– LAS VEGAS, NEVADA –
I lived in a motel not far off the Strip, next to a casino called the Silver Seven, in a neighborhood that called itself ‘Paradise’. Let me tell you about life in Paradise.
I lived in one room, and I had one small window, with a view of a check-cash & a neon billboard hawking strippers who would be at your place in 15 minutes.
Every morning I woke up to that billboard, and every night it sent me off to sleep. It was nothing unusual. It’s Las Vegas, the business of sex so ubiquitous that you almost stop noticing it.
Except for whatever reason, I never stopped noticing it.
The word GIRLS for instance. That word was everywhere, all the time. On the sides of busses. On buildings. On flyers littering the grocery store parking lot. GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS.
Want GIRLS? We got GIRLS!
Need GIRLS? We got em’!
GIRLS to your door, hot & cheap!
Like a pizza, I thought.
I never stopped noticing the word, because as a girl it was a stark reminder. That the dice had rolled in my favor; it said I got to be a girl instead of a GIRL. It said I got to be a person, instead of a product. A someone, instead of a something.
But don’t get too high on yourself, the word GIRLS was always there to remind you.
You’re a someone, sure. But only because of a roll of the dice.
It’s late Friday night, and I’m out on the streets of Paradise. I’m going up an outdoor escalator, heading back to the motel. Coming down the opposite direction is a lone young woman, unsteady on her 6-inch heels, spaced out eyes. Tight silver dress, fake lashes. The standard.
I can tell that she isn’t a local, and I can tell that she’s not hustling. I know that she likely flew in to town a few hours earlier with her friends, but over the course of the evening somehow got separated from the group.
And now she’s too drunk or high or both to remember where she’s staying, much less understand the situation she’s in. She doesn’t realize she’s in shark infested waters & that she can’t swim, and that even if she could it’s too late. The sharks are already circling.
How did I know this? Because I saw her all the time. There were lots of her, everywhere, every night. There were so many of her that the sharks never had to look very far. Supply & demand, girls into GIRLS, just a roll of the dice.
I knew these waters, so I knew what was likely to happen to her that night, in one way or another. And I knew if it didn’t happen tonight, it would happen tomorrow. I also knew I had no ability to change the outcome.
So I did what you have to do in a place like this. What I would do many, many times during my time here. I looked away from the inevitable, and I kept on going. Welcome to Paradise.
Locals like to say they never go near the Strip, but I can’t say that was me. On the Strip I could disappear, go unnoticed in a way that I couldn’t at the off-strip places. Men didn’t approach, security didn’t think I was ‘working’. When you’re a young woman alone, these are the things you have to think about.
In the back of one of the Strip casinos I staked out what would become MY slot machine, a penny-slot called ‘QUEENS OF CASH’. And I favored this machine for the most self-absorbed, narcissistic reason possible. One of the Queens looked like me.
She had long red hair, and green eyes with long lashes. Unlike the other Queens, this one didn’t smile. This one didn’t seem to care if she was entertaining you or not. In fact, every time she’d appear on the screen, she looked like she was simmering a plan to take off for somewhere better. I liked her.
So I’m playing and drinking my coffee and making a 10-dollar-bill last all afternoon, when a heavy thud of a woman takes the seat at the machine next to me.
I’m actually winning for once, so I’m distracted and don’t pay her any mind. Until a few minutes later when it becomes hard to ignore the increasingly loud ‘THANK YOU JESUS!’ she belts out every time the slot turns in her favor.
She turns to me, lights a cigarette. Says in a scratchy voice: ”See, all I to do is talk to Jesus, and he comes through. You put Jesus first, he’s gonna make you win. You watch.”
I want to ask her if she really thinks Jesus is hanging out in the back of an over-priced casino on a Wednesday afternoon, at the penny slots of all places.
I wonder if she really thinks Jesus is nodding approval at any of us here, that this is the best way we can think to spend our time. But I know that yes indeed, this is exactly what she thinks.
So she plays, and when she wins Jesus gets a big shout-out of thanks. Except it doesn’t take long before the inevitable happens, when the slot does what all slots do – it drops the act. And the House collects.
And ‘Thank you Jesus!’ becomes ‘GOD FUCKING DAMMIT, JESUS! WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO ME, JESUS? FUCK THIS MACHINE! FUCKING FUCK FUCK, JESUS!’
She grips the slot machine, gives it a violent shake, and thunders away, cursing Jesus for abandoning her.
Back at my own machine, the red-haired Queen appears again, her gaze looking more disapproving and restless than ever. Like she’s saying: What the fuck are we doing here?
And I don’t have any good answer for her. My mood goes south, and my winning streak goes with it. I lose what’s left of my 10-dollar-bill, much faster than usual. And then I lose another.
I guess my scratchy voiced slot-mate was right about one thing. Whether he was ever here or not, he sure isn’t here now.
Jesus has definitely left the building.
‘‘Hey, want a tattoo?” a young kid manning a makeshift shop at Circus Circus calls out to me as I walk by.
We both kind of laugh, both recognizing the absurdity of the situation. I give him a wave and keep on walking.
