Do not blow on those dice! Please, I silently plead. Do. Not. Blow. On. Those …
He blew on the dice.
You would think there would be a little bit of post-pandemic etiquette running through our veins at this point, a pint of vacation trepidation that would hold us back from full blastoff. After all, in varying degrees, we’ve all been through so much, from losing loved ones to quarantining to wearing masks while walking our dogs to saving the softest junk mail just in case the world really did run out of toilet paper. Even at a craps table in Caesars Palace Las Vegas, you would expect a little consideration as it relates to our health and safety, and No. 1 on that “too soon” list would be: Do not blow on the dice!
Are you ready for this? I don’t mean taking a two-hour drive over county lines to finally hug granny again on her front porch. I mean packing your bags and getting on a plane; I mean crowds and buffets and pools; I mean all the least-covid-safe activities of our pre-pandemic lives. Are you mentally and physically prepared? Because just when you thought sitting in the middle seat in coach couldn’t get any worse, we have to add being squeezed by post-traumatic pandemic stress.
Jumping back in wholeheartedly to our old habits isn’t like ripping off a Band-Aid. There are so many layers to our suffering that it’s like unwrapping a mummy down to the bone in a whip-second. Especially if you make your first destination Las Vegas, the entertainment and gambling capital of the world. But that’s what I’ve done. The ultimate litmus test to see if I’m ready to rejoin America in all its glory and wonder.
“No, no, no!” I overhear a bulky young guy scolding his friends at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport. “Don’t tell me what we can’t do. We are in the city that never sleeps. There are no rules.”
“No rules” takes on a different meaning for all of us after we’ve been beholden to ever-changing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local municipalities. We’re all starting fresh, about to make up personal rules when it comes to venturing out in this world again. Burdened by our individual scars, are we all hypochondriacs now, with germ alerts going off in our heads at every turn? Or can we just block out the past year and move on?
I decided to come to Vegas over Memorial Day weekend, the first big holiday weekend since restrictions officially loosened in Nevada. This town is on the cusp of getting back to 100 percent capacity, but right now the streets feel like they’re at 110 percent and climbing every second. Post-pandemic behavior seems to be at a fever pitch.
Having avoided crowds for so long, do I even have it in me to survive such a trip at this point? After going through the basic motions of planning, packing and taking my shoes off with a bunch of strangers in a security line, I suddenly don’t feel so bold. And in the early hours of being on the Strip, I feel as if I’m still tiptoeing around while everyone else is pole-vaulting into their long-lost freedom.
Before I take another step down the boulevard, know two things about me. One: I’m not sure if I had the virus. My wife tested positive after an outbreak at her workplace, so I had to notify my boss — at the grocery store where I work in Nashville — who solemnly said, “Oh boy. Okay, we’ll see you after 14 days of quarantine.” Which in Everyman, no-symptoms terms translated to “Two weeks off with pay!” I never got tested. All I felt was tired, but I immediately realized that if I didn’t have the virus, I’d be my wife’s only contact to the outside world for two weeks and she’d be erranding me to death. So I had to become a quick study and pick up on my wife’s symptoms. How are you feeling, babe? “Killer headache.” Oh yeah, I have a headache, too. “So tired.” Me too. Exhausted. I’m going to lie down. At least we’re going through this together.
Two: Before heading to Vegas, I got fully vaccinated. And this trip is now giving me a lesson in what the ultimate release and joy of freedom sounds like: “Hello. Hey, yeah, I’m taking a s--- somewhere near Planet Hollywood. Yeah, awesome, right!?” The enthusiasm of the guy on his cellphone in the restroom stall is palpable, his voice giddy with excitement. He is speaking for everyone who blasted into this town in the past 24 hours for this holiday weekend.
The infamous Vegas Strip is a chaotic mess — a Mardi Gras-style street party in full force, drinks held high, tourists posing with half-naked men and women with whips, vacationers strutting with cases of beer tucked under their arms as the man-made volcano in front of the Mirage hotel erupts. At the airport, masks were mandatory, but on the boulevard and throughout downtown, they’re a rare sight.
A bearded man with a megaphone announces to passersby that they will pay for their sinful behavior. “There’s not going to be a drop of water where you’re going. You’re all going straight to hell!”
