Thursday, May 2, 2013

Third time NOT a charm: latest Vegas trip proves what happens here, happens everywhere; it's just a whole lot more depressing in 'Sin City'

I'm in Las Vegas, and once again it's not really my doing. In '07, I arrived as part of a group vacation someone else had thrown together. In 2011, we treated my parents to a trip down the Strip. Now, I'm here on business, attending a corporate convention: four days of self-congratulatory speeches, awards and workshops designed to get us pumped up, and I've got to admit, it's done its job; I feel excited again about the work I do. No small feat, considering the work I do bears no resemblance to corporate anything.

I like Vegas, all things considered, but this is my third time in six years. I'm not really much of a gambler, and the glitter gets old pretty quick unless you are looking to really immerse yourself in the scene. If you're just strolling around sight-seeing, biding time until the next open session or workshop, or until you're tired enough to get to sleep, Vegas wears thin. I've done a little gambling, a little drinking, because that's what you do when you're here...but for the most part, meh. I've seen this already.

What's more, something feels different about this place, this time. The tourists, especially the first-timers, racing across their consciousness in an all-out gallop as they take it all in, have never been easier to spot or more annoying, the deeply troubled lurking (and sleeping) in the dense shadow of all the frivolous fun never more difficult to ignore, and the distinction between the two, the line between those for whom what happens here will stay here and those who are just stuck here, never more glaring.

This time, Sin City has not only bored me, it's left me with an ill-at-ease feeling.

Day 1:  That glaring hard line between haves and have-nots is established in no uncertain terms during the first open session in the casino convention center. A series of guest speakers, mostly from our corporate headquarters, take to a stage trimmed with soft-textured accent lighting, and with the impact of their words aided by the projection of their faces on three enormous JumboTrons, welcome us to Las Vegas. They set in immediately talking about motivation and the entrepreneurial spirit, about effective leadership and looking toward the future. It's been a good year in our business, they declare. Here's to many more, they cry, pumping their blue-suited fists. We're all well-dressed too, business casual at the very least, and with our heads still swimming in the excitement of having just arrived, we applaud, as much for ourselves as for what they're saying, digging into our open session lunch in all that clean-smelling, well conditioned air.

At that very moment, there is a shirtless dude pacing back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the casino. He's got an unpleasant look on his face, like he just got a taste of something bitter, or whiff of something foul. His eyes are blinking a mile a minute, creasing his temples as they go. He's holding a sign that says, 'Kick me in the nuts for $25.' 

Maybe that's why he looks unpleasant; maybe he's had a few takers recently. Maybe his jewels are screaming bloody murder on account of some drunken frat boy from Springfield, Illinois who, treading up to his chin in 'what happens here stays here', laid down his money with a hearty hell yeah and really put his back into it.

I don't know, though...this dude's short, but pretty buff for one so desperate, a compacted, sinewy mass of muscle, a bear trap waiting to be sprung, and his impressive form is littered with tattoos - a fiery assemblage of blood and knives and claws and skulls and teeth and naked chicks with long nails, all conspiring to tell a story - his story - of chaos. The very way he moves is chaotic - pacing nervously back and forth along the wall separating sidewalk from street - and it is this nervous-dog-on-a-leash bluster that first welcomes us to Vegas when our taxi pulls up, before any of our scheduled guest speakers even hit the stage, thus setting the stage for what I would come to remember about this trip.

Day 2: I get up early for breakfast in one of the many restaurants surrounding the casino floor.  The place I choose is still mostly empty, and the clean-smelling air has a note of coffee and cinnamon. I am seated beside some kind of decorative rubber plant, beneath a soothing trompe l'oeil sky. It's quiet enough I can hear music being played over the speakers. Yikes, I think it might be John Tesh. What starts as a simple lonesome piano melody gets whipped into a world music froth of smashing garbage can lids. It doesn't complement my mood all that well, but that's okay, it'll do. I snap open a gloriously un-thumbed Vegas newspaper and, feeling very much like 'Mr. Glovsky', take my first tentative sips of coffee. Casino workers scurry about, tending my every request - more coffee, extra napkins, some orange juice, some water - with a briskness that nearly convinces me they really care. I smile, nod my head approvingly, wink at one, even, I'm in such a damn good mood, doling out dollar bills to ensure their continued prompt service. I have an hour and a half to kill in this fashion before the morning's open session.

Life is good. I'm happy to be here.

