Day Thirty Three: Mandarin Oriental (Comped)
8 am, London time and I’m sitting in the ‘bite.’ coffee shop in the arrivals hall of Heathrow airport, eating an egg and cress sandwich.
It’s a little more than 17 hours, including the New York layover, since I left Las Vegas. I’m tired, disorientated by the time change, and the portion sizes here are weird; like going back to your childhood classroom and finding all the chairs have shrunk.
My final few days on the Strip were a curious whirl of press — TV, radio, magazines, newspapers of various stripes — all of whom asked the same question in a different way: how has 33 days in Las Vegas changed my opinion of the city?
An amusing thought occurred to me as I stood outside Caesars Palace, talking to Fox5’s Elizabeth Watts: there’s probably no other city on earth in which a man wanting to stay an entire month would constitute headline news. But Vegas, of course, is unlike any city on earth: it’s a place where, so the popular narrative goes, out-of-towners like me fly in in our millions, drink our body-weight in alcohol, accidentally fuck a hooker and go home with enough “crazy” stories to get us through the rest of the year.
33 days of that would be a combination of madness and laziness, not least because after just a week in town, you start to see the cogs moving. Every Friday they arrive; the groups of guys, swaggering down the Strip, spaced just slightly too far apart — WE’RE GOING TO OWN THIS TOWN — the first guys ever to buy a guitar full of booze, the first to be thrown out of a casino for being too drunk, the first to every dare each other to order an escort; the first to be amazed when she actually shows up: “JUST WAIT TILL WE TELL THE GUYS BACK HOME. THAT WAS EPIC.” Also, the first to hook up with their female equivalent — the “bartender story girls”, as one local described them to me.
“All of their fucking stories start the same way” he said, putting on an alarmingly convincing Valley Girl voice: “OHMIGOD we went to Pure and the bartender made this drink — it had Vodka and Gin and Rum and… the next night OHMIGOD we went to Marquee and the bartender made this drink — it had Tequila and Absinthe and Whisky… and OHMIGOD then we went to…” and on and on, ad nausium ad infinitum.
So, yeah, embarking on this trip, I expected — and received — a lot of cynicism from Las Vegas locals. And I get it: for people who call Vegas home, the idea of yet another journalist coming to their town and living out theta Hunter S Thompson fantasy on the strip might be cause for rolled eyes and cynical sighs.
But raised eyes and cynical sighs were not the end of it. While many of the locals I encountered — Tony Hsieh, Jennifer and Michael Cornthwaite, Tom Anderson, Erika Wright, Shawn Miller et al — were generous with both their time and enthusiasm — an equal, perhaps much larger number, made it clear that I wasn’t welcome in Las Vegas and should stop trying to understand ‘their’ town.
Even as my trip entered its third and fourth weeks, even after I’d written about local museums and the regeneration of downtown and the collapse of the local housing market, nary a meeting went by without someone admitting some variation of “everybody here is saying you’re a dick, but I think you’re ok”. People tweeted stuff like this…
“Regardless of popular belief, that @paulgoestovegas is one cool dude.”
“Regardless of popular belief”!
Hell, even people who were professionally obliged to be nice to me weren’t. Most hotel PRs on the Strip flatly declined to meet with me. On the few occasions when I wrote negative reviews, the reaction was swift and, well, mental — Criss Angel’s publicist spent half an hour on the phone railing against the “inaccuracies” in my review of his show (“You say that Criss is a ‘douche’ — he isn’t” / “Actually, I say he dresses like a douche. And he does. he’s 43-years-old and looks like this, for God’s sake”) while somewhat-sinisterly insisting that she’d hate for one negative review to ruin my relationship with the Cirque du Soleil “family”.
I’ve dealt with a lot of big city PRs in my life and I’ve never, ever seen the kind of defensiveness I experienced in Las Vegas. Maybe they’re just not used to being asked actual questions, I thought: after all, the city’s most high profile entertainment ‘journalist’ is the guy who used to host Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: a man who, had he been present for the killing of Osama bin Laden, would have felt compelled to praise the man’s history of charity work.
For the longest time I was baffled. The locals distrusted me — until they met me at least — the PRs hated me and the media couldn’t understand what the hell I was doing spending so long in their town. What could I do to please these people? And why on earth would Las Vegas of all places — a city that prides itself in crazy behavior and not giving a fuck — act so defensively and insecurely when faced with an unpaid blogger from — gasp — The Huffington Post?
Again, it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out the answer. For a start, let’s once and for all dismiss this myth that Las Vegas is a crazy place where “anything goes”. It isn’t. It’s a place where almost nothing goes, especially if it’s likely to offend Jesus. Gay people can’t get married; and most chapels flat-out refuse to even perform civil ceremonies for (as one wedding chapel worker put it) “those people”. Strippers can’t get fully naked where alcohol is served. Escorts can’t ply their trade or get health benefits. The mannequins in the lobby of the Mirage wear pasties for fuck’s sake. Pasties! But — ooh! — at least you can smoke in casinos.