Hell? We’ve been in hell for more than a year — suffocating under restrictions, family and friends dying. We just got back from hell. The gates of Sin City are now the neon gates to heaven, and tonight they will not stop flashing.
Earlier, I watched as a woman cutting through a hotel lobby got a disinfectant wipe stuck to the bottom of her gold sandal and, in one graceful swoop, flicked it off like some relic from a bygone era. But trying to actually engage someone in conversation about the pandemic is useless. The people I approach to talk about it want to talk about anything, everything else.
“How long did your Uber take?”
“I’m already out of money and I don’t care.”
“Is that fountain going to dance or what?”
You can be trapped by the line wrapping around the Fat Tuesday frozen drink market as it seems to weave and meander and turn back in every direction. (I didn’t even know Fat Tuesday was still in business. Vegas is the kind of place where businesses that fall flat elsewhere can thrive and White Castle is an actual castle.)
Drinks are so expensive on the Strip that the smartest of travelers have jammed into CVS to buy six-packs for the same price as one beer at a bar. In fact, the raised steps in front of the drugstore have become sort of a poor man’s patio bar. Three shirtless guys are drinking giant cans of Modelo, and the one who most definitely shouldn’t be going shirtless is not afraid to address the pandemic in the simplest of terms when I ask him whether he’s still concerned about the virus: “Don’t care if I have it. Don’t care if I give it.”
Oh, that’s great. One thing I think we have all realized as the debates have raged over the pandemic — mask or no mask, to be vaccinated or not — is that we value our opinions more than both our lives and the lives of others.
Through the windows of party buses, bodies decked in formal wear are visible holding cocktails and twirling on a mobile dance floor. The Cirque du Soleil shows are all still closed, but down the Strip at the Linq Hotel + Experience partyers are literally zip-lining through the skyline.
There is something so sloppy about this street revelry that it mirrors how clumsily the pandemic was handled from the very beginning by America and most of the world. Of all the signs I see here, none say anything about where you can go to be vaccinated, even though about half of Americans are still unvaccinated. There are, however, several places where you can get a shot of B12, and there are pop-up oxygen bars at every turn, which only makes me think of ventilators.
It’s hard for me to shake off flashbacks of the pandemic, so I have to double down: I head to casinos off the Strip, which are wall-to-wall. It’s hard to believe that a year ago today the police could have raided our homes for having, say, a gathering of more than 11.9 people in our dining rooms. I fight my way through one crowd that’s packed so tightly it’s like a rugby scrum, only the players are wearing high heels and loafers and dangerous jewelry.
Once I am free, I catch yet another sight: A tall gentleman wearing a bright orange bathing suit is coming right toward me; on one arm he has two giant colorful swim tubes, and attached to the end of the hand sticking out of the tubes is an extra-large pizza. He slows, takes a sip of the large tropical drink in the opposite hand, looks over his shoulder to see if his (four!) young children are still trailing behind him. Yes, that man is on vacation. America is officially back to being America.
It’s about 2 a.m. on my first night of forced freedom, although I already sense no matter how long you stay in Vegas, it is all one long night. I am slumped down in the vestibule of a parking garage, sitting on the ground, next to a garbage can. I tend to stretch out and sit on the ground wherever I am, like I’m hanging out on the stairs in a college dorm. It’s just my MO. Anyway, a woman spots me as she’s passing by and says, “Hey, are you all right?”
“Just Ubered out,” I say. “First it said 27 minutes, then 9 minutes, then it was back to 31 and …”
But she’s gone before I get to 19. Meanwhile, a large group of handsomely dressed young adults are loitering in the vestibule trying to plan their next move. “What about that place Angie and Erin are going? They bought tickets early.”
“This whole town is sold out,” one of the women says, looking over at me as if they might as well all slump down against the wall. But a second later she says, “Oh well,” and they stroll out into the night.
It is still so dense in the streets that I had to retreat. I’m not looking for six feet of separation, or even three feet. But three inches would be nice.
This is not like me, and I’m disappointed in myself. I tend to wear my days on Earth like a pair of baggy pants, with a bon vivant attitude and a penchant for playfulness. Maybe it’s the “have it” and “give it” guy back at CVS that I can’t easily shake — that sense of recklessness. And there’s still the voice in my head questioning whether it’s wrong to even be here.
