originally published February 22, 2013
I wrote a few days back that Las Vegas is a city in which one can spend an action-packed weekend, all within the course of a couple hours. That wasn’t just a flowery, literary suggestion. I based that statement on personal experience.
In October of 2009, my best friend got married just outside San Francisco. We had secured a flight home that included a two-hour stopover in Vegas. A plan was made; we would not spend that time sipping espresso-based foam-drinks at the airport Starbucks.
I have to be clear – this mini-vacation didn’t come without a fight. At the San Francisco airport (which, from what I can tell, doubles as the airport in Hell), our flight got moved back. I had to employ a disgusting, shameful lie to switch us to an earlier flight. It’s okay – my dad had already passed away; I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded his funeral acting as my excuse. It was Vegas, after all.
Our feet smacked the terminal carpet at McCarran International Airport in a run. One gate over, the Arizona Cardinals’ plane had just touched down, most likely en route back to home base from their victory in Seattle the day before. A chance to meet Larry Fitzgerald and Kurt Warner? Nope – I had to stay focused. I was Vegassing.
We stood in a short line for a taxi. It was agonizing, but it was agonizing under the warm sun, when nothing but bitter frost and repugnant grey was waiting for us back in Edmonton. That’s a tolerable breed of agony. Our turn came, and we bolted for the MGM Grand.
If you’ve never experienced it, this may sound odd… but the MGM Grand lobby has a particular smell. It wriggles past one’s brittle nose hairs, up into the olfactory where it makes a sharp left turn into the brain’s pleasure center. This is the smell of holiday. The unburdened odor of no responsibilities and the untapped potential of millions of dollars for the taking, one crap-dice-roll at a time.
We paused for a breath (well, I paused; my wife just wondered what the hell I was doing), then turned right. The Star Lane shops, located down a flight of stairs just off the lobby, were once the main walkway to the monorail station. Now this strip of novelty photo shops and souvenir plastic keychains is more subdued. But they’ve still got Fat Tuesday.
Las Vegas is famous for their innovative, over-size beverages, most of which contain a carafe of sweet with a tiny splash of alcohol. Not at Fat Tuesday. The 190-Octane vodka/orange slush will shake the crusty sobriety out of your brain, then set it back in your skull on a pillow of goose-down and giggle-feathers. The 48-ounce plastic football is not quite large enough to induce a blackout, but will add an incomparable hue of pure liquid joy to an afternoon.
Drinks in hand, it was time to eat. The buffet requires tactical deployment and a comprehensive recon mission in order to prevent missing out on essential delicacies (one must not neglect the shrimp salsa). Besides, it takes too long. We went back upstairs and walked through the MGM Casino. With over 171,000 square feet of casino floor, this required paddling with a working memory of our previous trip, which meant churning our oars against the current of the frosty beverage that was already surging onward from the continental divide of our sobriety.
But like I said, I had a plan. I knew the route, and we ably steered ourselves to the footbridge connecting the MGM to the New York New York resort directly across the Las Vegas Strip. Once there, it was down into the casino, where we made a direct line to Sirrico’s Pizza.
To be fair, this is not equal to the grease-laden, thin-crust perfection that is New York City pizza. But it’s a close-enough facsimile for a drunken two-hour weekend. We sat in the Greenwich Village-themed part of the resort and allowed the cacophonic mosaic of slot machine music billow around us like a tacky bridesmaid dress. It’s the audible equivalent to the MGM lobby’s smell: inexorably linked to those passive days of reward, when one’s only commitments are show start-times and dinner reservations, when paying $9 for a bottle of water beside a massive pool on a 115-degree day is but a minor inconvenience because nothing is a major inconvenience. It’s blippy, bleepy, noisy and often atonal, but it’s the soundtrack of escape, and it was blissful.
The clock was ticking though, and we hadn’t dropped so much as a quarter in a machine. We fixed this with an oft-interrupted meander through the casino, then opted to spend the final 20 minutes before the hurried dash back to our gate simply standing outside, soaking up what we knew would be our final toasty embrace of non-winter for the next six months.
We grabbed a few more deep huffing breaths of MGM-smell, then took a cab to the airport, where we still had time to launch another pile of quarters into the Wheel of Fortune slots. Shortly before we’d arrived, a man had had a heart attack, and paramedics were racing him from the scene. Figuring he’d already absorbed all the bad luck around this batch of machines, we found our seats and plugged our quarters into the McCarran International Airport bank account.
It’s true, we lost, but that’s all part of Vegas. The city is magical and liberating. It may have pawned away its old-school rat-packery, and perhaps the older generations have legitimate gripes over what’s been lost, but there’s still something for everyone. If you don’t gamble, you can shop. If you don’t drink, you can eat. If you’re not big on Cirque du Soleil, you can hire a prostitute. Whatever your vice (as long as it’s not marijuana, god forbid!), Vegas has it in bulk.
The loss of old Vegas – the gangster-driven town of debauchery where several of my relatives once lived and worked (my Uncle Herb was a maître ‘d at the Desert Inn; you can see him as himself in a cameo role in Scorcese’s Casino) – is sad. But the oasis of fun that has risen from the ashes is merely a different breed of vacation spot. One that can slake your craving for liberation from your working-day self for upwards of a week, or scatter your insides with drunken giddiness in only two hours.
Vegas is a glimpse of what life can be when life doesn’t have to be what it has to be. I wrote that on the plane on the way home, so forgive the drunken babbliness of it. In the end, it’s Vegas. That’s all it ever needs to be.