Three thoughts on Las Vegas
Over the weekend, I traveled to Las Vegas and I was reminded that the thing that's best about visiting this strange city is always the fact that you get to leave.
I flew to Vegas on Thursday, accompanied by my able business manager and sin-city partner Eve (also serving as my full-time wife), to attend the gigantic Microsoft Ready sales conference. It was Eve's first visit ever, while I cannot remember the number of times I've been here on Microsoft business. Dozens, or so it seems. Virtually all of those trips followed a standard arc: Arrive stressed, jump into some overwrought event, spend long hours in an endless conference center, eat rich food, drink too much, and sleep too little. Repeat for three to six days. Then stumble back home, wondering what it mattered.
This weekend was different, of course. Once again, I had the strange sensation of being an outsider at an event where so many times before I’d been the ultimate insider. "Ready" was a five-day marathon for the full twenty-thousand-plus corporate sales force. It’s a weird mix of tribal rally, decadent party, and educational marathon. This year it happened in the Sands convention center – a gargantuan building created for just this type of event, with an auditorium and hundreds of conference rooms. On Wednesday night, they brought in Bruno Mars (the 2018 "Album of the Year" Grammy winner) to entertain the troops. From Monday through Friday, people were invited to attend any of dozens of presentations in hour-long time slots throughout the day. Most sessions were technical or arcane but a few were offbeat, such as “Storytelling for Impact: The hidden superpower for customer connection” (they wanted a flowery name, so I gave them one).
I conducted two sessions, both on Friday afternoon. My first session was in a room with about four hundred chairs. Ten minutes before the start, I was imagining that a quarter of the seats would be occupied. Ten minutes after the start, every seat was full, people were lining the back wall, and the doors were closed. The second session - starting at at four o’clock, the very last hour of the conference - took place in a weird, oblong room with large tables, a dozen huge screens, and maybe six hundred seats, about a third of which were filled. As with the first session, the response was more than positive. When it was over, people lined up to chat. After a while, I extricated myself as gracefully as I could, as Eve and the nice people who sponsored my presence looked on happily.
Going to rock star status in the same rooms in which I’d for so long been a worthless drone was once again striking and strange. Walking hand in hand with Eve out of the space and fully away from the event felt like dropping a used tissue. All of it so surreal, especially as we then stepped into two days of the weirdness of Las Vegas.
There’s nothing I can offer in observation of this bizarre place that hasn’t already been voiced in words, movies, or songs. This picture rather says it all...
This weird and godforsaken place! It’s banal, it’s outrageous, it’s utterly without shame. A pornographic Disneyland, it begs to bring out and indulge the worst impulses of the human heart. Nothing here has any real value, beyond the spoils of hedonism. Sex is a commodity, plucked like the fast-food wrappers by the birds on the strip. What happens here stays here, so goes the slogan. One can assume that viral infections are not included in that promise.
And so, there's the obvious. Here are a few thoughts (for some reason, I only have three this time) based on this quick little hit...
Thought 1: Vegas is impossible
What the fuck is this city doing here? This massive, sprawling, endless metropolis has no business sitting out in the middle of the desert. Flying in, you see ancient rock formations, fantastic stratified layers of color across empty miles of arid landscape. And then, boom! There it is, a large human city. Why this spot was chosen, one cannot guess. There’s no evident logic, no feature that invites civilization – say, a river or a crossroads. The Martian landscape commences just where the sprinklers end.
The weather is about as hospitable as Mars. An excessive heat warning was in place when we arrived, and it did not go away. The high temperature for the weekend hit a hundred and seven Fahrenheit, and the low was maybe eighty-five. Additionally, we enjoyed a flash-flood warning, a dust storm that turned Saturday into a gray steam bath, and a long thunderstorm that provided grand entertainment from our fifteenth story window at the Venetian Hotel. We only needed locusts and maybe famine to deliver the full apocalyptic experience.
At various times, I wondered how it can all be justified. The waste alone is hard to accept. And yet, you cannot help but be gobsmacked by the sheer audacity of it – and the fact that somehow it all gets pulled off. At the core, I suppose it’s about money. Not simple greed, necessarily. Rather, the way in which humans can rally to make anything happen when they put their collective minds to an idea. Sometimes it’s a war that pulls it all together. Or it could be a grand quest, like putting a man on the moon. Or it could be the simple draw of the lucre, which more often than not appears to be filthy, beneath the neon glow of this unlikely place.
Thought 2: Vegas reveals light
Perhaps it’s all that money - or maybe it's in spite of it - but the fact is that a lot of marvelous things happen here.
