How Las Vegas gets people coming back for more

by Sharon Stephenson / 17 June, 2018

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Elvis impersonators performing on Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas. Photos/Getty.

The pull of Las Vegas

Sharon Stephenson swore once was enough, but here she is, back in Sin City.

Karaoke starts at eight every evening in a squat, breeze-block building with a faded red awning and a broken metal detector.        

We’re a couple of streets removed from Las Vegas’ infamous Strip, divided by a ribbon of asphalt and a greedy collection of places designed to separate people from their money. Freemont St is almost as lit up as Vegas’ six-kilometre spine, but here the neon seems older and less blinding, as if drained by the effort of blinking endlessly into the velveteen night.

I pay five bucks for a watered-down G&T and the privilege of dipping into a bowl of pretzels that appears to have been here since Bush (the first one) was president. The room smells of cleaning fluids and bodies warmed all day by the desert sun. But it’s worth it for a ringside seat to the madness.

All night, patrons queue to bend their mouths around Springsteen, Sinatra and the Stones. Elvis is a particular favourite and I hear so many renditions of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” it’s still bouncing around my head a few days later.

Shanae, a single mother of two from Texas (“Everyone in Vegas comes from someplace else”) with cascading blonde curls, tells me I look depressed. I have no idea what she’s talking about until she waves her hand in the direction of my shorts and T-shirt: it turns out I’ve breached the unofficial dress code of sequins, belt buckles as big as saucers and that curious shade of orange foundation favoured by the American president. 

“Most of us here work in the service industry, but at night we like to dress up and hit the town,” says Shanae, who spends her days wearing fishnets and serving drinks to bored gamblers in one of the 31 casinos wedged into the Strip. “Getting glammed up really lifts your mood after doing that all day.”

I lose count of the number of times she tells me she almost made it onto America’s Got Talent and, as if to prove her point, she bounds onto the glittery stage to embellish a Mariah Carey number with so many trills and squeaks, you can barely hear the melody. The other punters stare with awe, jealousy, desire or perhaps all three.

She’s a hard act to follow, but that doesn’t stop an inebriated elderly gent in a mobility scooter from gleefully butchering a Bob Marley tune. And then it’s the turn of a 20-something with an untucked striped shirt who wastes his surprisingly angelic voice on One Direction songs.

He’s a trainee croupier who moved to Nevada after dropping out of college. “I was studying IT, but I can make a lot more money here than I ever could in IT,” he says, doing shots with Mike, the bartender.

“Yeah, but you spend it just as quickly,” says Mike. “Vegas ain’t about saving money, it’s about sin and excess, baby!”

Even Hunter S. Thompson, a man who knew his way around hedonism, found Las Vegas too much. “A little bit of this town goes a very long way,” the late writer once said.

In Vegas you can walk down the street in a bikini, a $10,000 couture gown or three strategically placed Post-It notes and you’ll barely raise an eyebrow.

I got married in Vegas eight years ago for a story for NEXT magazine. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds: we’d been together a long time and would have eventually gotten around to making it legal, but the chance of an adventure and the opportunity to write about it was too good to resist. A Vegas wedding, I wrote in my story, was “so tacky it was cool”. I visited Sin City, walked down the aisle with an Elvis lookalike, and had no intention of ever going back.

Until last year, when plans unravelled at the last minute and I found myself in the Nevada desert for a few nights. On my own. It wasn’t ideal, but the good thing about Vegas is that no one cares: walk down the street in a bikini, a $10,000 couture gown or three strategically placed Post-It notes and you’ll barely raise an eyebrow. Here, bad taste has burst its banks and no one has the slightest interest in stemming the flood.

Or avoiding it. More than 40 million people visit Vegas each year, the third or fourth most popular tourist attraction in the world, depending on who you believe. When there’s a major event, such as a heavyweight fight or a convention, almost all of the city’s 150,000 hotel rooms will be filled. 

They come to gamble, to drink, to channel the insomniac mania of being let loose in an adult Disneyland where nothing is off-limits (except, oddly, hula-hooping, feeding the pigeons, and bath salts). They willingly loiter on the most preposterous stretch of road in the world, constantly wiping sweat from their brows in temperatures that resemble Satan’s sauna.   

“Vegas is just the right amount of wrong,” says the woman selling me ear-plugs in the 7-Eleven (you’ll need them to sleep when so many around you aren’t). Her name-tag reads Sunshine. I ask if that’s her real name.

“Sure, it is,” she says, looking at me as though I’m special needs. Thereafter, I make a habit of checking out name-tags and hers is one of the more conservative: in two days, I spy a Sparkle, a Rhinestone and a Blessed. The waitress selling me a burger so big I almost need to unhinge my jaw is called Shiny. Go ahead and laugh, but stripper-esque names are the least unusual thing about a city that seems to think dolphin yoga, Star Trek weddings, and not one but eight Cirque du Soleil shows are important.

Freemont St, Las Vegas, where the neon seems older and less blinding, as if drained by the effort of blinking endlessly into the velveteen night.

Long before the glitz and the sin, before the rollercoasters and the stupidly large hotels, the Archaic, Anasazi and Paiute Indians set up their teepees here. Mexican traders were next, arriving in the early 19th century after travelling along the Old Spanish Trail between New Mexico and the Californian coast. Other bit players in Vegas’ history include Mormons, who arrived in 1855 to convert the Native Americans, gold prospectors, cowboys, and labourers who came to build the railroad and stem the mighty Colorado River with the Hoover Dam.

It wasn’t until 1931 that the crazy factor was dialled up, when state-wide legislation allowed casino gambling. No-wait marriages, quickie divorces, prostitution and organised crime soon followed. 

Today, as Shanae says, there is no place on earth that offers more opportunities to make bad choices than Vegas.

I see a grown man in a polyester Hawaiian shirt sobbing on the street, a grey-haired grandmotherly type with dead eyes feeding a slot machine for hours, and so many women with enhanced breasts I wonder if Nevada offers a rebate on plastic surgery.

And then my two days are up. As I stroll through McCarran International Airport, gobsmacked at the arriving passengers who head straight to the one-armed bandits (why wait for the 20-minute journey into the Strip when you can start gambling as soon as your plane lands?), I vow this is the last time I will ever come here.

The other passengers on my flight to LA look about as tired, grumpy and ill at ease as I am. As the overweight Texan with the ridiculously large Stetson hat sitting next to me says, “People might enjoy visiting Vegas, but what they seem to like more is leaving.”

This was published in the February 2018 issue of North & South.


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