A HOME IN THE NEON
It's the strangest thing. I have lived in a lot of cities, some of them for substantial lengths of time, but I have never thought of any of them as home. I thought of them as "where I'm living now." Then, the other morning, I woke up and realized that Las Vegas has, indeed, become my home--that I routinely think of it as such. Somehow, in the few years that I have been living here and traveling out of here, this most un-homelike of cities has come to function for me as a kind of moral bottom-line--as a secular refuge and a source of comforts and reassurances that are unavailable elsewhere--as a home, in other words.
Even as I write this, however, I realize that claiming Las Vegas as my home while practicing "art criticism" in the hyper-textualized, super-virtuous high culture of the nineteen nineties probably sounds a little studied--a bit calculatedly exotic--as if I were trying to make a "statement," or something. In truth, this condition of feeling at home in Las Vegas makes me wonder just how far back things really go, since, when I was a child, whenever I heard about Las Vegas, it was always being discussed as a potential home by my dad's jazz-musician buddies and their "so-called wives" (as my mom invariably referred to them).
This was back in the nineteen fifties, when Las Vegas was rapidly becoming the only city in the American West where a professional musician might hold down a steady gig without living out of a suitcase. So, for my dad's pals, Vegas shone out there in the desert like a grail, as a kind of outlaw town, like Butch Cassidy's Hole in the Wall or Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious, where a tiring swing musician or a jive-talking bopster might find a refuge from the road and from respectability as well. A player might work steadily in Vegas, and perhaps get a taste of Fat America, might rent a house in the suburbs, for instance--with a two-car garage and a yard, even--and still be able to play Charlie Parker in the kitchen at 4:00 A.M. and roll the occasional funny cigarette. The only time I was ever in Las Vegas as a child, we spent a hot afternoon in the dark kitchen of a pink-stucco bungalow doing approximately that.
While the sun glared outside, my dad and his friend Shelton drank beer out of tall brown bottles and played Billie Holiday's Gloomy Sunday about a zillion times. The whole afternoon, Shelton kept marveling at the ease with which he would pick up his axe later that evening, put it in the trunk of his Pontiac, and drive down to his gig at the Desert Inn. He pantomimed this procedure two or three times, just to show us how easy it was. That night, we got to go with him to the Desert Inn, where there were a million lights, roulette wheels clicking, and guys in tuxedos who looked like Cornel Wilde. Through the plate-glass windows, we could see a turquoise swimming pool surrounded by rich, green grass, and there were white tablecloths on the tables in the lounge, where we sat with other sophisticates and grooved to the music. I thought it was great, but my dad got progressively grumpier as the evening wore on. He kept making remarks about Shelton's musicianship, and I could tell that he was envious of his friend's steady gig.
So, having told you this, if I tell you that I now have a steady gig in Vegas, that I live two blocks from the Desert Inn and eat lunch there about once a week, you will understand my reservations about the possibility of our ever growing up--because, even though the days of steady gigs for sax maniacs are long gone, I still think of Vegas the way Shelton did: as a town where outsiders can still get work, three shifts a day, around the clock, seven days a week--and, when not at work, may walk unmolested down the sidewalk in their choice of apparel. My brother calls Vegas a "cowboy town," because fifty-year-old heterosexual guys still room together here, and pairs of married couples share suburban homes, dividing up the bedrooms and filling the communal areas with beer cans and pizza boxes.
Most importantly for me, Vegas is a town that can serve as the heart's destination--a town where half the pick-up trucks stolen in Arizona, Utah, Montana, and Wyoming are routinely recovered in casino parking lots--where the vast majority of the population arises every morning absolutely delighted to have escaped Hometown, America and the necessity of chatting with Mom over the back fence. This lightens the tone of social intercourse considerably. To cite an example: While I was having breakfast at the local IHOP the other morning, my waitress confided in me that, even though the International House of Pancakes wasn't the greatest organization in the world, they had transferred her out of Ogden, Utah, and she was thankful for that. But not so thankful, she said, that she planned to stay in "food." As soon as she got Lance in school, she was moving up to "cocktail," where the tips were better.
