Las Vegas is both stranger and more normal than you might imagine, and for some reason, people don’t think anyone lives there
It’s February in Las Vegas, and because I have managed to step on my glasses and break them, as I do at least once a year, I have gone to the LensCrafters at the Boulevard Mall, a faux deco artifact of midcentury Vegas that, like so many malls in America, is a mere husk of its former self. In a faculty meeting a few days earlier, I’d watched as one of my colleagues bent and manipulated a paper clip, then used it to refasten the left bow of his glasses, creating a tiny antenna at his temple. That’s not a look I’m after, so I am here, obsessively trying on frame after frame, as the young Iranian man who is helping me on this quiet Monday afternoon patiently nods or shakes his head: yes, yes; no, no, no.
I order two pairs. LensCrafters, the movie theater chain of eyeglasses, is always offering deals: half off a second set of frames, a supersize popcorn for fifty cents more. While I wait, I walk around the mall, a 1.2-million-square-foot monstrosity built on seventy-five acres, with a 31,000-square-foot SeaQuest aquarium and a 28,000-square-foot Goodwill.
Next door to LensCrafters, there’s a shop that sells gemstones, crystals, sage, and pink Himalayan salt lamps. The burning sage makes that end of the mall smell musky, animalistic—a strangely feral odor in this synthetic environment. Snaking its lazy way around the scuffed tile floor is an automated miniature train, the sort children might ride at the zoo, driven by an adult man dressed as a conductor; it toots loudly and gratingly at regular intervals. JCPenney and Macy’s and Dillard’s closed months and years ago, while Sears is limping along in its fire-sale days. At Foot Locker, I try on black-and-white Vans in an M. C. Escher print. At Hot Topic, I browse the cheap T-shirts printed with sayings like Keep Calm and Drink On and Practice Safe Hex. I eat a corn dog, fried and delicious, at a place called Hot Dog on a Stick. (I really do.) The atmosphere is depressing, in all its forced cheerfulness and precise evocation of the empty material promises of my ’80s-era youth.
I am almost three miles east of the Strip, but I could be anywhere, at any ailing mall in America. The only clues that I am in Las Vegas are a couple of clothing shops that carry items like six-inch Lucite stilettos and pearl-encrusted crop tops. And then, outside, a well-worn swimsuit someone has discarded on a pedestal near the entrance, where Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” blares. The swimsuit has a built-in corset-like bra, an exoskeleton of sorts—it could probably stand on its own—and it’s as if someone has left a part of her body behind. There’s no pool, I think. Who undressed here? Such odd Vegas-y details are everywhere in this city—the Elvis impersonator shopping in full-spangled regalia at my local health food store, the pink vibrator melting on Maryland Parkway in 110-degree heat—and I assume you eventually become blind to them, but after four years here, I still see them.
Las Vegas is a place about which people have ideas. They have thoughts and generalizations, takes and counter-takes, most of them detached from any genuine experience and uninformed by any concrete reality. This is true of many cities—New York, Paris, Prague in the 1990s—owing to books and movies and tourism bureaus, but it is particularly true of Las Vegas. It is a place that looms large in popular culture as a setting for blowout parties and high-stakes gambling, a place where one might wed a stripper with a heart of gold, like Ed Helms does in The Hangover, or hole up in a hotel room and drink oneself to death, as Nicolas Cage does in Leaving Las Vegas. Even those who would never go to Las Vegas are in the grip of its mythology. Yet roughly half of all Americans, or around 165 million people, have visited and one slivery weekend glimpse bestows on them a sense of ownership and authority.
Of course, most tourists stay on the Strip, that 4.2-mile neon stretch of hotels and casinos: an artificial, sealed-off capsule where they remain for the duration of their visit, having some carefully orchestrated corporate fun. The city understands how the mythology fuels the business of tourism, and it does its part to sell it. City of sin, city of vice, of wild abandon and crazy drunk antics. “What happens here stays here,” says the infamous official ad slogan—whether that’s a lap dance at Spearmint Rhino or an embarrassingly pricey brunch at Giada. Implicit in this unabashed celebration of excess and vice is the notion that nothing that occurs here will be too sinful, too dangerous, or too scary: “Just the right amount of wrong,” as one casino ad goes. For the most part, all of this is true. But anyone who has walked along Flamingo Road and observed the Strip’s human backwash in the pale gray light of a weekend morning, or who has talked to a gaming lawyer about what happens when a person can’t pay their markers (more than $650 is a felony in Nevada, carrying one to four years in prison and up to $5,000 in fines), knows that the fun isn’t always without consequences. One might argue that people have ideas about Las Vegas because they have a shit-ton of ideas about morality, and a fearful desire to distance themselves from their weaker, more susceptible human counterparts.
