I’ve got to get out of here.
Seriously, Las Vegas is fucking with my head. When you spend as much time on the Strip as I do—three or four nights a week—you start to believe the hype. You drink the Kool-Aid, because it’s the only thing they’re serving.
Cosmo, Aria, Wynn, Venetian, Bellagio. Everybody’s young. Everybody’s pretty. Everybody’s rich. Everybody’s spending. They’re spending $50 on miso-glazed salmon, $500 on bottles of Grey Goose and $5,000 on Tom Ford suits.
Everywhere I look.
I blame my job. As a writer for Las Vegas Weekly, I spend a ton of time on the Strip. But unlike most locals who work there (barbacks, housekeepers, dealers, security guards, cab drivers), I rarely get to see behind the curtain. The opposite, actually; I’m the one for whom the curtain was erected. Aside from the high-rollers, the journalists and the critics are the ones hotels and casinos most want to impress.
I frequent media events (hotel openings, club anniversaries, show milestones) with white tablecloths, red carpets, top-shelf booze and celebrities. The hotels running these events hire professional models to serve me crab claws and miniature tiramisu cups. Sure, the “regular” hotel servers are incredibly hot themselves—they were hired based on their looks—but, the hotels figure, why not spend a couple thou to turn the 10s into 11s for a night?
Intellectually, I know that the Las Vegas Strip is like one big media event: It’s a carefully created, heavily managed construct. The Strip is an entertainment destination, not an actual way of life. Intellectually, I know that not everybody in America is young and pretty and rich. I see the statistics—the rising median age, the rates of obesity, the average household income—but I never see those statistics played out. What I see is a self-selecting group. I see the extra-pretty locals who were hired to dazzle tourists with their beauty. I see the tourists who are rich enough to fly to Vegas for the weekend and stay at the Bellagio villas or the Palazzo suites.
Like Ed Harris said in The Truman Show, “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented.”
Of course, unlike The Truman Show, the Vegas Strip wasn’t imposed on me. I sought it out. I moved here from the Midwest because I wanted to. I jumped at the chance to write for Las Vegas Weekly. I volunteer consistently for stories that bring me to the Strip. And I love media events.
So unlike Truman, I have nobody to blame for this existential mindfreak but myself. And yes, I use the word “mindfreak.” Not just in my writing, but in casual conversation.
Like I said, I’ve got to get out of Vegas.
Recently, I went back to the “real world"—West Bloomfield, Michigan. My hometown. Everything seemed drab, slow and pedestrian. By the time I got up and headed out of the house, shops and cafes were closing for the evening. One night, around 9:45 p.m., I went to a restaurant I used to frequent, but the server told me the kitchen was closed for the night.
“At 9:45?! That’s ridiculous! Why do you close so early now?”
“Now?” she replied. “We’ve always closed down at this time.”
Spending 20 hours a week at high-end casinos messes with your head, but it teaches you a lot about life, too. About men, about women, about ego, about desire, about heartbreak, about sex, about deception and about authenticity. Patterns emerge. Friends tell me stories. Most of my friends in this town are women, and most of them work in the “industry” (meaning they’re promo models, dancers, servers, bartenders and strippers), and most of their stories are about men. In almost every tale, the man is the sucker. The punch line.
Will that be me one day?
I hope not. I hope I’m the guy who beats the system—the guy who keeps his money, loves his wife and only visits Vegas for the gourmet food and the Justin Bieber Cirque show.
But I’m scared of forgetting everything I now know to be true. I’m scared of growing foolish with age. So here’s my plan: before I move away and forget what I’ve learned, I’m going to take notes. The following letter is a good starting point. It’s meant to be read, by me, during my mid-life crisis, right before the Vegas vacation part. Here goes:
Or is it “Richard” now? Or maybe “Dick”? Dear God, I hope it’s not Dick.
