Date: 17th June 2005
Subject: No place like home
Place: Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
“This is extraordinary. Have you ever been any place like this before?” Stuart asks the kids over a hamburger.
Matthew pauses, thoughtfully dips a fat chip into a mammoth bowl of ketchup, then replies seriously , “Yes, we absolutely have. It’s just like Burton in Kendal isn’t it Dad?”
It’s just like Burton in Kendal apparently
A giant neon thermometer reads ninety eight degrees. Black and leather clad Harley riders hang out on the strip, barely dressed girls clinging to their sweat soaked backs and silver machines. A multicoloured neon sky-scape dominates the horizon, the Eiffel tower vying for the tourist dollar with Venice and Aladdin’s Palace. Across the street, a state of the art roller coaster plummets screaming pleasure seekers to the feet of the Statue Of Liberty, before shooting them into a starless sky. Taxi’s speed past; itinerant billboards for erotica and exotica.
A cloying scent of hamburgers clings to the well heeled and the greedy as warm pine air wafts from tropical gardens. Tourists jostle on overcrowded intersections; ageing women in low cut sequined tops gliding along the sidewalk, powered by anticipation of glittering slots and lucky dollars. A giggling mass of teenage girls, dipped in gold dust, ten dollar jewels framing touched up hair and faces push through the throng. They dream of meeting their prince, but may end up settling for a tasteful Elvis.
Out of the crowd a wedding party emerges then disperses, the wilting bride clutching wilted blooms, brushing past popcorn stuffed pensioners, and on into Caesars Palace for a night of sex and Celine. All-American men in shorts and cowboy hats with whiskey on their breath leer after casino waitresses hurrying to their night shift, American tan tights clinging to overweight bottoms.
“Tell me Matthew,” I say with some amusement, “In what way is this like Burton in Kendal?” His memory of home has obviously been distorted by time.
Anything goes in Vegas
My two sons sit either side of me, enveloped in massive pure white bath towels, the Arabian carpet in our Aladdin themed room providing a sumptuous woven cushion. A long and energetic snorkelling session in the bathtub has left the boys snug and sleepy, but not yet ready to say goodnight to this buzzing desert city.
“What’s the Eiffel Tower for Mum?” Matthew asks, gazing at the impressive lookalike, conveniently stationed next door in Paris. I think about it for a moment. Apart from being a venue for wedding proposals, I’m not quite sure what the point of it is. Our attention is arrested by an explosion of light. The thousand dancing fountains of the Bellagio Hotel begin their famous nightly routine, and we have a birds eye view. The children dance around the room, happily discarding towels, mirroring the fountains as they kick and pirouette to a tune we can’t hear through the solid double glazing of our palace.
A thousand fountains dance outside our hotel window. Every 15 minutes.
Stuart volunteers to babysit, and I gratefully escape, pocketing a twenty dollar voucher for the slots, compliments of the hotel. I wander through the Arabian bazaar that surrounds our accommodation. Vast and winding, the indoor complex comes complete with sky; a cloudless evening light. I wait in one section for a promised rain shower, which doesn’t materialise. Then I take a walk past heaving cafés and restaurants, busy coping with the evening dinner rush. I skirt around fortune tellers reading paperback novels, biding their time until the next client (no doubt already foreseen). I wave away the shoe shiners who rush forward to polish my world weary sandals, and march past Gap Kids, DKNY and a variety of upmarket chain stores without being tempted to buy. The whole experience is clean and pleasant, so much easier than the hassle and bustle of a foreign bazaar, with its’ crowded littered walkways, rotten smelling foods, oppressive heat and professional hustlers. Eventually I come to a brightly lit casino.
An evening stroll in the bizarre bazaar
I draw in a deep breath as I enter the flashing fairyland. It’s like stepping into a vividly remembered part of my childhood. Brought up near a seaside town, I loved the pier entertainment, the amusements and most of all the fruit machines, with their jingling bells, blinking lights and tantalising promise of riches. A tingle of childish excitement runs through my spine at the anticipation of tiny copper cents showering into tinny metal trays. The scale of this casino doesn’t disappoint. It’s mesmerising. A thousand wheels whirr and blurr, all different, yet playing the same game. But something isn’t right, and I soon put my finger on it. The place isn’t loud enough.
Waitresses float quietly around like erotically dressed ghosts, their trays of drinks wordlessly exchanged for tips. The punters sit silent and stationary, moving only their arms in regular rhythmic motions. Some push buttons, others insert notes, one or two drag nervously on their waiting cigarettes, or quaff a Margarita or a Bud light, their glittering dresses reflected in the glass of the slots they are enslaved to. Others are attached to their machines by a plastic coil, as the slots gobble up credit on their gamblers store card. Oversize bellies spill out over undersize jeans, while their owners watch in dismay as last weeks wages disappear in moments. I figure I have the stomach to become part of this particular club, so I hitch up my lavalava over the pregnant bump and make my way over to the change counter to present my voucher to the cashier.
“You want to join the members club?” she says without looking up. “You have a credit card and I.D?”
I’m startled by the proposition. “No, no, I don’t want to join any club. I just want the freebies on the voucher.”
“To access the voucher you have to join the members club. It allows you to play in any of the big four chains without using cash. You put your members card in any machine and it’ll charge directly to your credit card account.” I mumble something about my credit card being in my room.
I shove a dollar note in a slot. It comes right back out again. I put it in the other way up. Again it’s rejected. It’s a conspiracy to make me join Gamblers Associated. I wander round again instead. Things have definitely changed in the gambling world since I gleefully chucked my grannies pennies into the machines on New Brighton pier. Coins aren’t accepted here. Only dollar notes and membership cards. There are no bells ringing to signify a million dollar winner, no triumphant shouts of success, and no jingling of winning coins. If you want to collect your winnings, you press a button and the amount is printed on a piece of paper and then presented to the cashier. Or it goes straight to your credit card. Where’s the fun in that? I watch people playing lines of ten, chucking ten dollars away in a single push of a button.
At the roulette and poker tables it’s much the same story; silent concentration and easy loss. Broad shouldered guards stand unsmiling behind the frontmen and women who spin the ball or split the deck. It’s slightly more upmarket than the slots; people are thin or well dressed or Japanese. The women have expensive highlights, and they sip on martini’s or vodka tonics while their men drink beer and both throw piles of pink and orange chips onto red number seven or black thirty four. I love to play roulette, but without any mates to egg me on, I am too shy to sit at a table. I shuffle past each one, feeling sober and pregnant, then order a diet coke at the bar. I feel out of place, disconnected and tired. It’s time to join my family, get a good nights sleep, then hit ‘Lost Vegas’ together in the morning. I make my way back to the Palace, take the lift to the thirty fifth floor, and lie watching the dancing fountains till I drift into a silent, alternative dreamworld, where gambling is a noisy business, and I effortlessly win a million dollars at the spin of a small metal ball.