Month: April 2011 Page 1 of 3


The Strip Diary, Day Twenty Five: Hey China, President Trump Will See You Next Tuesday

Day Twenty Five: New York, New York ($179)

The Huffington Post has a very strict, and admirable, policy against ad hominem attacks. I know this because a couple of weeks ago I submitted the first draft of a post calling for a boycott of Donald Trump’s Las Vegas hotel and, an hour or so later, I got a phone call politely but firmly explaining that policy.

On that occasion, it was an easy fix — a couple of tweaks so that I was hating the game and not the player. This time around, having sat in a ballroom at the Treasure Island last night, listening to Trump address a group of Nevada-based “Republican Women’s Groups,” my task is way harder.

In fact, after less than an hour in the same room as Donald Trump, I defy any right-thinking human being not to want to call him some pretty unpleasant names. After all, if Trump gets his way, America will immediately be plunged into a pit of political and economic isolationism that would make the Bush Jr years seem positively warm and fuzzy. As a foreigner who loves America, it took all of my reserves of self control not to heckle from my press seat.

“Motherfucker.”

That’s Trump’s word, not mine, obviously. My journalistic impartiality — and the Huffington Posts rules — explicitly prohibits me from calling Trump a motherfucker. And so, accordingly, I will keep my opinion of the man — whatever that opinion might be — to myself. No, “motherfucker” is how Donald Trump referred to Chinese politicians. As in, “I’m going to say, listen you motherfuckers, here’s a 25% levy on Chinese imports…” Throughout his speech, Trump cursed like a tourettic Soprano. This despite the fact that the average age of attendee was close to triple figures, even allowing for the half dozen children I counted scampering around the room. On Iraq he cursed about how we can build schools in the war-blighted country (“schools, which they then blow up”) but “we can’t get a fucking school built in Brooklyn”; On oil: “You have oil at this much a gallon because someone in Washington said ‘You ain’t gonna raise the fuckin’ price”; on Trump’s lack of racism: “Some of my friends are Chinese; But now they’re not talking to me. They’re like ‘shit, can you believe this guy?’”

And on and on. To the point that the AP reporter sitting next to me broke off her conversation with one of the organizers: “Sorry, I have to listen to this — he’s going to curse some more.”

Between the fucks and the shits, though, lay actual concrete Trump policy; “The Trump Doctrine,” as he straight-facedly referred to it. For a start, Trump promised to be tough on nature, and tough on the causes of nature. “Nobody knows more about the environment than I do. I receive a lot of environmental awards,” he assured the crowd, to murmurs of approval. “Green technology is important. But what good is green technology here when China is spewing out crap. We gotta drill in Alaska. We gotta drill. There is so much oil.”

That particular point caused the first of many confused audience reactions of the night. Conditioned to respond to clearly flagged platitudes and talking points, the crowd gamely tried to second guess the appropriate reaction to each word as it came out of Trump’s mouth. In the above case, the response went like this…

“Green technology is important”

CHEER!

“But what good is green technology here when China is spewing out crap…?

CHEE… BOOOOO!

“We gotta drill in Alaska!”

CHEER!

Even more comical was the audience reaction to Trump’s defense policy…

“We went into Iraq because there were weapons of mass destruction!”

CHEER!

“But there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction!”

BOO!

“And people said it was all about oil”

BOO!

“And I say, well that would have been a good reason to go in!”

CHEER!

Make no mistake, Donald Trump loves oil, like the Cookie Monster loves cookies or the Republican Women’s Groups of Nevada love hairspray. On Libya: “I say, we go into Libya and we take the oil. People say, Donald that’s a sovereign nation. I say, there’s no nation!” That one got a big cheer too. Fuck sovereign nations.

Fuck also America’s inability to bomb one back to the stone age. “Out leadership is weak and pathetic — we can’t even take over Libya” Big laugh that time. America is weak, ho ho ho. Apparently, to Trump supporters, for all the flag waving and singing of the national anthem (the pledge of allegiance was recited too), America is only great when it’s run by Republicans. The rest of the time: “America isn’t a great country. We love our country, but it isn’t a great country.”

Really? I’m just a persistent visitor to these shores, but from where I’m sitting, it looks pretty great. I mean, where else but America would you find a system so democratic that it allows a clown like Donald Trump can run for office rather than, say, locking him in an asylum?

The next of Trump’s weird semantic somersaults took him spinning towards his critics: “Some of the press is scum,” — and then away again, with a nod to the Fox cameras in the room — “not all of the media — but some of the media.” Accordingly his mention of the New York Times elicited a boo, until it became clear that he was quoting a positive review of his own TV show, whereupon it turned instantly to a cheer. To this crowd it seems that, like America itself, the media is scum until the point you agree with what it says.

More contorted still was Trump’s rhetoric on foreign goods: “Every time I buy a television — and I buy a lot of televisions for the Trump hotel — I look at the market and I end up buying LGs from South Korea.”

The crowd waited for its cue. Where was Trump going with this, I wondered. If he attacked foreign goods, then he’s tacitly admitting the TVs at his hotels suck. But he can’t praise foreign manufacturing. Unless… “they’re good televisions — but why don’t we make them?” Huge applause.

In fact, televisions form an important cornerstone of Trump’s foreign policy. If South Korea wants American troops to continue to help defend it against the North, he explained, then they’re going to have to agree to make their televisions in America. Problem solved. Big cheer.

China too will have to outsource its manufacturing to America, if it wishes to continue having the honor of owning American debt. “This year China is going to make from this country, $300 billion” exclaimed Trump. Again, the crowd didn’t know how to react, so they let out a kind of collective “ahhh—oooh-eeeh” noise. But then came the punchline… “Why shouldn’t we make $300 billion?” Why indeed, Donald? Except for basic economics, but let’s not get dragged down by those. Let’s also gloss over the fact that your tie pins and clips are made in China. Those motherfuckers. “We had the president of China here and we gave him a state dinner. When people are screwing you, you don’t give them dinner”

(For the record, I do like to give dinner to people who are screwing me. It seems only polite.)

And so the madness continued, for a good solid forty minutes — all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Like some kind of grotesque burlesque dancer, Trump littered his speech with hints at a presidential run, being careful not to peel off his pasties and naming a date. “Run for president” shouted a woman in the crowd. Trump responded with a smile: “Thank you darling; I think I’m going to make you very happy.”

Just don’t expect dinner afterwards.


The Strip Diary, Day Twenty Four: Going Undercover With Culinary 226

Day Twenty Four: The Mirage ($99)

“What do you think about an effigy?”

The union worker’s colleague looks puzzled. “I’m not sure what that is.”

Up until now I’ve been standing quietly, listening to their conversation. But now I can’t help myself: “It’s like a paper-mache model of a person. Generally speaking, they’re burnt. You haven’t really arrived until you’ve been burnt in effigy.”

“Oh, ok. Uh. Let’s talk about that later.”

Yeah, probably best table that discussion until there isn’t a journalist being given a tour of the union hall.

I love unions, and I don’t. A child of the 80s, I grew up in the UK at a time when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (“the Iron Lady”) was doing all that she could to de-unionize the UK, including triggering the 1984 (coal) miners’ strike which devastated entire communities and cost the UK economy something in the order of 1.5bn pounds ($2bn+). Later, I began what I still wryly refer to as my journalistic career writing for the Guardian newspaper, which, on union matters, is only slightly to the right of the Socialist Worker.

And yet, as if proving Churchill’s maxim that “if you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain,” the older I’ve become, the more conservative I’ve turned on the subject. That natural rightward drift was hastened during my years living in London where Bob Crowe’s National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) shut down the London Underground every time they decide they need a pay rise. There’s something a bit perfect about a union fighting to improve the lot of its 80,000 members by preventing millions of other London wage-slaves from getting to work. See also the Communication Workers Union who once had to call off a proposed one-day strike in order to allow their workers to deliver postal ballots, to facilitate a future strike.

More recently, on this side of the Atlantic, I’ve been vocal in my opinion of the Newspaper Guild and their demand that all Huffington Post writers, even the shit ones, be paid for their work. Accordingly, I am not paid for my work at the Huffington Post.

So it was with those mixed feelings, trending against sympathy for unions that I arrived at the union hall of Culinary Workers Union (Local 226), the largest union in the state of Nevada – representing over 60,000 Las Vegas hotel and cassia workers.

