The Other Sin City

The day after the SIN celebration to end domestic and sexual violence I boarded a plane to attend the public administrators conference in Sin City. We’ve visited Las Vegas previously, though this time the city presented itself in stark contrast to the SIN party the night before where in just a few hours we raised substantial funds to bring safety and respect to community members who have experienced gender-based violence. There is a real community amidst the larger-than-life entertainment and vice industries — or is it a single industry? A close friend lives in Las Vegas and I could not resist the opportunity to stay in a real home, in a real neighborhood, with a real family.

A visit with an important friend made for a soft landing in a city that does everything it can to get your attention. I looked forward to our visit so much I barely noticed the slot machines in the airport terminal. It was dark when I arrived and the billboards and lights passing by were just a blur on the way home. After we checked into hotel Chez Amie we moved the children’s play things so we could sit on the floor with a glass of wine and plate of tapenade. There were no flashing lights and the only background noise was her daughters who had so much to say and do. The assortment of toys, books, and art supplies improved the ambiance.

The next day was blissfully lazy. Everyone slept late. I slithered into the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea and soon the children followed and helped themselves to Cheerios and Saturday morning cartoons. After we were all up and moving the kids led us on a stroll through the neighborhood and to the duck pond in the next development. When we returned home we got straight to work in the kitchen making rice crispy treats. As the sun set we went out again to catch the latest showing of Guys and Dolls at the local high school. The only thing that might not have been so routine in any other town was the professional quality theatre and performers for a high school production.

As a Portlander I decided to take the bus into the conference. Finding and navigating the online schedules the night before was not quite as simple as on the TriMet website, but mostly because I really wanted to find a route that did not require me to leave the house at 5:00 in the morning. It did not exist. The mile walk to the bus stop was brisk before the sun came up in the late winter desert. The other commuter at the stop was chipper and friendly. It was clear by my questions I was unfamiliar with the regional transit service, so he made sure I knew the route and fare options that were appropriate for my short stay in town. A print-house technician, he gave up his own business to move to Las Vegas when he was diagnosed with cancer and could not work as much as he was accustomed to working. Now cancer free, he loves the morning walks to the bus stop in the fresh air. It really was a pleasant walk.

Once on board the bus was absolutely silent. I sat in the back in between a short woman with her shiny black hair pulled back neatly, and a young man with chin-length hair cradling a ukelele. Not positioned well to see the streets coming up I asked how far to my stop. The young man explained exactly how far it would be, the landmarks, and the pedestrian route above the street to my destination. We chatted a bit more as he strummed the ukelele softly in the otherwise silent coach. As the clean, new, double-decker bus filled I noticed that many passengers wore comfortable-looking black shoes or heavy work boots; several passengers wore service uniforms that showed under their unzipped jackets.

After an hour and a half in transit I arrived at the conference hotel. When I disembarked the silence was so stifling it choked my instinct to wave and thank the driver. Like everything in the Las Vegas strip, the conference hotel was located in a casino, or rather, a casino was inside the conference hotel. The door through which I entered took me through a room that was still unlit, though the stench of stale cigarettes and party was heavy in the air. I walked through the seemingly neverending casino and passed the front desk where two young women wearing knit micro-skirts and loose tops stood barefooted drinking what appeared to be beer from plastic pint glasses.

After I checked in for the conference I returned to the main floor in a quest for my morning coffee. By that time the bells and digital music of the slot machines chimed maniacally, lights flashed, and Michael Jackson’s Beat It blared over the sound system with the bass so loud I could feel the vibrations. It was not just a rude awakening. It was downright paralyzing. I like to ease into my day gradually and there was nothing easy about standing in line amidst utter chaos, waiting to order a five dollar cup of coffee. I felt like a pinball tossed uncontrollably about the slot machines, even while standing still. I was suddenly grateful for the hour-and-a-half bus ride in near silence.

