Las Vegas, Nevada – July 31, 2013
Can I just be a tourist for a while? Is that okay?
I am in awe of this town, to say the awful truth. I strive to be sage and sagacious, but for most of my time in Sin City, this trip and every trip, I am simply agog. I go where no one goes. I see what no one sees – the things no one in the Sucker-milking business wants you to see. But I go where everyone else goes, too – the Arias, the Wynns, the Belagios – but even then I think I see everything no one else even seems to be looking for.
That’s why I get paid the big bucks. For sure. And I will quarry for the corresponding smug attitude, should I ever actually make any big bucks. Until then I am like you, slogging through endless miles of man-made commercial desert questing after a bottle of spring water that costs less than an hour’s wages.
I take pictures, too, just like you. I have tons of back-of-the-house shots from all over town, along with many of those scenes no one wants for you to see from outside of ‘The Resort Corridor.’ I have tourist pictures, too, especially of remarkable works of art and decor. But my favorite tourist pictures are simply pictures of tourists. You’re setting up the shot of the kids with a living model of Super Mario who needs to get his costume to the dry-cleaner and I’m setting up a shot of you taking the photo.
The most iconic image of Las Vegas is not the Stratosphere tower, not Caesar Augustus gazing upon The Strip with his dead, pitiless eyes, not even the well-burnished bronze butts of The Crazy Girls at the Riv. The image that sells Sin City to the world is that photo set-up: “Hold it. Hold it. Now smile!” It’s even more fun to watch this tableau in the age of the smartphone. Everyone wants his own remembrance, so phones, cameras and subjects swap around until the full combinatorial has been fulfilled.
I like those families. They’re the other half of tourism in Sin City, the sinless half. No one wants to talk about them, because they’re not here to gamble. They’re just here to have a nice vacation with their kids. Maybe mom and dad will sneak off late at night to visit the hotel’s two-hundred-dollar version of a twenty-dollar tit-show, but they didn’t come to Vegas for the sin. They came here to be a family together, to share an adventure together, to take the exact same photograph five times per iteration with thirty-seven different scenic backgrounds.
In past trips, I’ve been the ad hoc photographer for a lot of those shots, taking charge of the camera so mom or dad could be in the picture, too. Not so much this time. The pass-around routine solves the problem somewhat, and no one has to take a chance on losing a phone or a camera. But passing digital cameras and smartphones around makes for much longer photo shoots, so the traffic blockage at popular background sites can be a sight to see, just on its own.
Or an obstacle to be avoided. I lived in Manhattan when I was a younger man, and I know how to thread the needle in a tight crowd. I glide when I stride. I slip through the spaces no one else can even find – this because I’m aiming for where the space is going to be when I get there, even though there might seem to be no obvious way through the throngs at all. I keep my hands at my sides, prepared to throw an arm behind me if I need to make a little room, ready to turn sideways if I need a little more. I can make book in a crowd, and part of the fun of Las Vegas, for me, is simply walking.
So that’s where all this leads, to me walking for hours in the immense complex that is The Venetian, The Palazzo and The Grand Canal Shoppes. My first time, believe it or don’t. I’ve always been a Grinder. This is my first trip to Sin City as nothing but a wide-eyed tourist. And I know that’s so, too, because in a very long visit, I sat down to play Poker only once – and I didn’t enjoy it. And that’s what’s different about me, in the end: Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie’s done lost his gamble for good.
Even so, of all the joints I’ve seen this trip, The Venetian is the one that seems to be getting the most things right. The slot machines are packed more tightly together, which breeds excitement, and the table games are busy and boisterous. There are mini-cages all over, a sweet innovation. Why should you have to walk half-a-mile to break half-a-yard into singles for tips? Upstairs in the Shoppes, every damn jewelry store is vastly empty, just like everywhere else, but unlike the other miles-of-malls at casino-hotel-resorts, the less-tony retailers were doing real business.
I put my money where my mouth is, too: I actually left cash behind in a casino, something I make a stout effort never to do.
I bought my wife a gift, that’s what happened. Huge, momentous story, right? This is the Willie world: I don’t go to your church. If you want twelve dead bodies a page, with the bad guys flossing their teeth with their victims’ veins, you bought the wrong book. I’m interested in real people and the things they really do. Real people shop. Me, too – and no one is more astounded by that fact than I am.