A father comes in carrying a young girl who is half asleep and clutching a big trophy as if it is a teddy bear. I have been seeing these trophies all day. Apparently a dance competition is being held in town, and the winners have been crowned. These are not the tiny plastic things Fortune 500 companies give their employees of the month. These are the real deal, and they are abundant. A flock of dancers will pass by with ice cream cones in one hand and trophies in the other. Many are nonchalantly tucked under arms like a beach towel, as the girls go about their business.
I wish I could hand out trophies to those who have endured so much. After what everyone has been through, so many people deserve a trophy instead of only the invisible badges of honor and courage we have pinned on them. For the rest of their lives, I want them all to be walking around with a smoothie in one hand and a big gleaming trophy in the other. But in the same way, perhaps those who did not sacrifice — who laughed in the face of a serious threat to so many lives — should be forced to wear cheap, poorly made hats with stupid sayings on them.
Okay, somebody help me up.
Well, look at me now. Day 2, and I have the stride and swagger of a Bridgerton brother, totally entitled to this wondrous day. As the trip has worn on, I have become increasingly inspired by my adventurous brethren celebrating in the streets of the most glamorously garish city in the world. Last night I was guilty of watching them as an observer, not really jumping in to the triumph and glory of breaking free. But earlier this morning, as I lay still on top of the perfectly made king-size bed I had yet to disturb, I recalled what many good, rational people told me when the CDC dropped the mandatory mask rule: That’s it. No matter how concerned we still are, we’ve done what we could. With good faith, we have to move on with our lives. I also recalled the words of the late, great Anthony Bourdain summing up his philosophy of travel: “Get up off the couch. Move.”
I’m not sure if my trepidation is directly related to fear of the pandemic or just a side effect of having been in quarantine too long. I know some of us are experiencing a bit of agoraphobia and claustrophobia as we step again into the great wide open. Either way, I’ve been holding back here — a child hiding behind Daddy’s pants the first time he sees a gorilla banging on the glass at the Bronx Zoo. I do not want to be that person. So I am taking the plunge.
I peeked at the Mirage hotel pool yesterday, and it was packed. I let out a little sigh of disgust and went off and ate an entire pizza alone in my room. Let’s face it: There is nothing more unsanitary than a public pool, especially if it’s loaded with pandemic refugees. But here I am, a day later, and it’s sink or swim, baby! I wanted to travel; well, here I am. Do I want to go back to spending my days in the attic waiting for Instacart to bring me a gallon of oat milk and a box of Cap’n Crunch? I don’t think so.
At the airport, when we were all flooding the escalators upstream and downstream, you couldn’t slide a flier for an all-night rooftop party between me and the surrounding people. I noticed that as one traveler was about to step on the escalator, she stopped abruptly and pulled her husband aside.
“Do you want to just wait?” she said.
“What?” the husband asked with a cockeyed look, but even though her expression was locked behind a mask, I could see that he sensed her fear. “Yeah, yeah, sure, we can wait,” he said.
As I stepped into the flow, smushed between bodies, I kept an eye over my shoulder at the couple. I left them standing there forever.
But how long can you wait? In truth, I’m fueled by a bit of a false bravado, so, to fight off any doubts, I keep my stride quickly moving across the kaleidoscopic casino carpeting till I reach the doors of an oasis. The big, beautiful tropical pool awaits, filled with all my beautiful, glistening fellow travelers. Without hesitation, I zig, I zag — and I take a soulful leap off the side of the pool.
No! Oh my God, my ears and nose, straight-up holes to my brain, are in this water with all these humans who have similar holes and then some. I pop up desperately, even though I was only about four inches underwater. I’m like a sub rising to the surface with its periscope scanning the horizon in search of land, but all I see is huddles of flesh. I feel like I’m seeing everyone who never showed up for their second shot, plus the CVS guy screaming, “Don’t care if I have it! Don’t care if I give it!” and his phantom associates. I’m imagining everybody around me circling like pandemic piranhas. The only words of wisdom I have for myself are: Get out of the pool. Move!
