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?
Even though the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center slowed (slightly) what has traditionally been the recession-proof Vegas economy, a steady stream of 5,000-6,000 domestic economic refugees a month still pour into and around the city. Only 6 percent of adults living in Vegas's Clark County were born here--the lowest such figure anywhere in America. And although water supplies are drying up, schools are strained and suicide and domestic violence rates are among the highest in the nation, they keep pouring in. Purchasers of new houses--at prices far below those of the two coasts--are wait-listed. Vegas's population doubled during the 1980s, and doubled again in the '90s. Vegas continues to be the fastest-growing metropolitan area in America.
This generation of immigrants, however, is different in many ways from the grifters, hustlers and outcasts who huddled here over the past century. Sure, there will always be a certain batch of trimmers, fugitives and shakedown artists looking to launder themselves in the Vegas sun. But most of those now crowding into Las Vegas are fleeing from an America where everyday life has become too much of a gamble--where either the Reagan recession of 1981, the Bush slump of 1990 or the burst bubble of a decade later has left them as devastated as a blackjack player who bet it all only to have his pair of tens get trounced by the dealer's Ace-King. The only risk they are interested in now is the off chance that Vegas can provide the normalcy, the security, the certainty, that once underpinned their lives, or at least their dreams.
What a turnaround it has been for once lowly Las Vegas--and for the nation around it. Barely fifteen years ago, the august Citicorp was queasy about publicly admitting that its major credit-card processing center had been relocated to an unincorporated suburb of Las Vegas. A deal with state authorities allowed the banking corporation to postmark and camouflage its mail as coming from "The Lakes, Nevada" instead of from sinful Vegas. Today, that same neighborhood sports several high-end casinos and luxury hotels. And Citicorp's own credibility, in the aftermath of the great Wall Street accounting scandals, ranks somewhere below that of a midtown three-card-monte hustler.
Nor could Neil Postman have known back in 1985 that casino gambling was about to be fully destigmatized within a decade--and delicately renamed "gaming." The resulting shift in public attitudes would not only definitively cleanse Vegas's image but also net it a growing bonanza. As recently as 1988, casino gambling was legal only in Nevada and in Atlantic City. But as American industry continued to wash up offshore and the commercial tax base atrophied, one strapped state and municipality after another turned its forlorn eyes toward the gaming tables and slot machines. Impoverished Indian tribes were more than willing to sign gambling compacts with state governments. The result: Now twenty-seven states have Nevada-style casinos, and forty-eight states have at least some form of legal gambling. With local budgets again being squeezed by burgeoning deficits, government itself is thinking about going into the casino business. In the spring of 2003, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said he'd like to open a municipal casino. Before the 1989 opening of the Mirage unleashed the New Vegas revolution, only 15 percent of Americans had ever visited the city. By mid-decade that number had doubled. In its 1996 annual report, Circus Circus celebrated the news: "In an era when social attitudes toward play, and the means to afford it, have dramatically changed, so has the role of the casino."
The past seven years have shown an ever more dramatic shift toward the mainstreaming of gambling. A gambling-industry poll claimed that in the single year of 2001, 51 million Americans--more than a quarter of the population over age 21--visited a casino, chalking up a national total of almost 300 million visits. More than 430 commercial casinos nationwide brought in $26.5 billon in revenue--two and a half times what Americans spent on movie tickets, $5 billion more than they spent on DVDs and videos, and $3 billion more than on cosmetics and toiletries. The explosion of legalized gambling nationwide has had little but positive impact on Las Vegas. "All it did was increase the average Joe's appetite for gambling," says a veteran Vegas Strip pit boss. "You know, it's like baseball. We see all those local Indian casinos and riverboat casinos and local slot parlors as our farm teams. They suck in a lot of average American types who never thought about gambling before. But once you play on the farm team, who doesn't want to play in the majors? And Las Vegas is the friggin' World Series. It's kind of like, You build the casinos out there and they'll come. But eventually they'll come here."
The difference between the marketing of Vegas a half-century ago and today is precisely the difference in mainstream American attitudes. "Fifty years ago, Lucille Ball was pregnant, and they couldn't say that word on I Love Lucy,'' says historian Green. "Today we have lesbian kisses on TV. We have the word 'bullshit' on prime time, not to talk about cable programming. As the culture has become more open, Las Vegas can market itself more honestly." And, Green might add, there's a whole new line of Lucy-themed slot machines now out on casino floors.
In a time when Martha Stewart gets busted, Mark McGwire is on chemicals and Sammy Sosa gets caught with a corker; when everyday economic life in America has become a breathtaking risk and it's an all-out crapshoot whether you'll still have a job next month or your HMO will cover your spinal tap or you can hock the house for enough to pay for your kid's college tuition, who can say whether it would have really been that stupid to let it all ride on 18 Red? Was it smarter to invest ten years of savings in an Enron-backed 401(k) or to spend your time studying the probability charts for single-deck blackjack? Is the integrity of the roulette wheels at the Bellagio more tainted than the quarterly corporate reports coming out of WorldCom? Both are iffy propositions, but at least in Vegas the rules of the game are clear-cut, the industry tightly regulated and the unfavorable odds publicly posted. There are no multimillion-dollar-a-year cable TV touts telling you that red or black or double-zero green is the next best thing or that life somehow owes you an eternal double-digit annual return. Haven't we, in fact, reached a point in our culture where the button-down bankers and arbitrageurs have become the reckless "casino capitalists," while those who actually run the casinos can get away with labeling themselves responsible and conservative "entertainment visionaries"? Even if they are, increasingly, often the same people?
A couple of years back at a gambling industry convention in Las Vegas, the chief financial officers of three major casinos sat on a public panel. When someone from the floor asked if investment in the casino business was a good bet, one of the CFOs answered, essentially: The difference between us and Enron is that at least our money is real. That globally recognized icon of Las Vegas, the neon-lit, hand-waving cowboy Vegas Vic, unveiled in 1947 and still presiding over downtown's Fremont Street, used to regularly and electronically call out "Howdy, pardner" until the complaints of card-groggy hotel guests got him permanently muted. But if Vic could speak today, he might well be saying, "Welcome to Las Vegas, pardner. The last honest place in America."