Outside, a man sits with his back up against the wall of a skywalk spanning the Strip. He's dressed in tattered khakis and a Chicago Bulls tank, and his grime-ridden face heralds the difficulty of his life, just as 'Kick me in the nuts...' guy's tattoos spoke of chaos yesterday. He too holds a handmade sign in that same creased brown cardboard scrawl, though his takes a humorous tack:

'Why lie? I just need a beer.'

He was there when I took a short walk earlier, panhandling by dawn's early light, and I thought at the time (to try making light of what amounts to a tragic situation) that at least he's up early, catching the early worm. That's something, isn't it? Hell, he's being more productive at six in the morning than most people. And that sign is clever, isn't it? If he could just translate all that gumption and wit into something positive, who knows? They might one day love him at the convention! People can turn things around. I really believe that; believe in positive thinking, in drawing strength from optimism, which perhaps is why this corporate convention, cheesy as it can't help being, is resonating with me to the extent it is.

But then I realized he probably wasn't up early, wasn't go-getting anything. He'd probably been sitting there all night, keeping the soft schedule of one for whom time has dissolved from a necessity into a mere novelty until sleep came, and staying in an upright slumber until a bright needle of light from the rising sun creeping between the two casino towers directly east of the skywalk happened to wake him up to circumstances unchanged.

But I liked the wit of his sign, or maybe its jet black humor, so I threw him a dollar, and with a disarmingly warm smile, he looked up at me and said, 'Thank you. God bless.'

The convention picks up momentum on the second day. More guest speakers, many of them financial analysts, trotted on stage to pick apart the numbers. And those numbers are good, baby. Sales are up; costs are down; against all odds, our business remains healthy, and we have managed to outpace our competitors. Against all odds, even in 'this economy', we have grown.

'This economy'...that is, the fall-out from the financial crisis of five years ago. It's sucked for a lot of people. It's sucked for me, in a variety of ways, but I've managed to keep it together. Should someone slap the sign out of that guy's hand and throw him an application, rather than money for a beer? A dicky thing to do, surely, on the surface, but he's not defenseless. He's got humor on his side; he's making light of his situation, at least. Maybe a little drill sergeant treatment would help. Or maybe he's just perfectly okay with his situation; maybe he doesn't want to which case, should the City of Las Vegas be as tolerant of his panhandling as they seem to be? Should something be expected of him? There was at least a kind of Jackass-caliber spectacle to 'Kick me in the nuts...' guy...this dude's just sitting on his ass begging for money, and the warm smile with which he accepted my donation suggested he doesn't have to be.

When the conference has ended for the day, my group and I check out downtown, 'old' Las Vegas, Fremont Street, Glitter Gulch, with its array of classic casinos that used to show up in all the old movies - Binions, Golden Goose, Golden Nugget, Las Vegas Club. There's less action here these days. When people come to Vegas, they head for the Strip first and foremost. But downtown, while struggling, is still giving it all she's got. It's been closed off to traffic for almost twenty years, turned into a pedestrian mall, which lends it a more leisurely feel than the Strip. There's an impressive overhead light show, more sanctioned street performers (sanctioned meaning supposed to be there, part of what's called the 'Fremont Street Experience', not just some guy standing on the corner banging a drum), and a much higher concentration of impersonators, it seems, all milling around, waiting for someone to stumble up with a level of excitement and inhibition generally spurred by drunkenness and have their picture taken. From Roman gladiators to Rocky Balboa, Darth Vader to Mario and Luigi, Marilyn Monroe to the classic Vegas showgirls, they lurk at every turn, hoping to catch your attention, sometimes actively pursue your attention, and expect to be tipped for the privilege of a pic. An actual impersonator is worth a buck or two, I guess, if they pull it off believably, but someone dressed up like Hello Kitty, having not lifted a finger to create the look other than sliding into an enormous costume, not so much.

Are all the impersonators sanctioned by the City of Las Vegas? Could 'I just need a beer...' guy save up a few nights of donations, buy one of these costumes and hit the street? Is it that simple? Should someone expect him to do something?

Downtown seems to have remained very much 'old' Las Vegas. Whereas the Strip strains a hamstring trying to perfect a certain upwardly mobile hipness, downtown still clings to the kitschy and ridiculous. The sex is still there, of course; if anything, it's seedier downtown. There's more sex on display, more apparent gentleman's club, and girls dancing on open-air bar-tops. The Strip is carefully prescribed, finely tuned to the mainstream audience it knows will go there first.