Congratulations on not dying! Your mom was pretty worried about that, especially after you told her you were moving to Vegas. And a lot of people (but mostly Glenn Beck) were worried the whole world would fall apart. But if you’re reading this now, it means you’re alive and well and planning a trip to Las Vegas. Maybe you’re a bachelor and traveling alone. Or maybe you’re bringing the wife and kids. Or maybe you’re traveling with your robot Kevin. Regardless, I urge you to take the following advice to heart:
Lesson One: Cocktail waitresses aren’t real.
Neither are strippers or go-go dancers or that club employee you’ve got your eye on. Sure, she’s real when she’s not working, but you’ve only seen her “in character.” She doesn’t actually act that way or dress that way or smile at you that way when she’s not being paid to do it. In fact, she hates having to dress that way and hates having to act that way.
So don’t compare the women in your life to her, because the women in your life will always come up short. This girl is a fantasy, and you should know that because you’ve already dated her—girls like her, I mean—and you’ve seen, firsthand, how she acts when she’s not working: just like everyone else. Actually, she’s less sexual than most other women because she equates sexiness with her job. And, like most people, she likes to leave her work at the door.
Lesson Two: Stay out of the clubs.
They’re not meant for you. Not anymore. Sure, if you tip the bouncer $100, he’s going to let you in. But nobody really wants to see you there.
Let’s say you do go to a club and see a girl looking at you, and let’s say you see her whisper something to her friends. I’ll tell you this much: She ain’t saying, “Who’s the cute guy?” Those days are long gone. She’s saying, “What’s up with the old guy?”
If you don’t notice that happening—the pointing and the whispering—it’s only because you need a stronger prescription and a hearing aid.
(Obviously, Lesson Two doesn’t apply if you’ve somehow become a celebrity. Also, if you’re in a committed relationship and your suitably aged wife/girlfriend comes to Vegas with you, then by all means do go to the club with her. Clubgoers love old couples. They’re like love mascots.)
Lesson Three: You can’t be a professional gambler.
I don’t care if you won three blackjack sessions in a row. I don’t care if you won back-to-back poker tournaments.
A five-session losing streak is right around the corner. It always is.
Lesson Four: Get a prenup.
This lesson is actually a letter within a letter, to my future fiancée:
Baby, I love you. I love you more than I ever imagined I could love anyone. I’m so excited to spend the rest of my life with you, and I never want us to be apart. I want us to move into a nursing home together and be the annoying lovey-dovey couple. And when one of us dies, I want the other one to die right after.
That said, I think we should get a prenup.
When you think about it, it’s not me (the guy to whom you’re engaged) asking for a prenup; it’s Old Rick—a guy who didn’t even know you. And if he did know you, there’s no way he’d be pushing so hard for this prenup.
Please understand where Old Rick is coming from: Living in Vegas for three years, he witnessed an unending parade of young divorcees. All of them had one thing in common: They never imagined they’d one day get divorced.
So please sign here, here and here.
P.S., If we met before I wrote this letter, know that I never imagined our love would grow into something so beautiful. So please, no offense.
Lesson Five: Stop comparing yourself to actors, rock stars and reality TV stars.
They’re always going to be having more fun than you are. At least, it’s always going to seem that way, and that’s because their business models depend on it. If you don’t think they’re attending cooler parties than you, with hipper friends and hotter women, then you’re not going to buy their songs, see their movies or watch their shows.
But many of them are miserable.
So, instead, compare yourself to the other 99.9 percent of the population—the ones who think you’re having more fun. Maybe even tip them off as to how incorrect their perception is. Unless they’re being jerks—then play up the act.
Lesson Six: Do what you want in life.
Most people do what they’re told or what’s expected of them. So then, when they visit Vegas and are encouraged to indulge, they run into trouble. But, if you marry the right girl, you won’t have to worry about overdrawing your account for a night of “VIP” lap dances. And if you live an exciting life, you won’t have to worry about losing everything at the blackjack tables—that only happens to people for whom gambling is the only excitement.
Live with passion and follow your gut. Because if you do that, you’ll not only have a great time in Vegas, you’ll have beaten the system.
Your Old Self,
March 24, 2011