Dante’s Las Vegas

28 03 2010


Last week I was yapping about how much I love to travel. Ha. This week I am streaking across the sky in an Alaska Air 737 preparing to plunge into hell on earth. Hell? For me, yes, Las Vegas is hell. The place toward which I am flying represents everything I was taught was wrong as a child.

“What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.” What a horrible motto. The implication is anything is okay as long as you don’t get caught. Well, that certainly is a well-respected belief embraced by almost every politician who ever begged for a vote, but I must reject it utterly. We are nothing if we are not true to ourselves.

If a clerk gives you too much change, do you keep it? I don’t, and it’s pretty interesting how often the clerk looks at me as if I were nuts to give it back.

Jolie Holland is wailing “Give Me That Old Fashioned Morphine” on my iPod and this airplane full of revelers is rocking at six o’clock in the morning. The plane already smells of booze. I don’t know if these pilgrims bound for Sin City started partying early or are just still exuding alcohol out of their pores from the night before.

I don’t mean to chastise them for drinking, that would certainly be hypocritical, but I travel on business and I am used to a plane full of sedate, quiet commercial travelers. Here voices rise in anticipated joy. Folks are up and down and all around the plane “…chicken flyin’ everywhere around the plane…” thank you Arlo. And unlike most flights I take, everyone is traveling in groups. Across the aisle from me, five aisle seats in a row are filled with men traveling together.

They are actually going to Las Vegas to work, they are heavy equipment operators. They will work 12 hour days for two weeks then have some time to PARTY. That’s how they say it, in caps. PARTY. And they squirm in their seats giddy with anticipation, like little children. And everyone makes bad jokes and laughs too loud.

So what else do I dislike about Las Vegas besides its motto? I’ll tell you. Every city on this planet including Lhasa has a constant and ever-churning undercurrent of filth and corruption. But very few cities were built for the explicit purpose of taking advantage of the worst part of the human condition.

Bugsy Siegel Founder of Las Vegas

I do not know of any other city that was established by organized crime to pander to our greed and lust. But wait. “Las Vegas is family-friendly” I am told. Ha, yes it is kind of an extended Disneyland and there are things for kids to do, but its real reason for being is to extract money from suckers. Of course, so is Disneyland. The family-friendly bit is like putting lipstick on a corpse. It might pretty it up, but rotting flesh still stinks.

When I was a kid, we lived in Northern California and my parents would load me in the car and we would drive over to Nevada. Sometimes we went to Reno. I remember the night we all slept in our car because every hotel in town was full.

On occasion we went to Lake Tahoe, and I remember my brother and my nephew coming in and meeting us there. And I liked Lake Tahoe, it was beautiful and stark, and I have always had a thing for bodies of water.

Early Las Vegas

And then we went to “Vegas.” This was the Las Vegas of 1960. It definitely was not kid-friendly. This was the Las Vegas of the Rat Pack. I remember my father playing a slot machine in a drugstore. I think I was about 10 or 11 years old and the handle on the one-armed bandit jammed and I reached out to try and help my aged father complete his pull. Holy moley! The drugstore crone vaulted the counter, cigarette dangling from her lips, determined that I would not so much as touch the slot machine. “Goddamn it!” She screeched. “You want us to lose our fucking license?”

So after that, when we went to “Vegas” I was sequestered in kiddy hell. I remember a large room with a linoleum floor. The building was World War II vintage, cheap, prefab, with aluminum windows. An air conditioner sat in one window and wheezed and chugged, unsuccessfully, trying to cool the room off in mid-summer with the outside temperature over 100 F.

Rat Pack

The room was filled with metal folding chairs. In each was seated a child. Well sort of. It was organized chaos. The sea of children surged and undulated and a couple of harried adults sought, in hapless frustration, to keep everyone in a chair. A “B” movie was running on an old projector. Buster Keaton cavorted on the white screen.

We were fed an endless supply of some tepid and watery orange drink. The boy next to me puked up an orange cascade on the little girl in front of him and she began to wail. Not like Jolie Holland, but the hopeless wail of a damned soul trapped in hell for eternity. With a child’s time sense, this was an eternity and the ghost of Dante Alighieri flickered in and out of sight in the periphery of my vision.