The union’s political director, Yvanna Cancela, had contacted me with an interesting proposal: how would I like to go behind the scenes of one of the strip’s biggest hotel and casinos, to talk to some union workers, maybe meet some employees and generally understand what life is like for the countless thousands of hotel workers in Las Vegas?

There was just one condition. As if to underline the constant cold-war between unions and hotels, my visit would have to be undercover. Under no circumstances could I mention the name of the hotel in any of my coverage, and if we were stopped by hotel security, I’d have to lie. Would I feel comfortable with that?

It’s a pretty basic tenet of journalism, in America at least, that a journalist should always identify himself as such. To pretend to be something I’m not — in this case, a brother unionist visiting from London, would violate every journalistic code. And what if workers told me things they wouldn’t share with a reporter? The moral implications were so complex they made my brain hurt.

“Sounds fine,” I said. It doesn’t do to over-think these things.

First though, Yvanna offered to give me a tour of the union hall — a sprawling set of buildings on South Commerce Street — to explain the structure and mandate of the union that represents many of Las Vegas’ culinary workers, porters, valets, GRAs…

“What’s a GRA?”

“Guest Room Attendant… a housekeeper”

“Ah.”

… GRAs, bell desk workers… in fact, almost every job that keeps hotels working smoothly. “Except security guards — they’re not unionized. But they want to be, so they’re usually nice to us.”

Let’s hope.

Lining the hallways of the union hall are photographs of the union’s great victories. “This is the Frontier strike,” says Yvanna, “that was one of our big successes.” The Frontier? I’m not sure I’ve been there. “It’s gone now.” Uh huh.

A cynic might note that disproportionate number of the Culinary Workers Union’s big victories seem to be in either securing or retaining recognition for the union within hotels. But that cynic would be doing the union an injustice: in the space between the photographs, are pasted posters offering members assistance with everything from health insurance, to alcohol awareness training, to becoming homeowners to obtaining citizenship — your permanent resident card does not fully project you.

It’s easy for me as an overpaid, over-educated whiteboy to question the value of union membership, but judging by many of the snippets of conversation I hear as I walk around the union hall, for many members, Culinary 226 is all that stands between them and the breadline. The American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson credits the union with “boost[ing] wages and transform[ing] dead-end jobs into middle-class careers in the very belly of the casino economy.” And according to the Associated Press, even the president is a fan: during his election campaign, then-senator Obama addressed the union’s membership “telling them he was ready to walk their picket lines should their current contract talks turn sour.”

“We have representatives in all of the hotels on the strip,” says Cancela, “except Venetian and Pallazo.” What’s different about those? “They’re owned by Sheldon Adelson — and he’s a horrible human being.” This from the National Journal:

Adelson’s “anti-union views are of a piece with a much broader extremist ideology that he employs for his own financial benefit,” says John Wilhelm, one of two presidents of UNITE HERE, the key union of casino and hotel workers in Las Vegas. “The economic growth in Vegas has been made possible by a very positive relationship between the unions and all the other major gaming companies except his.”

(Adelson is apparently not horrible enough to be burnt in effigy though; that potential honor is reserved for Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, who “is trying to destroy education in the state” by diverting hotel room tax revenue away from education.)

“So what’s to stop all of the hotels on the strip following Adelson’s lead and de-unionizing?” I ask, disingenuously.

“We represent so many essential workers in the hotels and we can bring them all out on strike. Hotels would lose millions of dollars in business if we did that.”

Certainly there doesn’t seem to be much sign that Las Vegas will be de-unionized any time soon. The front page of the Winter 2010 issue of the union’s in-house magazine, The Culinary Worker, trumpets the news that “by a huge percentage, more than 4,500 workers in Culinary and Bartenders classifications from CityCenter’s Aria signed on to be members of the union.” Recruitment is helped by a ‘neutrality’ agreement between the union and many of Las Vegas’ hotel operators, including MGM which owns Aria. “That means we can go inside the hotels to talk to staff and recruit members.”

Speaking of which…

“I’ve got a letter that says you’re visiting [Hotel X] on union business,” says my guide; a senior union official who — for obvious reasons — I’m not going to name. “That’s all we need if security stops us.” Seriously, I’m filing all of this stuff away for my heist.

As it turned out, neither the letter or my paper-thin cover story were required. Gaining backstage access to a mid-four-figures room casino is as simple as walking through a door marked “no admittance, staff only”. If anything, management and security gave us a wide berth: a senior union representative in the hotel can only mean trouble. “Actually, we have a really good relationship with the management here, with very few complaints. They realize that keeping a happy workforce means they’ll give better customer service and everyone will be better off.” Careful readers will have deduced that we weren’t touring the Riviera. (Nor, for the avoidance of doubt, were we in the Mirage, where I stayed last night).

Still, we’re barely ten paces inside the building when the first petitioner approaches. “Can I ask you a question?” he says to my guide, with no more introduction than that. He doesn’t ask who I am, and I don’t volunteer the information.

The worker — a porter or bellman judging by his uniform — has an issue with the hotel’s lateness policy. Until a decade ago, the policy was informal: employees who showed up persistently late were given warnings and then dismissed. But different managers had different levels of tolerance for tardiness — some workers were dismissed after six episodes of lateness, others after twenty. The union spent an inordinate amount of time complaining about the inconsistencies, so the hotel introduced a more formal policy, based on points. For every incident of lateness, the employee “earned” half a point. For every unauthorized absence, without some kind of doctor’s note, they scored a whole point. Ten points in any given year, and they’re out. Every year, employees with fewer than eight points have their slate wiped. Those with eight or more have to have six months without incident for their record to be similarly expunged. What could possibly be clearer?

“I has two minutes late to work yesterday and was given half a point,” complains the worker. My guide nods sympathetically, and waits for the question.

“Is that right?” asks the worker “I was only two minutes late.”

“9:02 is still late,” explains my guide, patiently. “Some managers will be lenient if it’s just a couple of minutes, but technically it should still be half a point.”

The worker walks off, still frowning at the injustice of it all.

“A lot of my job is trying to coach workers on which fights are worth having and which aren’t. That guy was late, and he got half a point. It’s fair, and it’s explained in the handbook that every employee receives, but people will always complain,” she says. “Isn’t that a problem with unionization?” I ask – that you train people to complain about every injustice, and very soon everything turns into a grievance.”

“Actually things have to be a step one before they’re escalated to a grievance.”

It seems I’ve accidentally blundered into some union speak. A grievance is part of the formal complaints process agreed between hotels and unions to ensure that serious gripes are dealt with by the right people, while minor quibbles are handled by the shop stewards — regular hotel employees who volunteer to take on union duties. Shop stewards also monitor relations between staff and managers, including ensuring that staff who have made complaints are not victimized by their bosses. Above the shop stewards are volunteer organizers with more formalized duties: 12 hours a week or unpaid administrative work to help the union. Then there are the more senior representatives, like my guide, who have overall responsibility for union activity in the hotel.

Eventually — having been stopped by three or four more petitioners, we arrive at the employee dining room — or ‘EDR.’ This is the hub of the hotel workers’ community, where bread is broken, war stories are shared and — looking around the vast room — naps are taken. The EDRs are where you realize what a monstrously large operation a Las Vegas hotel is. I have to be careful giving hard numbers, but each day at Hotel X, the EDR chef serves 1000 more meals than the hotel has guests. And the food looks good: really good, actually — spanning Asian, American, Italian and French cuisine, including a “healthy” counter which, curiously, contains both apples and cakes.

To my earlier question — “The EDR here is one of the best on the strip. At other places employees are lucky to get spaghetti and some garlic bread. But still we hear complaints that the food selection here isn’t as good as it used to be. Again, I try to explain how it’s important to pick fights.”

From the EDR, we move on to a meeting with a shop steward representing two workers with a fight worth picking. The employees have been “terminated” by the hotel for theft, after being caught removing some schwag left behind by a conference. “When an employee is given something by a guest, she is supposed to get a letter from her manager authorizing her to remove it from the building. Ideally she’ll also get a note signed by the guest, so if the guest comes back alleging theft, we have proof that it wasn’t.” Throughout the example, my guide used the pronoun ‘she’ even though both of the people involved in today’s case are male. Perhaps it’s more common for female members of staff to receive gifts from guests. In any case, the two terminated employees have filed a grievance with the union, and it’s my guide’s job to brief the shop steward on how to get them their job back.