She was looking forward to that, she said; and, to be honest, it's moments like this that have led me to adopt Las Vegas as mi varrio. I mean, here was an American, in the nineties, who was thankful for something and looking forward to something else. So, now, I affectionately exchange stories of Vegas's little quirks with my fellow homiest I chuckle over the legendary teddy bear in the gift shop at Caesars Palace that was reputedly sold five hundred times. Every night, it seems, some john would buy it for a hooker. Every morning, the hooker would bring it back for cash. That night another john would buy it for another hooker--and thus the cycle continued until Herr Teddy, that fuzzy emblem of middle-aged desire, became irretrievably shopworn. I also defend my adopted hometown against its detractors--a great many of whom are disconsolate colleagues of mine down at the University--lost souls whom I must count among those who are not looking forward to moving up from "food" to "cocktail," who do not arise from their slumber thanking their lucky stars to have escaped Mom and Dad and fucking Ithaca.
These exiles, it seems, find Las Vegas lacking in culture. (Define culture!) They think it is all about money, which, I always agree, is the worst way of discriminating among individuals, except for all the others. They also deplore the fact that Las Vegas exploits people's weaknesses--although, in my view, Vegas rather theatrically fails to exploit that most plangent American weakness, for being parented into senility. This is probably why so many of them regard Vegas as an unfit atmosphere in which to raise children--although judging by my students, the town turns out an amazingly resilient and insouciant brand of American adolescent, one whose penchant for body decoration seems to me a healthier way of theatricalizing one's lack of prospects than the narcotics that performed this function for my generation.
Most of all, I suspect that my unhappy colleagues are appalled by the fact that Vegas presents them with a flat-line social hierarchy--that, having ascended from "food" to "cocktail" in Las Vegas, there is hardly anywhere else to go (except, perhaps, up to "magician"), and being a professore in this environment doesn't feel nearly as special as it might in Cambridge or Bloomington, simply because the rich (the traditional clients of the professore class) are not special in Las Vegas, because money here is just money. You can make a lot of it here, but there are no socially sanctioned forms of status to ennoble one's having made it--nor any predetermined socio-cultural agendas that one might pursue as a consequence of having been so ennobled.
Membership in the University Club will not get you comped at Caesars, unless you play baccarat. Thus, in the absence of vertical options, one is pretty much thrown back onto one's own cultural resources, and, for me, this has not been the worst place to be thrown. At least I have begun to wonder if the privilege of living in a community with a culture does not outweigh the absence of a "cultural community" and, to a certain extent, explain its absence. (Actually, it's not so bad. My TLS and LRB come in the mail every week, regular as clockwork, and just the other day, I took down my grandfather's Cicero and read for nearly an hour without anyone breaking down my door and forcing me to listen to Wayne Newton.)
This deficiency of haut bourgeois perks, I should note, also confuses visiting Easterners whom I have docented down the Strip. So attentive are they to signifiers of status and exclusivity that they become restless and frustrated. The long, lateral blend of Vegas iconography unrolls before them, and they are looking for the unmarked door through which the cognoscenti pass. They want the "secret Vegas." But Vegas is about stakes, not status--real action, not covert connections. The "high-roller" rooms with satin walls are secure areas for high-stakes gambling, not hideouts for high-profile dilettantes. If Bruce Willis and Shannen Doherty just want to get their feet wet, they shoot dice with the rest of us. This seems to confuse my visitors, who don't, of course, believe in celebrity, but still, the idea of People with Names gambling in public offends their sense of order--and mitigates their aspirations as well, I suspect.
