Sunday, February 19, 2012

In the Desert, You Can't Remember Your Name (4 October 2004)

Casino Crawl

If you’ve been to an American discount store — Macfrugal’s, Factory 2-U, Dee & Dee, any of the thousands of 99-cent stores — then you’ve already experienced many of the dubious thrills of being a Las Vegas tourist. The garish, chintzy products, ranging from the theoretically practical (melon-ballers, liquid-soap dispensers) to the inexplicable (garlic shampoo, hair mayonnaise), and the overt rip-offs of familiar brands (why buy Sony when you can have Coby?) that you find at discount stores are analogous to the ersatz reconstructions of ritzier tourist destinations (Paris, Venice, New York, New Orleans), and the thin veneer of glitz over everything the Las Vegas Strip has to offer. And the gamble you take when you buy a package of “Blooper” T-shirts, hoping they’re not too irregular to wear, is not so different than taking a spin at the nickel slots.

The gaudy, overlit Strip is a monument to second-rate simulation and faux glamour. The displays are calculated and contrived to mark the point where over-the-top hits rock bottom; where perfect naiveté becomes indistinguishable from perfect cynicism. Both 99-cent stores and tourist Las Vegas make no effort to disguise their exuberant tawdriness; it seems to bespeak of a humble wish to please through sheer quantity and brute pandering. In the face of such generous profusion of stimuli, a critical attitude can seem like fussy, uptight caviling.

The downscale, vaguely disreputable shoppers one sees in the narrow, overstocked aisles at the discount store, are much like the people I find in the heart of tourist Las Vegas. One night, as I jostle my way up and across a pedestrian overpass at the intersection of the Strip and Flamingo Road (the latter named for the Flamingo casino, of course), thronged to capacity, buzzing with electricity and the flickering of enormous video screens, I pass the drifters — the desert rats, as they’re known out west, with their leathery tans and deeply etched squints from too much desert sun. Even at night they slit their eyes as if to protect them from the flashing lights. Desert Rats manage to hustle jobs distributing pornographic pamphlets printed with phone numbers of “dancers” and “massage artists”. I squeeze past the overweight women bulging out of their undersized clothes and the men in their customary “eveningwear” of Bermuda shorts and auto racing T-shirts, sipping fruity booze drinks through a straw from giant plastic vessels shaped like the Eiffel Tower or a pyramid or the Empire State Building, depending on where it was purchased.

Amid the tourists, I feel a press of momentum toward no particular destination, despite the superfluity of alleged attractions: the dancing fountains at the Bellagio, the erupting volcano at the Mirage, the pirate-ship battle at Treasure Island, the talking statues inside Caesars Palace. On the street, the cars barely move. And the pedestrians, when they’re not forced off of street level on to overpasses, clot the intersections, hardly trying to pick out traffic signals from the sea of flashing color. They stand in the road, oblivious, taking pictures while horns blare. But most of the drivers are in no hurry. Their glass-packs rumble, the bass booms. Periodically someone yells something incoherently celebratory out of the window, as if driving through the heart of these crowds and the glare of the casino lights makes them feel as though a TV camera has been pointed at them. Sometimes you see a bunch of people drinking on the back of a pickup truck, usually with California plates and tinted windows, and they’ll all start yelling, too, as soon as they feel they are being looked at.

Inside the casinos, which are surprisingly hard to tell apart considering their disparate themes — perhaps proving that as far as American tourists are concerned, there are no essential differences between, say, Ancient Egypt and contemporary New York — there are lines: lines for the buffets, lines for the steakhouses, where the prime rib could be had for under $10; lines for the casino cage and the change window where paper and plastic money is changed to coins and chips; and lines for the ATM (“the only thing paying out”, as one cheerful tourist from Massachusetts tells me). The only place where there is no line is at the slot machines, many featuring tie-ins to television shows. The faces of TV stars rotate on the simulated slot reels while the TV theme songs intermittently play, the music competing with the machine next to it.

With a cacophony of beeps and bells going off all around me, I wander confusedly through the aisles. Much as I do on my sojourns to Macfrugals, I try to reassure myself that I’m not like “them”. I’m not one of those credulous rubes being taken in by phony bargains and bad risks. Rather, I have some ironic reason for being there. Maybe, I think, that self-consciousness exempts me: If I know I’m being taken, I can’t still be a fool, right?

Both the 99-cent store and tourist Las Vegas are microcosms of American consumer capitalism at its most dubious. These are places where the unscrupulous rush to find the maximum profit margin among the desperate, the gullible, and the easily beguiled, and they make no effort to conceal it. What both offer is the chance, no matter how parodic or benighted, to participate in the luxurious joys of the abundance American society never tires of prescribing, the opulent lifestyle portrayed in entertainment and advertisements alike. When you’re selling hope to the hopeless, you can use the cheapest, most vulgar means to evoke their dreams and counterfeit their fulfillment. To go to Vegas is to immerse yourself in that vulgarity and the exploitation it trumpets. Every gleaming hotel tower, every simulacrum of an ancient wonder, was built not through some noble human aspiration for splendor or permanence, but for carefully harvesting the stupidity and cupidity of others. For no other reason than it exists: a fertile field of pure profit that never need lay fallow.