I listen as she explains how the employees’ fate rests on whether the property left behind at the hotel is considered trash (belonging to no-one) or whether it remains the property of the guest or the hotel. If it’s the former than an employee taking it home is guilty of a simple policy violation, subject to the usual escalating system of warnings and final warnings pre-dismissal. If it’s the latter, then it’s theft, which is a casino hotel is a one-strike-and-you’re-out crime.

“You need to argue that it’s just a policy violation,” says my guide, pausing to ensure that the shop steward has understood. Then she turns back to me. “That’s assuming, of course, the employees are telling the truth — that’s something I’ve learned to say: ‘assuming they’re telling the truth.’”

After all, as I’m always telling my colleagues back at my entirely fictitious union back in the UK, nobody likes a liar.


The Strip Diary, Day Twenty Three: Please Help Me! I’m Going On Television by Mistake

Day Twenty Three: THEhotel at Mandalay Bay ($83.99)

Dearest Readers,

I need your help.

I may be 5,000 miles from London, but even here in Las Vegas, I can’t utter a word in my British accent without somebody mentioning the upcoming Royal Wedding.

“You must be very excited,” said a total stranger in the coffee shop at the Cosmopolitan last Sunday. The poor woman babbled on for a good minute-and-a-half about dresses and abbeys and the Archbishop of Canterbury before I had the first idea what she was talking about. “I expect you’ll be watching it on television?” said someone else who I got chatting with at the gelato place in Vdara. Not wanting to disappoint the enthusiastic colonials, I gave the most British answer I could: “oh yes, jolly excited — and of course I’ll be watching on television. Crikey, toodle pip, cor blimey Mary Poppins… “ all that nonsense. They lapped it up and went away happy.

But then a few days ago I received an email from a producer at KSNV Channel 3, asking me to come on their breakfast show on Friday and — I shit you not — help commentate their royal wedding coverage. Idiotically — publicity whore that I am — I agreed.

Here, just for the record are all the things I know about the royal wedding.

1)

2)

3)

4)

5)

6) William’s brother’s name is Harry.

7)

8)

9) The Queen will be there.

10)

So you see my problem.

Fortunately, though, I have this amazing platform — courtesy of The Huffington Post — to beg for your assistance. So here goes: If anyone reading this knows the first thing about the upcoming nuptials between Prince Baldy and Kate — um — Kate Thingy, please for the love of God email me here.

Anything will do. What’s Williams’ favourite color? Where did the two of them go on their first date? Does Kate own a cat? How long are experts giving them before the inevitable, painful royal divorce? I’m serious. Make stuff up if you have to. I promise I’ll regurgitate the best facts I receive — true or entirely fictitious — on KSNV Channel 3 on Friday.

Thank you, and cheerio.

Paul


The Strip Diary, Day Twenty Two: Las Vegas House Prices Are Now Your Friend

Day Twenty Two: The Mandalay Bay Hotel ($95)

Yesterday, I wrote about Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s plans to regenerate downtown Las Vegas by moving his company’s 1,100 employees to a new campus in Fremont East. One of the side effects of the move, I mentioned, is that many of those employees are now looking to buy houses closer to downtown. And for those buyers, Internet tycoon-turned-Las Vegas housing expert Tom Anderson has some good news: there has never been a better time to buy a home in Vegas.

“In August 2006 [Las Vegas] house prices were 134% higher than they were in January 2000,” he explains, “but as of January 2011, prices are back to around those 2000 levels. When you adjust that for inflation and current wages, homes here have never been more affordable.” And it’s this affordability which makes Las Vegas such a haven for property speculators. “You’ve got a lot of investors — and some regular homeowners — making all-cash purchases in Vegas right now. In fact over 50% of monthly home sales in Vegas are all cash-purchases, and have been for a few years.”

By “all-cash”, of course, Anderson means houses bought without mortgages, either by people with lots of money to spend, or — more frequently — by those who are buying real estate as an investment. Given how many people lost their shirts on Vegas housing investment the first time around — more on that in a moment — Anderson’s 50% statistic surprises me. But that’s because I know dick-all about the world of property investment.

Explains Anderson:

A homeowner who has a good amount of savings, but who bought at the peak [of the market] with little to no money down — which is how many loans were back in 2005 and 2006 — may choose to do a strategic default and buy another house in cash. Investors are doing a lot of buying and flipping of REOs, short sales and houses that are auctioned off before they reach REO status. An investor can buy a house all cash, fix it up and sell it for a small profit: they might make $5-$10k on a $150-$200k house. Investors are also holding properties and renting them. I’ve met a number of people who’ve started funds or raised money to buy and flip and/or rent houses in Vegas. For the end-user or buyer who has good credit, there’s quite an opportunity: get an FHA loan and only put 3% down on a house that is priced near or below building cost.

Sounds amazing, right? And it is, for professional investors or cash-rich homebuyers like the ones Anderson describes. For a whole other class of people, though, the story is much, much less rosy.

When Anderson talks about “REOs”, he’s referring to “Real Estate Owned” properties — a neat euphemism for a home that is owned by a bank or a government agency, following an unsuccessful foreclosure auction. In other words, many of these homes that provide such a profitable opportunity for investors today previously belonged to home buyers who couldn’t afford to keep up mortgage payments on them.

Erika M. Wright is a partner in the firm, Miller & Wright, which provides bankruptcy services for clients who lost everything when the Vegas housing bubble burst. “We do what we can to help people,” she says, “but we’re often their last resort, and many of them come to us too late.”

The story Wright tells is one we’re all familiar with, because it happened right across the country — and the world. Around 2006, the harsh realities of economics finally caught up with the real estate bubble: mortgage payments were missed, homes were foreclosed and a global financial meltdown ensued. And with Vegas being a major epicenter of housing hype, so it followed that the city was hit harder than most places. As the Las Vegas Sun reports, people moved away in droves — and continue to do so — as Vegas ceased to be the land of milk and honey it was sold as. As building engineer Tyler Young told The Sun: “If I’m going to be looking for another job, I’m going to live where I want to live… you need to go to a place where you can better yourself and have a future. Here, it’s just going down.”

And for those who couldn’t afford to leave: put simply, the last few years have been pretty good times for bankruptcy lawyers.

Wright wouldn’t say anything so mercenary, of course. And nor would she say that a lot of what went so wrong for Vegas homeowners can be traced back, not to misfortune or misselling by banks, but to basic human greed. What she will say is this…

“At the height of the housing bubble, you had people who were buying houses, seeing them increase in value by $100,000 in no time, selling them and saying ‘now I’ll buy five more houses and do the same with those’”

“So, they wanted to make a quick profit, and they screwed up?”

Wright concedes that in some cases, greed was a factor, but insists that in many others, banks were just as culpable: encouraging customers to take mortgages they shouldn’t have and sending out a message that — contrary to all the laws of economics — houses in Vegas would just keep increasing in value. “There was so much land here that people just kept building and building.”

Her partner in the firm, Shawn Miller, explains just how ridiculous things got: “we saw bidding frenzies on properties, with prices in no way relative to actual values. People were buying multiple properties sight unseen. Meanwhile construction companies were building high-rises out in the suburbs. You need high-rises in cities like London or New York where space is at a premium, but not in Vegas.”

“So what did the buyers think they were going to do with all these houses and high-rise condos?” My question could have been rhetorical: it’s clear there wasn’t a lot of rational thought being put into the question.

“Actually a lot of the homes were sold or rented to the construction workers who were arriving to build all the new houses,” explains Miller.

I laugh. I can’t help it. “So people were buying houses to rent to builders who were building new houses to sell to people who then rented them to builders?”

“Yes.”

“And the banks were encouraging this?”

“Yes.”

“But why? Surely the banks can’t be that stupid? Surely they could understand how unsustainable it was?”

“Oh, they are that stupid,” Miller deadpans. And he should know. Before joining Miller & Wright, he worked as an attorney representing those same banks.

Whatever the cause — stupid banks, greedy homebuyers, whatever — the result is the same: “You go down to the square near the bankruptcy court and there are whole communities of homeless people living there,” says Wright. The problem is the housing collapse coincided with a rise in unemployment. At the end of last year, the national (U.S.) unemployment rate was 9.5 percent; in Las Vegas it was 14.8 percent. “If people have jobs then bankruptcy offers a way to get creditors off their backs for a while so they can start to rebuild their lives. But if you don’t have a job then very soon you’re back where you started, and you can’t file for bankruptcy again for six or seven years.”