Rampant capitalism — and a bedrock of religion — do that to a place: filing the edges off the fun and distilling everything down to its most efficient money-making core. There’s no profit in anarchy; you can’t spend money when you’re unconscious. And why on earth would you want to frighten away the bible belt Republicans? They’re the ones with all the cash.
Let’s also dismiss that even more prevalent misconception — particularly amongst we outsiders — that Las Vegas is a big city that doesn’t give a fuck. It most certainly is not. Las Vegas isn’t a big city, but rather a small town which — thanks to a confluence of legislative, geographical and historical events — happens to attract billions of dollars of tourism revenue each year, centered around a single street that mostly lies just outside city limits. Oh, and it very much does give a fuck.
To be clear, when I say Vegas is a small town, I don’t mean it’s a big city with small town attitudes; I’m mean it’s actually a small town. A place where, away from the strip, you can’t walk into a bar or a coffee shop without bumping in to someone you know by name. A place where the arts scene is confined to two or three blocks, but where a passionate group of local business people and culture-lovers bust their asses every day trying to help it grow. A place where the mayor gets elected time and time again with 85+% of the vote, despite his fondness for organized crime, and no-one being sure what he actually does. A place where the next mayor will be the old mayor’s wife. A place where foreclosures hit hard, unemployment is amongst the highest in America and where the education budget is being slashed. Again.
Once you realize all of that, suddenly everything else starts to make sense. The distrust of outsiders — particularly reporters; even bloggers — isn’t because the people of Las Vegas are mean; in fact everyone I met was as warm-hearted as the people I’ve met in any town in America. It’s because every month another journalist or filmmaker comes into their small town and writes the same story, or makes the same movie (The Hangover is the cinematic equivalent of a bartender story girl).
Those writers mention the wedding chapels (ho ho ho), but not the museums; they meet the comedy mayor but not the people actually making a difference downtown. And then they fuck off and leave the good people of Las Vegas to continue worrying about their mortgages, or their kids’ schooling or their jobs. And that includes the PR people who — as one admitted under promise of anonymity — don’t want to get fired for “allowing” a rogue journalist to write something bad. “We’re used to controlling the story,” said my source, “we give them a comp and they write what we tell them, and everyone’s safe.”
Me not wanting a comp (I paid for all but three of my rooms) wasn’t a positive sign, it was a red flag: I was up to something. And no-one ever got fired for saying no. Furthermore, in a small town, no good can come from negative reviews: when tourism is the lifeblood of a place, every show has to be AMAZING, otherwise — oh God, oh God — people might stop coming.
But of course, the cynics were right weren’t they? Here I am at the end of my trip, writing the hit-job they feared. Silly old small town Vegas, with its silly terrified people — and clever old me coming in and cleverly understanding what makes the city tick.
Except that’s the precise opposite of what this is.
What this is — honestly — is a mea culpa. I came in to Las Vegas with all the swagger of a Strip-striding weekend tourist, ready to confront the place based on my misconception of its size and self-confidence. I wasted a huge amount of time being confused by the defensive attitudes I encountered and being surprised by the culture, the arts scene and how friendly everyone was when I finally got to speak to them.
It was only when I finally got past all of that, and started to hang out downtown, shoot the shit with new friends and generally act like a new arrival trying to find his way around rather than someone in search of some grand truth… it was only then that I started to understand the place. But only started.
It would be ludicrous for me to suggest I understand a damn thing about Vegas after just a month there. Socrates once said, “I am only wise insofar as what I don’t know, I don’t think I know”. And I feel like that: all my 33 days in Las Vegas has only taught me how much I don’t know about Las Vegas.
Last night, during an interview with some newspaper or other — they all bleed into one after a while — the reporter asked me whether I would ever come back to Vegas, or whether a month is enough.
I didn’t hesitate: a month is nowhere near enough. And of course I’ll come back to Vegas. Not just because I want to, but also because I have to. It’s got under my skin now: I have friendships I want to continue building, neighborhoods I want to continue exploring and promises I need to keep. I’m sad I didn’t get to experience First Friday, or to spend more time in the arts district, or to see any local theatre. I wish I’d seen Mac King, and could stick around to see how the growing popularity of Absinthe inevitably commercializes it. I have to come back for all of those reasons.
But also for one more reason: I really miss the place.
Still know too little
To write a Vegas haiku
To be continued
And so there you go. The Strip Diary, days one to thirty three. Thanks to everyone who dropped in and out along the way, and the few thousand people who interacted with me on Twitter over the past month. I appreciate all the tips, questions, clarifications and corrections. Thanks also to Arianna Huffington, Kate Auletta, David Flumenbaum, Sebastian Howard, Mario Ruiz et al at The Huffington Post for allowing me to shout from the top of their platform.
Illustration by Molly Crabapple