Las Vegas only makes an impression if you don’t look past the illusion. Peek beyond the veil that the corporations have cast and its nothing more than a series of asphalt lanes and bus routes. For a tourist it bears the promise of endless pleasure, salivating strippers, heaving hedonism.
For a resident, on the other hand, Las Vegas is the fat black guy with dreads who spends his day time in the bookstore discussing politics (with a guy carrying a briefcase too big for his body) and at night moves to the 24 hour café; playing chess against the bespectacled white guy called “The Tutor” who makes his living hanging out in the university library, getting hired by students to do their homework.
The real Las Vegas is the stripper named “Ana” who came from Texas three years ago because her parents are dead and she is putting her sister through college.
Las Vegas is the cocktail waitress in an all-too-revealing sarong whose bedside is littered with French novels, Foreign Affairs magazine and books no longer in print.
Las Vegas is the two Mexican sisters, one a waitress the other a babysitter, both of whom barely speak a word of English, going out to a small lounge in a forgotten strip club to hang out… with one another.
Las Vegas is the landlord at the end of “crack alley” who keeps trying to rent his space out to 99-cent stores, only to find that they fold within a month or two and leave without paying rent.
Las Vegas is the three people that know what Darfur is and meet in a grocery store to discuss how to organize a rally in order to create awareness.
When I first arrived in Vegas, I went to every single show the city has to offer: Cirque du soleil, Spamalot, The Producers, the vast panopoly of magic shows, the dance shows, the concerts. Within a few weeks I was struck by the complete and utter lack of melancholy in the city. I wanted to find something Shakesperean, I said to my friend. I wanted to encounter some tragedy, I added. I did not want to be made to feel that life was the act of a stage host picking you out of a crowd and bringing you onto the stage to participate in a magic trick. I knew life was more, even here in Las Vegas. So, I searched for it. I went looking for pathos.
Long drives in the middle of the night through silent streets; early morning forays into an empty gaming hall where a blind Chinese woman tells you to get up from the one stool you are sitting on because she has a good feeling about that particular slot machine; afternoons of shooting pool with a bunch of “service industry professionals” after they have worked the graveyard shift; the fifty Latino kids in the evening filling out the tiny pool using lawn chairs as flotation devices; the cab driver coming home at five a.m.; being woken up by some old guy throwing rocks at your window – in all of these things I found the pathos I was looking for.
Las Vegas is not an illusion. It is a place where people live.