“So why,” I ask, “are the banks so quick to foreclose? Isn’t it in their interests to try to work with the homeowners to get something back?”

“Some of the local banks are willing to do that,” says Wright, “but for the larger ones… many of them don’t own the debt any more. They sold it to someone else, who sold it to someone else. Our clients come to us with letters from companies they’ve never heard of, demanding repayment.” And for those banks who do still own their debts, it’s often a question of either not caring — “you have to understand that there aren’t people at banks making human decisions, they just look at numbers and make an instant call” — or of not wanting to set a precedent — “if they renegotiate one person’s debt then they worry that everyone will come to them wanting to do the same. They foreclose to set an example.”

It’s a hell of a way to make an example, but as with so many things in Vegas, one person’s loss is another’s gain. One real estate agent, specializing in foreclosed homes has created the Foreclosure Bus Tour: a three hour guided tour of other people’s misery. For people like Anderson, meanwhile, the availability of REOs represents nothing more — or less — than a sensible business opportunity, and a Las Vegas housing market returning to the normal rules of supply and demand.

“Lots of industry pundits say Vegas [house prices] may drop by another 5% this year,” he explains, “and they may. But it depends on the neighborhood. There’s a condo near downtown Vegas that had bottomed out about 12 months ago, with too many units on the market. A unit in that building might sell for 20/30% higher today than it did last year. The condos in CityCenter are holding on to their higher prices, and the developer won’t sell them for less. They’ve decided to rent them in the interim, rather than sell them at a loss. Tract homes in a neighborhood like Summerlin may be around $110 per square foot, whereas a similar home — even one built by the same builder — may go for $65 per square foot in North Las Vegas. It really depends on the desirability of the neighborhood; the building — in the case of a condo; the floorplan. Like any market, that which is rare tends to hold its value — you can still get a higher price for a strip view in a condo. And in the luxury market, you’ll still see people paying $400 and $500 per square foot in the most desirable neighborhoods.”

Of course it’s all too easy to paint all of this as a story of the rich getting richer and the poor getting screwed. As a card-carrying liberal Guardian columnist-turned HuffPost blogger, I was temped to do precisely that. In truth, though, Anderson is right: what we’re seeing play out in Vegas is simply basic supply-and-demand economics. For every hardworking homeowner who took their bank’s advice and ended up paying the price, there were plenty of others who thought they could become property tycoons overnight, and fell victim to their own greed. Likewise for every ghoulish Foreclosure Bus Tour, there’s a perfectly decent businessman who understands that a down market is a good time to buy property in the town you love. Especially when you have the cash to do it.


The Strip Diary, Day Twenty One: From Sin City to Sim City — Tony Hsieh’s Plan to Rebuild Downtown Vegas

Day Twenty One: Encore at Wynn ($259)

“So, how are you going to write sarcastically about all of this?”

Tony Hsieh makes a good rhetorical point. We’re standing in the Downtown Cocktail Room, the epitome of a hipster San Francisco bar: hot young locals lounging on sofas, sipping cocktails with names like ‘Sniff Happens’ and ‘Persephone’s Pomme’; moody lighting; bathroom stalls with two-way mirrors so you can look out as you pee; half of the people in here work for an Internet company. You know the drill.

The only difference is, we’re not in San Francisco. We’re in Las Vegas. And all of these Internet people work for Zappos, the Internet shoe retailer that relocated here from San Francisco in 2004. I’ve been invited to join company CEO Hsieh (pronounced “shay”) and his team for one of their regular Friday night social events so that he can tell me about his big new project.

And what does the CEO of a company that was acquired by Amazon for almost a billion dollars do next?

He rebuilds downtown Las Vegas, obviously.

Since the start of my trip to Las Vegas, I’ve received dozens of emails and tweets encouraging me to get off the strip and explore “downtown”, the area around Fremont Street which formed the town’s original gambling center, before the advent of the Strip. “There’s a thriving arts scene downtown!” some wrote. “There are great bars!”, insisted others. Frankly, though, there seemed to be more than a touch of wishful thinking to the claims: pressed for specifics, most mentioned First Friday — the monthly arts and culture “block party” held downtown on the – uh – first Friday of every month. At a push, a few could identify a specific bar or coffee shop they frequented, but the overall consensus from those I spoke to – cab drivers, waiters, PR people, actors and lawyers alike – was that Vegas is a at heart a small, transient, town yearning for a cultural community.

Even Tony Hsieh — who wrote a book called “Delivering Happiness“ and is capable of putting a positive spin on almost anything – admits that “Vegas isn’t really known for having a sense of culture or community.” But, unlike the cab drivers and waiters and PRs and actors and lawyers, Hsieh is actually in a position to do something about it.

Zappos currently employs 1100 people at its main headquarters in Henderson. The company boasts of its culture of happiness and how employees are made to feel part of a giant family. Indeed, on Thursday, en route to a tour of the Zappos campus, I asked my company-supplied driver what first attracted him to the job. “I was living in Las Vegas but all my family was in New York,” he said “People told me that working at Zappos was like joining a family – and it is. Every night I have at least one or two invitations to parties or social events organized by other people from the company. The difficult thing is knowing which ones to say no to.”

Comparing those two realities — the uber-social Zappos family (set to double in size in the next two years) and Vegas’ perceived lack of community, particularly downtown — Hsieh saw an opportunity to ‘deliver happiness’ to all sides.

When the City Council announced plans to change the location of City Hall, Hsieh made his move, buying the building and announcing plans to move Zappos HQ from Henderson to Fremont East. As Mayor Oscar Goodman told the Las Vegas Review Journal the move “revolutionizes the way downtown will exist in the future… It creates a critical mass of [creative] folks… They’ll be over at the Arts District. They’ll be milling around the downtown and creating energy.”

Put simply: the relocation of the Zappos family to Fremont East will inject a ready made community of 2000 people into the area, transforming its social and cultural scene from “burgeoning” to “established” at a stroke.

The big move won’t happen until at least 2013, but already the effects have been seen: Zappos employees are starting to look for homes nearer to the new location, and every night after work more and more of them make the journey downtown to see what all the fuss is about. Which is what brings Hsieh and his team to the Downtown Cocktail Room.

Come on,” he says, “I’ll give you the tour.”

Fremont street is a curious thing – “Checkpoint Charlie“ as one Zappos-ite likened it – forming a dividing line between the tourist-heavy Fremont Street Experience and the ‘real’ downtown: the burgeoning hub of bars, coffee shops and arts and entertainment venues which make up Fremont East.

The effect on crossing from the tourist zone to the local zone is instant, and a little trippy. Suddenly gone are the gigantic plastic cups of booze and the staggering, belching drunks, and in their place swarms a thick cloud of hipsters, munching gourmet hotdogs from curbside food carts and patiently lining up outside drinking hole with names like “The Beauty Bar“. As Tony and I walked, something started ticking away in my brain. A feeling that I’d been here before, and not just because there’s also a bar called The Beauty Bar in San Francisco’s Mission district.

Continuing on, past a sign for 6th Street – “this whole area is closed to traffic at the weekends” — it clicked: the streets of Fremont East feel uncannily like the streets of Austin, Texas during the South by Southwest festival. Stepping inside the bars, though, one is instantly transported West to San Francisco: the inside of Vegas’ Beauty Bar is the spitting image of it’s San Francisco counterpart (later Googling would confirm they have the same owners).

Another recently-opened Fremont East bar that should be in San Francisco, but isn’t, is “Insert Coin(s)“: essentially a karaoke bar for gamers. Open until 6am, the bar offers multiplayer games on giant flat-screens as well as coin-op arcade classics: The line outside stretched halfway around the block – but, fortunately, I’m with Tony so there’s no waiting. Everyone in Fremont East knows Tony. The bar’s owner comes over to say hello. “You’ve come at a good time,” he tells me when Tony explains that I’m writing about the rebirth of Fremont East, “you’re witnessing the start of something big here.”

A block or so away from Insert Coin(s) stands City Hall which seems as good a place as any for Hsieh to spell out his vision, not just for the building — “there are jail cells in there; we’re thinking of turning them into nap rooms, or maybe a speak-easy” — but for the whole of downtown Vegas.

