In my 12-hour jaunt through Sin City, I’d never felt more cradled, respected, and anonymous in my life. Las Vegas returns a degree of grace and dignity to being called a tourist.
The most unexpected part of Las Vegas is the immediacy of the casino and its pervasiveness throughout the experience of being in the city. It didn’t hit me in the airport, where slot machines dotted the thoroughfare. That felt oddly expected- like finding a country rocking chairs in Charlotte or sea turtle mosaics at Honolulu. No, it hit me as I was being given directions to which tower I’d be staying at in the The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas Resort, one of the largest and most prominent resorts on The Strip with multiple hotel towers, more than eight restaurants, and one large casino. I arrived in Las Vegas in the night- the clock approaching 2 AM- and after greeting me by name and handing me a map of the property the receptionist described plainly: “just go through the casino, and look for signs to the tower”.
My imagination had always placed the casino as an exclusive, faraway room, locked away from my eyes thus barely a temptation. I imagined them as immense rooms in nondescript buildings. An established trope, but one that required the nerve and desire to access it. But here I was, rolling a suitcase past chain-smoking artifacts, screaming babies on the lap of a luck-struck mother, a man dripping in gold and holding a wad of cash… it was 2 AM and three other people were checking into the hotel while the casino was fizzling with some indescribable energy. It wasn’t desperation but it also wasn’t hope. It was just a sense of being and place, amplified to some very high degree.
I quickly realized that in understanding the Las-Vegas-school-of-interior-space-planning, the casino just…. is. You’re never not in the casino. It just exists all around you. All the bars, all the restaurants, all the shops, exist amid the immovable casino. The hotel rooms- thousands of them- merely float above the gracious, welcoming, warm casino. Anywhere you want to go calls for a pass through the casino. Even getting from one part of Las Vegas strip to another requires crossing through a casino.
The lobby/casino of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas Resort specifically was some sort of giant hangar for random people who just happened to spawn in Las Vegas at the moment I was there- people just random enough to seem like a simulation... girl in red skin-tight dress. Man in oversized suit. It was so… exactly right… in a way I never thought real life could ever manifest. The bar that was placed randomly near (but not in) the lobby was full of people who appeared dazed and bored in a chic way… holding cocktails, drowning in too-plush sofas, under bizarre lighting. No one was speaking.
As I walked through the acres of blinking lights and whirring machines, I was still scared. I grew up weary of gambling and frankly, scared of Las Vegas. My parent’s stories of their trips sounded intense, overwhelming and extreme. I couldn’t look at the machines. Table dealers stood idly by, they didn’t advertise or do anything to invite you to play. They seemed delightfully robotic, activated not by the glance of an eye, but by your proximity to them.
I realized that Las Vegas was a place to be anonymous. Everyone is essentially doing the same thing all the time. And everyone goes away eventually. This is the beauty of a truly tourist-friendly place. The only constants are the workers in the casino- and if you avoid the live tables, you could get away with never speaking to anyone your whole stay. Or, you can be someone totally different every day- every hour- every game. Sometimes I’d turn on the German accent, sometimes I’d walk very slowly and look around a lot. The casino stopped being a scary space, and became a delightful space for performance in which everyone is watching, while no one is.
Las Vegas prides itself on the spectacle. People lubricate and reinforce the spectacle by participating in it. With a healthy dose of pop culture influence, Las Vegas lives up to its comically high levels of expectation. As my taxi from the airport merged onto The Strip that late night, I was genuinely blown away. Nowhere had ever had such a concentration of genuinely stunning… stuff. This is a tourist-friendly place. Immediacy, slight divorce from reality, and shocking realism relative to expectations. People expect Las Vegas to be overwhelming. It is.
Other cities like to think themselves ‘tourist'-friendly’. A place can have clear signs, be easy to get around, or have good food. But there are cracks. You still have to work for it. New York isn’t tourist friendly at all. Besides generally not being a conventionally beautiful place, New York isn’t easy to be in, and it’s biggest flaw is that there are people that actually go about business there. This is not part of Las Vegas experience. There is no business going on publicly. There is no sense of worry, chaos, or concern. You don’t even cross streets here. Everything is so exactly right, you let it’s unrealistic perfection become part of the charm. Absolutely anything you could possibly want or need feels available.
I did finally go to the casino. Or rather, I finally succumbed to the machines that were around at all times. Maybe it was pride that eroded as I withdrew $40.00 and went to a machine, but I figured… while in Vegas…
Since I didn’t really know how to play any actual table games (or felt comfortable playing), I avoided them. But when I spoke with the robot-like dealers to inquire, I was met with courteous and friendly people who made recommendations on which tables to play on the basis of my willingness to spend money, not whether it was “hot” or “lucky”. They didn’t make any effort to compel you to play or not play. This is a very beautiful tactic because you almost feel more tempted to play by being given a choice in this subconscious manner. It was an unexpected degree of matter-of-fact-ness that I appreciated.
I played a few machines. I lost mostly, but won some substantial amount relative to my bet of 30 cents. The desire to win creeps on you. The first few plays, the first few machines… you feel “free”. Nothing really matters. You literally win some and lose some. But as the losses pile (even when the values in the matter of cents and ones, rather than hundred and thousands) it suddenly feels weighty. Even after only one hour in the casino, the desire to win back your losses is strong. I resisted (mostly because, as a first time gambler, the idea of leaving with more than I came in with- albeit by a few dollars- was so satisfying) but I felt a change. You think harder about putting the next dollar. You feel a little sad when it doesn’t work out.
Adding to the pleasures and powers of Las Vegas, you feel great because you’re in control. You’re publicly participating, but all is at your discretion. You choose when you’re finished. No one else. As arriving at 2 AM proved, the casino will always be ready and waiting for you. The concentration of power in one place…