Every effort has been made to streamline the profit-making potential of people’s ignorance. Living here, you can enjoy the prosperity brought on by that harvest, but only in the form it necessarily takes, as quantity over quality, as lures and traps you know enough to selectively avoid. It’s easy to see why some choose to move here. There’s no income tax, there’s a superfluity of well-paid, low-skill jobs in the construction and service industries, and there’s an abundance of cheap, cheap houses — half the price for something twice the size of what one could get in nearby California. You have construction workers who move here to build houses for the other construction workers who have come to build the new hotels or work on the roads that are replacing the twenty-year-old roads. The roads are as methodically torn down as if their obsolescence had been as carefully planned as a make of automobile, soon to go out of style.

As a place where the most resonant tradition is an overwhelming rejection of moralistic meddling, Las Vegas seems to represent a chance at pure freedom. It’s a place that seems to refuse to make judgments and won’t ask questions of you when you suddenly arrive, no matter the hour. Everyone’s invited. And virtually no one’s been rooted in this land long enough to be snobbish about latecomers. The fervent wish of many Americans that maybe are stuck in bad jobs or are married to bad spouses or have perhaps done a few bad things, to “start clean”, forget their past, invent new and better selves for themselves, matches the valley’s own perpetual reconstruction and permanent growth, with no apparent compass to steer it and with no legislation to slow it down. People come to town to take advantage: of the weather, of the libertarian climate, of the affordability, of each other.

Because when you come to live in Las Vegas — lest you become one of the exploited — you’re likely to link arms with the exploiters and gleefully find opportunity in the weakness of others, expressed through their gambling or their insatiable appetite for junk. But all the while that corrosive attitude slowly corrupts your own tastes as it sharpens your sense of advantage. It bedazzles away your ability to see others as humans instead of marks. It erodes away an ethic of compassion. Before you know it, you have the self-serving ethics of a con man. An article in The New York Times on Las Vegas’s growth (“A Life as a Live! Nude! Girl! Has a Few Strings Attached,” 2 June 2004), offers a perfect example of the instrumental rationality the city encourages, through the story of Trixie, a stripper who “is generous about sharing with other dancers . . . the cold science of milking the customers for everything they’ve got. “It’s just like predators, just like in the rest of human nature. . . ,” she says, “You condition them like Pavlov’s dogs.” In other words, you can enjoy the tax-free life and home-owning ease that Las Vegas offers (a new house is built every 20 minutes on average, and even that can’t keep pace with demand), but you must also have no qualms about holding the leash of the slobbering tourists, or about having your own chain pulled.

Getting In On the Action

Gambling is as good a place as any to turn when you’ve lost faith in the idea that your society rewards merit, and one can only muster a belief in the lucky chance. At the craps table, impotence strangely transforms into omnipotence. As I wait for the shooter to throw the dice, listening to the stickman repeat his mantra of proposition bets — “Your C and E’s, your any seven, the horn, the hard ways” — I start to think the outcome will be affected by how rigidly I adhere to my ritual: first sipping my complimentary gin and tonic, then taking a drag of my cigarette and returning it to the ashtray but without letting it settle in a notch, then touching my glasses, and then waiting, taking care never to look the shooter in the face and never to look at the dice when they land.

Anyone who gets seriously involved with gambling knows that for the gambler, it’s not about money or even the feeling of winning. It’s about the “action”, which is the ability to make bets and keep them perpetually unresolved. The more bets you can keep open-ended, the more action you’re seeing. Action reduces the world to a sublimely manageable scale: the next card, the next roll, the next spin of the wheel. Action means things are in motion, but they’re not going anywhere in particular, and that’s just fine. When you have action, you can’t think of the past or the future, only the present moment matters, intensely. As long as you have action, things matter and apathy is impossible.

Beside me a shriveled man, breathing with the aid of an oxygen tank on wheels, writes down every number thrown in a little spiral notebook; he is “clocking the dice”, searching for patterns. Mathematically, this is insane, but at the table, it seems reasonable enough; it’s proactive, he’s just looking for an edge. “Six, corner six, no field six, comes go to six.” I’m off-and-on my come bet for $34 with $30 more still working. Suddenly my most meaningless actions have great portent. Suddenly I am shaping reality with the power of my superstitious thought. Ordinarily, I’m burdened with a sense that nothing I can do matters, that in an increasingly complex world where any individual’s contribution toward solving a problem won’t even register, even if it’s not making the problem inadvertently worse. This creeping nihilism calls the very notion of belief into question, and without belief, one is paralyzed.

