Strip Search

Old signs languish in the boneyard of the Neon Museum, awaiting restoration.
Old signs languish in the boneyard of the Neon Museum, awaiting restoration. (Neil Emmerson - Getty Images)
By Lauren Wilcox
Sunday, September 18, 2005

There's a story my grandfather tells about the time Frank Sinatra bought drinks for him and his buddies. They were at Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas, at what my grandfather describes as a "top-drawer" restaurant near the showroom, where they had just seen Sinatra sing. A woman was sitting alone in the corner, looking glum, and one of my grandfather's friends struck up a conversation. She was sad, she told them, because she had been a girlfriend of Sinatra's. They were engaged, but he had gone and married Barbara, his fourth wife.

Whether or not this was true, my grandfather and his buddies reasoned, there was no sense in a pretty girl drinking alone, and they sat down with her and began ordering rounds. A little while later, Sinatra walked in with Barbara and had a drink at the bar. When my grandfather asked for the tab, the bartender shook his head. "Anyone drinking with her is a friend of Sinatra's," he said. "Drinks are on him."

I liked this story for its glamorous details: the casual thrill of the top-drawer restaurant, the lonely bar rat's brush with fame, my grandfather in the same room as Frank Sinatra. My grandparents, who for a long time went to Las Vegas once or twice a year, are quite glamorous themselves, in the way that people used to be glamorous. Their house has a wet bar in the living room and oil portraits of them over the fireplace -- my grandfather with his pencil-thin mustache; my grandmother in a teal gown, her red hair in an Ava Gardner set. On the night I was born, they almost missed the 3 a.m. phone call from my father, because they were just returning from a party.

But I also liked the story because it was about Las Vegas, a place that, in their recountings, had an electric sense of possibility shimmering through it, like a current. When I pressed my grandfather for specifics about what, exactly, it was about the city they liked so much, he could say only, rather vaguely, "the ambience." I would have attributed any ambience in the city to legalized gambling, but my grandparents weren't gamblers, he said, having never had the temperament for it. No, to hear him tell it, it was something in the city itself, bricked into the infrastructure, or diasporized throughout the atmosphere like a fine mist. "There's just no place like Las Vegas," he said.

I wanted to see it for myself, the city they'd liked enough to return to year after year. If they could find something they liked there, couldn't I? Outside of the feverish vortex of what I knew only as Las Vegas, the three-day vacation destination, maybe there was a Las Vegas, the city, and maybe it was as marvelous as they remembered.

That Las Vegas exists at all seems remarkable when it is seen from the air. It clings to the desert floor like a lichen, unpunctuated by anything traditionally associated with the growth of a city: no river, no grid of farmed land, no signs of large-scale industry. It is adrift in a bright, barren landscape that has only a few major roads drawn across it. From above, even its 125,000 hotel rooms don't add up to much, a handful of dun-colored buildings, the barracks of a lonely frontier outpost swallowed by the enormous sweep of the desert. The only hint of the scale of the place was the sun flashing, as we banked into our descent, off what must have been an enormous expanse of glass.

Any potential ambience in the Las Vegas airport was pretty well obscured by a bank of slot machines that stood between the gate and the exit, where I wandered for several minutes like Theseus hunting the minotaur, disoriented by the electronic babble. At least I knew I'd landed in the right town. A huge video screen hung overhead, advertising current shows with snippets of dancing girls in saucy poses. Outside, my rental-car shuttle drove up behind a van labeled Luck Transportation. As I got in, I thought I was still hearing slot machines, but it was the opening sound effects of Pink Floyd's "Money" on the radio.

Like my grandparents, I've never been much of a gambler, and as we pulled away from the airport, I asked the shuttle driver what there was to do in Las Vegas besides gambling and the standard shows. He screwed up his face, thinking. His companion shook her head. "There's nothing else here," she said. After a minute, she said, "Clubs?" hopefully, as though she had found a loophole.

"There's a Mormon temple," said the driver, piloting the van across five lanes of traffic. "They were supposedly the city's original settlers." Well, that was sort of interesting, I said. I hadn't thought about Las Vegas having a historical side. The woman gave a little snort.

"There's no history here," she said. "Something gets old enough to be historical, they just tear it down."

Later, as I drove toward town in my rental car, I passed old cocktail lounges and tiny desert motels, their neon lettering faded in the sun. It seemed a little as though I had touched down in another country, one with its own rules and mores. It felt promising. Ahead, the late-afternoon sun lit the long axis of the Strip, a jumbled silhouette of buildings and signs, suspending it in a golden haze. At a stoplight, I rolled down my window and listened for the sounds of traffic or commerce, but the desert was silent, as though the entire scene were just a fantastic trick of the light.

I had reserved a room that night at the Golden Nugget, which is one of the older hotels in Las Vegas, built in 1946. When I headed through the casino, at the end of the evening, it was packed. The poker tables glowed greenly under the lights, like little lagoons, and a chorus of ululations rose from the slot machines. The mood was somber. The tables were crowded with men grimly following each snap of the cards, women in short-shorts hanging from their arms. Rows of gray-haired ladies, their pocketbooks clutched in their laps, stared into the whirling depths of the slot machines.

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