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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Loving Las Vegas

There is something about staying in a pyramid that inclines the mind morbidly, which is maybe the reason I was in such an awful mood for most of the time that I stayed at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. I was there for a trade show recently --just at the end of this last May --and it was the second time that I've stayed there. When you stay at the Luxor, you have a choice of staying in the pyramid itself, or in one of the "towers" that flank the actual pyramid, which also has an enormous replica of the Sphinx out front (I suppose it is one of the innumerable ironies you can see in Vegas that, with its intact and polychromed face, it is probably closer to what the original Sphinx looked like than the rather shopworn real thing.) Anyway, the Tower rooms are merely generically depressing --you are aware the whole time that you're among the felaheen, not the Pharaohs --but the rooms in the Pyramid are both generically depressing, and disorientingly bizarre.

 Mine, on the second to highest floor, had one wall (angled) facing outward without much to look at other than the forbidding glass curtain walls of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, and its (apparently) slightly more upscale twin, yclept THE Hotel (why THE Hotel, I have no idea. As I have written elsewhere it is certainly a hotel. Maybe there is a chain of Definite Article Hotels I don't know about.) When you check into your room you have to go up one of the elevators that runs along the corners of the pyramid and it's here that the disorientation sets in.

 The corners are of course angled as they rise from ground to top, which means the elevator moves sideway --horizontally as well as vertically --so that you feel, as the cab picks up speed, as if you are on a ship about to capsize. If you are on an upper floor you are treated to a vertiginous spectacle as you walk to your room --you get from the elevator banks to your room via balconies running along the inner face of the pyramid and the view from the 24th floor where I stayed is actively upsetting.

 You can look straight down into the enormous interior of the hotel --the pyramid is hollow --and all that empty space, with a faux Cleopatra's Needle anchoring the jumble of cheap restaurants, bars, and entertainments below (there are two colossi of Ramses flanking the entrance to the casino floor as well) seems to urge you to precipitate yourself into it; I don't know what there is about the void that seems to summon so seductively but it's pretty good, if subjective, empirical evidence that when Freud got the notion that there was such a thing as a death wish, he might have been onto something.

 Being at a trade show has its occasional pleasures --there are always friends you run into whom you hardly see except at trade shows --but there are far more downers than delights and the truth is, despite the fact that it is a terrible cliché to judge Las Vegas --well, shrilly artificial, and depressingly frank in catering to some not particularly pretty human impulses, that is, in fact, how I find it. I've stayed at some of the nicer hotels as well and visited a few more --the Wynn can be a fun place to spend a few days; the Mandarin is a welcome, non-gambling retreat from the inescapably seedy feel of even the most luxurious casino hotels --but the truth is --and it took me a while to understand this --there is no real luxury to be found in Las Vegas.

 What there are, instead, are increasingly expensive and detailed simulations of luxury. The Wynn, for instance, is not so much a luxury hotel, as it is a carefully detailed simulation of one, designed to appeal to individuals who do not so much have any real taste of their own, but rather have money, and the conditioned expectations about what they are entitled to at their level of affluence. That you can get, in a restaurant at the Wynn, langoustines that have been brought at enormous expense from (one assumes) the Ligurian Coast (or something) does not mean that it is in excellent taste, or genuinely luxurious, to do so; it merely means that a great deal of money has been spent.

 As the days went by and I became increasingly depressed at the sheer crushing scale of the thing, I began to see things in an irredeemably bleak light. It is not hard, if you want to, to see things that reinforce a preconception of Las Vegas as a sort of Circle-of-Hell in training. Watching fleets of disabled, morbidly obese retirees in electric scooters, breathing bottled oxygen, working the slots; seeing mothers with crying children in tow doing the same; watching mobs of very young, very drunk, very underdressed young women weaving around like grounded flocks of inebriated flamingos --it's all there and all grist for the mill if you're one of those people who need little provocation to think you're seeing humanity at its worst. And, like the simulacra of luxury offered as the price of a room increases, the behavior is not fundamentally different at a so-called "better" hotel; it is merely more expensively (note: not better or more tastefully, just more expensively) dressed, and perhaps slightly more discreet. Vegas, to paraphrase William Gibson's Neuromancer, is basically a sieve designed to catch money; you pour people and money into one end and only the people fall back out.

 So I went, from one private but powerfully negative mood to the next, until the last night when at my traveling companion's insistence (Jay, my ad sales go-to guy and my magazine's new general manager, has just moved lock stock barrel and family from Europe and found Vegas rather more exotic and exciting than not, plus he was in a good mood from the feel of commerce well transacted) we ended up in the House of Blues restaurant on the casino floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel. Jay tried to charm the hostess into giving us a table right away but we got a beeper and got sent to the bar. Fortified by a Coors Light (Jay) and a Patron (me) we found ourselves at a table in pretty short order, and after a short chat with the server in which I affected to be appalled at the fact they make their jambalaya with orzo instead of rice (seriously, though . . . orzo?) we ordered some wings and ribs and settled in for what I thought would be a suitably grim last night in Vegas.

 At the next table there were a dozen or so people --I think, from the age distribution and snatches of conversation I overheard, that it was an extended family on vacation --and it gradually became clear that they were celebrating someone's birthday; she looked to be in roughly her early 40s. To my surprise the blues cover band that was playing was much better than it needed to be given the venue; they played a really tight set with both some standards and some more obscure tunes to keep things interesting --and at one point, the lead singer, who'd by then gotten the room nicely warmed up, called the birthday girl up on stage for a bluesy Happy Birthday and a little dancing. She was, obviously, having a great time, and the rest of the crowded room seemed happy to cheer her on, and I looked around and suddenly felt as if I'd been indulging myself in nothing more than sheer ill-tempered snobbery the whole week.

 People work very hard and life's full of disappointments and hazards. Sure, Vegas is a terrible fraud, all things considered. But it's also a place where, if the evidence of that night means anything, you can go and have a reasonably decent (if somewhat carefully calculated by the almighty House) good time, and forget whatever else is hanging over your head for a few days. That you can get yourself into trouble, gamble stupidly, or otherwise exercise bad judgement doesn't mean the whole thing is unspeakably evil, and in fact, Vegas these days in general goes to some considerable trouble to keep you from doing anything really genuinely damaging (after all, they want you back next year.) It just means that life can be pretty hard on most of us, and you can't fault Vegas for giving people of different tastes, purses, and inclinations a place to indulge in a few harmless (mostly) fantasies for a while. That luxury in Vegas is a simulation is not, by those lights, a flaw --it is, in fact, the whole point.