Downtown is still gaudy for gaudy's sake.

A woman, forty if she's a day (although maybe she's just 25 rough-fought years), has had too much to drink. She stumbles out of a casino (or perhaps was removed), and squats down beside a souvenir kiosk. Steadying herself with one outstretched arm, she urinates on the sidewalk beneath a shimmering drape of key chains, shot glasses and glitter-covered flasks. The crowd watches, unable to turn away, and she seems to know she's being watched, smiling slyly as she evacuates her bladder. The liquid appears from underneath panties stretched between her thighs like a tightrope, and runs dark over the dimpled concrete on its way to the Pacific Ocean. She's this way for about five seconds, before the cops descend on her (also a heightened police presence downtown, I notice,  don't think it's my imagination...), when her sly smile disappears and she turns into something I really believe would give 'Kick me in the nuts...' guy a run for his money. She's petite, slender, but ready and able to tear it up, and it takes four cops to bring her down.

Meanwhile, I cast a quick-moving shadow on the street as I shoot overhead at 35 miles an hour. For $20 you can zip-line nearly 800 feet of Fremont Street, descend down on Glitter Gulch hanging by a string. I have never been much of a thrill seeker, but I go into this with a 'screw it, I'm forty' attitude, and I'm glad I do. It's exhilarating. It takes four cops about ten seconds to bring that woman down into a puddle of her own urine. It takes just seven seconds to bring me down from 65-foot scaffolding, and amazingly, I don't piss myself.

We both get our picture taken.

WEEE - As I zip-line the length of Fremont Street (looking like a wind-burnt dub, and more terrified than I actually was, damn it!), a woman squats down beside a souvenir kiosk and urinates, the dark liquid setting out immediately for the Pacific Ocean like a newly hatched duckling. It takes four cops to bring her down. Vegas, baby...

LIKE ZOMBIES - Celebrity impersonators, some more impressive than others, lurk around every turn in Vegas, sometimes actively pursuing a picture with you and expecting a tip for the privilege. Psy and Rocky Balboa? Not bad...not bad at all. Hello Kitty and Mario and Luigi...nah. Not impressed.

My room at the casino is nice - big bed, comfy, all the accouterments in their places, a separate tub and stand-up shower. The air conditioner turns the hellish heat outside into a kind of dairy creamer on my skin. If I could tip this machine for its tireless service, I certainly would.

I fall asleep quickly tonight, dream of jumping off the center of the Hoover Dam, zip-lining down into the rushing Colorado River on its way to the Pacific Ocean.

Day 3: Up early again, another breakfast by myself, a fresh newspaper, fresh cup of coffee, the music of John Tesh the rickshaw in which I am carried into my day. Back at the convention, the enthusiasm is reaching a crescendo. We are congratulating ourselves even more, dissecting our success, learning new ways to optimize sales, control costs, protect the brand, and getting a big thumbs up from some bonafide (if second tier) celebrities. Today it's winners of reality shows and authors of books on success being trotted on stage to bolster our enthusiasm. I'm happy for the sense of community I find at this convention, happy just for a livelihood. It may not be glamorous work that I do, I do not wear a suit and tie and shit gets under my nails, but I can pay my bills. I have a place to live. I have a car and a retirement percolating...finally.


In front of the Bellagio, where the water dances and great care was taken to create a stunning botanical garden, there is an elderly man, late sixties/early seventies, who I'm guessing never got a retirement percolating. He's asleep on the sidewalk, baking under the desert sun. Tourists walk past him, around him, over him, on their way in and out of the casino.

This man is not in trouble; he is not drunk, hasn't just collapsed onto the pavement. He is not trying to get anyone's attention by being cute, clever or hostile. He has no songs to sing, no one to impersonate, no self-effacing wit to offer as a buffer to his situation. He's not seeking tips or donations. He's done percolating, no longer has the wherewithal to even sit up and beg. He's simply asleep on the sidewalk - there when I walk into the Bellagio, and there when I come out. When I pass him that second time I notice someone has left two bottles of water for him, placed them carefully on the sidewalk near his head so he'll see them when he wakes up. I honestly can't say if this simple, moving gesture makes me feel better or worse. He's still asleep on the fucking sidewalk, and we are all still stepping over him to watch dancing fountains and piss away money on futile odds.

Ooh, look! they (we) coo in amazement, pointing out at the reflecting pool. Is the show going to start soon? How do they time the water to the music like that!?