But as I get on the escalator, an ill feeling creeps up. I’ve walked past far more sordid situations than this, but this one still disturbs me. Because someone, somewhere, was gonna be drunk enough to say Yes to this kid. And they were gonna end up with a permanent reminder of a fuck-up that happened at – of all places – Circus Circus.
Up the escalator, there was a surprisingly good arcade at Circus Circus. A place where you could throw your money away at something other than the slots for a bit.
I head toward the skeeball machines and end up playing for over an hour. There’s something about the focused act of rolling a ball into a slot. There’s no payoff here, no reward. Even if you do win a prize, it’s certainly nothing you’d want.
I think the reward is in the small act of setting your mind to something & actually accomplishing it. Even something as stupid as this.
Because stupid as it is, it requires some skill. Unlike the mindless randomness of the slots, skeeball requires some focus. It requires assessing your errors & changing your approach until you reach the goal. You can’t be thinking about your past or present or future problems if you want to win at skeeball. The game isn’t gonna do it for you, you gotta show it what you got.
So you show it what you got. And each time that ball lands where you want it to, each time the big red numbers flash and your score goes up up up, you feel like maybe you do have some ability after all. Maybe you do have some talent and some smarts, and maybe even the most needed thing of all – a little luck.
The feeling doesn’t last long of course. The game ends, the red numbers flatline, and the machine cuts you off as abruptly as a divebar bouncer 86-ing you out the door.
But sometimes, that tiny sliver of time where life seems to be on your side, sometimes that’s enough.
I was lucky enough to spend some time at the Riviera before it was torn down. I say Lucky, not because the Riv was anything special, but because it wasn’t.
It wasn’t special, and it didn’t care. The Riv was Old Vegas, and when I say Old Vegas, what I mean is that the Riv knew it was dying. And like any very old person who knows they’ve reached the end of the journey, you can learn a lot if you take the time to listen.
The Dying will tell you the real deal. Or at least closer to it. When someone knows they’re not gonna be here much longer, they’re much more likely to tell you the truth.
The Riv was smoky, noisy, dark & grimy. But if you could cough & squint your way through it, it was telling you things that its glossy, young neighbors sure didn’t want you to know.
Like the fact that Las Vegas knows you’re an idiot. Or how the ‘sin’ in Sin City isn’t sin at all; it’s nothing more than manufactured manipulation, perfected in sleek corporate office towers just a few blocks away.
The casinos treat you like the moron you are before you even walk through the door, except of course they can’t let you know this. They’ll spend whatever they need to, dress up in their very best to make you feel like you’re something special. They’ll tell you what you want to hear, show you what you want to see. They’ll provide the ‘sin’, because you provide the endless train of easy profit.
The casinos know exactly what you are, and it isn’t much. You’re a lizard-brain, prehistoric, driven by nothing more than Money & Sex. Money & Sex. Money & Sex. Throw some food in occasionally. And back to Money & Sex, Money & Sex.
And there’s millions of you. There’s planeloads, busloads, carloads of you descending this very minute. Millions of you, lured into visions of sin & escape, because you’re just another person trying to get through another day, wishing you had another life.
The Riv had reached a point where it was too old & too tired to dress up & flatter you. The Riv wasn’t trying to stay alive or keep the game going. It wasn’t feeding your fantasies or masking its warts. It knew the end was near.
But if you were willing to walk past its beautiful young neighbors and through its dusty doors, the Riv was doing something you’ll rarely find in Las Vegas.
The Riv was telling it like it is. It was telling you the truth. And for that, I’ll always remember it fondly.
There were these groups of teens constantly trying to hawk their CDs on the overpasses above the Strip. I watched their strategy; they’d almost always target young to middle-age women, the type who carried logo-laden purses & had that just-from-the-mall look.
They’d follow her across the overpass and try to block her path, even if there was a guy with her. It was because she looked ‘nice’, she looked weak, and they thought they could intimidate her into giving them 20 bucks for a CD, 20 bucks to continue on her way.
As a business strategy, these kids were getting everything wrong. But as predators, they were spot on. They knew how to isolate prey from the herd. They knew how to spot weakness.
None of them ever bothered me. Only one time did one approach me at all, and his manner was friendly. “Wanna buy my CD? I promise it’s not porn.”
‘’I don’t have a CD player’ I tell him. ‘’Nobody does anymore.’’
‘HAHA yea I guess you’re right.’ he chuckles, rolling along. “I didn’t think of that.”
“Hey girl, wanna buy my CD?” he says to the next woman walking by.
I can’t help but kind of laugh. Another day, another person chasing a dream in the completely wrong way.
But I look around, at what I’m surrounded by. What’s a casino, really?
Just a bunch of people, chasing a dream, in the completely wrong way.
“There’s lots to do here besides gambling.” my Vegas born-and-bred hairdresser says to me while blowdrying my hair.
She doesn’t specify what that is exactly, what else there is to do. But she insists that people have this town all wrong, that they just don’t get it. She tells me she’s lived here all her life, and she’s sick of people & their misconceptions. Her eyes scrunch up in a look of disdain.
She lights up again in no time though, as she tells me how she won two thousand dollars at the pizza place last week, waiting to pick up her pizza.
