“Real dope gives you the freedom to dream your own dreams; the American kind forces you to swallow the perverted dreams of men whose only ambition is to hold their job regardless of what they are bidden to do.” Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare
I’ve been to Vegas a million times, always having a great time. My routine has always followed the same pattern: sleep till noon, have a breakfast in the room – eggs, bacon, mimosa – the whole shebang. Then some time by pool. Then an hour at the gym, sometimes followed by a visit to the spa and a massage. Then light dinner and poker till the wee hours of the morning. I always loved Vegas.
It’s not like we are unaware of all of the fakery and the illusion and the buffoonery of Vegas, and yet we flock to it as if looking for something. Perhaps for an adventure that we don’t have at home. We are looking, in vain, for a contrived “Hangover”-style bacchanalia. But it only works in the movies: in real life, if you want an adventure it will be staged and choreographed, because someone has to make money off of it. In Vegas your desires will be met like the whims of a petulant but doted upon child. The staff is highly trained. The flawless diction, the straight look in the eyes, the smiles, the friendliness, the knowingness. They know what you need before you do. They know what you need to stay in the facility for as long as possible. In Vegas even TSA agents are friendly. If Vegas is a mental facility, the staff is an army of Nurse Ratcheds, schooled in the art of placating the patients.
Even if you are sane and rational, Vegas will get to you. You may be fully aware of the business model and all the tricks of trade and how everything is designed to keep you in and part you from your money and yet you will still fall under a spell. Knowledge does not protect you from the charms. It’s like heroin. You know it’s bad, you’ve heard all the stories but you do it anyway. Because it feels good.
That’s the reason the place works so brilliantly – because we seek to be fooled. We want the illusions, we want to forget our daily grind. Vegas is a hit of an anti-depressant, a quick but potent sugar high.
Maybe I needed the drug because I had a condition. In my 20s, like many others, I chose the blue pill. I have receded into the numbness of the corporate culture. I became an exemplary, abiding member of the capitalist society. It’s not like I had any qualms about it: I wanted to be the square corporate type, I wanted to get up at the same time every morning and get to work, day after day, year after year, till the day of my retirement. I followed that routine for many years. This road was understandable, it didn’t require a lot of thinking, I knew how to navigate it and it promised tangible rewards. I had everything figured out. The other path would require dealing with abstractions and philosophy. I never had a great capacity to understand art and never had time to wallow in the grey areas of metaphysics anyway; I always needed someone to explain to me why a piece of art is important. Art is for the effete eggheads, I thought, for hippies who don’t know how to make money. I was thus too honest to even pretend to enjoy European vacations – a must for the busy but self-respecting corporate types, who’d also like to think of themselves as cultured. Instead, Vegas was my mental release, an honest to God unpretentious, crude fun. This is not a place to have deep thoughts, this is a place to get away from them.
Someone must have spiked my drink with a red pill when I wasn’t looking. (We have already established that I wouldn’t have taken it voluntarily). For the past year I was writing a lot. (My book will come out, hopefully, this summer.) Writing means putting your thoughts in order and to do that you have to spend a lot of time thinking. Too much thinking is bad for you. A different me landed at McCarran International airport this time around. I arrived at the circus with an atrophied ability to enjoy the show. An inner child, who enjoyed watching trained elephants perform the tricks before, was no more.
This time I found something profoundly sad about the town. Perhaps my mood was partially influenced by a poor choice of airplane reading material – Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare – especially given the destination.
On arrival, I skipped all the usual indulgencies except poker. I played like a maniac. I haven’t gone outside for 4 days – from the moment we arrived to the day of the departure. I skipped meals or ordered food at the poker table – unable to leave the table, but too malnourished to continue to play well.
Everything except poker seemed contrived.
A big real estate convention was in town and all the bars and restaurants and night clubs were overrun by men and women in suits and convention passes around their necks. If you dissect these events they are the most boring and tedious activities. The corporate parties take place at the best restaurants and nightclubs in town. You see crowds of well-dressed participants, drinks in hand, spilling out of the venues in clusters, masking their torture and conformity, stiffness and furtive despair with fake cheerfulness. They are in Vegas after all! “We went to a party at a nightclub last night,” you would hear someone say. It only sounds like it was fun, but if you think about it what do you think they did there? Do you think they had hookers and cocaine in there? Please! They spend the whole time elbowing their way to the bar through the thick crowds of similar dealmakers, trying to outshout everyone. One can’t have a normal conversation at those parties. It’s too loud and too crowded. Free drinks and hors d’oeuvres are the only things I used to enjoy when I went to those events back in the day. But there’s no there there. Even if you want to talk business, it’s impossible to discuss anything in depth. So you end up just drinking and bullshitting. Corporate parties are an excruciating waste of time and energy. The attendees would be better off by just booking a hooker to a room and doing blow discreetly in the solitude of the bathroom. The best fun does not require crowds and nightclubs. But I doubt they do that though. How will everyone know they had a good time then? You have to be seen having a good time, so everyone goes to a nightclub party and pretends. I found myself feeling sorry for them.
In fact, sorrow was an overwhelming emotion this time around. Pity – for both the customers and the providers. Who knows what the concierge – smiling and polished and all-knowing – had to forgo to get a job serving the likes of me. What if she had an engineering degree but had to take a service job to pay her bills? How did they all end up there? And the customers – seeking deliverance, only to have their search being rerouted, profitably, into the circus tent by the skilled professionals. And the Sheldon Adelsons and the Steve Wynns, like an eye in the sky, are watching us all.
We are all customers now, not citizens. Citizenship has been diluted to the point of irrelevance and replaced with all-consuming stupor. Vegas doesn’t want you to be a citizen. Citizens think and thinking is bad for business. Being a citizen means putting aside self-interest for the sake of community, but we’ve been conditioned for too long that self-interest will miraculously translate into a societal good. No one has actually explained how, Ayn Rand’s delirious attempts notwithstanding, but everyone believes that.
“Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams or hopes, is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist an escapist, the man of vision a criminal.”
Indeed. We are all one big Vegas now.