SOMEWHERE UNDER THE RAINBOW - The Bellagio fountain show is impressive, both visually and from an engineering point of view. But on the other side of the pool, literally the other side of the rainbow being created by the jet-propelled water, there is a homeless man asleep on the sidewalk, cooking under the desert sun.

At the corporate awards ceremony on the final night, we get a chance to really bathe in our greatness with a black tie dinner. Casino workers are still moving briskly, conscious of every move they make as a precursor to a tip. They bring us our wine, our salads, our main course, our coffee, our dessert. They are never moving slowly, never ambling along, never stopping.

Is that the key to success? Just keep moving? I've heard that before, read about it, written about it myself, even. It's got to be the answer, but since being in Vegas this time around, I've starting wondering just how thin the line is between moving and not moving.

The dessert is nothing short of fancy schmancy. I pick at first, not because it all doesn't look delicious (oh, don't I love me some fancy-schmancy...!), but because I always have to worry about hidden nuts, which could kill me. Satisfied by both the fork and the sniff test, which I've been employing since I was a kid, I take tentative bites, then more voracious chomps, happy to be here. Love me some fancy-schmancy indeed, and these chocolate delicacies are not merely dessert, they are food art.

FOOD ART - Looking pretty spiny and angular for dessert, these food art delicacies turned out to be delicious, once I had determined beyond a reasonable doubt (and as much to my astonishment as delight) that they were nut-free.

Afterwards, I'm out walking around again; it's our last night in Vegas before heading back home, back to reality. Everyone else is tired, heads to their rooms, early flight tomorrow, but I'm driven by the mysterious impulse to see it all one last time, somehow will myself out of the funk into which I've sunk by ascertaining Vegas has not turned as ugly as it seems to have.

It's a mistake.

In front of a themed restaurant not far from my hotel, there is an utterly ferocious-looking woman - squinty eyes, pug nose, short and razor thin, sporting a funky shaven hairdo, the kind that makes the singer Pink look hot, but just makes this woman more terrifying. As she saunters down the street, minding her own business, someone heckles her and she responds by whipping around, pulling her pants down right out on the sidewalk, and proceeding to finger herself in a wanton display of aggression. Her lower lip is tucked angrily beneath her teeth. She lunges up and down in a kind of squat thrust dance, inserting two or three fingers into herself at a time, punishing herself, eyes full of fury, face mashed with rage, shrieking obscenities, not just at the people who provoked her but everyone within earshot. Like 'Kick me in the nuts...' guy two days before, it's evident she's hopped up on something. She has to be. This is not - can't be - a normal response.

What has set her off I honestly do not know; I didn't hear anybody say anything really. I just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, so much so, that for a fraction of a second I think she's directing her wanton display at me, and I replay the last two seconds over in my mind, trying to recall if I looked at her the wrong way or failed to give her space as we passed one another. But it quickly becomes clear she's focused on a very specific table of partiers sitting in an open-air bar above the sidewalk. She succeeds only in getting them to laugh at her, taunt her more mercilessly for the frailty inherent in her uber-aggressive posture. There's a moment when it seems she might climb up into the bar section and turn the altercation physical, but then she ceases her vulgar display as abruptly as she began it. By this time, everyone in the immediate vicinity is laughing and jeering, except me. I find no humor in the situation. That sort of behavior is either artificially produced by shit nobody should be putting in their bodies, or arises from torment and emotional instability we should all be lucky if we never have to endure. Whatever the response should be, laughter isn't it.

She turns and disappears into the unnaturally hued darkness, and so do I, in the opposite direction. Unable to sleep, I wander the Strip alone for another hour. All the enthusiasm of the convention, of 'protecting the brand' and 'best year ever', and 'happy to be here', of simply being in Vegas, on vacation, has been depleted like ozone.

Then, in a final slap in the face, I return to the casino around 1 a.m. only to discover a new panhandler out front. This time it's a veteran. Vietnam, he claims. It might be a sham, at least the Vietnam part. There's plenty of shamming going on here at any given moment. But maybe I just want to believe it's a sham, because the alternative is pretty heart-breaking.

He's the right age for the conflict, early to mid-sixties, balding and graying and confined to a wheel chair that clearly serves as his permanent home. He's got both legs, but one is languished, and the photographs he has taped to the back of his chair in a museum arrangement serve as irrefutable proof that he was, at the very least, a veteran somewhere once, and that he was young and strapping, with a place to go and a place to sleep and something to eat.

