From the air, the landscape surrounding Las Vegas looks a lot like Mars. To be more exact, it looks a lot like what I can remember from the 1980 TV-miniseries adaption of The Martian Chronicles, which also had Rock Hudson and a disco soundtrack. These two elements were of course missing from the southern Nevada terrain, but a similar desolation was there.
Becca and I were flying Frontier, an airline on the cutting edge of the industry’s trend of reducing amenities. The seats felt like they were acquired secondhand from hospital waiting rooms. They did not recline, which was bad in itself, but the FAA-mandated spiel about returning them to their upright positions added insult to injury.
We decided to take a shuttle from the airport to our hotel downtown. On our last trip in 2015, we took a taxi and got a driver who treated us to a circuitous route that put 10 extra bucks on the meter. This time we knew better.
Or so we thought. The vehicle and driver were both fine. The problem was the other passengers. There were a lot of them and they were all going to get dropped off before we were.
If you want to get downtown in a reasonable amount of time, you get on the freeway and avoid the Strip entirely. Of course, that doesn’t work if you have to take people to a bunch of destinations on the Strip beforehand. For close to an hour, the bus weaved its way through a warren of connected parking garages and the snarled traffic on and around the Strip.
To make matters worse, one passenger kept bothering the driver, asking him to recommend a good bar (he said he didn’t drink) and restaurant (he mumbled something noncommittal). She then turned to her friend and talked about how she was here to celebrate her 30th and wanted to make it a weekend to remember. Her friend no doubt knew all this, which probably explains why the words were delivered at a sufficient volume so everyone else in the van knew about it as well. I didn’t care about her birthday plans, but I was curious how she managed to last three decades without being murdered for the common good.
Becca and I had broken a promise to each other by even being here. After our 2015 trip, we mutually concluded “fuck this place” and vowed not to return for at least five years. Not returning for the rest of our lives was also an option.
We found ourselves having a good reason to break that promise. Our dear friend had gotten engaged to a wonderful guy and the two decided to get hitched at the Elvis chapel in Vegas. Since our high opinion of the couple outweighed our disdain for the city where the wedding would take place, we decided to attend.
Being there for a reason made the place a little more tolerable and we were able to relax and enjoy ourselves to some degree. Sure, the streets and casinos were packed with douchebags who spoke in monosyllables and reeked of Axe Body Spray, but we were on a mission to help our friends celebrate the beginning of their life together.
We were also there to get drunk. Neither Becca nor I have any interest in gambling, but we do like to drink. Las Vegas has an endless supply of booze if you’re willing to pay inflated prices in bars that have piss-elegant ambience and are staffed with silicone cyborgs.
After some back-and-forth messaging and miscommunication, we met up with our friends at one of the bars in the Golden Nugget for a little socializing before the wedding the next day. They had family and friends in tow. The bride was pleased we could all be there though a little embarrassed as if she felt unworthy of all the attention. At first, I thought she was drunk. Then I remembered that this was just how she is. I was tempted to say, “You deserve every good thing that comes your way. Now shut the fuck up and drink.” It was probably a good thing I didn’t, what with her mom standing right next to her and all.
After stopping by a dinner buffet for decent chocolate cake and mediocre everything else, we called it an evening. Becca and I walked back to our hotel, the El Cortez.
“I wonder what a tez is,” I said to her. “And why it is an alternative to elk.”
“Bitch,” she said.
I woke up the next morning hung over and dehydrated. Vegas tap water doesn’t taste great, but I should have forced myself to drink some regardless. More sleep would do me good and had plenty of time after breakfast to work in a nap before the wedding. Becca was not yet awake. I grabbed my phone from the bedside table to see if the world was as awful as the last time I checked.
It was worse. Eleven people had been killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue. The photograph of the suspect showed a man with uninquisitive eyes and John Wayne Gacy-esque pudge. Like a lot of anti-Semites, he probably sucked at life and took comfort in scapegoating others for his own shortcomings. Most of his ilk are content to be misinformed and unpleasant. The more virulent engage in acts of vandalism. He felt the need to do murder.
It was the kind of act that most of us should and do condemn, but the effect is not the same across the board. It is one thing to deplore brutality and quite another to deplore it and worry that you could be next.
I’m a gentile so anti-Semitic violence is not something that poses a personal threat. The closest thing to one occurred in Cape Town back in 1999. Like this weekend, I was there for a wedding. The bride had recently converted to Judaism and I attended a ceremony to welcome her into the community a few days prior to the wedding itself. After it was over, a bunch of us gathered outside to shoot the shit before getting on with the rest of our day. PAGAD was up to its nasty tricks at the time so someone came out and asked us to socialize inside because a synagogue had been firebombed a week before. Since none of us wanted to get hit in the head with a Molotov, we readily complied.