Scanning the landmarks, I see I’m much farther out than I had calculated. And, for some odd reason, I completely forget about the act of swimming — which would undoubtedly get me out quicker — and instead I start running, but in a crowded pool it’s all in slo-mo. I’m making waves and weaving in and out of tourists scattered in banana bunches every few feet. Land is visible, but blocking my exit is a wall of knees erected by a group of people sitting on the edge of the pool. I would rather climb over a razor-sharp barbed-wire fence than a wall of knees, so I just keep side-shuffling until I find an opening and belly up onto the concrete like a seal, panting and barking.
I should have never left the airport.
I am barely dry from the pool fiasco when I confront the thought of a different experience: diving into a post-pandemic Las Vegas buffet.
But first, some thoughts on spritz. Have you ever seen your own spritz — the aerosols, the respiratory droplets that scientists say spread the coronavirus? I used to think my mouth was sort of like a cliff and germs just dropped over my lips and onto my shirt. Several months ago, however, I witnessed spritz firsthand. It was a beautiful morning, and I was driving through winding country roads, singing along with Maggie Rogers’s “Light On.” And then, there it was, reflecting off the sunlight in all its tragic glory — each germ taking flight like bats out of a cave at dusk. I mean, this was a three-alarm spritz. I even hit the windshield.
Once you have seen spritz, waltzing on air, there is no going back. God gave us the gift to accept our own flatulence, but you cannot forgive the spritz of others, especially mob spritz.
Still, I wanted to give this town, heralded for its buffets, the benefit of the doubt, because it’s also known for its innovations in customer service and hospitality. On this holiday weekend, most of the grand buffets have oddly not reopened yet. “I think the return of the buffet is too frightening now,” Taffy, an Uber driver, told me. But the grandest, most decadent — the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace — has reappeared in all its glory. I head over as sort of a voyeur to scope it out.
My reconnaissance begins before I even get to the fringes of the buffet. I am envisioning everyone’s spritz in full force: every laugh, every anecdote, every boisterous greeting settling on the pickled beets and beyond. I hear the sound of an early-morning golf course sprinkler system emitting spritz from everyone hovering over miles of food. Shhh-tik-tik-tik potato salad, shhh-tik-tik-tik mushroom pasta. “Oooh, sushi!” Shhh-tik-tik-tik …
I do have to give Caesars credit. It is clearly trying to meet all the safety requirements, including hand-sanitizer dispensers throughout, changing utensils every hour, having attendants oversee every station — and my favorite, pointed out to me in an email by the Caesars public relations director: No eating in line! Plus, the setup is fabulously decadent and, in a city based on temptation, a perfect display of gluttony. I don’t even see potato salad. The big draw is the seafood, and everyone is tonging crab legs that are glistening and gleaming like they’ve been in makeup all morning. Presentation is everything in this town, and this is no doubt a five-star buffet.
But it’s still a buffet. And I would rather have Red Bull-fueled fire ants heading up my ankles than some high roller shhh-tik-tik-tiking over my turmeric grilled baby octopus with chili jam. Post-pandemic, the biggest gamble you can make in Vegas may very well be chowing at an all-you-can-eat buffet. You thrill seekers, daredevils and gluttons out there, have at it. I have other needs in this town that truly has something for everyone, even me. The buffet is not a setback; it’s a lesson. We all have our thresholds. No matter how bold we may be when we go back out into the world, we each have to do it in our own way.
I am getting into my own personal flow, but sometimes you need to ease off, find a place of tranquility. Just go down and sit in the lobby or out on the deck with a cup of coffee. There is no such place in this town. Even on a cruise ship you can wander off and find an out-of-the-way deck chair somewhere.
Then it dawns on me that the last time I was in Las Vegas, on a plane layover, I took a walk and came across a gondola with an operatic singing gondolier drifting along a waterway, just off the Strip. Just like that, I find myself as the only solo rider at the gondola departing station. The ticket taker says, “Huh.” Hey, romance doesn’t have to be with someone else; romance does not abandon the lonely. Gondoliers know that. They were all born with romance in their souls, and my guide welcomes me with an open heart.
There is a softness in being guided along in a gondola that’s unlike anything else I know. Las Vegas is swirling all around me, from the Strip to Fremont Street, but as we float into the middle of the waterway, it feels like being 10 miles from the battle lines of war. It’s out there, all the chaos, all the angst of where we’ve been and where we’re headed, but I’m in a moment of splendid isolation. Travel can be surprising that way. This experience reminds me of a line from poet and songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews that goes, “Found peace in the redwoods / Lost it 20 miles later.”