On Saturday night, we ventured over to the Bellagio to watch the Cirque du Soleil production of “O” (a play on the French word “eau," for water). The famed Bellagio fountains, which sit on an eight-and-a-half-acre lake beside the billion-dollar hotel (and which lose twelve hundred gallons of water to evaporation in every ten-minute performance) is stunning enough. We loved it in spite of ourselves. Then we went into the O Theater, a space designed to emulate an old European opera house, and which takes care to hide the fact that the stage is actually a one and a half million-gallon high-tech water feature. Eve was smart enough to get us second row seats. And while they were ungodly expensive, they were nonetheless worth every penny. We were splashed by the performers.
I can’t explain O except to say that it’s a modern-day version of what the high-wire circus used to be, combined with water stunts and crazy costumes. Amid the aerial acrobatics, clowns, high dives, surreal sets, and swimmers who cycled in and out of the water with little regard for oxygen, there may have been some sort of storyline. But I stopped trying to guess early on. It was a kaleidoscope of sound, visuals, and daring, and that was enough for me. It was the first time in decades that I thought it would have been really awesome to be stoned.
On a far more important scale, Vegas looked like it was working for a lot of people. The diversity was enough to make a Trump voter cry. At all turns, even in the most affluent places we visited, we saw people of all colors and types, dropping their dollars and happily getting along. There's something encouraging and bright about seeing a lot of prosperous African-Americans. In one restaurant, our beautiful Chilean waitress told us how the employment opportunities in Vegas are rich enough that she and her husband will be able to return home and start the family they dream of. And the Uber driver who took us down the strip to watch the show, a Hispanic-looking woman who exuded joy and appreciation, explained that she came to this city a decade earlier to escape the cost and perils of Los Angeles. For her, Vegas was a godsend – a place where she could afford to raise children and enjoy her marriage, which ended a half year ago when her husband died of cancer. “I can only be happy that we had all those good years together,” she said.
Thought 3: The House always wins
Whenever I’m in Vegas, I avoid the casinos. They’re always there, smoky and toxic, beckoning you as you walk from one place to the next. They invite you to forget certain details of your life, such as your bank account balance, or to disregard the fact that outside it may be sunny, it may three in the morning, or there may be a nuclear war.
I find it easy to pass them by, but I suppose I’m in the minority. Of course I’m in the minority! Gambling is the carotid artery of Vegas cash, the lifeline of all the wealth that makes all of the irrationality possible here. And wow, what a pull it exerts. The proposition of obtaining money when you have in no way done anything to earn it – a promise which holds no allure to a truly honest man – is simply irresistible to pretty much anyone - like, say, me.
At the Bellagio, Eve and I looked on in amazement as a guy with a stack of five-thousand-dollar chips played blackjack one-to-one with a dealer who was so smart, so intense, and so laconic that it felt like watching Dave trying to get HAL to open the pod bay door. HAL never did open that door, not willingly anyway, and our tortured, intense little gambler did not appear to be on track to fare much better. I had to walk away.
Eve and I did do our share of gambling, though. We found the cheapest blackjack table in the Venetian casino (fifteen-dollar ante), and purchased eighty dollars in chips. The dealer was a happy guy who looked like a talk show sidekick and humored us with instructions and a bit of teasing. With us at the table were four large, middle-aged women who were having the time of their lives, laughing and joking and giving each other plenty of shit. In short, it was a blast.
Blackjack is a strange game, in that it’s possible to go on long runs of what seem to be easy wins, doubling your money at every turn. The gals at our table had all been enjoying some measure of that kind of success, judging by their attitudes, the stacks of chips in front of them, and the multiple free drinks they’d clearly enjoyed. But of course, the opposite dynamic can also unfold. Alas, such was to be my fate.
My first two hands were losers as fast as is I could say "hit me" – both times ending when the dealer landed neatly on twenty-one. Knowing I was entitled to at least one free drink, I sat a few hands out, trying to milk the experience for all it was worth. Then my IPA arrived and I jumped back in the game, this time calling for a hit that pushed my total to twenty-four. Damn! I had one spot of good luck, a winner when the dealer overdrew. But then, one loss, and another, and I was down to my final fifteen dollars. My first two cards totaled thirteen. I called for a hit and drew a six. Twenty! A good hand. But the dealer got fourteen to start, and his single draw produced a seven. He looked genuinely pained. I was finished.
Losing eighty-five dollars in fifteen minutes (I tipped five bucks each to the waitress and dealer) stung just a little. But I gained immediate perspective in wondering what happened to that guy who was blowing through enough chips to buy a modest house in Ohio. And I just felt that the pure giddy joy of it all made everything worthwhile. Mostly because of Eve. This strange adventure of StoryCo and the places it’s bringing us is like a happy dream coming true, in ways we could never have imagined in advance. At one point, walking through the casino holding hands, we paused for a moment amid the chaos of the slot machines. Eve smiled the way she did when I first met her, a delighted scrunch of her nose. The look she gave me was one that every man ought to get from a beautiful woman at least once in his life. “It almost feels wrong,” she said. “Wrong to be having this much fun."