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Navel-Gazing

Stick ‘n’ Move.

On Thursday morning, 3/4ths of the way to Las Vegas, I was ambling across LAX to catch my last connecting flight, and everywhere I looked the war was on. Airport lounges, fast-food places, and even the sports bars had foregone the beginning of March Madness so that travelers could keep abreast of the then-unchanging greenscreen views of Baghdad. An hour later, I stepped off the plane into Las Vegas and the war had disappeared. TV’s everywhere were tuned into the basketball games and – should a station break in with some news on the events in Iraq – all the televisions switched immediately to another feed. By the time I entered the taxi-line at the McCarran Airport, which looked and moved exactly like the line for Pirates of the Caribbean, my suspicions were clinched – On the Strip, there is no war, nor much of an outside world, for that matter. Vegas will be Fantasyland, whether you like it or not.

It’s probably unfair to the people of Vegas to contrast the environment with what was going on in Iraq, particularly as I never got off the Strip and saw the local scene. Nevertheless, it was that discrepancy between war on the Strip and war everywhere else that weighed on my mind most of the trip. As I was exploring all the various casinos one morning (to be honest, once you get past the lobby, they’re basically the same – low lighting, ugly carpets, intentionally confusing layout, and depressed-looking, bleary-eyed people glued to their Skinner box of choice), I took in the Fountains of Bellagio, wherein a number of impressive water jets danced in unison to the strains of Lee Greenwood‘s “Proud to Be an American.” To be fair, this was as close to a concession that a war was going on that I saw all weekend – nevertheless, something about the faux-opulence at that moment just turned my stomach.

Even putting the war aside, though, I think I’d be a bit down on Vegas. For one, there was something inherently unrelaxing about the beeps, blips, and whistles resounding from every corner – as the weekend went on, I found myself spending more and more time outside just to take in the breathtaking landscape and find sweet respite from the flashing lights of the casinos. For another – and I know this is hypocritical – after a few days all the vacationers were getting to me. Everywhere I looked, there were gangs of drunk guys constantly hooting, hollering, and acting like they owned the place. True, I was with a group of male college friends, and while we weren’t raging drunkards, we too were comping free drinks like they were going out of style. Nevertheless, I often got the sense I was stuck at the world’s largest neverending frat party, and as the weekend wore on we all spent more and more time staying in our room, where we could watch the games and keep up on the war without being surrounded by rampaging hordes of Men Behaving Badly and vacationers blowing off steam. Most of the locals working on the Strip must have a really depressing view of the human condition, a suspicion confirmed by what conversations I managed to strike up with bartenders, dealers, etc.

So, to sum up, I had a good time, I suppose. But the carefree veneer of Vegas glitz barely concealed the sick undercurrent of desperation that seemed to permeate the Strip, and should I visit again, I’d rather (a) leave the vacationer spots and get a sense of local culture and/or (b) head out into the desert and see a bit more of nature. It was great to see all my friends, of course, but by 48 hours into the trip we were already making plans to meet up next time here in NYC rather than at NY, NY (a mid-range and kinda tacky casino – we spent most of our gambling time elsewhere.)

Speaking of gambling time, a quick note on how I made out. I had allotted a small amount of cash to be used as losses for the weekend, and it barely lasted the first day and a half of blackjack. But as I was leaving for the airport, I threw in one last twenty into a Deuces Wild Video Poker machine, a game which my friend Danny had been telling me all weekend was the best bet in Vegas. On the last hand, I improbably hit the jackpot, and flew out of Vice City $2000 richer than when I entered (That money has since been transferred to my good friends at Mastercard.) Clearly, the city wants another chance.

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