There’s fear, there’s loathing, and then there’s Las Vegas.
As my plane came in to land, I could clearly make out the unmistakable skyline of The Strip, an architectural juggernaut of casino-hotels, malls and depravity, all artificially set aglow by neon, flickering LEDs, and pulsating strobes.
It was as if the entire universe had descended on Vegas – to soak up the sun, lounge at blackjack tables and prop up a million bars. A modern-day Gomorrah, its job is to lure people to party, to toss money into a bottomless pit, to bulk up on buffets, gawk at crazy-kitsch architecture, and sin without regret. It’s mesmerising and – for those with limited self-control – potentially bankrupting.
The madness was already in full swing as I stood with the new arrivals forming a snaking queue at the reception of the Luxor, a big, black, pyramid-shaped hotel of 4 400 rooms. Those already checked-in were zeroing in on the shrill-screaming slot machines in a frenzy of wilful expenditure.
Endless rows of transfixed losers sat at these contraptions, depositing their dimes and dollars as they sipped free drinks delivered by an army of retirement-age cocktail waitresses in chintzy outfits.
Stuck out here in the desert, your first question is why it exists at all. It may be all glass-and-chrome fakery today, but when Vegas was established in 1829, it was a fertile spring-fed valley – its name, in Spanish, means “The Meadows”. The Mormons even built a fort here, as a hitching post between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. Upon being proclaimed a city in 1911, Vegas quickly became popular as a centre for “quickie” divorces, attracting men to its “dude ranches” where they’d wait while their marriages were overturned.
Gambling was legalised in 1931, and the idea of constructing casino resorts took hold shortly after World War II. By 2000, it was the largest city in the US to have been founded in the 20th century. And it continues to grow.
Its talent has always been for revenue generation rather than aesthetics, though; it’s not a pretty place. Beyond The Strip, it’s an ugly sprawl of concrete, open parking lots, wide boulevards and gargantuan billboards.
But nobody seems fazed. Most folks stick to the central hub of tourist-infestation where the megalithic hotels are clustered into one contiguous money pit.
Let me lift the lid on one commonly held myth: it’s not for reasons of propriety that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. It’s because most of what happens there is so embarrassingly delinquent nobody wants the truth to get out.
The mobsters responsible don’t like to gamble. Instead of robbing you after murdering you (which would be like killing the goose that lays the golden egg), they make a show of emptying your wallet. This they achieve with flashing special effects and high-pitched sounds – it’s Disneyland on acid.
They’re games, yes, but odds are stacked firmly in favour of the casinos. If you are presumptuous enough to beat the system, you stand a good chance of getting booted out. Or perhaps there’ll be an escorted ride into the desert, where you’ll be expected to dig your own grave before being buried alive.
Well, that’s the old-fashioned take on Vegas, the sort gleaned from classic Hollywood gangster flicks. But, in reality, the scenes of chisel-jawed, gatling gun-wielding mobsters have been replaced by the non-stop pageant of uncontained debauchery in what has become Ground Zero for purest hedonism: Las Vegas is a kind of morally-inverted universe where the glitz and gauche of unparalleled excess has triumphed over human dignity.
I was three days into this self-torture when, despite the lack of sleep, I caught myself trying to push my theory of Vegas’s immorality on to the tiny 60-year-old waitress keeping me hydrated as I feverishly fed coins into a machine I sensed in my soul would soon deliver a jackpot.
‘That’s nice, sweetheart,’ she muttered, gnawing her gum and rolling her eyes. ‘Can I get you a refill?’
Feeling redressed, I handed her my cup full of coins and asked her to watch my machine while I ran to the loo. Had I been holding it in all this time? And what time was it, anyway? To lock gamblers into perpetual night, not a hint of daylight was permitted to penetrate the casino floor.
Released from the spell of the slots, I was suddenly motivated to sneak out of the casino in search of fresh air and some Cirque du Soleil. There were plenty of big-name shows in town, but I bought a discounted ticket off some desperado with a sign around his neck saying he’d let you kick him in the balls for $20 – failing that, his sign said, he’d pose for photos for a ‘tip’.
Turns out he was also a hustler and the ticket was a fake.
To numb the pain of being taken for a fool I headed for a strip club where I misinterpreted the rules and got ejected for taking my clothes off.
I found a nightclub willing to admit me and after a few hours of extravagant dancing found myself saying ‘I do’ in front of an Elvis impersonator at an all-night chapel. Most couples come to renew their vows for a bit of a laugh, and many dress up in whacky costumes rented from the shop across the road. Ours was an Elvis “Blue Hawaii” wedding complete with a fully functional pink Cadillac, and we stayed on as witnesses at another ceremony presided over by a Darth Vader who broke into song.
It was a bleary-eyed shuffle along the pavement back towards the Luxor, where we arrived just in time to beat the queue for the buffet. Midway through our honeymoon breakfast, my new life-partner mumbled something about ‘charging by the hour’ – which is more or less when the coffee kicked in, the room stopped spinning, and I remembered my abandoned slot machine.
Using the smorgasbord as a smokescreen, I ditched the hooker, ran back to the casino, and found my cocktail waitress dutifully watching my seat.
‘What took you so long?’ she tutted, giving her watch a scan.
‘I could tell you,’ I said, reaching for my wallet, ‘but I’d have to kill you!’
A version of this article originally appeared in the January 2023 print issue of Getaway.
By Keith Bain
Illustration by Jess Nicholson
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