All these received narratives, these Vegas hand-me-downs, get recycled by the journalists who parachute in and out of here. These writers (who, it’s worth noting, are almost always male) swoop in for a day or two or four, steep themselves in authority and gin at a casino bar, and deliver their pronouncements on the very essence of this “wild and crazy” place. They attach like barnacles to the same tired tropes, even the same language (all the singers in Las Vegas tend to “croon”), and their takes are often hackneyed and snooty at once. They will remind you that Las Vegas, that neon fever dream, is set down smack in the middle of the Mojave Desert. They’ll note that the lights of the Strip can be seen from outer space. They’ll train their lens on the excessive, the gaudy, the vulgar, and the seedy, of which there is certainly plenty here. There will be a scene from the airport, and it will mention the slot machines there, plus the weirdos playing them—of that you can be sure. It’s not that these ideas are wrong, or not exactly; it’s more that they’re hazy, or half-baked, or tend to conflate the marketing of the Strip with the city itself. Any writer knows that you can’t be a years-deep expert on everything you write about, but when you have very little experience of a subject, a single point can look like a line. One colleague perfectly summed up this lazy tourist-journalism with the phrase “Let’s check in and see how stupid and craven everyone is in Las Vegas.”
At its root, such writing is often not about the myths of Las Vegas but about the myths these writers hold about themselves, and how those play out against the backdrop of this city. Las Vegas is the setting, the mise-en-scène, for a rambling, gambling writer, in the now-familiar vein of Hunter S. Thompson and his drug-addled, hallucinatory early ’70s romp through Circus Circus. Other people are merely bit players in a private script. A handful of uncouth, uneducated characters might get a mention—the conventioneers in their Hawaiian shirts sucking on daiquiris as big as prizewinning squash, the alt-right talk radio dummies roaming around a gun show with delusions of heroism in their heads—but it’s rare that anyone is actually interviewed. Writing about Las Vegas is inevitably an extreme case of the problem of travel writing more generally: its practitioners forget that the way to understand a place is to get out and see it, and to talk to its people.
In most cases, the parachute writers seem unaware of—or perhaps just uninterested in—the fact that the city has people: there are roughly 2.23 million permanent residents of the Las Vegas metropolitan area. These are the bartenders and cooks, the cocktail waitresses and card dealers, the valet parkers and hotel maids, who keep this adult playland in motion, but they are also the doctors and nurses and teachers and lawyers who keep any city in motion. The Las Vegas Valley, a vast, sprawling sixteen-hundred-square-mile expanse of desert surrounded almost entirely by mountains and foothills, looks like pretty much any other Western metropolitan area, with churches, big-box stores, fast-food chains, and strip malls populated by insurance offices and vape shops. Three times as many people live outside the city limits as within them, in one of the area’s four other cities (Boulder City, Henderson, Mesquite, North Las Vegas) or in unincorporated Clark County.1 They live like much of America does: going to church, to work, to school, to bars, to buy garbage bags, to get their teeth cleaned.
Las Vegans who consider themselves culturally sophisticated (like many of my university colleagues) tend to distance themselves from the Strip’s uncomplicated and coarse enchantments, emphatically claiming they never set foot in any of the restaurants, nightclubs, or overpriced boutiques that populate the casinos. This may be true, but I also think it’s a defensive, contrarian reaction to the prevailing clichés—a kneejerk assertion of individuality in response to years of stereotyping. One could argue that some residents get so caught up in rejecting the clichés that they, too, cease to see the place as it is. Because to say that the world of the casinos and the Vegas beyond them are wholly separate fiefdoms is just as inaccurate as saying that Las Vegas and the Strip are synonymous. As one friend, a gifted writer in his late twenties who was born and raised here, told me, “It’s not either/or. To say that is just wrong.”