I was walking those Grand Canal Shoppes, taking everything in, when I bespied a very girly tea shop. Every tea shop is girly, mind you. When men used to buy loose tea, they bought it at the tobacconist’s shop, like nature intended. By now, even gay men can’t buy tea without calling their masculinity into question, so loose tea is purveyed to ladies only.
And we all know that, left to their own devices, girls can ruin anything, and this is certainly true of teas. The store smelled like one of those build-your-own-bath-bomb emporia that wives in Vegas love to shop while their husbands stand outside wondering if they will ever get the smell of over-perfumed everything out of their noses. Still worse, loose tea for women apparently consists of nothing but rejected trail-mix recipes. Certainly nothing in the place looked or smelled like tea.
Not my problem. I’m not a girl. But if you want to please a girl with a gift, you gotta buy her girly stuff. My Adora is indulging me this trip, and the next one, and the next one after that. Certainly she deserves a tin of completely risible tea in compensation.
I strode up to the counter and said, “Tell me what I should buy.”
The front-line Saleskid was flummoxed by such an easy sale, but the Manager knew how to reel in a live one. She said, “Tell him to buy one of everything.”
“At last! A real live Carney in Las Vegas.” The Manager smiled at that, and to the Saleskid I said, “Listen to what she tells you. If you’re not upselling, you’re not selling at all.”
“Do you have any idea what you might want?”
Dumb question. If I knew what I wanted in that store, I’d have ovaries. What I want in tea is Earl Grey, nothing else. Steaming hot or room temperature, I’m not picky, just give me that bergamot. I said, “How about a green tea with energy.” This was pure bullshit on my part. I know about green tea; it’s real tea that hasn’t been cured yet. But ‘energy’ is a notion I stole from Jamba Juice, where it refers to a top-secret concoction made from pre-masticated beeswax and unbounded gullibility.
“If you want energy, you want blah-blah-blah blah-blah blah-blah,” said the Manager, apparently unaware that no man can absorb product details in a girly store.
I have the perfect defense for that, though. I said, “What would you recommend? This will be a gift for my wife.”“Oh, if it’s for your wife, you’ll want blah-blah-blah-blah.”
I said, “Perfect.” And it was, too. The Carney’s job is to get the money – but to convince you that you got a good deal, too.
The Saleskid and I negotiated the quantity of tea, then she upsold me a tin to take it home in, and I praised her to the skies for pushing for the extra ducats. If you don’t ask, the answer is always ‘no.’ I think the Manager might have pulled another sawbuck out of me – what man wants to think he’s being cheap with his wife? – but the total bill came to less than twenty bucks.
And a tin.
In Las Vegas.
Whatever. The whole experience was fun, and I know Adora will love the gift – even if it turns out she hates the tea.
“Are you here on business?” the Saleskid asked.
“No. The truth is, I’m here writing a book. You’re the only person in town I’ve shared that news with, so please don’t tell anyone – because nobody cares.”
She smiled at that, and I wanted to put a tip for her and her Manager on my debit card, but, amazingly enough, the store doesn’t take tips. In Las Vegas. Upsell all day and I’ll see it and salute it. But if you can’t take a tip, you’re no Carney.
So that’s my tourist story. Not even a story, really, not even a chronicle, just a panorama of scenes snapshot from the carousel that is Sin City.
I left The Venetian by way of Las Vegas Boulevard, so I could see the replica of the Doge’s Palace. A cute little Armenian girl with amazingly good English asked me to take her picture with her phone. I took a few snaps with her to the left, so the faux-Palace would be visible, but then I took one of her close up, so she could remember how Vegas made her feel.
She said, “You want me to take one of you with your phone?”
“No, thank you. I’ll always look like this, but you’ll remember this day forever.”
And that’s the jackpot that Las Vegas never pays to the Carneys, or to the Suckers, or to the Mooks or the Marks or the Sharks or the Whales, but only to the sweet, tender-hearted Georges – the wide-eyed tourists who have the guts simply to gawk at Sin City, the most gawk-worthy spectacle on earth.