In the old West, the general store was the nerve center of town. It was where you bought supplies, got mail, heard gossip, played cards and took care of whatever business you had, even if it wasn't the business you were in. Such places would seem to be extinct in our Disney city and Wal-Mart nation and, for the most part, they are—which is why we must be thankful for the White Cross Drugstore.
It's so much more than just a drugstore. As the vintage signage announces: "Prescriptions, Cosmetics, Greeting Cards, Gifts, Souvenirs, Liquor." Also: "Postal Mailing Station" and "Fountain & Grill Open 24 Hours." The White Cross has been all things to all people for over half a century—when Tom Wolfe wrote about Las Vegas in 1963, he found the Strip's most happening drugstore a fine spot to watch the bizarre merge with the banal.
Of course, the neighborhood, while never a garden spot, has slipped a bit since the days when the Stratosphere was Vegas World and the tower hadn't even been built yet. The drugstore sits at Las Vegas Boulevard and Oakey Avenue, a crossroads of primer-patched cars parked next to broken meters outside empty storefronts: People have been known to get roughed up, get arrested or both on their way to the White Cross.
But inside it retains the original wood veneer paneling, glass display cabinets, wall of greeting cards and line of formica shelving units heaped with blown-glass flowers and porcelain pigs. Even the ubiquitous rows of poker machines by the door seem beyond retro, dust and age adding another layer of translucence to the backlit plastic.
Some of the merchandise also seems a bit backdated—the White Cross seems to specialize in toiletries used by your grandparents, and the graphics on some of the stationary look suspiciously disco-era.
(Thankfully, all of the 21 kinds of douches seem to be of recentvintage.) The cosmetics aren't Sephora: Maybelline and Cover Girl hanging on pegboards, rows of false eyelashes and false nails, blister packs of no-name lipgloss, those little aerosol cans of Designer Impostors fragrances ("If you like Giorgio, you'll love Primo!"). Elsewhere you'll find boxes of ribbed condoms and bags of plastic army men, tuna fish and talcum, envelopes and inner soles, tighty whiteys and tube socks.
The front counter is backed with a maze of shelves, drawers and cubbyholes lined with generic cigarettes, postcard stamps and lime Tic-Tacs. Hanging above the cashier's head is the hall of shame: Two rows of Polaroid photos taped to 20th-generation Xerox copies of trespassing notices. A place of honor occupied by a Polaroid of a blur moving between the aisles is subtitled: "Look out for him."
Taped below it, another photo depicting a gray-haired man in tinted aviator sunglasses sitting in a booth with a half-finished meatloaf special is captioned, "This is what he looks like." But most of the clientele are easygoing, if somewhat distracted, making terse yet pleasant small talk while purchasing the things they need right now.
Bacardi, lighter fluid and fudge. Nail polish, ketchup and Red Bull. Eyedrops, Vap-o-rub and a birthday card.
All the booze—as well as the few nonalcoholic drinkable liquids—is kept in the liquor cage, with a cute little chime that dings when you breach the perimeter. Another caged area in the back serves as a post office/check cashing joint; a few feet away, shadowy figures and shelves of pills loom behind the metal screening of the pharmacy. A better view of a nicer place is through the latticework into Tiffany's Café, the 24-hour lunch counter partitioned off at the front of the drugstore. Tiffany's is a corner with red vinyl booths and a row of stools facing the burger grill and soda fountain; the walls are hung with price lists, a crude oil painting of Jimmy Durante and a framed full-color photograph of the pastrami and Swiss special. During the day, it fields a busy breakfast and lunch trade—a crowd of off-duty cops, off-duty Walgreen's clerks and everyone else who can bitch about a job over pancakes and club sandwiches.
Nighttime, there's senior citizen Polish tourists eating the three-egg breakfast at 1:42 a.m., a few stools down from a lone girl with smudgy black eyeliner and chipped purple nails, who's gazing absently at a magazine and nibbling a grilled cheese sandwich.
Tiffany's serves perfect diner food: Its breakfast—thankfully served 'round the clock—can make up for three days' worth of no breakfast, lunch, dinner or sleep. I speak of kitten-fluffy omelets that not only have cheese inside, but a layer of melted Velveeta on top; of fried trout, scrambled eggs and hash browns smothered in Tabasco sauce. Or the hubcap-sized cheeseburger heaped with fries of perfect crispiness. Hey, if you need an Advil or to get a little Irish in that coffee, you can step right over to the drugstore ...
And you need not feel nervous about rolling up to the counter at 10:30 a.m. on a weekday, and asking for a pint of Jim Beam, a pack of Lucky Strikes and the key to the bathroom. No one's gonna look at you funny at the White Cross.