Oregon Magazine  Kick the habit at  Serenity Lane
   Cover  | 

 by Paul Pintarich

   Yeah, I’m cool. A white-haired, old around the edges kind of guy with a fantasy of slipping onto The Strip some fabulous night in a ‘71 Caddie, top down, black silk shirt open to the navel, lot of gold chains, fat cigar; the valet kid impressed and thinking I’m some kind of high roller from L.A. instead of a big bland dude from Portland heading off for the 10-cent video poker machines.
   Instead, conned into it by my companion, Lola (a name quite appropriate) I’m standing on line two hours with a coterie of French tourists, all of us waiting to pay $100 bucks a head to see a couple of gay krauts do large magic with a stage full of boys, broads, a mechanical dragon, some white tigers and an elephant that is made to disappear along with our two hundred bucks, while all around us people are saying, “How do they do that?”
   (I know how. . . It‘s a trick!)

   I admit to being sort of dazzled by all of this, however. By comparison to the current dancing fountains, Eiffel Tower, Canals of Venice and et al, a glut of unbelievable extravagance, Las Vegas on my last visit was little more than a rut in the desert occupied by Liberace, Wayne Newton and a Three-card Monte game.  But they built it. . .and I came. And like the rest of these people from, apparently, everywhere in the world, I crowd onto the sidewalk and gawk; all of us caught up in a fantasy of hope over experience, forgetting the city’s raison d’etre and it’s worn aphorism: “They don’t build these place because people win.”

   Pinocchio, if you will recall, fell in with nefarious companions and was lured to “Pleasure Island,” a deceptive amusement park where irresponsible, slothful youths were entrapped, turned into braying asses and put to work. Pinocchio was fortunate in that he escaped with only donkey’s ears and a
tail.  I thought about Pinocchio a lot during my stay in Vegas. At 3 a.m., after hours on the video poker machine, I repeatedly checked myself for larger ears and a tail, and again after Lola had lured me to a medieval feast where dinner guests were spectators to a joust.

   That’s right, a joust; indoors, the crowd cheering and waving greasy legs of roasted chicken while young champions knocked opponents onto their asses from the backs of real-live, dirt-churning horses; then, with swords, maces and such, armor clanging, continued the combat on foot while I wished for a knife-and-fork.  Great stuff if you’re ten years’ old and like to eat with your hands. 

  (Photo is a link to a poster site where you can buy it.)

   Las Vegas in its present incarnation, sans the Mob and retaining but a romantic whiff of the boozy, smoke-filled nights of Frank, Dean, Sammy and other Rats in the Pack, has become an adult theme park: Disney World‘s darkside, if you will, a place where us older cats can be goofy without running into Mickey Mouse.

   Just strolling The Strip is a trip. And more so at night than during the day, when a razzle-dazzle of neon-lighted immensity evokes a space colony established by Sybarites. Immersed into this crowded midway, you realize that the place is just exactly what it is supposed to be: an exaggeration of greed and opulence that feels just fine. 
   All that money everyone is gambling away has no meaning whatsoever, and might be the same stuff used to purchase Boardwalk or Park Place. The persistent “clink,” “tinkle,” and “boop-de-boop” of the slot machines is a siren’s call to both the wary and unsuspecting that life might be transformed here; that you might return home not on a bus but in a Maserati.

   I’m a small-city kind of guy who, for the most part, has spent my life in Portland.  To me, nights spent in Nevada towns outside of Vegas--in Elko, say, or Ely or Winnemucca (but not Reno, for it has grown large as well), are just my scale. In Ely, for example, little more than a crossroads, and terminus of the Loneliest Road in America (think about it), I was content to stay in the venerable Hotel Nevada, where my girlfriend and I shared a really king-sized bed in the Jimmy Stewart Suite, an upgrade that cost $38 a night.
   In Elko, a cattle town and home to the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and at one time one of the state’s most important cities, one can enjoy a magnificant view of the Ruby Mountains from the window of the economical Red Lion Hotel and Casino. More important, one can dine at the Star Hotel, a Basque-run operation and Elko institution (not fancy, mind you) where service is family style, and where I have had three of the most memorable meals in my life. 

   But I digress, and must admit that for all its natural, albeit dry beauty, Nevada is Las Vegas, like New York City is, at least to us bumpkins, New York. And, by the way, “New York, New York” can be found in Las Vegas, Las Vegas. This interesting representation, complete with truncated Statue of Liberty, Empire State and Chrysler buildings; the Brooklyn Bridge and harbor, not to mention a zooming roller-coaster, is like New York City in a can: just add water and you get, if not a facsimile, a clever collage of what that metropolis should be.
   One of the most moving surprises was the collection of  tee-shirts, endorsed and autographed, from police and fire departments around the country. Thousands of these shirts were hung on the fence surrounding the replica of New York Harbor in memory of those who died in the city Sept. 11, 2001.

   The newer hotel-casinos along Las Vegas’ Strip --Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, Luxor, MGM--as well as the older but no less lavish Caesar’s Palace, are marvels of architecture and well thought out kitsch.  One can go on rhapsodic descriptions of these opulent lairs, their unique designs, polished marble interiors, priceless artwork, myriad gourmet restaurants, yet essentially they remain the same:casinos with a lot of hotel rooms above them, with stage shows that allow rationalizations of why you came in the first place: not to throw away your money but to watch two gay kraut guys make things disappear. 

(Photo: the one and only Liberace.)

   We stayed not on The Strip but a short distance away, in a comfortable, economical hotel where the locals gamble and a shuttle bus, driven by a retired woman from Salem, carried us back and forth to the Big Time and a magnificent buffet breakfast was less than five bucks.  
   “I love this place!” said the bus driver, whose name was Linda, echoing aging film star Tony Curtis, another resident, who has said, “There’s an excitement you don’t get anywhere else.”
   Night and day, a place where breakfast (“Steak-and-eggs, $2.99”) can get top billing over, say, Robin Williams.  Of all the entertainments, however, “Jubilee,“ a traditional musical revue at Bally‘s, was the most satisfying; appropriate to this desert Babylon with its hundreds of topless chorines in gaudy headdress romping about with a chorus of tailed and top-hatted male dancers in routines reminiscent of Busby Berkley.

   Not sex as you might think, though all equipment was there, but good old bare-breasted, somewhat cornball song and dance routines, with a few acrobats inbetween.  Leaving Las Vegas--in a Honda, mind you--reality returns north of the strip, where the older hotels and casinos exist along Fremont Street, now covered with a light show, as if part of a different city
entirely, which essentially it is.  
   Going farther, heading out into the suburbs before the open desert, one comes upon the 19th century Mormon Fort that began the invasion of this place (in Spanish, “The Meadows,”), and where once there were streams and pools of spring water, and trees to escape the frightful summer temperatures. 

   Once more on the road, the fleshpots of Vegas behind me, I look forward to the green of the Northwest, the cool rain and sensible lifestyle of Portland. . .sort of.  Part of me is still back in Vegas, pulling up to Caesar’s Palace in that ’71 Caddie convertible, black silk shirt and gold chains; throwing the keys to the valet and lighting a cigar as I turn to Lola and say, “This is the place!”

©2002 Paul Pintarich  The '71 Caddy is his Oregon Magazine company car.