The residents of Las Vegas interact with the tens of millions of tourists who visit each year—around 42 million, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, three times as many as go to Mecca—in fascinating and complicated ways. This is a company town, after all. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that approximately 300,000 people work in the leisure and hospitality sector here, far more than in any other industry. (The next closest, trade, transportation, and utilities, employs 176,000 people.) My students tell me about their jobs on the Strip: as cocktail waitresses at swimming pools and sports bars, where men comment on their uniforms and tourists bet on games; at the Fashion Show mall, where at night they wait on drunk people who have decided to do a little shopping. My female students talk about the male tourists hitting on them at nightclubs, where, even more so than in other cities, every interaction comes freighted with the awareness that it will only ever be temporary. Some weekends, my friends arrange a field trip to a casino buffet, where people from all over the world drink bottomless mimosas. One Friday night, a girlfriend takes me to see the show Magic Mike Live, and we sit marooned in a sea of hooting bachelorettes wearing veils. In some ways, Las Vegans are like the permanent crew of a cruise ship—Las Vegas as The Love Boat, if you will—and the tourists, the real character actors, stream on and off, week in and week out.
I have often wondered whether the general ignorance about Las Vegas is born of laziness, snobbery, or an altogether more insidious impulse. Las Vegas was, of course, déclassé and embarrassing from the start: founded by the Mafia, the first “unaristocratic” Americans, as Tom Wolfe wrote, “to have enough money to build a monument to their style of life.” It’s frequently said that Las Vegas has no culture, but that’s not true. My Italian relatives from Illinois—my aunts with their Carmela Soprano hairdos and long acrylic nails—love it for a reason. They love playing the slots downtown at the Golden Nugget and going out for martini dinners at old-school Italian places. (At one of these, I heard Pia Zadora breathily sing about her “accidents and arrests.”) They love Cirque du Soleil shows, where you can sit and watch first-class acrobats fly across the stage while you sip from a plastic cup of beer. Las Vegas is vernacular culture—“prole,” Wolfe called it—and thus, he notes, “it gets ignored, except on the most sensational level.” Those who think of themselves as cultured and educated look down on Las Vegas as garish and brazen. But concern about “good taste” is often just socially palatable code for classism and racism. This is a working-class town that’s nearly 33 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Black, and 7 percent Asian. It has one of the largest populations of undocumented immigrants in the country, and the eighth-highest rate of homelessness. Consider these demographics, and one starts to understand why the people of Las Vegas get overlooked.
One of the strangest side effects of moving to Las Vegas is that no one can remember where I live. I have always divided my time between multiple locales, and my friends and colleagues never had a problem recalling where I was. I’m convinced this amnesia is an outgrowth of the fact that no one quite believes anyone lives here. When they do remember, they’ll say, fuzzily, confusedly: “Are you still in Las Vegas? What’s that like? How’s that going?” I can’t help but detect more than a little class bias in their incredulity; they can’t seem to understand why someone who has a choice, who isn’t required to live in Las Vegas, would choose to do so anyway.
When you say that yes, you do in fact reside in Las Vegas, they’ll say, “I could never live there.” They mean on the Strip, with its hectic all-night carousing, its decadent, exorbitant dinners with steaks as big as your face, its bass-heavy club music that feels like it’s rattling your organs. (Once, at XS, the nightclub at the Encore, I became convinced the thudding techno would give me a heart attack and made my husband leave with me.) Or they’ll ask you where in Las Vegas you live—like they’d know if you told them—and with a little probing you’ll realize that they assume you live in a casino hotel. Many people know Las Vegas as the place where entertainers are sent to perform in their dotage, a place populated almost solely by magicians and strippers. One friend told me he thought residents lived in trailers behind the casinos, like on the set of a Hollywood film, or maybe on golf courses, because he’d heard of politicians coming to Las Vegas to golf. People don’t grasp that most of the housing here is like housing anywhere—apartments, condos, single-family dwellings in suburban subdivisions—except that the homes are mostly stucco in flat desert shades of dirt, sand, and clay.2 It’s funny to think that one of the most surprising things you can say about a city is that people actually live there.
