My first experience in Las Vegas was lovely.
I remember only bits and pieces, though. Senses.
I was 15 or 16, visiting with my mother and sister shortly after my parents' divorce. We stayed at the Bellagio, which was new at the time and continues to be one of the most beautiful hotels I've ever stayed in. The ceiling of the lobby was covered in original art by Dale Chihuly, a mass of blown-glass flowers in bright jewel tones. We were on safari under an acid-trip jungle canopy, on an upside-down scuba journey through an untouched coral reef.
My sister and I toed the red-carpet line separating the walkways from the gambling areas — the allure of the jangling, flashing slot machines was undeniable — and jumped inside the forbidden-to-minors area just long enough to catch a glare from security. The blackjack and craps tables sat beneath canopies of red- and cream-striped fabric, and the entire casino was lit by the soft glow of giant chandeliers. We took in a show, "O," our first Cirque de Soleil; my sister bawled in terror at the prospect of one of the clowns choosing her from the audience to be part of a circus trick. Wandering through the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace, we strolled into Tiffany & Co. on a whim, and my mother bought me a sterling silver Paloma Picasso necklace, my first gift to come in a robin's egg–blue box and the only one that still means anything to me.
But now, more than the blown-glass flowers, the striped canopies and the Bellagio's soft glow, I remember the smell: piped-in oxygen and stale cigarette smoke. At least, that's what I tell myself.
This is what my last three visits have done to me.
My most pervasive memory of Las Vegas, edited to suit my cynicism, is the smell of the casino air. The oxygen to keep gamblers awake, the smoking permitted to keep them inside, to keep them from realizing there's a world outside with even brighter lights and richer rewards than the bells and whistles of slot machine payouts.
The smell I remember, and now it's the people, too. Men in Ed Hardy T-shirts and Oakleys and backward visors; women spilling out of tiny dresses, hair teased and sprayed into submission, teetering down the Strip midday in heels that would make hookers blush. People come from small towns and big cities and both coasts and everywhere in between; they come to be treated like royalty, to spend with abandon. They eat like the calories don't count, drink like what happens in Vegas actually does stay in Vegas. People actually like it here.
I do not.
The smell. The people. The all-night buffets and $150 prix-fixe menus. The Hispanic people in Girls Girls Girls shirts, snapping smutty handbills and passers-by. The half-finished hotels abandoned for lack of funding. The surface excess and deep-down greed and everything it says about…America. It's gross. It disgusts me. And I don't say this with some false sense of superiority; I really just don't get it.
A "normal" 27-year-old worth her margarita salt rim might have relished the opportunity to spend a week at a trade show in Las Vegas. To finish up early and play tourist, grab a drink in a plastic cup as tall as her — the adult version of My Size Barbie? — and start trolling the Strip for the night's high roller/meal ticket man. To fall into some bed, get up and do it again. (Amen.)
I tweeted angrily, channel surfed aimlessly, stood sulking by the window of my hotel room. A standard nonsmoking king on the 16th floor of Treasure Island. I stared blankly at the Wynn's flashing marquee, watched it cycle over and over again: Garth Brooks' limited engagement, the Tryst nightclub, the award-winning buffet. Garth, Tryst, buffet. Garth. (Stunning. Masterful. Triumphant.) Tryst. (HOTTEST.) Buffet. Epilepsy.
But then I realized why I so detest this city. More than I hate everything on the surface of this place, I hate even more that it robs me of my childlike love for the world. Life's shimmer dulls in these bright, flashing lights. Vegas, you dirty thief.
But the house will not win this time. This morning, I started to take back the love.
When the jet lag jolted me awake at 5:30 a.m., I put on my sneakers and took to the near-empty Strip. As I ran, landscapers at the Bellagio were taking down one display and replacing it with new plants. Maintenance men were hosing the filth off flight after flight of outdoor stairs, doing Zamboni donuts across faux-marble promenades. A fast-walking, slow-talking homeless man named Troy caught up to me as I cooled down. As soon as he realized he wasn't going to get any money out of me, he settled for friendly conversation.
I put on a pair of jeans after I left the trade show and walked to Mon Ami Gabi, where I sat on the patio with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, a cheese platter and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Just before the sun dipped below the horizon of the Bellagio, the first fountain show of the evening stopped my heart with a cannon burst of water. It sent a cool breeze across six lanes of Strip traffic; the women seated behind me sang along tentatively with the opening number, "One" from A Chorus Line.
After my second glass of wine, I met an old friend for dessert at the Vegas outpost of Serendipity 3, a hallowed New York City establishment. I ordered the Can't Say No sundae, a glass dish piled to eye level and oozing all the delicious makings of a heart attack. If I closed my eyes with a bite of dessert in my mouth — a little bit of everything: melting ice cream, hot fudge, ripe banana, creamy peanut butter pie — I landed back on 60th Street, thousands of miles from Las Vegas Boulevard.
When I opened my eyes, my retinas singed in the shape of a pink and orange neon Flamingo, but I was too far gone, on my way to my happy place, to care. I walked back to the hotel with the Barenaked Ladies' "If I Had $1,000,000" playing on my iPod.
If I had $1,00,000, I'd be rich.
But I wouldn't be in Vegas.
Snake eyes, bitches.