I’ve told that story to a lot of people over the years for the same reason I told people about the British soldier in the troop carrier in Belfast pointing a machine gun at me. It’s world-traveler bravado of the best kind because in neither case was any bravery required. The danger was as hypothetical as it was temporary.
There was a near-zero chance anyone would be firebombing the wedding that afternoon. An Elvis chapel is not exactly an inviting target for hate criminals. I’m sure most bigots like Elvis. If any shit went down, it would be more akin to what happened at that country-music festival a year ago where the murderer did it just to be an asshole.
Becca was awake at this point and we both needed food. Since we planned on going back to bed after breakfast, showering could wait. We left our room and walked down the stairs into the casino, each of us with the kind of hair one sees in DUI mugshots.
Las Vegas is not a morning town. On Fremont Street, pedestrians were sparse and moving real slow. A few vomit splashes dotted the sidewalk. Without the neon, the hotel facades were comically ugly. It was a sad carnival.
We entered a Denny’s and were seated in a booth looking on a side street. It is not usually a place I want to eat unless it is and then it’s perfect. Vegas Denny’s is extra perfect because it has a full bar. We each ordered the “Lumberjack Slam” and a couple of Bloody Marys. The menu dutifully informed me that we would be consuming upwards of 1500 calories. I walked out of there feeling like my heart was full of sand.
On the way back, we stopped at Walgreens and picked up some bottled water to rehydrate and energy drinks for later on. We crawled back into bed and before going to sleep, I checked to see if there was any further news on the Pittsburgh murders. I learned that the shooter, shot multiple times by police, was expected to pull through. The medical team apparently went that extra mile to make sure he lived. Personally, I would have poured Pop Rocks into his wounds.
We woke up in early afternoon, feeling much better than we had that morning. There was plenty of time to shower and put on clothes that did not smell like last night. We ventured out and took a Lyft to the Aria, the hotel on the strip where our friends were staying.
There was a reason we stayed downtown instead of on the Strip this time around. All of Vegas is tacky as hell, but at least downtown is an amusing kind of tacky, like a pole dancer who is missing a limb. The Aria is far too upmarket to provide that kind of fun. It’s a glass-and-steel citadel that would make an excellent movie for where the privileged live in a dystopian sci-fi. After downing an $18 scotch and soda, we met up with our friends and piled into a limo that took us to the wedding. We listened to an all-Elvis radio station on the way there.
The chapel and the wedding itself were both lovely. This is no mean feat. There is an inherent silliness to having an Elvis impersonator administering the service, but you have to remember that what is felt between the people getting married is important and not to be trivialized. The people running the show were obviously aware of this so it all struck the right tone. You didn’t care that the Elvis looked more like Tony Robbins than the king of rock and roll. He had the voice and moves down pat from the moment he chauffered the bride and groom right into the chapel in a pink Cadillac.
It is worth noting that the Caddy’s vanity plate had “Elvis” and the number two after it, fitting for a man who died on the toilet.
After the wedding, we all went back to the Aria for the wedding dinner. Becca and I did not know too many of the other guests, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. It was great to see the newlyweds having the time of their lives, being so happy and perfect for each other.
We later took a stab at more drinking downtown, which was a mistake. It was the Saturday before Halloween and the mass of revelers looked intent on swallowing us whole. We begged off and fled back to the El Cortez.
The next morning, Becca and I had breakfast at White Castle. It was 7:20 in the morning and the breakfast menu was available, but we weren’t interested. We wanted those little hamburgers and split a bag of ten.
Our flight out of here was a few hours away. We were glad we came, but we were also glad to leave. I thought about the Vegas of yesteryear, of the Rat Pack glory days and the freak show described so well by Hunter S. Thompson. Both those Vegases were gone now. Gone too was the Vegas that the 80s frat-boy version of myself visited and enjoyed from the comfort of being up my own ass.
After graduation while I was flat broke and living in Santa Barbara, I drew a little comic called “Chinga Las Vegas.” It featured Drake Weber, my alter ego at the time, who looked like a crudely drawn Steve Dallas of Bloom County. Drake got into a lot of mischief and somehow ended up directing animal porn. The comic wasn’t very good. Maybe someone today can create a better one. Not me though. I’m done with this town.