The biggest con in town is the game of hidden fees that now outpace the small perks.
This month, I turn 45. To celebrate, I went to Las Vegas for a weekend.
Like Disney World, Las Vegas is a world of wealthy people who don’t know what to do with all their money and low-class Americans chasing a mirage of luxury. The city fills me with pathos. I used to love it, but something’s changed.
In Vegas, I lose my sense of time and place - a combination of jet lag and ‘round-the-clock stimulation. In the meandering casinos with no clocks and no clear exits, I encounter cocktail waitresses and tin men and scarecrows while forgetting the day and month. I do not remember who I am and my failures in the outside world become weightless. The lights and gentle ringing of the slots are a sacerdotal chant.
I needed that this year, because I’m irrefutably midlife, the Russians are shooting at a nuclear reactor, and I wanted to blind myself for 90 minutes at a flamboyant buffet.
Vegas markets itself as being sin-filled, but the reputation, as Sasha Chapin notes in his magnificent essay, is all sizzle and no steak. Maybe Vegas was sinful in 1955, when gambling and topless women were considered debauchery against a backdrop of Cold-War Christianity. Today, when I think of “Sin City” I think of a place like Moscow, where oligarchs traffic underage sex slaves and pay for them with boxes of semiautomatic pistols.
I wish there were more topless women in Las Vegas, because topless women are funny to me for reasons I don’t understand. I want them to walk around the casinos with feathers on their heads, like props.
Las Vegas has a rich history, but few markers of anything historic. It blows up and tears down anything more than a few decades old. The hotel tower at the Stardust didn’t make it 20 years before the entire resort became rubble.
I stayed at the Flamingo - the oldest continuously-operating hotel on the Strip, opened by Bugsy Segal in 1946 and now owned by Caesars. It opened in a rainstorm, lost $300,000 in its first three weeks, and became the charge of a mobster named Gus Greenbaum. Greenbaum turned the place around, but later died with the mob cut his throat from ear-to-ear. The news reported that his head was barely hanging on.
The Flamingo now has a wildlife sanctuary and botanical garden, all free of charge.
Ten years ago, I went to Vegas to blog about its history. What was new then is now old; what was old then is now gone.
There are some worthy museums: The Mob Museum is worth the trip. The Nuclear Testing Museum fascinates. You really shouldn’t miss the Neon Museum, with all the old Vegas signs baking in the desert heat.
Wayne Newton continues his nightly act. He’s at the Flamingo. Nobody remembers Siegfried and Roy or Liberace. Even the Liberace museum has closed. People won’t say it, but with the passing of generations, nobody north of the Mason-Dixon line cares about Elvis, anymore, either. I did not see a single impersonator the entire time I was there.
All we have in Vegas is today, and Vegas makes sure of that.
The Illusion of Value
Vegas tourists still believe they can find a $5.99 buffet or a $10 prime rib dinner on Fremont Street. They cannot. There are no specials to be had, only illusions of specials. People instead end up paying $5.25 for a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee, and it fosters resentment.
I tire of the jiggery-pokery. An $80 room for $20 with a $60 resort fee. A $55 buffet for two that costs $155 before a coupon offsets $100. Illusions of value send me to Denny’s for breakfast, because at least the Denny’s menu doesn’t play three-shells-and-a-pea.
There’s a line out the door at 8 AM at Denny’s because everyone has the same idea. There’s an addict tweaking out front, and we all want to be seated before he gets violent.
Everybody in Vegas wants a tip. Complain about it, and Millennials shout at you because peoples' livelihoods depend on tipping. I gave the woman who microwaved my $12 Egg McMuffin and put it in a to-go bag a 20% tip. Breakfast for two was $40. Why not kick me in the balls, too?
I have Diamond Status at Caesars. It helps because it lets me skip lines at Caesars properties. Apparently they used to give Diamond members free Wayne Newton tickets, too, but they don’t, anymore.
How much did my status save me? I have no idea. It’s a shell game. It’s a shell game, AND I’ll have to save Wayne Newton for another night.
The most enjoyable event of my birthday weekend was a scooter tour of Red Rock Canyon through www.redrockscootertours.com. The company spent 45 minutes teaching a small group of us how to ride scooters, and then off we went on a 13-mile closed loop drive of Red Rock Canyon. Beautiful. I practiced driving a scooter. I took in nature and learned about the local fauna. It was better than another Cirque show, or another mid-strip tout pushing people toward another nightclub.
Great idea, well-executed. I now want to buy a scooter.
But Vegas itself?
I think people come to Las Vegas because, like the Jersey Shore, they don’t know where else to go. I’ve spent two weeks in Southeast Asia for less, and never paid a resort fee.
To most people, Vegas seems extravagant, but it also feels safe and familiar: there are no foreign languages to learn, there’s no passport needed, and the food is not exotic unless you try something “different” at a buffet instead of going to Denny's.
I can’t say I like it, anymore. I lost less at the slots than I did in tips and fees and surcharges, and I didn't get to see Wayne Newton.