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If there is a quiet space, they will pipe in music to fill it. Where the pipes don’t reach, the street performers swarm, busking for dollars (or $5.00 if you want to take your picture with them). The smell is unmistakable: a combination of cigarette smoke, booze, competing cherry and vanilla air fresheners, salted foods, body odor, perfumes, and waffle cones.
The people are dressed to the nines, barely dressed at all (sometimes both at once), slovenly and uncouth, or just tidy and unremarkable, and all intermixed at once. You cannot drive anywhere, but then people don’t drive except to show off their rides, so you walk and walk up and down the bright streets, over the elevated walkways, and through the gaming floors with their miasma of smoke and hammering noise.
20-story portraits smile or stare down from glass facades, while others beckon from brightly lit billboards and marquees, while more sordid snap wallet cards and try to thrust them into your hands to lead you to lower establishments where the glamour is less polished and more visceral. Vendors of Prada are within a minute’s walk of vendors of cheap trinkets, all housed in buildings that must have been uprooted from theme park imitation lands, where you can walk from caricatures of Egypt to renderings of New York brownstones, then on to a Roman forum, a rainstorm in Paris, and a gondolier boat ride through a canal, stopping in between to grab a cup of coffee, a milkshake, or an ice cream cone.
The Las Vegas Strip, the cluster of casinos running north from the airport on the south side of the city, is a strange place. When I returned home from it last night I found the midwestern quiet unnerving after a week of solid noise and hotel living. The locals told me again and again that they avoid The Strip themselves. The food and drink, even when of decent quality, are massively overpriced ($8.00 for a beer?). The strip shops carry a fantasy of goods and clothes, while the many other casinos in town are quieter and nicer.
And yet, while I would not choose this place as a vacation destination, I can see why so many choose it as a convention venue. I was just there for the ConExpo, a massive trade show for the construction equipment industry only held every 3 years. The show ran for 8 hours per day, over 5 entire days, with exhibitors such as my own company having to get there at least a day in advance for setup.
That sort of work it taxing on the mind and body, dealing with long stretches of boredom between hectic waves of established customers, proverbial tire kickers, end users, competitors looking to snoop, and genuinely good leads. When you are not working the booth, you are walking the endless acres of booths, exhibits, competitors, and vendors, glad-handing your current customers while trying to get leads on new ones. This show was so massive it was impossible to walk it in just a single day. When each day was through we would part ways, some to seek out past coworkers for drinks, some to just unwind over a dinner, some for other things. I had my wife with me, and we would would wander the strip.
There are few places in the world, perhaps New York City, London, Paris, Tokyo, and the like where one has so very many options for things to do, yet in those cities the activities are spread widely and intermixed with businesses and homes. Not so the Las Vegas Strip. Where other cities are dilute, the Strip is concentrated into just a few miles. Sure their Eiffel Tower is a phony, and their New York City Skyline is an amusement park caricature, but where else could you see both in such a short time? And the fountains of the Bellagio, doing their dances every 15 minutes, are truly a marvel of both technology and art, while they attract a bevy of street performers and scantily costumed women who work to hold your eyes between the fountain displays. You can go see a world-famous stand-up comic one night, then catch a major singer the next, and see acrobats on another.
Of course there are the racier acts too. As a desk clerk told us, “it’s not a safe place for children.” Some of the acrobatic performances are decidedly ribald, or even obscene, and nearly every casino has at least one nude dance revue at any given time. And after dark the single man has strip-club cards, calling cards for private strippers, and numbers for brothels shoved at him constantly while walking the strip – such huskers leave the couples alone, but the cards litter the sidewalks like leaves of pulchritude. Everywhere too is the urge to drink. Any food or drink than can be served steeped in alcohol is available, and one could easily overindulge.
Las Vegas truly is Sin City, but it is also a dream of brighter possibilities if you choose carefully. The locals may disdain the Strip, but in one way or another it is the Strip that feeds this city. The locals are not even really locals, as one said to me. They’ve all come from elsewhere, and may all return elsewhere if they have arrived to retire in the desert heat and low taxes. Without the sin and vice, there is not much real industry in Vegas – what has arrived has done so because of the population base already there to support the casinos. Las Vegas is an upstart and a fraud in many ways, but it is unique in what it does, and I “get it”. I may not want to live there, but I understand why others do. It was fitting that on our last night of wandering the strip, before the meetups with other Ricoteers that would follow, as we walked back to our own casino-hotel we stopped for one more fountain show at the Bellagio. The fountains danced to Elvis singing Viva Las Vegas.