But a counter idea is still an idea, an abstraction that doesn’t tell you much about the feeling and fabric of life. And if you’re playing a game of contrariness or defiance, you’re still captive to what’s come before. What does it mean, really, to say that people live in Las Vegas? Show me their lives. I say this to a colleague one afternoon as we wait in line to order burritos. He stops talking, cocks his head, and looks stricken. “Please,” he says, “tell me you’re not writing another thing about ‘the real Las Vegas.’”
Oh, but I am, I think. To my mind, there isn’t much out there that evokes this so-called “real Las Vegas,” that treats it simply as a place some people visit and other people live. Literature should portray, raise questions, and perhaps come to some conclusions about existence, which nobody ever seeks through Las Vegas. People come to Las Vegas looking for their idea of Las Vegas; they don’t come here looking for life.
I came here four years ago. I hadn’t planned to stay, but I somehow couldn’t leave. “This place grows on you like a fungus,” one fellow relative newcomer said. My husband had a literary fellowship, and I was haunting around here when a professor, an unassuming connector type who has since become a close friend, suggested I apply for a job at UNLV’s journalism school. My husband and I rented an apartment near the university, in the Vegas Towers: two “luxury” high-rise buildings built in 1974 that have some of the worst Yelp reviews I’ve ever read. “One of the shadiest places to rent in Vegas,” reads a typical one. “The staff seem pleasant on first encounter but they are all snakes.” My objections were mostly aesthetic: to the wall-to-wall beige ’80s-style carpeting whose chemical smell meant we had to keep the windows open at all times, to the dingy hallways that seemed never to be vacuumed—a green M&M once sat there, untouched, for a full three weeks. The airport is ten minutes away, and at around 5 a.m. each morning, I was awakened by the sound of airplanes ripping holes in the atmosphere. At night, a symphony of construction noises would begin, the players taking up their instruments at 9 p.m. and playing straight through until morning. On Sundays—cleaning day, I guess—someone would walk the hallways and spray an air freshener so cloyingly fragrant I could taste it for hours.
But my students delighted and astonished me. UNLV is the most diverse undergraduate campus in the country, and their families came from all over the world—in Nevada, 38 percent of children live with at least one parent who is an immigrant. Many of these young people had made their way through one of the worst public school systems in the country (Nevada is ranked fiftieth overall, behind only New Mexico); they were the success stories.
Fierce, tenacious, and hardworking (that’s not to say some weren’t infuriating or lazy), they were going to college while holding down full-time jobs in retail stores, as waitresses, as substitute teachers. One student, when I asked why he kept nodding off in class, told me he had to get up at 4:00 a.m. to open the Krispy Kreme at Excalibur. Another student, also always sleepy, told me she worked a 3:30 a.m.–2 p.m. security shift at the airport. Yet another young woman—a student I became quite close to—was, at fifteen years old, kicked out of her home in Pahrump by her mother, who hoped to protect her from her stepfather and his motorcycle-gang friends; she told me she used to steal toilet paper from her job so she didn’t have to buy it. She’d read every book I mentioned, even in passing. The White Album, Battleborn—I’d see them peeking out of her purse. Each week, she’d arrive at my office hours, where she was joined by other student regulars, who would come to hang out, eat cereal, recite slam poetry, ask advice, and tell me about their lives.
When people wonder what I’m still doing in Las Vegas—someone is always asking you to justify your decision to live here, a phenomenon I’ve never experienced with any other place, and I’ve lived in rural Montana—I talk about my students. I mention the mass shooting here, which I covered for the better part of a year. But I could also say that in Las Vegas there is, at least in my experience, a curious and refreshing lack of class consciousness, what the critic Dave Hickey, a former resident, has called “a suppression of social differences,” and that, as a result, I know a wider and more varied range of people than I do almost anywhere else, whereas in New York, boringly, I knew mostly writers. I could explain that the creative community here is so small that writers and artists and intellectuals of all ages and backgrounds mix with one another. I could mention the arresting variation of the landscape: the fact that you can drive up the Eastside at dusk and look down at the city lights glittering like a sequined dress, and that a summer day in downtown Summerlin feels, save for the palm trees, like a day in suburban Connecticut. I could say that when I had kidney surgery last spring, friends took over my classes, offered to bring groceries, called and texted for
updates—and the gestures were not dutiful but sincere. (You could argue that this would happen in other cities, but I have lived in those cities, and in my experience it doesn’t.) Sometimes I just say that Las Vegas—with its glossy celebrity-chef outposts, where the meals are painstakingly perfected, and its off-Strip restaurants, where you can find pretty much any cuisine you want—has the best food in the country. I sound like a travel magazine article, but it does.