In any case, when visiting culturati actually start shivering in the horizontal flux, I take them to one of the restaurants in town where tank-tops are (sort of) discouraged. This is the best I can do to restore their sense of propriety, because the "secret of Vegas" is that there are no secrets. And there are only two rules: (1) Post the odds, and (2) Treat everybody the same. Just as one might in a democracy (What a concept!), and this deficiency of secrets and economy of rules drives writers crazy! They come here to write about Vegas. They are trained in depth-analysis. They have ripped the lid off seamy scandals by getting behind the scenes, and Las Vegas is invisible to them. They see the lights, of course, but they end up writing stories about white people who are so unused to regulating their own behavior that they gamble away the farm, get drunk, throw up on their loafers, and wind up in custody within six hours of their arrival. Or they write profiles of the colorful Runyonesque characters they meet in casinos, oblivious to the fact that such characters populate half the bar-rooms in America, that, in truth, they need only have driven a few blocks for their "colorful characters," had they been inclined to transgress the rigid stratifications that (in their hometowns) stack the classes like liqueurs in a dessert drink.
America, in other words, is a very poor lens through which to view Las Vegas, while Las Vegas is a wonderful lens through which to view America. What is hidden elsewhere exists here in quotidian visibility. So when you fly out of Las Vegas to, say, Milwaukee, the absences imposed by repression are like holes in your vision. They become breathtakingly perceptible, and, as a consequence, there is no better place than Las Vegas for a traveler to feel at home. The town has a quick, feral glamour that is hard to localize--and it arises, I think, out of the suppression of social differences rather than their exacerbation. The whole city floats on a sleek frisson of anxiety and promise that those of us addicted to such distraction must otherwise induce by motion or medication.
Moreover, since I must regularly venture out of Vegas onto the bleak savannas of high culture, and there, like an aging gigolo, generate bodily responses to increasingly abject objects of desire, there is nothing quite as bracing as the prospect of flying home, of swooping down into that ardent explosion of lights in the heart of the pitch-black desert--of coming home to the only indigenous visual culture on the North American continent, a town bereft of dead white walls, gray wool carpets, ficus plants, and Barcelona chairs--where there is everything to see and not a single pretentious object demanding to be scrutinized.
I remember one particular evening in the spring. I was flying back from Washington, D.C. after serving on a National Endowment for the Arts panel. For four solid days, I had been seated on a wooden chair in a dark room looking at racks of slides, five at a time. Blam, blam, blam, blam, blam, ad infinitum. All hope departed somewhere near the end of the second day, and I started counting popular iconography: skulls, little houses, little boats, altars, things in jars, etc. By the end of the third day, despair had become a very real option, but we finally selected the correct number of winners--and a number of these actually won. The rest won the privilege of having their awards overturned by a higher court on the grounds of propriety.
The moment I stepped off the plane, I sat down in the terminal to play video poker. Basically, I was doing the same thing I had been doing in Washington: looking at banks of five images, one after another, interpreting finite permutations of a limited iconography, looking for a winner. Sitting there at the slot machine, however, I was comfortable in the knowledge that Vegas cheats you fair--that, unlike the rest of America (and Washington in particular), the payoffs are posted and the odds easily calculable. I knew how much of a chance I had to win. It was slim, of course, but it was a real chance nevertheless, not some vague promise of parental benevolence contingent on my behavior.
In the reality of that chance, Vegas lives--in those fluttery moments of faint but rising hope, in the possibility of wonder, in the swell of desire while the dice are still bouncing, just before the card flips face-up. And win or lose, you always have that instant of genuine, justifiable hope. It is always there. Even though we know the rules governing random events are always overtaken by the law of large numbers, there is always that window of opportunity, that statistical crazy zone, before this happens, when anything can happen. And what's more, if you win, you win! You can take it home. You cannot be deemed unworthy after the fact--as we all were in Washington, where we played our hearts out and never had a fucking chance. So right there in the airport, I could make a little wager, and there was a real chance that luck and foolish courage might, just for the moment, just for a couple of bucks, override the quagmire of status and virtue in which we daily languish. And if I got really lucky, I might move up from food to cocktail. Hey, don't laugh. It could happen.