“This will be a completely different area in the next five years,” he says, “we’re bringing food, live music, an entertainment scene; we’ve even talked about opening a charter school. Did you ever hear of the game Sim City?”

“Of course.”

“Well, for us it’s like playing Sim City in real life. One tagline we’ve come up with is ‘from Sin City to Sim City’…”

He pauses.

“…you know, like adding another little hump on the ‘n’”

It’s impossible not to love Tony.

Speaking of which, if I were a cynical man, then I’d be convinced that what happened next had been set up in advance. “Excuse me, are you Tony Hsieh?” say the slightly breathless fellow who accosts us as we walked back towards the Cocktail Room. Tony extends his hand, instinctively — clearly he gets this a lot.

The man proceeds with his pitch; he’s the founder of a not-for-profit art collective, and was wondering whether Zappos might care to display some of their art. The moment brings all of the pieces of Tony’s vision together: Zappos, local art, downtown Vegas… “Sure,” says Tony, “in fact we’re having drinks at the Downtown Cocktail Room, why don’t you come by and I’ll introduce you to the person in charge of our art.” Like I say, Tony couldn’t have scripted the encounter better. Delivering happiness indeed.

Even the Downtown Cocktail Room itself is conveniently on-message, owned as it is by Michael Cornthwaite. Michael and his wife Jennifer have been described as “the first couple of Fremont East“, responsible for numerous local artistic and cultural initiatives including “Emergency Arts“, a cultural center, housed within the former Fremont Medical Building. Where once there were waiting rooms and doctors surgeries, now the space has been taken over by dozens of independent artists and retailers.

Tony’s tour of Emergency Arts takes me past painters and fashion designers and tattoo parlors and even the headquarters of the ‘Burleseque Hall Of Fame’, each neatly packed into its own space — “look at this: there’s a whole hair salon built into an old waiting room — isn’t that great?” It is great. On the ground floor of the building sits The Beat Coffeehouse which, judging by the number of people who have suggested meeting there during my continuing exploration of off-strip Vegas, has become the de facto social hub of Fremont East.

Again, the vibe at Beat is unlike anything I’d experienced in Vegas so far; but very like what I’m used to seeing in places like San Francisco or Austin. (Even the name screams San Francisco, although actually it refers to the fact that the coffeehouse also sells vinyl records.)

Finally back at the Cocktail Room, I ask Jennifer Cornthwaite to explain Fremont East’s problem. Why, given the lines around the block at Insert Coin(s) and streets bustling with local hipsters, had so many locals complained to me about the lack of community downtown? I’d asked dozens of self-described locals for suggestions on where the local arts and cultural scene can be found. With the exception of First Friday, none of them had been able to offer specific recommendations. Unless — “were they trying to keep me — a tourist — away?”

“No, it’s surprising how few locals even know about these places,” Cornthwaite said, clearly exasperated. “We’re trying to raise awareness, but it takes time.” She’s also keen to persuade out-of-towners to venture down, away from the Strip, she insists, but — another echo from San Francisco — admits that she doesn’t want the area to become flooded with drunken tourists.

At the Downtown Cocktail Room, that “people like us” test starts with figuring out how to open the damn door. It’s fun to watch the increasingly drunk procession of tourists passing by, trying to push on the glass wall at the front of the bar to gain access. In fact the real door is a handle-free metal panel tucked away to the left. “We didn’t design it to confuse people,” Michael Cornthwaite insists, “but it’s pretty effective at keeping out drunk people.” (The locals vs tourists attitude is contagious: I hesitated for an embarrassingly long time before deciding to include the ‘secret’ of the door, or even the name in this piece).

Another of Jennifer Cornthwaite’s goals is to attract some of the creative talent from the Strip to venues around Fremont East. “Las Vegas has some of the world’s best musicians, and artists and performers. There’s so much artistic and creative talent in the town,” she says. By way of example, Cornthwaite mentions Absinthe — the circus-meets-burlesque show I’ve been raving about for the past two weeks. “A big part of me really wants Caesars to screw it up,” she says, “then we can be like ‘come put the show on here!’ We’d be the perfect venue for it.” She’s not wrong.

In the meantime, given the echoes of Austin and San Francisco, surely it’s time for Fremont East to host its own arts and technology festival, to rival South by Southwest. Especially as — paging Portlandia — many early adopters are declaring the original festival “over”. Vegas plays host to the CES conference every January. “Why not pitch Fremont East as a kind of Vegas Fringe for those guys?” I suggest.

Cornthwaite likes the phrase “Vegas Fringe”, but as for the other stuff “It’s already happening. During this year’s CES, I asked around the bar, who was in town for CES? It was like — woah — so many of them were. We just have to keep spreading the word.”

Fortunately spreading the word is something Tony Hsieh is very, very good at. This, after all, is the man who bought a tour bus once owned by the bass player from Dave Matthews Band and drove around America on a “Delivering Happiness Tour“ to promote his book. The bus is parked down the street, and Tony offers to give me a ride back to my hotel, stopping only to pick up a gourmet hotdog on the way (price $3, with toppings including pineapple and crushed potato chips).

“I always order what I call ‘an underdog’” he says, “that’s where you put the condiments on first, and then the dog on top, so all the stuff doesn’t fall out.”

I laugh. Every day millions of people complain about the messiness of hotdog toppings. But the difference between those people and Tony Hsieh is that Tony didn’t just bitch about the problem. He fixed it.


The Strip Diary, Weekend Round-up: Even More Vegas Hotel Reviews, in Haiku Form

You know that old phrase? Time flies when you’re staying a single night in every single hotel on the Vegas Strip? Well it’s true!

You know that other phrase? That you’ll bust your ass all week writing about Elvis wedding chapels, blogging escorts, terrible parents and dangerous circus acts — but all anyone will compliment you on are the damn haiku? Turns out that’s true too!

And so here we are, at the end of week three, and time for another round up my past week’s hotel stays — from Paris to the Wynn — in handy haiku form. (Previous weeks’ installments here and here)

Friday: Paris ($150)

Une salle très plaisante
But weird that les hotel signs
Use clunky Franglais

Saturday: Harrah’s ($120)

The blandest hotel
Amazed how little stood out
Oh! Toilet was black!

Sunday: Planet Hollywood ($70)

Stayed here with a girl
She adored the huge bathroom
You know how girls are

Monday: Flamingo ($40)

Comfort and service
And the room was forty bucks
Surely some mistake

Tuesday: Treasure Island ($59.95)

Who knew that pirates
Make great room service salads?
They kept that quiet

Wednesday: MGM Grand ($69.99)

Huge bed, spacious room
But why don’t hotel desk chairs
Ever fit the desk?

Thursday: Wynn ($255)

Filmably great room
And — oh God yes! — noon check out
The Wynn, for the Win


The Strip Diary, Day Eighteen: The Economics of Long-Term Hotel Living (and Why Vegas Messes Them Up)

Day Eighteeen: MGM Grand ($69.99)

Today has been a busy day. I’ve visited Zappos and Vegas.com; I’ve had coffee with two bankruptcy lawyers who explained why Vegas real estate is screwed; and I’ve explored some of downtown and Fremont street, my impressions of which I’m hoping to share this weekend.

The result of all this running around is that, having just checked in to my next hotel (video below), I only have half an hour before dinner and I haven’t even started to think about today’s diary entry.

It’s time, then, for another installment of my regular feature: “Paul meets his deadline by writing in generic terms about hotels”. Today’s episode… how I manage to live in hotels permanently without bankrupting myself.

A few days ago, I talked about how I can’t understand why the whole world doesn’t live in hotels. Unsurprisingly, given how disingenuous that statement was, I got lots of mail in response.

More than one correspondent pointed out that many people have husbands or wives — and kids — which prevent them from gallivanting around the world. Others — mostly girls — argued that they couldn’t bear to be without all of their clothes, furniture and other stuff. Both of those are fair reasons to stay home.

By far the biggest argument against universal hotel living, though, was the cost. After all, everyone knows that to live in hotels — decent hotels, at least — one must first be obscenely wealthy. The fact that I have been living in hotels for almost five years must mean either: I’m expensing my accommodation bills to some mysterious media benefactor, or I am independently wealthy.

Nope and nope.

In fact, over the past four-and-a-bit years, my monthly accommodation budget has been consistently lower than the rent on my former apartment in London. To get how that’s possible, it’s important to understand a few basic differences between short-term hotel living and long-term hotel living.

