Each of my adopted cities has reminded me of some previous city—except Vegas, because Vegas isn’t a real city. It’s a Sodom and Gomorrah theme park surrounded by hideous exurban sprawl and wasteland so barren it makes the moon look like an English rose garden. Also, every other city has a raison d’être, an answer to that basic question: Why did settlers settle here? Either it’s close to a river, a crossroads or some other natural resource, or else it’s the site of some important battle or historic event. Something.
The reason for Vegas is as follows. A bunch of white men—Mormons, miners, railroad barons, mobsters—were standing around in the middle of the desert, swatting flies and asking each other: How can we get people to come here? When they actually managed to do it, when they lured people to Vegas, their problem then became: How can we get people to stay? A far greater challenge, because transience is in the DNA of Vegas. Transient pleasures, transient money, thus transient people.
Vegas is America. No matter what you read about Vegas, no matter where you read it, this assertion invariably pops up, as sure as a face card in the hole when the dealer’s showing an ace. Vegas is unlike any other American city, and yet Vegas is America? Paradoxical, yes, but true. And it’s never been more true than during these past few years. Vegas typified the American boom—best suite at the Palms: $40,000 a night—and Vegas now epitomizes the bust. If the boom was largely caused by the housing bubble, Vegas was bubble-icious. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the Vegas area leads the United States in foreclosures—five times the national rate—and ranks among the worst cities for unemployment. More than 14 percent of Las Vegans are without work, compared with the national rate of 9.5 percent.
The proof that Vegas and America are two sides of the same chip is the simple fact that America’s economy functions like a casino. Who could dispute that a Vegas mind-set drives Wall Streeters? That AIG, Lehman and others put the nation’s rent money on red and let the wheel spin? Credit default swaps? Derivatives? The backroom boys in Vegas must be kicking themselves that they didn’t think of those things first.
Facing a tight deadline, I had no time for Vegas. Consequently I went weeks in which my only window on Vegas was the TV. Years from now my clearest memories of Sin City might be the ceaseless stream of commercials for payday loans, personal injury lawyers, bail bondsmen, chat lines and strip clubs. (My favorite was for a club called the Badda Bing, with a female announcer intoning: “I’ll take care of that thing. At the Badda Bing.”) From TV, I concluded that a third of Vegas is in debt, a third in jail and a third in the market for anonymous hookups.
Some nights on the local news a segment about the clinic would be followed by a piece about O.J. Simpson’s brazen armed robbery at a local casino hotel, then one on Gov. Jim Gibbons’ denial of a sexual assault allegation, or a story about Nevada’s junior senator, John Ensign, cheating on his wife, though he had once declared on the floor of the United States Senate that marriage is “the cornerstone on which our society was founded.” Shutting off the TV, I’d walk to the window, listen to a nude game of Marco Polo raging around Caligula’s pool, and think: I have a front-row seat at the apocalypse.
Las Vegas: An American Paradox