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Behind the Vegas Scenes

Considering "America's party town" as so much giant-scale theater.



Venice in Vegas.
My friend Blair says she can't remember the last time she bought a drink in Las Vegas. It's not because she's one of the ubiquitous stiletto-heeled bleach blondes of "the silicone valley." In fact, she's a married mother of two who prefers sneakers and cut-off jeans. She gets her freebies because she works in what the people of Las Vegas simply call "the business."

The business in and of Las Vegas is the service business -- the wait staff, chefs, valets, bartenders, card dealers, and everybody else who inhabits the reality behind the unreality. They always have to explain the same thing Blair has to explain: Yes, I live in Las Vegas.

Live in Las Vegas? What, in a casino? Do you play 21 for a living? The reactions are usually the same, but it's because people forget reality when they go to Las Vegas. That's the whole point of going there. Geographically, you're in a desert, surrounded by people who are there to take your money. If they weren't so good at it, they wouldn't have built all these ridiculous resorts. But psychologically, you're in a Golden Land of Opportunity, where easy money and beautiful people might be a lever-pull away, where the all-you-can-eat prime rib is just $11 and you can visit Paris, Venice, New York, and ancient Rome in a single night.

But the reality of Las Vegas is people like Blair, a bar manager with two sons and a chef husband who lives in a modest two-bedroom with a pool in a quiet neighborhood just off Tropicana. Two-thirds of the adults in Las Vegas are similarly employed in "the business," and the other third appear to be retirees who play golf and slot machines.

The guy singing to you in the gondola at the Venetian is on an eight-hour shift. The strippers at Glitter Gulch are paying tuition at UNLV. The blackjack dealer taking your money at Circus Circus would prefer you win, really, because it makes the time go by quicker and you'll probably tip.

These folks have their own Las Vegas, filled with locals' places like any other city. Casinos dot the town like barbecue restaurants in Memphis; hardly a part of town is without one. Hotels, which anywhere else would be spectacles of insane proportions, blend right into the local landscape.

It's the view that the residents have of Las Vegas that I enjoy the most: the city as giant-scale theater, what Blair calls "a perpetual-motion machine that goes and goes and gets nowhere." To the people who actually live in Las Vegas, the question is not "How cool is the new Paris Hotel and Casino?" The questions are: "How well did they pull it off, how's it doing, and how does it treat its employees?"

A favorite example: Blair won't go anywhere near the new Stratosphere, a thousand-foot-tall Space Needle-type thing with an observation deck, a roller coaster, and a bungee ride on top. She's not afraid of heights; it's just that a fire broke out during its construction, and flaming pieces of debris rained down on the streets below. She says it's tough to get over a sight like that -- not that the high-rollers coming in from L.A. would even know of it.

Going around Las Vegas with Blair is an exercise, strangely enough, in small-town living. (There are nearly half a million residents in Las Vegas and around 36 million visitors every year.) The bartender at a high-end restaurant just off the Conservatory at Paris used to work with her at an Italian place in the Forum Shops behind Caesar's Palace (where statues speak and the light changes from day to night every hour). So he "comps" her a $25 glass of wine, and she tips him $20. The guy at the Chinese restaurant doesn't know her but lives with somebody who does, so he pulls the check for a cocktail and appetizer while we wait for a table.

She swears that, in addition to all this, Vegas is a pretty good place to live. It has excellent schools, 360 days of sun every year, valet parking everywhere you go, and even some decent nature to enjoy. She's not too sure about raising her kids here, though. You wouldn't want your offspring to think that soaring fountains in the middle of the desert and nearly naked women roaming the streets with cocktails at all hours are what life is going to be like.

If you have lots of money, good looks, or great luck, Vegas is the place for you. If not (join the club) my advice is to go there on a sort of exploratory mission. See for yourself what humanity can build for the simple goal of preying on people's weaknesses: our lust for luxury, money, and flesh. I say jump in and enjoy it for the illusion that it is. Just remember whose money built the place, and when the bill comes or the dealer gets hot, tip your waitress well and get the hell out.

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