I’m barely 24 hours removed from my first trip out to Las Vegas, and I’m not sure I’ve yet recovered. This, I think, owes less to the physical and psychological exhaustion that accompanies, let’s face it, most vacations, than it does to the fact that I’m still not sure how I feel about Las Vegas as a city, a collection of people, or as an idea.
It is a city as in love with its own garishness (imagine living inside a caramel popcorn ball, slowly being devoured by hamsters that are blissfully unaware of your muffled screams) as it is with its rather quaint and endearing history (an oasis, plunked smack dab in the middle of the desert); it is as worthy of awe as it is of derision. It contains transparent multitudes, so layered as to appear almost solid, almost real. It is everything, and it is nothing.
And it’s no mistake. This is what the modern-day Las Vegas aspires to: to touch upon some modicum of familiarity for as wide a cross-section as possible of the dizzying behemoth that is their tourist patronage. And man, do they ever go for it: sure, the New York, New York hotel has a Schlotzsky’s Deli, but holy crap, they also have a Katz’s; the indoor gondoliers at the Venetian Hotel boasts remarkably crisp tenors and baritones; higher-end slot machines carry branding from Family Guy, Plants vs. Zombies, Willy Wonka, and Sex & the City.
In the lobby/casino of the Mandalay Bay — truly a pretty great hotel — I had a Chopin vodka poured straight over a hand-carved sphere of ice at the Red Square, a Russia-themed bar where the all-female staff dressed like dominatrices, yet were as perky as cheerleaders, a baffling yet endearing juxtaposition about which I am in no position to complain.
There is perhaps no place more indicative of the history, attitude and experience of Las Vegas than the Neon Museum (or “the boneyard”). Having only been open since last year, the museum functions as a nonprofit, and houses a good many famous-yet-decrepit neon signs from Vegas bygone days, with the hopes of one day restoring each and every one, a process that can take up to two years per specimen.
It is gobsmackingly appropriate that, to get to the museum, you must take about a 20-minute cab ride out to the “old Vegas,” where Circus Circus — which is where my father once stayed when the Southern Baptist Convention, hilariously, decided to meet one year in the city — and Binion’s still tower, beige and straddling the line between splendor and squalor, over the surrounding mini-marts, vacant lots and discount buffets. Here, the desert is less of an afterthought than in the new downtown; it is the point at which the city ceases to seemingly expand, and the land begins to re-encroach on its own territory. Speaking in metaphors of the body, the new Vegas is a clenched fist; this, this is a hand almost too shaky to hold a cigarette.
We arrived at the boneyard a half hour before our tour was to commence, and had ample opportunity to take in the surroundings. Though they consisted of not much more than sections of chain link fence, a stretch of highway and imposing though nondescript neighboring stone buildings, it was eye-catching, sobering: there are few places in the world, I’m convinced, that possess the ability to inspire equal parts romance and helplessness.
I don’t have the time, space or patience to delve into every one of the signs we saw, but it was genuinely cool to view and hear the stories behind the Moulin Rouge, the Tropicana, Binion’s and other now-defunct establishments. The tour, entirely outdoors, was about an hour long and proceeded in a sort of horseshoe shape. All along the way, we saw neon twisted and gnarled, jagged bulbs left as much intact as possible in their fixtures, faded and missing letters, the signs all still fairly recognizable despite the not-graceful aging.
All around, small black flies darted to and fro, though not obtrusively, and a small gathering of birds congregated around a pool of water that had collected in the concave mouth of a giant upturned skull. Our guide pointed out even these elements with a mixture of good-natured scoffing, reverence and matter-of-factness, a combination evident in her voice throughout the duration of the tour.
At the end of “Casino,” Robert de Niro’s Sam “Ace” Rothstein laments the loss of the old Vegas, his Vegas, the hair-trigger, mob-controlled strip where, yet, you were still a person, an individual. The dealers, he says, don’t know anyone’s names anymore; it’s a fantasyland, a Disney World for senior citizens.
With stories of that Vegas — the one that this section of the city used to harbor — permeating the stories behind these signs, and the restaurants and casinos they once espoused, there is a sort of wistfulness to the proceedings, a yearning, as always, for what has come, perished and passed.
It is so very appropriate, so very human, that Las Vegas holds perhaps the most violent era of its short history in such esteem and regard. Not because, mind you, the city encourages or nurtures violence any more than other major areas; it doesn’t. It is, rather, indicative of how much time nurtures our sympathies, obscures the reality of what was.
Vegas historians look back on those years with fondness and school-child glee not out of a wish for things to revert to the way they were, but out of the belief that life is never going to be quite as good as it once was. It is that belief, so pervasive, that attracts people to Vegas, to shrines, to pilgrimages: to touch some holy thing rooted in the past, made holy only by the very fact of its refusal to die.