Las Vegas, Nevada is the wild downstairs neighbor constantly breaking beer bottles and shooting off fireworks. Corvallis, Oregon, the top floor before the penthouse, is into the recycling of microbrew bottles and sporting bumper stickers shooting off political opinions. Night and day. Apples and PCs. Czech lagers to IPAs.
Vegas itself should not be there. The first casino on what is currently The Strip was the El Rancho Vegas, opening on April 3, 1941, with 63 rooms. Hoover Dam’s construction funneled workers to The Strip and the rest is history. Now over two million people live in the area and in 2016 over 40 million people visited Vegas. That’s a lot of dam people. Somehow, there is enough infrastructure to hold this all together. As surprising as it may seem, what really holds Vegas together is its humanity.
As PNW-incorrect as it might be, I like Las Vegas. But my Vegas is not your Vegas: it’s my friends and the surrounding wild spaces. (Not too many places you can see tourists loving on a tarantula minding its own business. You’re damn right I said, “Watch it. They jump!” People can sure disperse quickly when properly incentivised. I made no friends that day.) Aside from toying with tourists, my Vegas is the old town Vegas with retro stores and boutiques that offer a historical context for the city, selling artifacts from eras past and reproductions from the Las Vegas of Elvis, Sinatra, and Bugsy Malone. It’s kitschy and often buries the needle into the tacky end of the Taste-o-Meter™. Then again, have you seen the lobby of our theater?
Then there is The Strip. This is where LV proves nothing makes money like gambling combined with neon. There is nowhere else in the country where you will be exposed to so much metamorphosis. I’m there a couple times a year and there are always new buildings going up as other buildings are coming down. Big-ass buildings. Sixty story buildings. Through all this construction cars, buses, people flow around barricades, balusters, and other bodies like red blood cells in a calcified vein. There are so many construction cones, you’d think the city was run by VLC. There is no escaping the noise this produces. Aside from the shrieking engines of muscle cars and motorcycles, there is the constant throb of tour helicopters and police aircraft with spotlights slicing through the night. Oddly, the efforts to make Vegas family-friendly have a fair amount of success. The Strip has been pretty much cleaned up. The police presence is strong and the various professionals of less mainstream occupations are almost invisible. So, it has almost the same vibe as the rooftop of American Dream Pizza on a warm spring evening after a T-ball game. Just add gambling and dancing girls.
The Las Vegas buffets turn gluttony into an art form: All you can eat and everything you’d ever want to eat! One has not lived until you have basked in the splendor of a room designed to feed 800 people...at once. All day. Every day. Keeping with the times, the buffets where we gorge have gluten-free sections and no-sugar-added desserts. There are mounds of fresh vegetables shipped in daily. There are selections for vegans, vegetarians, zoroastrians. This is not your grandparents’ buffet, though there is a huge segment of people who saw the stars, after whom the streets are named, perform there live. These seniors have settled into this sunny, unnatural oasis in the sand. The armies of brown people in the service industry treat them well and they live in a town where no one cares how ridiculously they dress. To be fair plaid shorts and striped socks separated by skinny hairless legs is not just a Vegas trend. But in Vegas those sexy seniors are topped with gold lamé hats emblazoned with casino logos. You can’t help but love them.
The pomp and spectacle is not what makes me look forward to my sorties south, though I do love adventuring through the huge hotels. During the day the ballrooms are deserted. We can grab a tourist-priced latte and ride a half dozen escalators up to wide-open expanses of carpet and expensive furniture without a human in sight. Ballroom after ballroom of opulence and free-spanning ceilings over almost 10,000 square feet of beautiful carpet. Ten floors of this. Let that sink in. We sit on expensive couches under light fixtures that would have Liberace giggling with delight and sip our coffee in total seclusion from the masses flowing on the streets below. It does not go unnoticed that renting one of these monstrosities costs more than most homes in Corvallis.
This is not the charm of my Vegas. Antithetical to Corvallis, I appreciate Vegas for the chaos. There are too many rats in the cage, bumping into each other, not signaling, dodging traffic. But the magic is in the fact that all this would explode into anarchy were it not for the humanity of all parties involved. They have to cooperate and not let the friction of shared space spark into confrontation that cannot be extinguished with a few vulgarities. In Corvallis if someone is cut off or treated rudely (how is it I’m still in business?), it is universally agreed, “This this is not who we are as a community!” followed by a potluck and sage smudging. When I sit by the pool in my friends’ backyard sipping coffee listening to the birds, automatic machine gun fire will erupt in the distance. I look at my watch. It’s only eight in the morning. Think I’ll have more coffee. Oh, look! A desert wren!
There is a grace and elegance to the potential for bad behaviour. In Corvallis, we have a homeless problem. In Vegas they have a homeless population. They are part of the landscape. When the temp is unbearable, a street person in Vegas cannot lounge in front of a 7-11 without being offered water or a cigarette. They are not a menace. They just are. In a town where every neuron is fueled by vice, its victims are treated with less disdain than our waterfront denizens with their mental illness and affinity for meth. The Vegas edge is razor fine. The weather can kill you most of the year. Traffic is vicious and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Watch the locals crouch when something sounds like a gunshot on The Strip. There is a history of violence, but so what? If you’re there you know that. These people all live together in the hot mess of race, money, politics, and vice—and laugh in the face of the water running out. And it all functions. To me this is as beautiful as monsoons rattling and thundering between the mountains. I’m grateful to be able to move between these two very different worlds. It allows me to appreciate and make fun of both. I’ll try to get used to using my turn signal again now that I’m back in God’s Country. No self-service gas in Oregon, sir! Right. Gotta remember that.
It makes me smile.