Short-term hotel living is what most people think of when they think of hotels — checking in for a couple of nights, splurging on room service, and then going home.

Short-term hotel living is a shit-show. In the past seven nights in Las Vegas, I’ve spent a total of $828.75 including tax on accommodation; an average of just under $120 a night.

Over the course of the month, that average would result in a total accommodation bill of $3600. Then there are resort fees and/or Internet charges (call it $15 a night, on average = $450 a month), not to mention taxis to and from each hotel ($300 a month) and so on and so forth. Factoring in some peak weekend rates, I’ll probably spend $7500 on accommodation alone this month, which is way more than most people pay on rent.

But the way I’ve been living this month is a million miles away from how I normally live. Not least because, if you’re serious about living in hotels long-term, changing location every night and booking your rooms the night before is just about the worst way to start.

Here’s a far better approach..

1) Stay longer than a month. In most parts of the developed world (or at least in the US and Europe where I spend most of my time), cities don’t levy room tax on hotel stays of a month or more. Annoyingly, most Vegas hotels cap hotel stays at just under a month, so the trick doesn’t work here. But if this were, say, San Francisco or London, my $828.75 weekly bill would be more like $739.95 without tax — an average of just under $106 a night or $3180 a month. And of course most cities on earth don’t charge ludicrous “resort fees”.

2) Only stay in hotels with free Internet, and free everything else. One of the biggest advantages of long-term hotel living is how much stuff hotels give you for free. In a hotel you don’t pay for cable TV, for example; or for power, or water, or heating — or the countless other basic expenses that sit on top of your mortgage or apartment rent. Another huge saving is on maintenance. If something breaks in an apartment, you have to call someone to fix it — and pay them for their work. In a hotel, if something breaks, you just switch rooms. Before I left London, four years ago, I figured out that — factoring in local taxes, bills, maintenance, cleaning and other stuff that’s included in hotels, I was paying around $100 a day just to exist in my apartment. Almost half a decade later, I can still easily get a hotel room in most cities for $100 a night, without breaking a sweat.

3) Break a sweat. Negotiating amazing rates is half the fun of long-term hotel living; and I’ve used just about every trick imaginable to shave a few dollars off a nightly rate. I almost always stay in independently owned hotels, or those which are part of a small chain. Why? Partly, because the service is often better, and the rooms have more character. But mainly because they’re far more willing and able to offer discounts for long stays. These are still difficult times for the hospitality industry, and a guest offering to occupy a hotel room for a couple of months is music to an independent hotelier’s ears. In San Francisco, by booking in for six months, I was able to negotiate a three room suite at a boutique hotel, less than a mile from Union Square, for less than $75 a night (normal rack rate for a basic room: $175). And with no tax. I’d tell you which hotel, but I’ll probably go back and I don’t want it to be full.

4) Be a bit shameless. I’d never advocate lying to hotels, but there are a couple of tricks that I imagine might be quite effective, if i were to try them. Here’s one: when you call up to book a long stay, always ask for the cheapest room available. Every hotel has a couple of crappy rooms they can never sell, and so are willing to sell at a discount. These rooms are your friend. When you arrive at the hotel for your two month stay, there’s almost no chance that the person at the desk will be the same person who took your reservation. Act disappointed that you’ve been given a crappy room, given that you’re staying for so long. No front desk employee has ever been fired for giving an upgrade to a valued customer.

5) Do your homework. Most cities publish their occupancy rates for the previous year. Use them to figure out the optimum time to stay in a particular city, and when are the times to avoid. Another key to long-term hotel living, of course, is to have a job which allows you to work from anywhere so you can pick and choose your location based on where the best rates lie. It pays to track currencies too: I once spent a week in Iceland, just because the economy had collapsed and the hotels were nearly empty.

Obviously I’m painting in broad strokes with all of these tips. There are a countless more techniques, and nuances within those techniques, which help to make long-term hotel living not just affordable but actually preferable.

If I were a cynical man, I’d suggest you pre-order my book to see how I used them to upgrade my way to my current lifestyle. But I’m not a cynical man, so instead if you have more questions, email me here and I’ll do my best to answer them in future diary entries.

But first I’m going to order room service, send an $8 fax and watch some overpriced porn. Seriously: why doesn’t everyone live like this?


The Strip Diary, Day Seventeen: I’m Not Elvis, I Just Play One at a Wedding

Day Seventeen: Treasure Island ($59.95)

“So be sweet and kind to mother,

Now and then have a chat.

Buy her candy or some flowers or a brand new hat.

But maybe you had better let it go at that”

– Tom Lehrer, Oedipus Rex

“One guy called to ask how distant two relatives have to be to get married.”

Brian Mills — dressed as Elvis — is sharing one of the stranger questions he’s been asked as general manager of the Viva Las Vegas wedding chapel.

“I feel like if you have to ask the question, you’re probably not distant enough,” I reply.

“Yeah, he wanted to marry his mother.”

“Woah.”

“Right. I asked him — ‘why would you want to marry your mother?’ And he said ‘I figured I should if we’re going to carry on having sex’.”

Brian is brilliant. A former star of Les Folies Bergere at the Tropicana, Brian’s acting career took a knock when his next gig was canceled after September 11th. “A lot of people stopped coming to Vegas; shows closed; things were pretty bad. But then Ron DeCar — the owner of this place, who also used to be in Les Folies Bergere — asked me to cover for him as Elvis while he was away in London. And now here I am.”

In fact, many of the 20+ staff at the Viva Las Vegas chapel have a show-business background. And that’s lucky, because some days the chapel hosts as many as 150 differently themed weddings, each of which requires a complete set and costume change. If I thought Cirque’s KÀ show had an impressive turnaround, it has nothing on Viva Las Vegas.

Brian opens his calendar to a random day. “On this day we have a vampire wedding, then a Blue Hawaii wedding, then a Pink Cadillac — that’s where Elvis drives the bride down the aisle in an actual Cadillac, then a traditional wedding, then another couple of Elvises…” He carries on down the list – Blues Brothers weddings, pirate weddings, Egyptian weddings — before turning to the wall behind him, covered in photographs of happy couples: “this one was a superhero theme for a couple from Sweden; that’s me dressed as Captain America — man, that costume was warm. That’s our Rocky Horror wedding — we’re lucky that the people who work here happen to look a lot like the original cast — that’s our grim reaper wedding…”

“Isn’t a grim reaper wedding a little morbid?” I ask.

“Maybe,” says Brian, “but Halloween is actually one of our busiest days. For our ‘When Vampires Fly’ weddings, we can bring in performers from the Stratosphere’s “Bite“ show, and they fly above the bride and groom.” Sure enough, bolted to the ceiling of the main chapel is a wire and pulley system. “We also have smoke machines and lights and every prop and costume you can imagine.”

As our tour moves on to the costume store — where the bride and groom, and their guests, can rent any costume for $50 — I decide to test Brian’s claim that Viva Las Vegas can cater to any nuptial whim. “The Royal Wedding is coming up. As a Brit, if I met someone nice in Vegas, could I come here and do a William and Kate themed wedding?”

As the video below shows, he doesn’t skip a beat.

“You could. In fact three weeks ago we did exactly that. I went out and got an Archbishop of Canterbury costume and performed the ceremony for a couple from Florida… we pulled the bride through the chapel on a fairytale coach, escorted by two knights.” Brian is justifiably proud of his creativity: his latest creation is a Princess Bride theme, based on William Goldman’s book, and every girl’s favourite movie. “Anyone can do an Elvis wedding, but we’re Las Vegas’ only genuine theme wedding chapel” he says.

“What kind of person has a theme wedding in Vegas?” I ask, partly because I can’t imagine, and partly because I can. “We get all kinds of people,” he says, “lots of Europeans and people from Asia. A lot of our business is vow renewals; people who are already married but want to do something fun while they’re here. We also have a lot of commitment ceremonies. We’re the only gay-owned wedding chapel is Las Vegas so we get a lot of that business.”

In fact, as Joni Moss from the Nevada Wedding Association later explains, many chapels in Vegas refuse to carry out same-sex commitment ceremonies (gay marriage is illegal in the state of Nevada). Apparently in the town which boasts that “anything goes” some things are beyond the pale. Much like the banning of full nudity from strip clubs that offer liquor, a sanctimonious attitude towards recognizing homosexual couples is one of those weird things that reminds you of how curiously religious Sin City is.