At the craps table, however, I forget all that, the same way those thousands who’ve always come to Las Vegas to try to forget their dead-end situations of no options and no future to invest any belief in. For a few escapist hours, I have important options (Bet the Pass or the Don’t Pass? Place the numbers or play the Field?) and I can act decisively, and my decisions contribute directly to how much longer I can stay in the action, and for those hours, action is all there is in the world. When you have limited options, be it from a lack of education or ambition, or the absence of a support system, familial or communal, and you are trained most of your life to be a passive, obedient sponge, whether at the workplace, where you’re expected to do no more than follow procedures, or at leisure, watching television shows that cue you when to laugh and cry, the idea of taking action, of being able to do something, anything, that’s meaningful can take on mythic proportion.

But action is not activity, it’s always something you have and never something you do. You can’t generate it yourself, and it can’t be sustained. Action allows you to feel what it’s like to be active rather than passive. It offers the fantasy of significance without ever really being significant. Except to the casinos, which don’t care at all about action but care very much about money. The gaming industry knows precisely, with verifiable certainty, how many pennies it is going to make for every dollar wagered, and there’s nothing romantic or whimsical about these calculations. Its profits could be measured with the relentless exactitude of a pendulum clock. Despite the celebrity of certain casino builders — Bugsy Siegal, Donald Trump, Steve Wynn — the casino business is not a business for dreamers or visionaries. In reality, gaming is the most zero-sum of industries; there is no win-win, there is no fair trade. The laws of probability are simply leveraged ruthlessly against those too ignorant or ornery or desperate to abide them. With mathematical certainty I should know deep down that the house wins, and I lose; if I can believe in nothing else, I should try to believe in that.

Where the Streets Have No Name

Out in the valley’s foothills, in Henderson, Nevada, the rapidly expanding suburb to the southeast of Las Vegas, it feels like I could be anywhere, or nowhere — like an airport, minus the liminality. There are no historical markers, no monuments, no indigenous plants or trees, nothing that you haven’t seen somewhere else but with more contingencies. Without the shopping centers, the apartment complexes, the tract housing, the casinos, there’s literally nothing; no history out here, just a “now” that never ends.

The ersatz glamour and pandering gaudiness of the Strip seem far away, even though you can still see the row of tall hotel towers from the newly built Interstate 215, nearing completion after several years of construction. At the most recently finished exits of that road, at Windmill Lane and Eastern Avenue, housing developments and retail strips have sprung up as fast as they could be built, and the few vacant lots have enormous signs driven deep into their rocky, inhospitable soil, advertising the coming construction. On this apparent blank slate it seems as if humankind can write its dreams, unhampered by anything but the limits of its own imagination and technology. Perhaps this has been the goal of American history all along, to achieve the tabula rasa promised to colonists by the idea of a “New World”. But surveying the rows of identical houses, replicating with viral efficiency, I wonder how such a dream could have amounted to this.

Before the highway was built, before corporations began taking advantage of what the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce Web site calls a “pro-business environment in which companies do not pay corporate income, franchise, inventory, or unitary taxes”, the idea that anyone would live out in these hills was unthinkable. Located in the hottest desert in North America, this land constitutes a vast emptiness, devoid of all but the most rugged vegetation — low-growing shrubs, cacti and yuccas — as one finds in Death Valley, the shimmering desert just north of town. But now, as the Chamber of Commerce Web site points out, “Every hour, another two acres of Las Vegas land are developed for commercial or residential use”, and “developers of master-planned communities . . . are running out of new street names”.

It takes the full breadth of humankind’s scientific powers to make living out here even conceivable, and perhaps this is a justification in and of itself for doing it, the same way Mount Everest needs to be climbed simply because it’s there. Also, it’s a perfect place for people who regard weather and nature as obstacles to overcome and eliminate, rather than a phenomena to experience. Seasons? Who needs them. Weather does have the unfortunate habit of upsetting plans, just as the natural world has the tendency to intrude upon us at inopportune moments. One of the achievements of modernity is to make nature something we can experience on a tourist basis, on our terms, when we feel up to the aesthetic appreciation we’ve come to feel it deserves. We’ll go to Vail when interested in experiencing winter, we’ll go hiking when we want to think about how pleasant trees can be. Otherwise, we’ll live in Henderson, Nevada, Phoenix, Arizona, or San Jose, California, or any of the other similar sprawl towns that have emerged from the desert in the past few decades.