That is the Las Vegas I first saw. The first layer of makeup on the corpse was not yet finished or set. And the parents were free to shove coins into slot machines content in the knowledge that their dear beloved children were safe and content and entertained.

I played a slot machine once. When I was 15 we were visiting my brother in Washington D.C.. He was stationed there in the Air Force. And right across the border in Maryland, you could gamble at the age of 15. I hit one jackpot and won 13 dollars and that was the last time I ever did that.

Several years ago I was in Las Vegas for this same convention I am attending today and I put 20 bucks on a roulette number. I lost. Been there, done that. Finished.

Today this city in the desert, this Mecca de Mammon, is bright lights and music and crowds of laughing people. But I still smell the rotten stench of corruption and greed and the god-awful reek of orange-flavored vomit.

Still, I will visit with folks who are in the same business as me, and I will greet commercial friends in the hall of the hotel, and I might have a pretty good meal or two.  I fly out tomorrow, so this descent into hell will be blessedly brief.

Once, whilst working for a Japanese company, I spent an entire week in Sodom-and-Gomorrah-West at a computer convention with my pal Danny. We were so sick of this place after a week, our plane left at 1pm and we arrived at the airport at 8am and sat amidst the slot machines, prepared to leap aboard at the first opportunity and depart.

So, I am indeed on the road again, and the trip after this, I do believe, is Chicago, which is my kind of town.

 “I’m premeditating crime of a personal kind, I’m about to go out of my mind. I’m just about sick to death of taking breath and walking this line of mine. Now folks that know what’s good for em’ are good at ignoring em’, but I just can’t put these thoughts down. I’m harrowed and abused and broken and pursued by this notion that follows me around, my heart is hurtin’, my spirit’s burdened… “ Jolie Holland “Good bye California”

Postscript: I came, I saw, I got the hell out of Dodge, I mean Las Vegas. Oy, it was like moving from one nightmare to another. I suppose it was also fitting that I saw so many friends there. Ha, if I believed there was a real hell to come I suspect I would also see many of my true friends there, too. Although I know very few real criminals, so like me, my friends are at best, or worst, minor sinners. But I was never clear on the rules for going to hell.


So swimming in my semi-hallucinatory visions I dog paddle my way through the casino at Bally’s, our convention hotel. Electronic slots have replaced the old mechanical jobs and lights flash and bells ring and music pounds with endless sounds and sights constantly struggling with one another to attract my attention.

Curiously, as I waded knee-deep through the exudations of casual sin, this was the tenth anniversary of my having stopped smoking, and smoke hung in clouds. Why are so many of the visitors aged women with skin of cured leather and voices whiskey-deep from years of smoking? And the scantily-clad female employees were mostly overweight and one had folds of fat hanging over the straps of her mostly backless costume.

And saints preserve us…next to, adjacent, attached like a tumor, was…Paris. Oui, the City of Lights, right there in Las Vegas. But, not really. It was a nightmare out of a Gene Wolfe novel with the ass end of the Eiffel Tower sticking out of the ceiling trying to fool the rubes into thinking they were indeed in Paris, France.

I kept imagining I was either on a life ship sent out with colonists to travel across the galaxy for centuries bound to settle some distant planet, and this was meant to try and salve our homesickness.

Or…or…I had been kidnapped by aliens and who with their incomplete understanding of homo sapiens, had concocted this 21st century version of papier-mâché versimilitude.

However, the staff, the workers, were, with one exception, extremely friendly and competent. The exception being a grumpy doorman who was certain credit card taxis presaged the end of the world, or at least Las Vegas.

Divine Comedy Angels

But once again, I am home and Jolie Holland is still serenading me: “I used to be an angel, but now I’m just like everybody else, I left my wings in the gutter and my halo is lying dusty on a shelf…”

I think next trip it’s Abigail Washburn.




One response

28 03 2010

Nobody does hell like Gustave Dore…

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