Yet the deeper truth is something far more complicated. As a writer, as a human, no place has ever captured my attention, my imagination, and my concern as this city has. There’s certainly plenty of mundane shit here—I have spent many lonely nights zombie-ing around the Target on Flamingo and Maryland—but I have also seen and heard things here that I’ve never witnessed anywhere else. Some of them are beautiful, some hilarious, some perplexing, dark, and disturbing, but they are all blessedly out in the open. “What is hidden elsewhere exists here in quotidian visibility,” to quote Dave Hickey again.
Why is what’s invisible in other cities so visible here? Las Vegas was a place founded on a kind of clarity about human nature, and it has never pretended otherwise. Starting in 1931—the same year that gambling was legalized—Nevada passed the most lenient divorce law in the country, requiring only six weeks of residency to file, compared to years in some states. Prohibition barely registered here; alcohol continued to be served on Fremont Street, the town’s main gambling drag at the time, and on Block 16, the erstwhile red light district, where railroad workers, travelers, and, in the 1930s, Hoover Dam laborers would come for the saloons and the prostitutes. Sex work was legal here until 1941, and still is in various brothels around Nevada—the closest to the city are in nearby Pahrump, a little more than an hour away. Indeed, still, today, the whole tourism industrial complex is devoted to serving appetites of all kinds. On top of this, there aren’t the same brakes on behavior that exist elsewhere. Joan Didion once called Las Vegas “the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification.”
The metropolitan area also is—and, with the exception of the housing crisis in 2008, has long been—one of the fastest-growing communities in the country. In 1950, four years after Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo Hotel, the city’s first major luxury casino (he stepped in with a mob loan when Hollywood Reporter founder and columnist Billy Wilkerson ran out of funds), the population of Las Vegas proper hovered around 24,624; now, a mere seventy-five years later, it is almost 645,000 and growing. Between 1985 and 1995, in fact, as the lavish resort hotels began to go up and gaming and tourism flourished, the city’s population nearly doubled. The entire Las Vegas Valley is relatively young and full of displaced people—in 2018, Nevada was the fourth most moved-to state, according to United Van Lines, with many of the transplants fleeing high housing costs in California. People are also drawn by the fact that the entrenched cultural institutions of the coasts, and their rigid mores, simply don’t exist here. Whoever you are, whatever you pretended to be back in Boston or New York, you don’t have to keep up that pretense. You can let it all hang out, and Las Vegas has long promised to let you. Tourists can be staggeringly drunk on the streets, couples can fight in public—I recently saw a married couple nearly come to blows over the amount of time it took to use a four-dollar coupon at Target—and truly no one will bat an eye. Combine the city’s dedication to encouraging shameless self-indulgence and its anything-goes outlaw ethos with seriously light policing outside of the Strip (Clark County’s services, like its school system, are, let’s just say, a little lacking) and you have human peccadilloes blatantly on display, along with human suffering.
One early morning as I am leaving my apartment, two esoteric sports cars are idling in front of me, bumper to bumper: a man gets out of the rear car holding a giant aspirin-pink designer purse and hurls it, with all the rage in his body, into the first car, which is presumably occupied by the purse’s owner. Recently, at a party on the Strip, a four- or five-year-old girl in a mermaid costume posed for photos with partygoers; her parents, also dressed as mermaids, were placing her in people’s laps. “I don’t think children should be used as props,” my friend whispered, after the parents tried to sit the child on her, “but that’s just me.” I agreed, but the kid seemed to be enjoying herself. Downtown, on a sweltering late-spring afternoon, my husband and I watched as a man in a wheelchair determinedly kicked his way up Fremont Street, backward and uphill, with one leg, his only limb. My heart collapsed in on itself, as it does so often here. Just last Saturday, I saw a woman on the sidewalk outside my apartment, bathing her legs in beer. Well, it’s not water, I thought as I passed her, but it works. That’s a thought I never would have had before moving to Las Vegas.
