Veni Vidi Vegas

Each city has its unique appeal or charm. And some cities are magnetic. The legend of New York is that if you can write or act or paint and work very, very hard you might be rewarded with some measure of fame, or at least a kind of niche recognition. Like magpies attracted to a shiny glint in the desert, those who find the pull of Las Vegas irresistible are primarily not those with the ferocious work ethic needed to make it in a regular metropolis. It’s a magnet that attracts the shiftless. Wealth has to be instant. To earn it would be ridiculous. It’s a kind of reverse ambition. The ambitious in Las Vegas yearn to “make it there” but remain completely anonymous, the antithesis of someone who’s culturally ambitious, a person who can live in poverty for years as long as they’re somehow renowned. Las Vegas offers a series of mirror fragments stuck in the sand that reflect the glow of this unearned wealth and glitter. In that sense, it shouldn’t exist. But it does exist. In contrast to the rest of modern society, suckers aren’t those who toss money into the bonfires of casinos. Suckers are people who earn money by working for it. There is, at least in Las Vegas, a kind of honour in gambling and losing. The point is to gamble. Dishonour falls on those who would never dream of gambling, losing every cent they can lay their hands on.

A few years ago, before the collapse of the subprime mortgage bubble, I stood on a half-empty lot watching water trucks hosing down the ground so as to prevent a dust storm (legally required by the municipality for construction projects) and listened while the man responsible for building these homes pointed at an airplane flying overhead: “See that? Another plane load of suckers.” He said this every few minutes, each time he saw an airplane.

I once had a friend who taught philosophy at UNLV (he’s no longer there), and while we dined on cheap steak and 99 cent shrimp cocktail at the Golden Gate restaurant on Fremont Street I asked him, “So, is it just like teaching regular philosophy or what? What can you really tell anyone about philosophy in Las Vegas?” The place really seems to either embody or refute the deepest concerns human beings could possibly have about being alive. He replied, “Well, it does change the way you teach when you know that everyone in the room believes that the best you can do is to work as a valet at Caesar’s Palace.”

Las Vegas’ tug on the imagination for the bachelor rests on its centrality as a playground for the Rat Pack, and the shallow/profound morality of those men. The film Ocean’s 11 answers the question, “What’s more amoral than gambling?” with the response, “Robbing casinos.” One shouldn’t discount totally a philosophical approach to Las Vegas, however. Continental philosophers have amused us (see America by Jean Baudrillard and the probably unintentionally great Zabriskie Point by Antonioni) by trying and failing to “get it”. The secret is to inhabit the place, geographically and otherwise, without trying too hard. The Zen master of a place like Las Vegas is Dean Martin, a man who understands the paradox of expressing something deep by saying something stupid. The more overtly profound entertainers of his day are hopeless in this regard, especially in hindsight.

For my most recent visit, it seems appropriate that the show I had tickets to see, Charo‘s Musical Sensation, was cancelled owing to a twisted ankle she suffered during the most recent, increasingly unhinged Jerry Lewis telethon, and that furthermore I had to console myself over that devastating loss with a show the next night by Bob Dylan, a man who has identified himself through his radio show as a great admirer of Dean Martin. This sphinx of a town was the perfect setting in which to watch a triumphant, spellbinding concert by the nation’s sphinx. The other highlight was the Atomic Testing Museum.

One thing about the place, on or about day four, you really will run out of things to do if all you’re doing is hitting casinos and drinking.  But there are other activities that are well worth seeking out.  You might even remember some of them later.

If you go:

– As stated, the Atomic Testing Museum really is worth your time.

– If you’re mobile, drive all the way north up Las Vegas Boulevard to the municipality of North Las Vegas.  At 2930 N. Las Vegas Blvd. you’ll find the Broadacres Swap Meet.  It closes at 3:00 p.m. on Fridays (cost 50 cents) and 4:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays (cost $1), but it’s definitely worth rousting yourself out of bed to get a couple hours in investigating it.  It is approximately two football fields worth of Mexican wrestling masks, excellent and inexpensive Mexican food, pony rides for the kids, cheap haircuts and a whole lot of off-brand clothing, crafts and electronics.

– Boulder City is Las Vegas’s virtuous twin, separated at birth.  The town’s pious founders made a decision a long time ago to remain dry and not permit casino development.  Such a short drive away from Las Vegas, and a starker contrast cannot be imagined.  You are in Leave It to Beaver land, essentially on another planet.  You could say that what happens in Boulder City stays in Boulder City, but it’s the kind of place where you feel bad jaywalking.  And there’s almost no traffic.  There are some great little diners along the main drag.

Mon Ami Gabi, located in “Paris”, is a nice little “French” place.  Actually, the food is very good and if you can sit on the terrace, you’ll get an eyeful of the Bellagio’s dancing waters while you poke listlessly at your brunch boeuf bourguignon in a hungover state.  Tip: tastes really good the next day if you’ve got a microwave in your room.

Bouchon, a Thomas Keller enterprise located in the Venetian, is worth hunting down.  Really excellent food, wine and atmosphere.

– I’d love to be able to tell you to go to the Liberace Museum, but it’s gone.  It was great while it lasted.

– Binion’s, the ex-home of the World Series of Poker, is worth hanging out at for a while if only to observe real gamblers at work.  But if you’re in the mood for a punishingly large steak, get on the elevator and head up to the 24th floor and Binion’s Steakhouse, with its dark, old-school interior and excellent view.

– Afterwards, stroll down Fremont to the Lovo hand-rolled cigar factory.  Nothing is better than the night air with an inexpensive, high-quality cigar.

– Cross the street to the local hipster enclave, Beauty Bar.  Ask the rosy fingered dawn to point you home.

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Marcel Duchamp photographed by Eric Sutherland at Walker Art Center, October 1965