An Honest Grift

[WARNING: this rant is only occasionally funny.]

First things first: I had a terrific time at the big World Fark Party this weekend in Las Vegas. Drew and his folks know how to throw a bash, the large crowd of Farkers were a ton of fun to hang with and play for, and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

That said, a few words about Las Vegas itself. Four of them, to be precise: I don’t like it.

Not in the “by golly it’s a den of sin” kind of way, since I’m not big on the concept of “sin”. And I don’t dis-favorably judge those who live, work, come from, or enjoy spending time there, as I’m also not big on judging.

But I don’t like it.

Every town has a vibe. As a kid, the first city I fell in love with was New York. Even in the late 70s/early 80s, it was easy for a kid journeying out from his grandparents’ apartment in Queens to recognize NYC’s energetic essence despite (because of?) the graffiti and street trolls. Since then I’ve come to love many cities across the country and a few overseas: Chicago’s meaty handshake; the jigsaw pomp and tickle of London; Portland’s vibrant recycled charm. The list runs into the dozens, and even includes Los Angeles, a town I’d once written off as a vapid hall of mirrors.

I’m sorry, L.A.; I was (mostly) wrong about you. Las Vegas has filled the vacuum left behind after I’d actually spent enough time in greater Los Angeles to appreciate that its creative engine is not (entirely) clockwork and crepe paper. But I won’t yoke Vegas with what I used to perceive as L.A.’s Keanu-on-a-bench emptiness. Quite the contrary, in fact, and it was while walking down The Strip near Bellagio that my growing disquiet quickened into a tweet:
Las Vegas at night is astounding: a beautiful, colorful piñata, stuffed almost to bursting with spiders.

Sure it sounds harsh, but it doesn’t take a drug-fueled gonzo quest to see that it’s true. What else are all of the lights, fountains, and replica landmarks doing in the middle of the desert except to cloak a network of spider webs as a plaything-target? Yes, it’s possible to take Las Vegas’ collection of haphazardly-dumped LEGO sets at face value, and most people probably do simply fly in, waddle and/or strut around for a few days, and go home more or less unaltered (if lighter-pocketed).

But if you hit the town hard enough, or squint your eyes just so as you look around, there’s no mistaking the grift. The slot(h) machines in the airport are the classic example of Vegas’ efficiency at parting people from their money, but that’s well-trod ground that we’ll take as a given. It’s not even the casinos’ sledgehammer grace in deploying people’s own borrowed ticky-tacky dreams and homegrown greed against themselves that disturbs me the most.

It’s the apparent ease with which people accept it that makes me wish the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man or some other destroyer would just get on with it and consume the place. Walk down The Strip at night and you will see ten thousand princes and princesses (admittedly representing an encouragingly diverse number of cultures and subcultures), each one convinced that the city and everything in it exists only for themselves, and not the other way around. Antiseptic, friendly Paris is standing by, with Wheel of Fortune slots in every corner. Style and grace are yours as you walk through well-appointed Bellagio, with Wheel of Fortune slots in every corner. So too awaits Rock and Roll of Fortune of Ancient Egypt Wheel of Circus Cowboy Celebrity Titties of Fortune. So long as there’s a penny in your pocket, sure, you’re a KING, big boy! It’s only those other people who are losers. And if you keep your hands balled up into fists, the pamphlet-flicking street teams won’t be able to load them up with meatspace spam.

(Isn’t it amazing that no one has set a zombie flick in Vegas yet?)

Perhaps I’m being too harsh, and it really is just “adult Disneyland”. Considering the cost of spending a day at a theme park these days, Las Vegas isn’t necessarily such a financial villain for most (though I doubt as many people have made a wreck of their lives after a weekend or career at Disney). Nah, it’s fair. Whatever you think of Disney’s empire, they are a dreamer of dreams, and it would be hypocritical for someone like myself, whose own grift is selling mental toys, to criticize them for taking people’s money in exchange for fanciful ideas and laughs.

But unlike Disney, Hollywood, or the Paul and Storm organization, Las Vegas doesn’t even attempt to create anything original or of value to society. I mean, kudos for housing Penn & Teller, but like just about every other major act in town they made their name elsewhere, and they’d do just fine without the neon and marauding gargoyles. And all of the French-Canadian acrobats and blue men in the world won’t make the phrase “Las Vegas Culture” sound any less ridiculous. If it turns out that large dogs shitting smaller dogs down water slides attracts retirees and other fat-walleted gawkers more effectively, you can bet that Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group would be evicted in a heartbeat.

I didn’t experience and only tangentially witnessed the seamier, sexually degrading, and perhaps less legally sound faces of the city (I’ve never even watched CSI), so I’ll leave it to those more knowledgeable to make a case against Las Vegas on those grounds. But as for its habit of weaving broad cultural webs in order to trap and feast on knockoff designer handbags and chain wallets, the whole town would dry up and blow away into the desert if people used their noggins a bit even as they rushed from one Tinker Toy palace to the next, or at the very least applied some rudimentary math.

And so it is with grudging regret that I must admit that although I still don’t like Las Vegas, it is at least in most respects an honest grift.

Despite my distaste, I know I’ll be back. And even if they printed this screed every day for a year in the Las Vegas Sun, and I tell them I’m planning to stand on The Strip with a megaphone and educate the masses about how they’re being manipulated, Las Vegas will still welcome me with open arms. It’s just a numbers game for the spiders, and who is the average American more likely to pay attention to: me or the tits?


  1. Posted April 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    “… my growing disquiet quickened into a tweet”

    I think you just coined the rallying cry of the new decade.

  2. Skyen
    Posted April 4, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    This one, Storm, was very, very well written. Seriously, this is good use of language – interesting all the way through, clever wordings, an interesting topic. Kudos, man.

  3. Rich
    Posted April 4, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    I wanna see the large dogs shitting smaller dogs down water slides. That sounds disgustingly awesome!

  4. Simalot
    Posted April 4, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    You put into words a lot of the reasons why Las Vegas ranks very low on the places I want to visit. I’m sure I could have fun there, but I could pretty much have the fun I want to have there elsewhere and not feel like I have to take five showers on my return home. Unless there’s a JoCoVegasCrazy, in which case, sign me up.

    I’m sure you knew when you said no one had set a zombie film in Vegas, you were opening the door for examples of zombie films set in Vegas. The one I can think of is “Resident Evil Extinction”, which is set partially in Vegas. It isn’t only there, so you might slide on it not being a Vegas zombie flick, or maybe you just needed to add the adjective “good” before “zombie flick set in Vegas”? I’ve also read that “Army of the Dead” takes place in Vegas, if it ever gets finished and released.

  5. Simalot
    Posted April 5, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    You might be interested in this piece from the Huffington Post, which coincidentally also was published yesterday:

    The Strip Diary, Day One: Why Americans Have Fallen Out of Love With Vegas, and the Rest of Us Never Will

  6. Posted April 6, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Excellent point. All of it. Well done, sir.

    I haven’t been to Vegas, but I have been to Reno and I have to say, it’s the same thing. The whole time I was there I just felt like there was something uncomfortably off about the whole place. Later I decided that it just gave me the feeling of being dirty. I couldn’t really explain why at the time, but your lovely assessment is dead on and one of the main reasons why I have no real desire to go to Las Vegas. Unless there’s something besides the Las Vegas “Vegas” to visit, then I’ll think it over. 😉

  7. Posted April 12, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m not aware of zombie films set in vegas, BUT, there is the game Dead Rising 2, which does take place in a proxy-vegas, and it is quite good.
    Think I may need to duct tape some chainsaws to a kayak paddle and revisit the game tonight even…

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