I just flew in from the Coast. The seven most pretentious words in the English language, but so much fun to say!

(Background note: I come from a culture in which people usually say, "I just drove here from What-A-Burger.")

I hear that, while I was gone, the whole operation merged, or was sold to, or was somehow consumed and partially digested by, NBC News or Microsoft or General Electric or something like that. This has tremendous implications. The big question is: WHEN CAN I MEET AL ROKER? I love that guy.

My trip started in Las Vegas, a city that clearly needs to be heavily medicated. The city is already the overstimulation capital of the world, and it keeps trying to intensify the dazzle, to build ever larger and more heavily themed resorts. The newest casinos on the Strip are replicas of Paris and Venice, complete with a gigantic Eiffel Tower and a Grand Canal, respectively. I heard that the Venice casino, Venetia, imported real gondoliers from Italy.

("Real" is used generously; in the modern world, virtually nothing is real anymore, and if you're only SLIGHTLY surreal you can officially qualify as authentic.)

The fancy new hotel-casino is link? Bellagio, which features a gallery in the back with a collection of fine art, paintings by Picasso and Van Gogh and Monet and Rembrandt and Rubens and Jackson Pollack and a bunch of other artists who have never before had their paintings in the same small gallery. Welcome to Art's Greatest Hits. You wonder if it's actually dangerous, at some chemical or subatomic level, for a Rembrandt to be that close to a Pollack. That's like matter and anti-matter. If a cross-eyed person looked at both at the same time it could lead to a mental breakdown.

I should praise Steve Wynn, the casino tycoon, for sharing his fine art collection and giving us a breather from the long hours of losing money and drinking too much and watching the erupting volcano outside Wynn's previous glitzy casino, The Mirage. Unfortunately when you see fine paintings in the back of a casino, your first instinct is to call the FBI. No doubt Wynn bought this stuff legitimately, but it still feels like that situation in which someone bought the London Bridge and moved it to Arizona as a tourist trap.

Eventually the casinos will start buying up entire foreign cities, like Madrid, or Rio, or Ho Chi Minh City, and relocate them to The Strip. I guarantee you the entire nation of Luxembourg would be willing to come over. Luxembourgia Resort Hotel Casino and Spa. Just like a small European country, only with more slot machines AND a 24-hour $9.95 prime rib special!

Fifty years ago, sin was theme enough. What would Bugsy Siegel say if he saw the new Vegas? He would see his beloved Flamingo, despite many expansions and rehabs, looking a bit ordinary across the street from a fake Rome (Caesar's Palace) and just down the street from an Egyptian pyramid (The Luxor), King Arthur's Castle (Excalibur), and midtown Manhattan (New York, New York). The Flamingo is nice, but where the heck is the roller coaster?

What we love about a city, a great city, is that it is an incomparable place, that when you are there you feel saturated in the city's peculiar juices. In that regard, Las Vegas, for all the fakery, is the one of the great cities of the world. They can build casinos that look like Rome or Venice or Paris or Manhattan, but you always know exactly where you are.

My other stop was San Francisco, another city that can't be duplicated. No other city looks anything like it. It seems vaguely impossible that such a place could even exist. Those cable cars -- super groovy. The Golden Gate Bridge is still the coolest bridge in the world. Every city ought to have an Alcatraz.

But San Francisco is changing rapidly. There are kid millionaires everywhere; to park for 2 hours costs $19; traffic is insane; the artists can't afford the rents anymore.

"Every time an apartment becomes vacant, they double the rent and move in a yuppie," said Frank Lauria, a credentialed Bohemian with whom I drove around the Bay Area for a couple of days. Frank is a writer, he's knocked out something like 17 books, the latest a novelization of the movie End of Days. He says every home in San Francisco now costs one million dollars.

Money changes everything.

"Pretty soon," Frank said, "all human beings will be sponsored."

By Nike. By Gatorade. That sort of thing.

Maybe he's right, the world is all about money now. Money is a fire that burns across the planet, and if San Francisco isn't yet totally consumed, give it time.

Rough Draft appears Monday, Wendesday and Friday at 1 p.m. -- except when the author has dropped so much money at blackjack he's lost the will to write.