Gambling was everywhere; it wasn’t just in the casinos.
There was video poker at the grocery store, slots at the gas station. You were beckoned at all times, even if you were just trying to pick up some peanut butter. It seemed that anywhere you went, an opportunity to worsen yourself was never far away.
Yet many of the residents insisted this wasn’t the case. They seemed to accept that yes gambling built this show, and yes gambling sustained this show. But if you implied that gambling had stolen the show, well then no you had it all wrong.
There was one thing everyone seemed to agree on though. That this wasn’t a happy place.
“Do you like living here?” I’d ask the locals I met. Not a single one ever said yes.
Coming back from the hair salon, I take a detour, behind the Stratosphere, into the dilapidated streets of Naked City.
Right away, I know this isn’t a good idea. I know I shouldn’t be here, that I have no business here. If I’m not here to buy drugs – and I’m not – why else would I be here? There’s nothing else here.
Why am I here?
I can’t answer the question. So I drive, past a slew of bottom-barrel motels, then into a maze of run-down apartment buildings. They seem to go on forever, one after the other after the other. There’s no traffic on the streets, no people, no sounds. It’s eerily dead, eerily silent.
I see a guy shakily pacing the upper balcony of one of the buildings, watching me with his bugged-out eyes. He’s skinny, shirtless, an older guy.
I say ‘older.’ Aging works differently in Naked City. In all likelihood, the guy’s probably not even 30. In all likelihood, he’s probably younger than me.
I look at him, looking at me, and I know it’s time to leave. But instead I keep crawling the streets. I drive, and I look, but I still can’t answer the question, about why I’m here. What is it I’m trying to see?
Las Vegas isn’t a happy place, but you don’t come to a gambling town to be happy. You come here because you’re a gambler.
Even if you say you don’t gamble. Even if you say No No No that’s not me, because you don’t even go to the tables, and you don’t put that much money in those machines. Even if you say you stay out of trouble and can make a 10-dollar-bill last all afternoon. You say all that stuff, but you’re still right here. Because you’re a gambler.
You’re after something. And maybe it’s not the money, maybe it’s not the money at all. But you’re after something.
Because if you weren’t, you’d be somewhere far better than this, and you know it. But you’re not somewhere better, because you’re right here, and for…what?
Because you’re after something. And whatever it is, it’s something happiness can’t give you. Whatever it is, it’s something you’re willing to risk losing a lot of good things for, maybe damn near everything for. Because that’s what gamblers do.
And that’s why you’re here, in a gambling town. Because you’re a gambler.
Here’s a tale I’m sure no one’s ever heard before: I got mixed up with a bad man.
Alright…maybe ‘bad’ is a bit harsh. But he sure wasn’t good.
Some would call it a big mistake – but the thing about mistakes, is that sometimes they’re not mistakes at all. A lot of the time we know full well that whatever we’re doing will end badly. We know the crash is imminent, the disaster guaranteed. But we do it anyway. We do it because the rewards in the moment are just too good to pass up.
So you make a bargain with the future. You say: ‘Let me have this, and I’ll pay the price later.‘ Problem is, the future has a way of showing up early. And now you feel panic and betrayal, even though you’re the one who made the deal in the first place. The whole thing goes to shit.
So you do what people do, you seek small comforts anywhere you can find them, and you say it was bad luck, it was all a big mistake.
But I didn’t mis-take anything. I took it exactly right, exactly for what it was. And I don’t mean just the not-good man.
I mean Las Vegas.
I knew all along that I wasn’t going to land a good job, a good apartment, a good life – or a good man.
I knew this, but I couldn’t say this. To me, or to anybody. You can’t say stuff like that.
Because stuff like that doesn’t make any sense, and when you stop making sense, that’s when you get the crazy card on your back, and nobody wants the crazy card on their back.
So you say something else. You say: It was all a big mistake.
November, Saturday, 6:30 am. The sun isn’t up yet, but I’ve been up for a while.
I load up the car, track down some coffee, and put a last 10-dollar-bill in a penny slot before I go. I’m going to need these bills, I have no business throwing away 10-dollar-bills, and I know it. I do it anyway.
I do it because it’s my way of saying goodbye. And somehow it just seems the right thing to do, one bad act to another, one crazy card to another. I feel a strange bond with Las Vegas, a strange understanding. It’s like somehow we have an unsaid agreement.
It doesn’t make any sense, but nothing about our time together ever made sense. I push a button on the slot machine and watch my money disappear.
I walk to my car and drive off, onto the freeway, into the desert. Las Vegas drifts away quickly, getting smaller in the rearview until all of a sudden it’s just not there anymore.
I’m thinking about that 10-dollar-bill. I’m thinking about all of the 10-dollar-bills, and all of those days spent doing absolutely nothing, except a bunch of things that didn’t make any sense.
I’m thinking about how every time I gave a machine a 10-dollar-bill, I knew I was going to lose. How I knew from the day I set foot in Las Vegas, I was going to lose. The day I walked into that motel, the day I walked toward that man, I knew full well I was going to lose. I did it anyway.
And I’d do it again. No mistake about it.