Read some accounts of Las Vegas and you’ll get the impression that Sin City is a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. The town has done much to clean up its reputation, and make it more family friendly, but there’s definitely a sleazy side to it. Some friends who recently visited were approached by a man who handed them his business card. It said he was a ‘Chick Wrangler’, able to arrange female company on demand. Old habits die hard in Las Vegas.
I was 18 years-old, and fresh out of school, when I first visited Las Vegas with a friend. Not exactly high-rollers, we arrived on a Greyhound bus and slept in a cheap motel. Hearing our accents, the driver decided to give us advice for surviving ‘Vegas’. Arrive in the afternoon, we were told, check in and relax poolside. Hit the casinos and bars in the evening and don’t stop partying until the early hours of the morning. Sleep late the next day and then get the hell out of town.
This sage advice came to mind as we walked through the casino floor of The Venetian at 8am. An unshaved, un-showered man wearing little more than his underwear was slumped in a chair robotically pushing money into a slot machine. He was still there several hours later when we next passed through, on our way to the ridiculously large and sumptuous suite that we’d been upgraded to upon arrival.
The Venetian itself is everything you need to know about Las Vegas. It’s the most grandiose, over-the-top extravagant place I’ve ever stayed. This is a hotel, after all, that incorporates replicas of major Venice landmarks, including the Palazzo Ducale, Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge. It even has a Grand Canal complete with gondoliers that punt half a million people around each year. The ceilings transform themselves into a night sky complete with stars.
It’s a seriously bizarre experience, but exactly what you might expect of a preposterous city constructed in a desert. If Samuel Taylor Coleridge were alive today, Las Vegas would definitely be the Xanadu of his poem, Kubla Khan. Although, even an opium-ingesting Coleridge might struggle to comprehend the scale of the shimmering vision that has been constructed in Nevada.
Visiting Las Vegas took us a long way out of our way, but experiencing all its weirdness after a gap of two and a half decades was fascinating. This really is one of the most ridiculous places on earth. Its true north located somewhere between a theme park and a drug induced hallucination of dystopian urban planning. It’s in a desert and everyone has a swimming pool…
The full spectrum of humanity is found on Vegas’ streets. A Hen Night from Liverpool, Rolls Royce driving Vegas ‘royalty’, drunks, homeless people, name tag wearing conference people, families catching a show. An extraordinary mix, possible only in this impossible city. We didn’t have plans to break the bank, so spent our time people watching and occasionally dabbling at the casino tables.
One night we sat at a bar in the Venetian and ordered some cocktails. The barman had a very familiar accent, from the English Midlands. It was quiet at the bar, and as we drank and chatted his story unfolded. He’d come to the US following his heart. When his marriage broke down, he left the East Coast town he’d called home and moved to Vegas for a ‘fresh start’.
There, in that one story, was the very soul of Vegas, perhaps of the Western United States. This was a town of new beginnings, where someone’s past could be left at the city limits and a new future carved out. At least that’s how the fantasy goes. We tipped heavily and headed for the roulette table to see if we could win the gas money back to California.