I get inside one of them I would like to be served. In fact I believe I would like to go into one of those places and get served a beer. No.
No. Not a beer. A glass of wine from France.
I stop thinking. I stroll into a store. I am drawn to a black, snap front cowboy shirt. The whole back is an embroidered skull, on a stake, in front of a Maltese cross framed by angel’s wings. And, the angel’s wings are surrounded by smoke. And, the skull’s eyes are red rhinestones. This shirt is more beautiful than Marie Osmond. This may be the most beautiful thing I have seen all week. My life may be broken but if I just have this shirt my life will be made whole.
“How much for this shirt.”
“This shirt?” This man has shifty eyes. He knows he doesn’t have to sell. He only has to let me buy.
“Yeah. Is it an extra large?”
“Oh, yes. Extra large. You have very excellent taste, sir.” Obviously, he is a very smart guy.
“Tonight it is on sale.”
“It’s only one hundred dollars.”
“Here.” I hand the man who is smart enough to see I have excellent taste a $100 bill.
“Seven and a half points.”
A spirit is on me. Not even I know what I might next do. “How much for that belt?”
“Which belt, sir.”
“That one. There. The one with conchos.”
“Very nice choice, sir. Very nice. That’s also on sale. That is a hundred dollars as well.”
Be Polite Don’t Stare
I stare. I am slipping back down the slippery slope to disbelief. I am staring because I am thinking to myself, ‘Geez! A hundred bucks for a belt?’
I have always wished I had a nice stare. I am very self conscious about my stare. When I want people to like me I try not to stare. Sometimes people get scared and run away when I stare.
But this shop keeper is brave. He does not run away. He laughs. “But for you, with the shirt, I’ll let it go for seventy-five.”
I smile. He seems happy that I am happy. I pull more money out of my pocket and shove it in his fat hand. I give him $190. “Keep the change.” I feel happy. I feel big time.
“I’ll just wrap this up.”
“No. I’ll wear it out.” I hand him my old belt. “Do me a favor and throw this away.”
When I stroll out of the store I want to make it rain. I want to just throw my money away. Something must be wrong with me and whatever it is it can only be fixed by throwing everything away.
A woman of a certain age smiles at me.
I smile back. “How you doin’?” She spins back and laughs at me. When she spins her silk dress lags. I see her body move under the silk. “You make that dress look good.”
She laughs at me again but she stops and waits. “Is that a line?” She cocks her head to one side like a girl. She looks younger to me than I know she must be. I didn’t see it at first but she is pretty. And she is slightly round and she is smiling at me.
And I cannot answer because I do not know. I know less now than I knew this morning.
I am born anew in a dim and air conditioned cave. And in that cave Steely Dan is singing a song from long ago. I had forgotten that song but I remember it now. I really used to like that song.
I remember that year. It was not now. Everything was great that year.