It’s difficult to generalize about the people of an entire city, but one thing can be said about Las Vegans: They are honest, sometimes bleakly so, and they tend to recognize this quality in others. They believe, to quote Gretel Ehrlich, that “honesty is stronger medicine than sympathy, which may console but often conceals.” Sure, there are those whose instinct is to protect, to boost, to paper over the city’s problems—I once horrified a colleague by regaling a famous visiting writer with a story of witnessing a robbery in the Walgreens on Flamingo—but most Las Vegans are clear-eyed about the naked human drama taking place around them. In this, they are like the artists I know, and not surprisingly: to live here requires a certain independence of spirit and, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” People here know firsthand that the banal lies alongside the sensational, that just because it’s tacky doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, and that wealth here sits far too close to painful, abject poverty. Las Vegas is as regular a place as any other where people shave their stubble and pay their bills, and as savage, as vulgar, and as glamorous a place as the Las Vegas of lore. Our state legislature votes on insulin pricing and voters elect a dead pimp to office, and when I need my computer fixed, I drive to the Apple store at Caesars Palace, where tourists are jostling to see water spout from fake Greco Roman statues. “You laugh,” someone here told me, “or you die.”
Back at the Boulevard Mall, I return to LensCrafters to pick up my glasses. I’m anxious because I have one ear that’s higher than the other and a touch of undiagnosed OCD, and getting them to fit the way I like them—almost floating, not gripping my ears like tight little baby hands—is always an ordeal. But the young man who helped me choose the frames bends and shapes them with such slow and attentive care that I am put immediately at ease. As he works, we talk. His name is Pouyan. He is twenty-eight years old, bearded and solidly built, with intense blue eyes and a warm, open manner. He immigrated to Las Vegas three years ago from Fardis, a city outside Tehran, by way of Turkey, to which he had escaped by foot, and where he was later met by his parents and younger brother. He was an optician in Iran, as was his father, but his family is Baha’i, a persecuted religious minority there, and the Iranian government shut their optical shops down.
In order to practice in the US, he had to go back to school to get his degree. He learned English from talking with his friends, he says, none of whom are from Iran, but his parents are struggling with the language. He tells me he’s completed his courses and taken one of five qualifying tests required in Nevada—they cost three hundred dollars each—but wants to help his mom set up an eyebrow threading business before he studies for them. He hands me my glasses. I try them on. They are ever so slightly crooked, so he gently, delicately manipulates them some more. I imagine him extending such careful kindness to every customer, day in, day out, here at this nondescript LensCrafters in the mall.
What does it mean to write about people who are usually overlooked or ignored? I am thinking about this as I walk back to my office that afternoon, through a corridor on campus where someone often builds little sculpture-towers out of rocks—they remind me of Stonehenge in miniature. I see this found art every day; I wonder who creates these sculptures, and I marvel that the artist persists in re-creating them when students or maintenance workers topple them, as they always do. As I walk across the quad, I see a wire-thin man with close-cropped gray hair placing the rocks, rough-hewn and triangular, one on top of another. They stand as if by some ineffable magic. He tells me his name is Ken; he’s part Mi’Kmaq Indian, a civil engineer who ran an environmental remediation business for eleven years but is no longer practicing. He says his company removed asbestos from underneath the Statue of Liberty. He became an artist seventeen years ago, when he had a vision while planting a garden for his disabled mother in Upstate New York, and he moved to Las Vegas in 2013. He calls his pieces “geoglyphs.”
I’m always curious what compels people to create art outside the spotlight or the marketplace, so I ask him why he does it. He tells me that he can look at a pile of rocks—he gestures to a river of stones on the grass, an undifferentiated mass to my eye—and see how they could be beautiful. The shapes, angles, planes speak to him. They’re puzzle pieces he has to make fit. Every morning when he walks his dog, he will be here, making his towers, one rock precariously balanced on another. When they get knocked down, he will pile them up again. He will do this whether I write about him or not.