Sunday, January 29, 2006

Impressions of Las Vegas, or, Not Everything That Happens There Stays There

My first, hesitant encounter with the Neon Siren of the Desert took place last week. My union paid to fly me out to stay at the cheapest hotel on the Strip (no fitness room, but free parking) for several days of Dionysian discussions of financial by-laws and Bacchanalian plenaries about organizing and public policy. I did not gamble once, nor did I attend any strip shows, get a quickie marriage, or spot any celebrities not named Martha Stewart. Las Vegas is not a very attractive town, but a very interesting one nevertheless. A few observations:

1. LV is in a surprisingly beautiful area, a desert plain ringed by lovely, dramatic mountain peaks quite close to downtown. For some reason, visitors returning from LV never focus on this aspect of their trip. Maybe they should - my girlfriend spent her days going on hikes outside of town, and she absolutely loved it.

2. LV has a monorail. Yes, naturally, I wanted to ask someone, "is there a chance the track will bend?" but it appears to be mostly automated, and, at least in late January, little used, so there was no one to reassure me. I did, however, get to imagine Oscar Goodman declaring with his usual modesty that his folks were twice as smart as the people in Shelbyville.

3. Las Vegas itself - both the famed Strip and the older tourist center in downtown - is every bit as garish and tacky as you imagine it is. The Strip seemed surprisingly devoid of twenty-something women in limos shouting "wooo!!!!" through the sunroofs - you'll see more of them any weekend in Philly's Old City - but maybe we just went to bed too early, or the 45 degree weather discouraged such exuberance. Otherwise, the city is making no evident effort to make itself cool, a la Seattle or Philly's Center City or Park Slope or the nearest hipster-to-yuppie gentrifying neighborhood to your own town. The prominently featured acts are still reminiscent of schlockmeisters like Wayne Newton, including Wayne Newton himself. Ads for red meat and female strippers are everywhere you look; if anything, the former are more prominent than the latter. The downtown area, clearly long since surpassed by the more expensive and extensive properties on the roomier Strip, have to compete for business by outdoing each other's ridiculous steak deals: if you go for the $7.95 half-pound steak on Main Street, you'll be kicking yourself when you realize you could've had 12 oz. for $4.95 a few blocks away.

4. My girlfriend's take on the sex-and-titillation industry in LV was interesting: although the come-ons and lascivious ads and billboards with the "girls'" body parts displayed like cuts of meat were omnipresent, she thought it was a difference of degree, not of kind, from the rest of American pop culture. In fact, the town felt clean and safe to her. There was a certain amount of 'deviant' behavior on display on the Strip - open drinking and come-ons for topless revues - yet it all felt contained and somewhat sterile, and dwarfed by the utterly massive casinos themselves. It had a lot in common, in other words, with your typical shopping mall, and that probably helps generate the sense of security one gets from the semi-conscious realization, or assumption, that there are surveillance cameras and security guards nearby at all times. I'll note, though, that the G.F.** said she felt comfortable even away from the Strip - nowhere in town, she said, did she feel that she'd be harassed.

**N.B. The union didn't pay for any part of her trip, but if there's a town for additional paying guests, it's Las Vegas - I've never seen such cheap hotel and rental car rates.

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