For heterosexual couples, though, there are few states more welcoming than Nevada. All a prospective bride and groom have to do is show up at the marriage license bureau with one form of government-issued ID (from any country in the world) and $60 in cash to get a marriage license. There are almost no restrictions on who is eligible for a license, except that the applicants can’t be too intoxicated, and, to answer the question posed by Brian’s creepy mother-fucker, they can’t be “nearer of kin than second cousins or cousins of half blood“. The whole process takes about twenty minutes, and is available daily from 8am until midnight. “People think you can get married in the middle of the night,” says Brian, “but the marriage bureau is no longer open 24 hours…”

He rolls his eyes.

“Thank you Britney Spears”.

Actually the county maintains that the night-time closing of the marriage bureau is due to lack of demand, and a need to cut budgets, rather than an attempt to reverse stereotypes — but, still, Brian’s joke reflects the Vegas wedding industry’s very real image problem.

Indeed, when Moss suggested I visit Viva Las Vegas and meet Brian, I knew what to expect. I’d seen Elvis-themed chapels on TV and I knew they weren’t for People Like Me. Even the prices suggest a — let’s say — lower-end clientele: a basic wedding at Viva Las Vegas starts at just $260 — plus $60 for the minister (Brian isn’t a certified minister, and Nevada law mandates that a religiously-affiliated minister preside over every wedding). Theme weddings are tacky, the people who run them are money-grabbing hucksters preying on ignorant poor people who think that being married by Elvis is the epitome of class.

And yet, and yet — less than an hour in Brian’s company and I’m completely turned around. Well, almost completely (maybe 178 degrees). For a start, Brian is definitely no huckster. He loves — loves, loves — what he does, and puts his heart and soul into every character he’s asked to play. “Later this week I’m doing a Spanish-speaking Darth Vader,” he beams. The pride on his face when he shows me the photos of his previous hits — including the faux William and Kate wedding — is palpable too. “Look, I even wore glasses for the Archbishop.” Sure, he readily admits that some of his roles are ridiculous — like putting on the right voice for his Princess Bride character — but for Brian the actor, that’s all part of the fun.

As for the customers, yeah… I mean… many of them are straight out of central casting too, and when I ask Brian for more funny stories, he has no shortage…

“We had a guy who called up and said he wanted to marry a blonde, American woman with large breasts. I had to explain to him that we don’t arrange the bride.” And… “There was another guy who called a week later and begged us not to record his wedding, which we have to by law. He’d married a hooker and now she was demanding half of his boat. Apparently his girlfriend was really mad.” As well she might be.

“Have you ever turned someone away?” I ask.

“We’ve never actually turned anyone away, but we have sat a few couples down and asked if they’re absolutely sure they want to go through with a wedding. We also get people calling us the next day to ask if they can undo their marriage, but after we’ve pronounced them husband and wife, that’s it.”

…but for every freak with a quite complex complex, or remorseful boat-owner with an angry girlfriend, there are dozens more perfectly balanced couples who just want to renew their vows in a fun setting, or to recognize their love in a way that the state of Nevada discourages. For $260, plus minister, costume rental fee and a tip for the limo driver, Brian and Viva Las Vegas allows them to do that.

A half mile down the street from Viva Las Vegas lies Vegas Weddings a church-shaped wedding chapel that boasts of being “the only two-story wedding chapel in Las Vegas.” It also boasts of being across the street from the marriage license bureau, which makes it the first port of call for many of the couples who arrive in Vegas looking for a quickie wedding.

And when Vegas Weddings says quick, it means quick: the chapel offers a walk-up window (“would you like fries with that?”) and even a drive through-lane for couples whose commitment to each other doesn’t extend to getting out of the damn car. As if that weren’t freaky enough, the chapel also employs “passers“ to stand near the license bureau, looking for the telltale pink sheet of a marriage license in the hope of snaring a new customer. “On any day, we might get 40% of our business from walk-ins,” explained one of the chapel’s managers.

It was roughly at that point that all my feelings of cynicism of the Vegas wedding industry — and Vegas in general — started to return. I mean, seriously? A drive through window? Handing out fliers outside the marriage bureau? Ugh.

But then I noticed the framed portraits of Vegas Weddings’ previous clients, lining a long hallway next to the main chapel. In maybe 75% of the portraits at least one partner was dressed in military uniform. Explained Moss: “Nevada’s marriage laws mean that military personnel about to ship out can come to Vegas and marry their partner the same day, so they can benefit from benefits due to military spouses.”

The walk up window is perfect for that kind of wedding; no frills, no ceremony, just two people in love who want to make sure everything is in order, just in case one of them doesn’t come home.

Try being cynical about that.


The Strip Diary, Day Sixteen: An Open Letter to Parents Who Bring Their Children to Las Vegas

Day Sixteen: Flamingo ($40)

Dear Parents Who Bring Their Children To Las Vegas,

Sorry to interrupt your “vacation of a lifetime”, but I need you to do me a quick favor. Put down your frozen margaritas for a second, look up from the poker table and take a long hard look at yourselves in the mirrored ceiling.

How do you look?

Ashamed?

Thoroughly and visibly mortified at the sight of your own criminally-negligent faces?

No? Well, you should. Because you are terrible parents.

“Now hold on a monument” you’re saying, probably pausing mid-word to take a swig from your lurid green drink, “you’ve got it all wrong. We love our kids. They’re safely tucked away in our hotel room, with a babysitter. They’re having a ball; watching in-room movies, ordering room service and playing with the toys they won at Circus Circus.”

Well good for them, and I’ll give you half a point for not tucking them under the poker table while you gamble away their college fund. But none of that changes the fact that you’re terrible parents. You became so six months ago when you had this conversation…

Mom: “Honey, we have two choices for our vacation this year. We could put the interests and safety of our children first, and take them to Disneyland. They’d love that, but we might be a little bored.”

Dad:“Yeah, that sounds like a snooze. What’s the second option?”

Mom: “The second option is to put our interests first, and drag our children to a town which will probably scar them for life. A place where they won’t be able to walk ten feet without seeing an advertisement for a strip show. Where the sidewalks are littered with photos of hookers. Where everyone is drunk. Where they’ll learn to play blackjack and enjoy the taste of second-hand smoke before they’ve learned to write cursive.”

Dad: “Let’s do that! We can totally stay at Circus Circus. That’s good for kids, right?”

Mom: “Sure.”

Dad: “Oh, and honey – when the kids are asleep, why don’t we rent a hooker and have that threesome we always wanted! Wait — honey? — why are you crying? Are those happy tears?”

Honestly, if there was such a thing as a parenting license — and you are the reason why there probably should be — then parents who take their kids to Las Vegas should have theirs revoked. There’s literally no excuse.

Sure, Circus Circus has an amusement park and games where kids can win fluffy toys; MGM has a Rainforest Cafe — and there’s a roller coaster at New York New York. In fact, every casino has something for kids, even if it’s just a late-afternoon show that doesn’t have any swearing. But like so much else in casinos, the inclusion of those features is entirely cynical: an unconscionable sop bolted on to a smokey, boozy gambling den in order to provide a justification for terrible parents — like you are — to choose Vegas as a family holiday vacation, rather than heading to somewhere that is actually family friendly.

This is my fifth trip to Vegas, and I’ve seen some heartbreaking things in this town — an old woman dressed as Britney Spears, begging for coins; a hooker wearing braces; people lining up to see Kriss Angel — but all of that pales next to the tragedy of the child — maybe eight-years-old — who I spotted on the Strip about half an hour ago (11pm) wearing a pastiche of one of those “hot girls delivered to your room” t-shirts. The parents probably thought it was cute, or ironic, or arch, to dress their firstborn as an underpaid pimp. In reality the scene was the perfect distillation of all that is wrong with parents who bring their kids to Vegas.

Parents like you.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Yes, I’m taking an ostensibly moral position here — your children are going to spend the second half of their childhood in therapy, and that’s probably a bad thing — but frankly if you’re the kind of parent who brings your kids on vacation to a place called “Sin City” then anything resembling a moral argument is likely to fall on deaf ears. The truth is most of my disgust is firmly rooted in selfishness.

