crashing THE GATE

by Brian Clarey

crashing THE GATE Postcard from Las Vegas

A full house beats a straight every day of the week. It’s something I knew but had forgotten, the information slipping from my head mere moments before I pushed all in with a king-high straight after the board paired queens. It was at the Rio, just off the Las Vegas Strip, and while the full house didn’t wipe me out entirely, like so many things in this town my hubris dealt the penultimate stroke. I was out two hands later. Things had been going so well up until then. This was my eighth trip to Las Vegas, a sojourn I’ve made frequently since 1993, the year of my first trip out there. This was before the Stratosphere was completed, before the Bellagio and the Wynn, before the scaled-down versions of Paris, New York and Venice came to town, before Roy’s run-in with the tigers, before Debbie Reynolds pulled up stakes and Hooters came to town, before what happened here, as ordained by a successful advertising slogan, remained. In 1993, Vegas was pursuing a family-style approach to selling its particular set of virtues. We’ve got dolphins! Pirates! Roller coasters! Bring the kids — we’ve got day care just off the casino floor! I remember those days with a laugh as I walk down the strip on a late afternoon, heat firing the desert valley like a rustic clay pot. Amid the swollen tourists, bottled-water salesmen and time-share sharpies, a caste of largely Latino men and women carry scads of business cards advertising… female companionship. They snap packs of the cards in their hands, clicking like garish crickets, and then move in when your head is involuntarily drawn to the sound. Former YES! Weekly staffer Amy Kingsley, who now toils for the Las Vegas CityLife, tells me they’re known colloquially as “porn slappers,” and on the Vegas food chain they rank somewhere below the prostitutes for whom they shill but above the crack whores and street junkies, though the lines separating these groups can, at times, become blurry. The porn slappers are an industrious lot, and the sidewalks in a 20-yard radius are peppered with discarded glossies of topless women grabbing their ankles. Waste, it seems, is a virtue in this city that makes a mockery of the carbon footprint concept. Just as thousands upon thousands of glossy business cards flutter unwanted down to the sidewalks every hour, so do thousands upon thousands of gallons of scarce desert water water evaporate into the aridity through mist hoses and grand fountains, and up through the thin turf that anchors the few patches of green. The neon city absorbs and dispatches electricity at a fantastic rate, as does it sop up the more ethereal things like hopes and dreams as easily as it takes in sweet young virgins and loose tourist cash. If you drop a quarter in this town, someone else will have it before it hits the ground. Don’t get me wrong: I love Las Vegas, have visited it more than any other city. Some of the best nights of my life have played out in its casinos and hotel rooms. My sister once lived here, and I partook liberally of her hospitality. It is the city where I learned to play Caribbean stud, discovered a drink called “ass juice” and once won a cool $500 in a single night at the blackjack table. It is the place where I took my wedding vows, and also where my sons got their hair spiked and dyed green. I still love it, too. If I had the time and the dime I might very well be planning another jaunt out there before Christmas. Vegas is big. Vegas is brash. Vegas is half naked and screaming your name. The Doozer cranes work all day long above the skyline of the strip. Currently they erect what is to be the largest privately financed development in US history: CityCenter, a combination hotel/casino/condominium development/office building/art gallery/shopping mall that purports to be hiring 10,000 workers and has already run up a price tag of $11 billion, a skyward rictus of artfully curved steel and tinted glass that makes the neighboring Bellagio look like an unfortunate birthmark. Kingsley tells me they call it the “Death Star.” Just as Vegas has changed since I began coming here in 1993, so has the nature of my trips. I still like to log my time on the blackjack tables wailing on the free drinks and check out the women with boob jobs and thumbprints on their haunches at the hotel pool. But this time I began to tire just after midnight and found myself in bed by 2 a.m. each night of my stay. And yet I still found myself on the strip during the pink desert sunrise, except I would be jogging down Las Vegas Boulevard past the Death Star in its final stages, dodging the knee socks and morning hookers and drunk LA boys concluding their night’s business, defiantly trying to work up a sweat as the dry air leached it away.