In the afternoon I walked from the casino strip to the main downtown core to meet my friend after work. The downtown core was fairly ordinary looking for a small, urban city: banks, government offices, etc. The transition between the entertainment district and the downtown core was uniquely Las Vegas. The large, fancy casino hotels gave way to instant wedding chapels, and eventually a very ordinary wide, urban street. In between the mini-marts and small storefront shops and fast food stands were strip clubs with the windows blacked out. Many of the signs and window paintings on the businesses that were not tied to the sex industry were nearly indistinguishable from those that were, with images of large-breasted, nearly naked women in suggestive poses even on the paper boxes, the mini-mart ATM sign, and the five-and-dime advertising a lingerie sale. There was a small, non-descript strip of offices with a lovely brick patio that appeared to be entirely dedicated to services for culinary workers, including a pharmacy with large, beautiful windows that had the drapes tightly closed. For over an hour walk, the sidewalks were wide, clean, and well maintained. There was almost no litter or grafitti for the entire distance.

I would have explored the downtown core, but the dry desert wind kicked up and blew the skin right off the backs of my hands. A man walked down the steps of the federal building, so I asked for directions to the public library where I could have a place to sit down and think, without anyone wanting anything from me.

“The library is a long walk from here,” he said. “It’s not really a place where you can be left alone anyway. The homeless spend their days there. If you want quiet you are better off at Starbucks around the corner.”

Having traveled in places where the street peddlers approach visitors while sitting in restaurants and walking through historic sites with controlled admission, I was curious how the public library in Las Vegas compared. I had been out for over an hour and not one person tried to touch me, asked me for money, or tried to sell me anything. The greatest bother is inside the casinos and in the heart of the strip where a crew wearing tee-shirts advertising “GIRLS” promotes prostitutes. Maybe the homeless residents who spend their days at the library are more aggressive than the other people I’d encountered.

In the desiccating wind I opted for the Starbucks around the corner. As the assembly line of expensive coffee it was the same Starbucks anywhere: The staff were friendly, the patrons quiet and amiable, including one older guest who sat by himself at a table, unshaven appearing as though he’d had a rough life and carried all his possessions in the two bags that sat at his feet. Sunken into the background noise of the machines and coffee-house music, with an occasional greeting from a guest and the wind blowing the door open at irregular intervals, it was a completely different world than the conference hotel on the casino strip where I’d started my adventure.

It was so peaceful to be removed from the entertainment district of Las Vegas that seemed like a fiasco. I grew up in a tourist trap. While it did give me a steady job in high school I could have had a job in a lot of communities. Far too many customers told me, “Wow, you must love living here. It must be great to be on vacation all the time.” Really? I do not know anyone who ever got excited about standing on their feet for eight hours a stretch waiting on people who had no ownership over the community, as a fun and relaxing way to take a load off. Las Vegas is all that I did not like about living in tourist central, only amplified exponentially.

The other source of the visual and mental pandemonium is the industry around which the tourism is based: vice and entertainment. Without getting into a commentary around the merits or problems that emerge around legalized gambling and prostitution (which is not legal within the city limits of Las Vegas) there is something to be said for restraint. Suffice to say, I am not accustomed to walking through an aisle of slot machines to reach any and every destination, or getting pummeled with endless images of nearly naked women, some of them four-stories tall. In the casino district, and to a limited degree in the surrounding areas for residents, there is no way to avoid it, no matter how tiresome it gets. Even the oversized billboards of Carrot Top and George Wendt were too much to take in, but they were there at every turn. In Oregon most of the tourism is based around natural resources, and even the most well-financed entrepreneur cannot simply create another mountain, river, ocean, or forest.

There is a real community in Las Vegas, for the real people who live there. The banker at the coffee house laughed with me about the weather as the wind blew his files around while he sipped his coffee. The young student waiting with me at the bus stand one evening was preparing for law school, and contemplating a career as a public servant in elected office. The families in the foyer at Guys and Dolls greeted one another as old friends and welcomed me to their community. The TSA agent who was so concerned I might not make it home due to the dust storm thought if I had a serious delay I might fill my time with a visit to Valley of Fire and the original communities in the region. My friend, while juggling work, family, and homeowner responsibilities still makes time to volunteer for the Hero School. That is real Las Vegas, shining in all its glory.

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