You see, over the past 16 days, I’ve grown sick and tired of having to deal with the consequences of your terrible parenting. I’m sick of fact that the check-in lines in hotels move ten times slower than they have to because you’re too preoccupied trying to keep track of your screaming, whining, crying brood to realize that it’s your turn to be served. I’m tired of having to dodge and duck your errant issue as I walk down the strip, or across casinos; and of having to apologize when I inadvertently step on one of the little bastards. And I’m both sick and tired of moments like the one I had last night when I found myself having to censor an otherwise wonderfully profane anecdote simply because your little fucking darlings were within earshot. In a bar. In Las Vegas.

Is nowhere unsacred?

Enough. It has come to something when I’m the one giving lectures on responsibility, but clearly all else has failed. You can stop looking at yourself in the mirror now not least because if you have an ounce of shame, you’ll be feeling pretty nauseous right now. In fact, hopefully you’re feeling so sick that you decide to go and rescue your poor neglected children, check them out of whichever flimsily justified “kid-friendly” hotel you’ve booked them into, cancel your tickets to see Mac King, and get on a plane to Florida, or Anaheim or — frankly — anywhere else in the world for a proper family vacation.

And then, in ten years or so, once your children have gone off to college, or at least reached an age where they can look after themselves, by all means come back to Las Vegas. Spend the rest of your lives here for all I care, blowing what’s left of your money on all the roulette spins and frozen cocktails and threesomes with escorts that your heart desires.

And just think how much fun all of that will be when you can look up at the mirrored ceiling without two terrible parents staring back at you.

Am I right?

I’m right.


You’re welcome,

Paul


The Strip Diary, Day Fifteen: A Las Vegas Courtesan Talks Sex, Crying Wives and Windshield Wipers

Day Fifteen: Planet Hollywood ($70)

Only since the advent of the Internet has it been possible to achieve huge fame, while also retaining total anonymity.

The most ready examples of that phenomenon are found in the ranks of the sex bloggers: the (usually) young (usually) women who write about their private lives for the titillation and education of the masses. A few — Belle de Jour; Girl With A One Track Mind — have received lucrative book deals and subsequently been “outed“ — but the majority of others continue to plug away in glittering obscurity.

One blogger in the latter category is The Las Vegas Courtesan (NSFW, obviously), who is precisely as her nom de plume suggests: a call girl living and working in Las Vegas.

I’m slightly ashamed to say that, before landing in Vegas, I’d never heard of The Courtesan’s blog — or her Twitter account — which is a shame because they both make fascinating reading, going way beyond voyeuristic insight into the life of a sex worker. Of particular note is The Courtesan’s mission to tour and photograph every brothel in the state of Nevada. “I sometimes feel bad taking a tour and then telling the girls I’m not interested in anything more,” she told me when we met. (Given that her profession is still illegal in Las Vegas, I’m not going to tell you where we met: save that it was the bar of a Strip casino.)

What I will tell you is that The Courtesan is everything she claims to be: blonde, young, very attractive and a real-life escort. I mention that because having spent a couple of weeks in Vegas, it takes me by surprise when something — or someone — is actually as advertised. She was also willing — providing I didn’t write anything that might blow her cover — to tell me anything I wanted to know about living in Vegas, and working as an escort.

There wasn’t much I didn’t want to know.

The Courtesan started her career as a stripper, which might not surprise you to learn. What might be surprising is her reason for making the switch to selling sex. “I was way more stressed as a stripper than as an escort” she explained. “A good stripper isn’t supposed to take rejection personally: I get that you might not be every guy’s type, and you just move on to the next one.”

A pause.

“But if you get turned down by twenty guys in a night, it’s hard not to take that personally — they don’t want to even give me $20; what’s wrong with me?. As an escort, you might only get rejected once a night.”

Another surprise is the typical user of The Courtesan’s services. The cliche of the fat, old pervert isn’t entirely a myth — “at least they tip well” — but actually the largest demographic of clients is 20-something-year-old young men. “The guys go out with their friends to strip clubs, get a bunch of dances and then leave disappointed. Then they get in a cab and the driver suggests they call an escort.”

This unofficial network of cab referrals — each of which delivers up to $200 commission to the driver — is the reason why you can’t get a cab outside your hotel on a Saturday night. “You stand outside Spearmint Rhino some nights and there are like 200 cabs, waiting. But you stand outside the Cosmopolitan and there are none.”

Speaking of referrals; I’m far from the only visitor to Vegas who has wanted to punch in the face the next person to flick a flyer in my face on the strip, advertising “hot girls, delivered to your door”. What the fuck is the deal there? Are they legit?

“Yes, they are. There are about ten companies who employ passers on the strip…”

“Passers? Why are they called passers?”

The Courtesan looks at me like I’m an idiot. “Because they pass out flyers”

“Oh, right”

“Yeah, a lot of people assume they’re illegal [immigrants] but they’re not. They carry their green cards with them because they get hassled so much. Also, what they do is legal. There have been court cases about it, supported by the ACLU — it’s a free speech issue.”

The more The Courtesan talks about passers, the more I start to feel a grudging sympathy for what they do. High-minded First Amendment issues aside, they’re simply reflecting the supply and demand reality of sex work. And — The Courtesan argues — are actually doing customers a service. “At least they all work for real agencies who keep records. It’s way safer than paying for a girl you meet in a bar — who could be anyone. That’s when people get robbed.”

Another amusing aside: the “hot girls to your door” tagline often falls foul of the maxim ‘if something seems too good to be true, it probably is’. On countless occasions, girls have arrived at a client’s door and found him totally unprepared. “They say ‘oh, I didn’t think anyone would show up’, even though they’ve called the number on the card and given all of their information. I’m like, what did you think was going to happen? Who did you think was paying for those guys to stand on the street, or for the phone lines or the people to take your booking?”

Then again, as another anecdote demonstrates, there are no shortage of idiots who come to Vegas to pay for sex. The Courtesan relates the story of Hubert Blackman who paid for an escort from ‘Las Vegas Exclusive Personals’ and then sued the company when the escort left in less than an hour. In addition to the return of his $275, Mr Blackman claimed $1.8million in damages for “the tragic event that happened”. The tragic event in question being the performance of an “illegal sex act” that Mr Blackman was shocked — shocked! — to have received. Rather than lending Mr Blackman a sympathetic ear, Las Vegas police threatened to arrest him for admitting to paying for sex. A court in New York later threw out his civil case. Because he’s a fucking idiot.

Still, what The Courtesan does is illegal and, yes, she has been arrested and, yes, she has been thrown out of casinos. “There are some places on the Strip I won’t even step into any more. They have facial recognition systems that spot you as soon as you walk in the door. It’s just not worth trying.” I look across the bar and into the casino; there don’t seem to be any security guards watching us, but who can tell?

“I’d like what I do to be legal here,” she says, “but not [Mayor Goodman’s proposal for] a red light district. I don’t want to work out of a house — the girls there only get half their money. I just want to carry on doing what I do, how I do it, but with a safety net. I’d like to be able to get a health card.”

Certainly no-one seems happy with the way the law treats escorts now. “When I was arrested once, I got talking to one of the cops, who used to work on vice. He told me he changed departments ‘because of the way the law treats girls. It’s not like they killed someone. Nobody gets hurt’.”

Well, nobody except the occasional girlfriend: apparently couples are another big demographic for The Courtesan — particularly those visiting Vegas to have experiences they’d wouldn’t dare consider at home.

“Have you ever visited a couple and had the wife or girlfriend lose her shit?” I asked. That is, after all, the risk with threesomes: that someone ends up yelling or crying.

“Oh God, yes. It’s weird how many times I’ve gone to a couple and it’s obvious they haven’t thought it through at all. They have no idea what they want. And, yeah, I’ve had wives and girlfriends who have started crying. There’s a post about one of them on my blog.”

Finally, I ask Vegas Courtesan what it’s like living in Vegas, although obviously she’s hesitant to volunteer specifics. It’s hopefully not giving too much away though, to say that she has lived in the town for a decent chunk of her life. Is it as weird as it seems?

“Making good friends is hard,” she says. “Vegas is a really just a small town; people come and go all the time. You’ll get to know someone and then one day they will just suddenly leave – looking for a better life in California or somewhere else. It’s hard; the people you meet often are from out of town, and then they’re gone.”

But for all the risk of arrest and the transience of friendships, The Courtesan claims she still loves it here.

“It’s a 24 hour town. If you want to buy windshield wipers at 1am on a Saturday, you can.”

Just don’t try getting a cab from outside the Cosmopolitan.

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