The suburban casino smells like vanilla.
Trust us, it does. And not some lowbrow, bodega-incense vanilla, either. It smells like a Diptyque candle or fancy shampoo. Like vanille, sourced from some formerly colonized nation. Like rich people.
If you do not come from wealth, it’s intoxicating, this scent that permeates the MGM National Harbor. It sticks to your hair and your clothes, quietly bathing you in status.
We only mention it because vanille could describe everything here in this $1.4 billion resort, which opened in December on the shores of the Potomac: the floor-to-ceiling fountains drooling milk and white chocolate, the electronic clinking of cash-money. Barry Manilow.
Maryland’s sixth casino, the MGM made $42 million in revenue in its first few weeks of operation. Even on a Tuesday night in the dead of summer, its beige halls are teeming with people. There are women in roomy leopard-print tunics and orthopedic sandals, toes painted the color of traffic cones. Men in ties, eating Shake Shack. Children in strollers, wailing.
There’s gelato described as “pure origin” (whatever that means), and a store hawking a massive brass Buddha. There are, at least three years after their peak, man-buns.
This is the transformed American casino: milquetoast entertainment. Suburban distraction.
“Ma’am, take your glow-stick,” a cheery ticket attendant commands as a crowd filters into the lobby of the MGM’s 3,000-seat theater for the second show of Manilow’s two-night run.
In the next few months, the casino theater, with its vertiginous views and plush seats, will also host Cher and Chris Rock, performers who usually land at Verizon Center. The MGM has made off with them. It will swaddle them instead in this luxe theater steps from slot machines.
It’s possible that everyone is here for an escape, which is what casinos have always provided. After all, there’s crazy stuff going on in the world, as Manilow explains to his audience, cryptically. Stuff that has prodded him out of semiretirement.
“I thought, my country needs me! They need the uplift!,” he says.
“So,” he exclaims, “I’m reporting for duty.”
He’s here to remind everyone of the good old days. Remember when musicians played real melodies? Remember Judy Garland? Remember 1975, when a baby Barry sat at a piano and banged out “Mandy” with the same verve as Black Sabbath, but with less blood spatter?
Afterward, buoyed by nostalgia and good vibes, his audience rises from the velvet seats and flows in unison toward the gaming-room floor, salmon swimming upstream.
It’s 9 p.m. Still early.
For two generations, the seedy allure of blackjack and roulette and women and money made Las Vegas the nation’s swingingest tourist destination. But Americans, ever the descendants of Puritans, were uneasy with the notion of gamblers in their own back yards.
“Go back in time 60 years — it’s 1957,” says David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “Most states said, ‘We don’t think people should gamble.’ ”
Then came the lottery. The gateway drug.
“After that, we didn’t really have the moral high ground,” Schwartz muses.
And so came the inevitable infiltration of the casino into the suburban landscape, next to all the Paneras and outlet stores and Bar Louies.
More than 30 states have legalized gaming. Meanwhile, in the old casino towns, a lot of the players are folding.
In Vegas, gaming revenue is dropping precipitously, says Schwartz. Now the gap is being made up by spectacles featuring Britney Spears and cabana rentals and bottle service at debaucherous daytime pool parties. Atlantic City is another story: In 2014, a battering year, a third of the ritzy gambling houses simply sank. No closure was more startling than that of the Revel, which cost $2.4 billion to erect and took only two years to topple. This summer, bargain hunters came to pillage what was left of the Trump Taj Mahal (which wasn’t much).
What went wrong there is too complicated to get into. What matters is the result. Municipalities, Schwartz says, are looking to attract locals and families, to avoid the stigma of becoming a gambling destination. And so they “are not going to want just a room filled with slot machines.”
Which is why the MGM is what it is — 125,000 square feet of slots and card tables tucked deep inside a complex where you can also try on glittering $390 shoes peddled by actress Sarah Jessica Parker, and sup on the middle-American diet of cheese fries, lobster rolls and pizza.
Beth Connolly, 64, got here early with her daughter and hit happy hour before the Manilow concert. It was just a $9 Uber ride from home, the Alexandria-based interior designer marvels.
Between numbers, Connolly leans in close, a sage with words of wisdom for a young grasshopper.
This is Americana, she whispers. “You just have to embrace the kitsch.”
A lone television set in the depths of Shake Shack is tuned to CNN, and is flashing snippets from John McCain’s Senate-floor soapboxing. A woman with a helmet of frosted brown curls continues to pick at her burger.
It is early evening, and men and women strapped into comfortable Tevas and flat, rubber-soled Toms saunter past walls of formidable stilettos at Parker’s store. On the shelves are four-inch fuchsia velvet heels and teal, glitter-encrusted Mary Janes, the kind of shoes that threatened Carrie Bradshaw’s credit score on “Sex and the City” but also shoes that no one has actually coveted since “Sex and the City.”
Two women stop to stare at a garish, multicolored fur vest in the window of yet another shop with no customers. “Haaaaaaa,” one croaks to her friend. They leave, still laughing.
In some ways, the MGM is a mall, built to be aimlessly roamed. In others, it is, in fact, like Las Vegas. Women turn up in $15,000 minks. The baccarat tables buzz.
A cashier grins beguilingly as she pats and smooths a tidy pile of fresh bills for a fellow in mint green shorts just before midnight. Four seconds from now, he’ll turn and almost glide into the nearest game of craps. Four seconds after that, he’ll lose.
Just off the casino floor, at Felt, a cocktail bar with the fake flickering candles, a singer is just beginning her set with Estelle’s “American Boy.” It was a hit in 2008.
“Happy Tuesday,” she coos.
At most bars at 1 a.m. on a weekday, this is the hour of reckoning. Things begin to blur. Gestures become looser, voices louder. The MGM hops as if it were happy hour, everyone brisk and focused.
A man in rubber slide-on slippers rocks back and forth on his feet, a weary man’s sort of foot massage. A dancing dragon writhes on the glowing screen of his slot machine, and from somewhere, the sound of descending coins begins to rattle, an auditory hallucination of a big pile of money that never actually materializes. The man presses on.
Even casinos have a witching hour, of course. It is 2 a.m. The chairs at the food hall are stacked, the gates of the shoe store pulled down.
An Indian woman who appears to be in her 50s takes a swig from a Starbucks cup and yawns, her eyes wandering momentarily before she leans into the blackjack table where her companion is playing.
Outside the casino, in a hallway, a very drunk woman in white capri pants leans against a wall beside a bathroom, alone. Not far away, heading up the escalators toward the MGM’s hotel rooms, another woman listens sympathetically as her companion curses.
It is time to go.
As we drive into the black night and into the web of exits leading away from this glowing beached ship, my driver pipes up with a question.
“May I ask, what perfume are you wearing?”