“Welcome to Las Vegas. Now leave,” read the bumper sticker, if I remember correctly. Such a different tone than that “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign at the south end of the Boulevard, but that was just the sort of dichotomous reality this place was panning out to be.
Bring your money, and tip well. Just leave before sunrise. Las Vegas is a fling. It’s a dalliance.
The flag in the ground from those who’d been here longer waved hostilely at us newcomers who were spoiling the water, ruining the vistas, the pristine desert where locals had ridden horseback as children and, for some, legend had it, buried bodies as mobsters.
But with 3,000 new residents arriving month and construction everywhere, there was no turning back for this here frontier. As a transplant from Minneapolis, I served as both witness to and example of this bizarrely magical time.
I stared at the bumper sticker for a minute longer in the mall’s hot parking lot and walked off. I was going nowhere, literally and figuratively. 1993. A very good year.
Yet I was reminded daily by others that 1993 was an awful year to arrive, that I’d come to Las Vegas at the wrong time. This, according to the former maître d’s, showroom captains, waitresses and bartenders with whom I’d while away the lazy evenings in my cushy union job as an usher. I was apparently spending my adventurous youth in the right place during the wrong era, several decades beyond the absolute heyday of this great town, now sullied by corporations and Ticketmaster and flimsy uniforms that replaced elegant tuxedos once worn to serve the finest of the fine. I’m only here for the view, I told them while I swallowed their words as if they were some lost gospel that I, and I alone, was discovering.
In their heavy Italian, Spanish and German accents, they catapulted stories at me about how disastrous Las Vegas had become were just as rich a stage play or novel as actually being there back in the day of the true, real and never-to-be-forgotten bacchanalia amid the staff. From where I stood, the timing seemed perfect.
“Take notes,” I’d tell myself every morning. “This is something special.”
It didn’t surprise me that my boss thought I was a teenage runaway who’d somehow managed to get beyond all the screening required for a hotel job. In the first week of my brief stint serving beverages at a run-down buffet, a customer blurted, “Does your mother know you’re here?”
I knew I was regressing, shedding unwanted years from my soul with every day in vacationland and, truth be told, I did sort of run away—in search of an AstroTurf wonderland where reality was skewed by a different sort of reality you just had to see to believe.
My backyard was a bombastic, outrageous party, where complete strangers from all over the world descended into my sun-drenched life experience. I could watch them day and night as I watched everything back then. I’d exceeded my six-month stay by a year, then two years, then four, 10 and now 20.
At the return of the Helldorado Parade in 2005, we all wore our event-issued ribbons marking the years we’d been in town, so proud to be here even while the world mocked us. So proud was I that even after my friends bailed due to the excruciating heat, I stayed until the bitter end, shouting like a lunatic to former Lt. Gov. Lonnie Hammargren as he came by on his float and waved back, awkwardly pretending to know me. Surrounded by the props and facades of my deepest fantasies, he was a once-imagined character come to life. The facades, the facades, how fantastic! Even the desert landscape put me in the Bible stories I’d read as a child.
This was heaven beyond the door of the New World now marked with tract housing and fast food. It was as if I were in a cherished little snow globe perched on a shelf, both looking in and inhabiting at the same time, watching the insanity of the sprawl and falling in love with the community spurning it. So many had flocked here—dancers, professors, artists and construction workers, gallery owners, scam artists and entrepreneurs, all wanting to tap into a territory not steeped in rigid traditions and established institutions. Many had become cherished friends who, like I did, loved about Las Vegas what others hated.
Getting a job at a newspaper meant I could walk into their homes and pick their brains. As with the hotel job, I was wandering back hallways not open to the public.
The days of “How long ya been here?” followed by “How long ya in for?” were gone. And the hotel break room prophets that said I’d never leave proved right.
They, too, tried to walk away, but eventually came back, avoiding the predictable banality that lived beyond the state lines.