If he really is a veteran, this is unconscionable. Did he fail himself or did we fail him, and where does the line get drawn? How do we allow someone who served our country - who, in indirect if not direct ways, secured my freedom to zip-line down Fremont Street without fear of being run down by military tanks - to wind up panhandling at one in the morning?

And why it is upsetting me more than usual? That's the real question. It's not like I haven't seen this before. It's not like bad things haven't been happening to good people since the dawn of time, nor has fate ever proven herself to be anything other than a cruel mistress.

The haves and the have-nots are everywhere. In my own small Wisconsin city, barely 65,000 in population, there are homeless people, living along the river in the summer, creeping out of the bottom at night to forage in our dumpsters, forever (as in, year-round) standing in the entryway to the Wal-mart parking lot with similarly hand-scrawled cardboard signs (looking suspiciously as though all homeless people get them custom-made from one single supplier), at once requesting and imploring help, usually invoking God in some way.

It's also certainly true that fate is not always being a bitch. Often there are choices involved, wrong choices that beget consequences, which in turn lead to circumstances. There are plenty of people who are offered every encouragement, two helping hands for every one of their challenges, and still fall to bad choices, regretful courses of action, awful behavior in public places. Alcoholism. Drug abuse. Some people can't be helped. Won't be helped.

But there is something about seeing human beings suffering against the cartoonish backdrop of Las Vegas that makes it especially distressing. Most Midwesterners of average, everyday stock will attest to a certain feeling that they're suffering themselves. Faced with perennially rough job markets, never-ending financial turmoil and spartan resources, there is a sense where I come from that the homeless and broken in our midst are simply a few rungs down on the same rickety ladder.

But in Vegas, in Sin City, the destitute population bottom-feeding the excrement of our excess is a more stark and painful reminder of what should matter in life and what shouldn't. Here, the deeply troubled don't make me feel more thankful for what I have, they do just make me feel guilty, ashamed on behalf of everyone, myself included, swaggering and staggering around amidst all the neon glitter, pissing away time, energy and resources on absurd impulses, consuming with a ruthless bluster, while all around there are people with nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat, nowhere to go to the bathroom. This itself is not a new idea about Las Vegas; nor am I meaning to begrudge people a good time. People work hard. They deserve some recreation. They deserve to be entertained. But man, when you are here and you see the disparity first-hand, it makes an impact.

It's very possible that Vegas isn't what's different; maybe I'm different than I used to be. Maybe I can't ignore this like I once could. Maybe 'screw it, I'm forty' has - or should have - a deeper meaning, a more meaningful application.

And maybe it's time I start seeking it out.

Day 4: We're leaving, and I don't get up early for breakfast. Instead, I sleep right up until it's time to go to the airport.

On the way, the taxi driver strikes up a conversation, as they all do, looking for tips, tapping deep into 'personality' in hopes of squeezing out a few extra charitable dollars. I'm never charmed by this, or at least never fooled. This guy doesn't give a flying fuck where I'm from, or whether I'm a Packer fan. But I indulge him, mostly because I happen to be riding shotgun.

"You enjoy your stay?" he asks, switching lanes briskly as he transports us to the airport. On the radio is more of that world music, and someone singing who sounds like Diana Ross.

"Yeah," I smile and nod politely, like I always do when I don't care. Smile and nod, smile and nod.

"You win big?"

"No, lost."

"Too bad," he said, "but you had a good time, anyway, right?"

"Oh yeah."

"Hard not to in Vegas, right?

"I could get used to this life."

This is a pure falsehood, designed to throw this guy a bone, indulge his knowing smile. Really, what am I going to do, be brutally honest?  Cry to him about how depressing it all was? That's just bad form. I tell him what I think he wants hear.

And he responds:

"Yeah, well, you stay here long enough, it all disappears."

I am stunned by this remark, this admission, this stray from the typical tweaking of my baser instincts in a gossamer attempt to get us relating, to turn us into brothers, to pretend that he too routinely avails himself of Sin City just like he assumes I have. I can't say if it it's sincere, or if he's just reading me, taking note of something on my face, a pensive tone in my voice, and responding accordingly. But I need to hear it, and am glad I do.

I'm not paying for the cab ride; it's a company expense, and the tip is taken care of. But unbeknownst to my group, I tip this guy an extra five dollars. Not sure why, exactly. Perhaps merely for the singular connection he has no idea he's just made.

He looks at me like I'm nuts, but accepts the gift, and says: 

'Thank you. God bless.'