This kind of landscape constitutes a conservative’s dream. It’s a perfect, airtight marketplace where nothing intrudes with the merciless operation of the market: no local traditions, no environmental concerns, no inclement weather, no government restrictions, no sense of community solidarity. It’s a perfect capitalist laboratory. With such rapid growth, no political constituency has ever had a chance to stabilize; people are overwhelmed or diluted into incoherence before they come to know themselves, let alone identify their own potential power. With little threat of community action, businessmen and politicians can act with impunity, and cooperate with one another in schemes with nothing but the bottom line to answer to. Out here, in the featureless, anonymous desert, inside any of its casinos, all identically beguiling, uniformed employees make the soft count, dumping ten-gallon buckets full of quarters into enormous counting machines while others push wheeled steel cages, full of drab metal boxes stuffed full of money, while still others present to men wearing suits the carbon copies of the receipts that account for it all. Similar people in similar uniforms serve the food in the franchise restaurants, work the registers in the chain clothing stores, stock the shelves of the twenty-four hour convenience stores, wash the SUVs, and sell them. Here, the people all wear name tags but the names are meaningless; behind every uniform there is only the unnamed and faceless profit making of corporate enfranchisement.

In suburbs like Henderson it’s easy to see what results when the ruthless rationality of the marketplace goes unchecked. The tract housing multiplies, chain stores rush in to rival other chain stores, and the dreams expressed through small businesses or individual entrepreneurship are quietly snuffed. Without anything to restrain it, the psychological compulsion to be always new, the very motor of consumer capitalism with its cycles of fashion and planned obsolescence, is accelerated to the point of absurdity.

Out here where the tourists don’t come, you might expect to find a completely different set of priorities embodied in a wholly different architecture, and a rhythm to life directly opposed to the bustling impatience and endless exhortations to be excited that you see on the Strip. The Strip suggests a squalid decadence, waste for its own sake. And at first glance, the bland homogeneity of Henderson seems to express a kind of streamlined pragmatism. With the tidy concision of a geometric proof, the mixture of new homes and new chain restaurants and grocery stores and enormous parking lots and twenty-four-hour drug stores seem to express the American wish for a quiet life, padded everywhere by unceasing convenience and unsullied cleanliness; the kind of life where you don’t have to talk to anyone outside your family unless that someone is serving you. You can float above the fray, cocoon yourself away from the dog-eat-dog world that Trixie the stripper talks about. The entire desert community is without reference to anything that’s not man-made, and all the nature you see, the tiny, carefully landscaped lawns (which must be watered twice daily to survive) and artfully positioned trees (usually to maximize shade for automobiles) is man-made, engineered, designed, and entirely liberated from the desert’s ecology, with something of the same tactfulness that Target lavishes on a soap dish.

Every few weeks, whenever a new shopping center opens, one more interstate exit stretches further out into the pristine suburb, I feel obliged to go, even though the stores are all basically the same — there might be a Macaroni Grill instead of an Olive Garden, or an Albertsons instead of a Smith’s supermarket, a Borders instead of a Barnes and Noble. But the stores themselves aren’t important; it is more the feeling of having virgin territory to explore that matters. The parking lots are half finished, and if you aren’t careful you could drive right off the edge of the concrete into the desert. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single piece of chewed gum stuck to the pavement anywhere. Even the dumpsters around back emanate a halo of freshness. The rows of SUVs, in parking spots — actually designed to accommodate them — gleam in the sun; I catch blinding reflections off the tinted windows as I scurry for the air-conditioning inside. By comparison, the shopping centers closer to town feel moribund, antiquated, once they’ve become merely functional and are no longer brand new. My fellow residents of Henderson seem to agree. They seem to flock with me to the new centers simply because they are new, the same way we all check out the new casinos when they are built, even though we all agree they are all basically the same.

Though they aspire to a kind of contempt of the tourists who underwrite much of the valley’s growth, the permanent residents of Henderson actually mirror them in mentality, as they are tourists in their everyday lives, seeking the same blend of arbitrary novelty and comfortable familiarity, the same diverse shopping opportunities. Both are blithely untroubled by the lack of a meaningful or authentic context for their actions, both are happily without anything in their environment to attach them to concrete, determined reality, to a sense of necessity — both float in simulacra, technologically separated from nature, whether it’s through elaborately executed reconstructions of fantasy landscapes or through the simple efficacy of air-conditioning. If there is a difference, it’s that Hendersonites seem to side with the House instead of searching for action. They prefer the dreary certainties of a convenient life to a life of dreams and surprises.

The citizens suit themselves perfectly to the chain-store universe: no obstacles impel them to be creative or to seek solace in a community. Nothing leads them beyond themselves, and they are all too happy to fend for themselves. After all, cooperation means inevitable compromise, and that just isn’t all that comfortable.

Las Vegas grows and continues to grow — a giant, thirsty weed reaching farther into the desert — because it can, because our economy fetishizes growth for its own sake. But out in the foothills you can see where the building must stop, you see that the growth must end, and then you wonder what will all those home-owning construction workers do then? Where will they go to next? Or will they just tear it all down and start over? Whatever they do, no one is likely to stop them.

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