Today was 3 hours longer just from the time zone change, but getting up at 6 and passing out around 3 Vegas-time made it the equivalent of a 24-hour day. I slept lots on the plane, but today still kicked my ass. After a layover in really flat Denver, my cotravelers, I, and all our luggage made it to Sin City in one piece. First thing I see off the plane: slot machines. They were nearly everywhere, from convenience stores to the fanciest casinos; there must be hundreds of thousands in Vegas at large. A big difference from my summer adventure showed right away: Kenny, one of my cotravelers and roommates, has a Las Vegan (?) friend to serve as our transport / intro to the town. Kenny came through again with lodging, scoring us a room in his aunt’s house, a residence so nice that it was shamed by residing among an artificial suburban forest of duplicates. These perks of connections didn’t come without costs: gratis rides were conditional on Kenny’s family members finishing shopping for shoes, our tour guide came with the cynicism befitting a lifelong Las Vegan, and our debate about leaving Las Vegas was tainted by Kenny’s commitments to visit other members of the extended family. All in all, though, Kenny’s connections definitely made the trip easier and cheaper thus far.
We spent too long dropping off our travel gear and settling in at Kenny’s aunt’s clone-a-castle before finally heading downtown to the infamous “strip” around 6:00. Bright-eyed, camera-toting tourist activities dominated the next several hours. To sum it up, Las Vegas serves no readily discernible, useful purpose. It’s basically an amalgamation of hotel versions of interesting things from places about more than profit, including a pyramid, Paris, New York, Venice, Flamingoes, the Frontier, castles… Casinotels’ monikers were abstract but important-sounding: Bellagio, Bally’s, the Mirage, Jockey Club, Luxor… The only major difference inside the casinos was décor. They’ve all got tons of slot machines to slowly part the frugal old ladies from their money on the perimeter with a mixture of table games in the middle that let the high-rolling bet and eventually lose enough to impress and eventually dismay their significant other, whether s/he’s lifelong or rented for the evening, with the latter probably much more likely here in Sin City.
As we wandered along the neon, I thought how bizarre it would be for someone to come straight from an Amazon village or similarly uncommercialized, “backward” locale to live in Las Vegas. If they ever eventually saw other cities, they’d be amazed at the lack of variety in building architecture and shortage of lighting designed to dazzle. People working 9-to-5 would seem as absurd as the lack of rollercoasters among the skyscrapers. Cultural institutions instead of video displays? Even Las Vegan religion was gaudy, with one church’s exterior comprised largely of a mural and New Year’s Eve protesters on the strip proclaiming “all this is of the devil.” One old man, brandishing a lethal “Jesus is God” sign and “The Lord Saves” t-shirt combination complete with a sketchily long gray beard and disconcerting silence, posed with me and the cotravelers for a unique Kodak moment.
The excess was good, in some ways. Only with absurd amounts of money being spent can a hotel afford a huge, choreographed display of fountains, lights, and cannons shooting water 50 feet into the air (Bellagio) or a replica of the Eiffel Tower (Paris). Excessive force was ready and waiting to be deployed in the form of armored police occupying the middles of closed-to-traffic streets complete with visored horses, just waiting for a riot to break out. The overabundance of superlatively drunk revelers definitely seemed on the verge of destructive chaos, but I saw nothing worse than one gentleman threatening to pour a cup of his own urine on bystanders and another being tossed in the air by friends. we even wandered upon a live concert in time to see Ashanti and Ja Rule “perform.” Although the TV commentators made it sound like they performed for free in public, better acts like Sheryl Crow and the Rolling Stones (!) limited their proletariat exposure to videocasts. Admittedly, I felt like a badass when a homeless man called me James Bond upon seeing me whip out a bottle of Smirnoff from a hidden jacket pocket. That was mildly sketchy of me in comparison to many other celebrants, with one being cheered for passing out on his birthday and a majority blatantly brandishing open containers. The police were fairly cool in spite of their hotheaded gear, causing one random guy to remark to me that “I’ve never had a cop tell me I had to chug my drink before.”
As the different time zones’ midnights rolled by, we called our friends in each with best wishes. This was neat but felt odd: not only is New Year’s strike of midnight entirely arbitrary, but it’s not even a simultaneous illusion of importance… Making the moment even more artificial was a large video screen near our spot on the street, which looped a countdown from 30 to 0. I think me and a good chunk of the rest of Las Vegas actually started cheering for midnight 30 seconds early because of that damn monitor... Nevertheless, it was a memorable midnight as I perched on a chain-link fence in the middle of climbing around a crowd towards my friends to watch the fireworks and marvel at the immensity of the crowd. We wrapped up the night with a few more hours of dazed, tired neon-gazing before returning to Kenny’s aunt’s for a much overdue first rest of the new year.