America's Last Honest Place
This city is often described as one of dreams and fantasy, of tinselish make-believe. But this is getting it backward. Vegas is instead the American market ethic stripped bare, a mini-world totally free of the pretenses and protocols of modern consumer capitalism. As one local gambling researcher says gleefully: "What other city in America puts up giant roadside billboards promoting 97 percent guaranteed payback on slot play? In other words, you give us a buck and we'll give you back 97 cents. That's why I love my hometown."
Even that stomach-churning instant when the last chip is swept away can be charged with an existential frisson. Maybe that's why they say that the difference between praying here and praying anywhere else is that here you really mean it. All the previous hours of over-the-table chitchat, of know-it-all exchanges between the ice-cool dealer and the cynical writer from the big city, the kibitzing with the T-shirted rubes and the open-shirted sharpies to my right and left, the false promises of the coins clanging into the trays behind me, the little stories I tell myself while my stack of chips shrinks and swells and then shrivels some more--all of this comes to an abrupt, crashing halt when the last chip goes back in the dealer's tray. "No seats for the onlookers, sir." And the other players at the table--the dealer who a moment ago was my buddy, the solicitous pit boss, the guy from Iowa in short khakis and topsiders peering over my shoulder--no longer give a fuck whether I live or die. And while winning is always better, it's even in moments of loss like this that I feel a certain perverse thrill. It's one of the few totally honest interludes you can have in modern America. All the pretense, all the sentimentality, the euphemisms, hypocrisies, come-ons, loss leaders, warranties and guarantees, all the fairy tales are out the window. You're out of money? OK, good--now get lost.
In a city where the only currency is currency, there is a table-level democracy of luck. Las Vegas is perhaps the most color-blind, class-free place in America. As long as your cash or credit line holds out, no one gives a damn about your race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, address, family lineage, voter registration or even your criminal arrest record. As long as you have chips on the table, Vegas deftly casts you as the star in an around-the-clock extravaganza. For all of America's manifold unfulfilled promises of upward mobility, Vegas is the only place guaranteed to come through--even if it's for a fleeting weekend. You may never, in fact, surpass the Joneses, but with the two-night, three-day special at the Sahara, buffet and show included, free valet parking and maybe a comped breakfast at the coffee shop, you can certainly live like them for seventy-two hours--while never having to as much as change out of your flip-flops, tank top or NASCAR cap.
"Las Vegas as America, America as Las Vegas. It's like what came first? The chicken or the egg?" says Vegas historian Michael Green. "Fresno, California, doesn't have a row of casinos, but you can be sure it has some part of town where you can go for vice even though it's supposed to be illegal. Here it's not necessarily vice in the first place, but it's certainly not illegal. We have the same sort of stuff and more. Except that unlike in most places, here it's just out in the open." What extraordinary prescience social critic Neil Postman displayed when he wrote in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death that Las Vegas--where Wall Street corporations had replaced mafias and mobs--should be considered the "symbolic capital" of America. "At different times in our history," Postman wrote, "different cities have been the focal point of a radiating American spirit." In the era of the Revolutionary War, Boston embodied the ideals of freedom; in the mid-nineteenth century, "New York became the symbol of a melting-pot America." In the early twentieth century, the brawn and inventiveness of American industry and culture were captured in the energy of Chicago. "Today," Postman concluded, "we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, our religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice."
When Postman penned these words, little could he imagine that the Vegas he was writing about was the "old" Las Vegas and that Sin City was just a few years away from a radical makeover. Nor could Postman fully fathom that America itself was in the throes of a cataclysmic transformation. The more both places changed, the more they mirrored each other. In 1989 Steve Wynn--with junk-bond financing from Michael Milken--stunned the Strip with his $700 million Mirage Hotel and Casino and touched off a revolution. One after another, the old Rat Pack-era hotels were dynamited and in their place rose staggering Leviathans of modern, market-based entertainment: the biggest casino in the world, then the biggest hotel in the world, then the most expensive hotel in the world, the biggest man-made hotel lake in the world, the hotel with the biggest rooms in the world, and so on.
If economist Joseph Schumpeter was correct in theorizing that "creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism," then capitalism as practiced in Las Vegas is the purest strain. The erection of the Vegas mega-resorts was not only heralded by the televised dynamiting of their predecessors but also accompanied by the concurrent collapse of much of the rest of America's urban, industrial and employment infrastructure. Isn't it logical or at least fitting that Las Vegas, the City of the Eternal Now, the town that every few years seems to slather yet one more layer of pavement and glitz over its own scant history, tradition and roots, would expand just as long-entrenched communities from Southeast Los Angeles to Lima, Ohio, evaporated into the deindustrialized dust of globalization?
Indeed, just as quickly as Las Vegas consumes and erases the past and scrambles the present, it now shines to many as an attractive beacon of the future. Unlike almost any other place in America, Las Vegas is one city where unskilled labor can still--thanks to vibrant unions and wealthy and efficient employers--earn middle-class wages. Vegas food servers, car parkers, cashiers, even maids, can still buy into the new American dream, purchasing a house and putting their kids through school. A high school grad can become a professional dealer for three hundred bucks' worth of tuition and a few weeks of practice pitching cards--and most likely get a job. Where else in America can you regularly find 60-year-old, bouffant-coiffed cocktail waitresses proudly wearing union buttons (those of the mighty Culinary Workers Local 226) and going home to peruse the statements of their fattening pension accounts?