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By Dallas Gawlick
“Call me when you’re ready,” says Nasty Nate.
We stare at him, unsure of what to say next. So we nod, and take the business card he puts into our hands.
Sure enough, the card reads:
We leave it on an escalator handle to be picked up by someone else. We aren’t ready.
The inside of the casino was like any other: a smoke-filled cavern filled with people sitting at slots, smoking at slots, drinking at slots, and a few people playing craps and blackjack. I found it eerily fascinating to watch them as they pressed the slot machine buttons and watched their money get eaten by the computer.
You don’t even have to pull the lever anymore; it’s all button pushing and bills. Coins don’t rain out when you win, either: the sound is simulated.
Of course, one of us sat down at a machine and fed it a $5 bill. The money was gone in about 15 seconds. We laughed, and decided to never play dollar slots again.
We stood in line for the Burlesque show, realizing that if we wanted good seats we’d have to wait it out. While there I looked around though the general haze of smoke and impressively bright lights of the slots. I watched more zombies blindly put their small change into machines that, given time, consumed thousands of dollars no matter what colourful pictures they displayed.
As I turned my head I saw tired, older married couples ahead of us and drunken, suit-wearing, loud young men behind us. Looking past them, I saw a woman walk toward and climb onto a long table.
She had thigh high leather boots, black leather (what I presumed to be) panties, and a leather bra – studded with spikes of metal that caught the light and tossed it away, shining dully as they moved. She was older, her face drawn, as if resigned to her position, and she began to dance, somewhat robotically, on the table.
Men were drinking and gambling below her, but she seemed above them, not only literally but in her own headspace, away from the casino.
“I wonder how much she gets paid,” my friend murmured.
“Not enough,” I replied.
The Flamingo is but one of many enormous hotels on the Strip. Curious, we stepped into another, and were stopped by a gaunt-looking man.
“Hey boys, you wanna go to a strip club tonight?” He was discheveled, wearing a dirty blazer, running shoes, and jeans. “My club, it’s great. Got a free limo waiting for you.”
We looked at each other.
“No? Not yet? No problem boys, I’ve got a free limo and two free drinks minimum here, just call me when you’re ready. Take my card, name’s Nate. Call me when you’re ready.”
We took the card, shrugged, and left Nasty Nate standing where he was. We’d just watched 4500 litres of water get thrown in the air by the Bellagio’s thousand-something fountain jets and were not in the mood to get harassed.
The Bellagio has deep carpets, massive chandeliers, stores that would be devalued if I set foot in them and halls one could herd sheep through. Large windows, framed with thick hangings (curtains doesn’t cut it) look out onto the fountain and courtyards.
We walked through the obligatory casino, wading through a wall of smoke, bright, flashing lights, and the noises of slot machines and gambling music.
We walked through huge halls, wider than a truck and tall enough for people on stilts to walk comfortably. A convention had just finished, and we looked into rooms filled with empty chairs and blank screens. It was eerie, echoing, and empty.
We walked through quiet sections of the hotel, gaping elevators and dark art galleries sitting there unused.
And we walked. For about forty minutes.
We passed through hall after hall, by conference rooms, elevators, escalators, and under chandeliers. It seemed to go on forever.
Finally we managed to find ourselves in the other wing of the hotel, where a strangely racist and gaudy lunar new year ‘exhibit’ was placed. Outside, the Bellagio fountain show was playing again. A mist rose out of the water, and the Pink Panther theme started playing. I grinned at the lavishness of it all.
The desert is the opposite of everything the Strip is, and they lie right next to one another. We drove into the desert out of town almost every day to site-see, if not get away from all the noise.
Desert roads are very long, very straight, and remind me of an evacuated Route 66 film set. They smell empty.
On the sides of the road you can sometimes find people shooting, sometimes random bits of twisted refuse, and always cacti.
When the asphalt ended, gravel began. When that ended, we got out of the car and sat on top in the middle of the Mojave. I was struck by the silence of the place. The air was dead, and felt like it hadn’t been used for years.
I walked into the desert, boots in sand and scrub brush, and could almost hear the sun setting.
The sky turned orange, then red, then blue, then purple. Then black.
And, sixty miles away, the glow of Sin City sat on the horizon like a boiled egg, leering at us.
Between the hotels and the desert is the Strip. It’s full of people that would gladly take your money.
“Hey man, want to make a donation to my music?” He held out a cd mix of what was presumably his self-produced work. “Taking 5, 10 dollars. Just a small donation.” He shoved the dirty cd case into our hands.
“Nah, we don’t have anything that small.”
“Oh, no worries.” He took out wads of cash from his pockets. “I have change.”
We looked at each other, eyebrows raised, unsure of what to say next.
Finally, my friend said “No cash,” pleasantly enough.
“No problem!” The man pulled the corners of his mouth in what approximated a warm smile. “I’ve got a machine.”
“Stop being such pussies! Come to my club!”
“You boys wanna see some girls tonight?”
It was a dingy man-sized Pikachu, walking toward us slowly, arms out, screaming quietly.
Behind him trailed an eerily silent, dusty, off-colour Mickey Mouse.
And behind Mickey was a grimy Olaf the snowman, with his costume head in his hands. He tried several greetings in various Asian languages to get my friend’s attention.
The Strip is a maelstrom of sharply bright lights, men that accost you for money or free limo rides and club tickets, casinos with their air replaced with smoke, and miniature versions of various worldly icons. Billboards offering strippers – direct to you! – drive around constantly.
One can spend as much or as little as they want on the Strip. There are rollercoasters 1000 feet in the air on top of the Stratosphere hotel, there is the Pyramid of Giza, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, and the canals of Venice.
There are shows for the whole family, from X Burlesque and Penn and Teller to David Copperfield and Cirque de Soleil. One might even order $300,000 champagne at Hakkisan or the Bellagio, if one felt so inclined.
There is an air of tacky luxury that has settled over the Strip, and an air of dusty used-up-ness that fills Las Vegas proper.
It is opulent, offensive, intriguing, and shameless. It is where some acts go to die, and others to thrive. It is loud, in your face, and unapologetic about its identity.
Walking on the Strip is like watching a train wreck, if the train was flashing with a myriad of colourful lights and blinking neon and exhaled cigarette smoke and gambling receipts. It is beautiful, and impossible to turn away from.
The dichotomy between the desert and the Strip is fascinating, like walking out of a concert and feeling the world muffled to your ears. The colours are muted, there are no crowds, and the sand is soft and clean where the concrete was greasy and unforgiving.
The Strip is exciting, with unending attractions and cities within hotels (see New York New York). You can do whatever you want there, if you know where to find it.
As we got on the plane home, I felt a sense of release. My mind felt taught from absorbing all the sensory information over the last week.
In the end I came home with a shot glass, the $5 I won at a slot machine, and desert sand in my shoes. The sign on one end of the strip is smaller than you might think, but what it represents is larger than life. It reads:
Welcome to Las Vegas.
All photos courtesy of the author Dallas Gawlick. To see more of his work follow him on Instagram.