The earliest memory that I have of Las Vegas is a panoramic picture. There were 8 of us crammed in the 7 passenger Ford Club Wagon. I would venture to guess I was about 8 and squished between two teenagers and my younger sister in the back bench seat. The sun was setting behind us as we crossed state line, and as our car rumbled over the last hill, the night was upon the city. Its lights sprawled out before my eyes, dancing with the magic of gaudy consumerism tapped by Steve Wynn and other Disney-like purveyors of the Strip. Since then, the gargantuan signs outside each Casino and the twinkling suburbs that stretch out to the bases of the mountains beyond have lost most of their magic, but the city has not lost its ability to captivate me on each and every visit.
I have had quite the relationship with Las Vegas. I know it more intimately than the closer but less enticing Los Angeles directly to the south of me. My flirtation with Sin City began at seven, back when I lived for roller skating, and came to visit every year for the invitational competition every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The first couple of times we stayed at the themed casinos that bombarded the newest part of the strip: Treasure Island, Circus Circus, New York, New York. If there was a roller coaster to be ridden, we had to have a room there. As time went on, the fake-realness of the Strip gave way to cheaper Henderson hotels closer to the skating rink, and eventually to motor home parks where we could park our house on wheels and enjoy the desert ghetto without the semen-soaked sheets of a hotel bed. The convertible couch and sleeping bag bed were quite frankly nicer than sticky economy sheets anyway. When my dad realized that he got Hilton Points from his credit card and the roller skating rink became less of a destination, the Strip once again became our regular destination.
Today the view is hazy, as smog chokes the Stratosphere needle and the abundant, cultural black hole that it reigns over. Rather than captivating lights, I first notice the odd suburban tracts that have chased us since we left our beach town 6 hours ago. I notice the cranes, the scaffolds, as the endless construction on the desert oasis continues. The sun is setting as we approach the first rows of hotel-condos. I look back at the red rock mountains behind us. The grey clouds are silhouetted by the descending light. The inner geologist cultivated slowly by eighteen years of living with my mother springs to life in a moment of weakness. I am looking forward to the long bike ride tomorrow that brought us here. Sweat, nature, and family are anathema to some, but all in a day's ride for me.
"Where are we staying?" my mother asks. I glare at her turned back (I am still in the back seat of the '94 Club Wagon, though I have graduated to having my own seat). It is the same glare that she gave me yesterday upon my asking her the same question. Nowadays, we always stay at the same place. The Flamingo Hilton is center-strip, $60 per night, and equip with waterslides, swim-up bar, excellent spa, and plenty of blue-haired old ladies wearing sequined sneakers affixed to an oxygen tank, a cigarette, and a slot machine.
This is my Las Vegas.
Sure enough, as we walk in, there is no shortage of too-high hair, bad yeans, socks and sandals, and scruffy beards as the parade of rednecks, hicks, hipsters, gangsters, suburbanites, and businessmen stroll past my café table while I wait for my mom to return with the room keys. Everyone comes to vacation in Vegas: the whole family, from emphysema auntie to uptight I-banker cousin. Sweetie McFaye just walked by me with a feathered hat, a feathered skirt, and zebra stretch shirt pulled just tight over her high, 65-year-old tits. A giant pink flower pin finished of her rhinestone- trimmed-jacket. Everyone comes to Vegas. The man behind me yells loudly in Mandarin as the couple in Wranglers marvels at the café setup in the middle of the hallway to the casino ("What is this, with coffee and pastries and small tables?"). Well-put-together face and collared shirt gives himself away with baggy bluejeans and New Balance sneakers. So Midwest. Overweight family walks by ostentatiously discussing the buffet. "Nah, that don't go nowhere" is a direct quote. One son's shirt says, "3 can keep a secret if 2 are dead." Gun control, baby. I just saw a mullet. On a woman. With an apparent husband. Seriously. Everyone comes to Vegas. Obvious Florida retirees walk by in snow jackets. A gaggle of twenty-something guys walks by swinging their beers, probably the same type they have been nursing since noon. Artist/photographer swaggers by, carrying his rolling suitcase in his hand, his unkempt mane flowing in the wind as he scopes the scene. Any heels that walk by have a diameter of less than half and inch and are mostly of the type I like to refer to as "stripper heels." You can't imagine the number of pairs of ugly, dirty white sneakers I see walk past, on both men and women, who obviously do not use them for their intended purpose of exercise. Ballet flats and boots, my autumn/winter staples as few and far between. Fat Abercrombie ass just walked by in Uggs next to a girl in thongs. They might be able to use that pair of sneakers that just sauntered by on the refrigerator box with legs. Chic white crop jacket and matching white flat-heeled boots just paraded by into Bijoux Turner, where all items are $10. And the parentals have returned-it's time to go up to the room and crash.
This isn't quite the America that I get in Morningside Heights or Midtown, but it is America all the same. I can't say that I am proud of what I see walking by, but I do appreciate the diversity and the acceptance. You may not see haute couture walking by, but neither do you really see attitude. People are who they are, and they seem to be okay with it.