My gondolier breaks it to me that she is not permitted to sing yet — she’s still following the Venetian Resort’s mask guidance that will come to an end in 48 hours. The governor picked the day after the holiday weekend to go to 100 percent capacity for businesses, so that will be the day the mask comes off. Which stinks because my gondolier graduated as a theater major, and this is primarily a singing job. She had to pass the voice audition to move on to gondola training, which was mainly “jumping out of the boat and proving that you could climb back in.”
The thought of her and me flapping around in the water trying to climb back into a drifting gondola sort of takes me out of my zone of relaxation. It is also a reminder of all the jobs that have been in limbo here during the pandemic, from the Uber drivers to all the servers and performers, the stage crews and cleaning staffs. It does feel good to see everyone working again and to be able to tip them for both their enthusiasm and sense of work ethic.
As we stream toward a tunnel, I ask my gondolier if maybe she could just whisper a song. She quietly says yes and then breaks the hollow silence of the tunnel with the most delicate yet powerful version of “Bella Notte.”
Look at the skies
They have stars in their eyes
On this lovely bella notte …
You’ll find enchantment here
The night will weave its magic spell …
Oh, this is the night
And the heavens are right
On this lovely bella notte.
The instant we are out of the tunnel, she goes silent again. “But two days from now,” she says, “I’ll be singing that at the top of my lungs.”
Twenty-one fans are in line waiting to meet the comedian Carrot Top before his show, and the woman in front of me watches as Carrot Top puts his arm around a couple for a photo op.
“Oooh, I don’t want him touching me,” she says.
“Are you kidding?” I say. “I’m here for the biggest hug of my life.”
“Not me,” she replies. “I don’t want to be touched.”
I can’t tell if her reluctance is due to post-pandemic stress or if it’s just the thought of Carrot Top himself that is freaking her out.
I think I catch a glimpse of Carrot Top spritz while he’s joking with a fan, but by this point I’m okay. The spritz comes through Vegas-style, kind of luminescent and choreographed.
Ordinarily, I like to keep my vacation goals grounded, but leaving home is not ordinary this summer, and I intend to mark this moment in time with something significant. I want my first public post-pandemic hug to be from the one and only Carrot Top. I’ve always loved him because he has his hilarious prop routine, creating and serving up outrageous props that play off current events and our everyday habits, all at a frenzied pace.
But the main reason I made this crosstown pilgrimage is because he’s still here, doing his thing. Even when guidelines loosened a bit a few months ago, entertainment was basically nonexistent in this town: no live music, no illusionists, no Shania, all the Cirque du Soleil performers sent home to hang from their ceiling fans until the big callback. Scott “Carrot Top” Thompson, however, has been on the front lines for months now, fulfilling his residency at the Luxor Hotel & Casino. A comic hero, in the truest sense. When I saw he was hosting a meet-and-greet for $53 a head, I seized on it like the last glazed doughnut in the break room.
Carrot Top’s typical show has the energy and special effects of a big rock production, but in the middle of the pandemic things were very different. “We were doing a live show, but it felt like rehearsal,” Carrot Top had told me earlier by phone, when I told him about the hug I was expecting from him. “Everyone out there in masks and spaced so far, I mean, really far apart. It was creepy. I swear, I had more props than people.” Now the masks are off, and allowing full capacity is only days away.
The woman in front of me nervously steps up to meet Carrot Top, but the instant he puts his arm around her, her anxiety vanishes and she melts into giggles. That’s sweet, but I am not here for lazy arms draped around bony shoulders. I am here for …
“The hug!” Carrot Top says as he takes me in his arms. And this is no average bear hug. This is a bear-trap hug. Plus, his biceps are huge! It’s as if our lives — his and mine — depend on this hug. I can’t quite find the words for what I feel in this moment, but …
“It’s epic,” Carrot Top says when he sees the photo of our embrace.
This is why we leave our comfort zones and venture out. It’s a postcard moment on a grand adventure, if postcards still exist.
Dear Jeanie, I’m on an all-expenses-paid trip to Vegas riding on gondolas and I just got my first POST-PANDEMIC HUG from CARROT TOP! Bet you wish you hadn’t dumped me in 11th grade! Hah!!!!
It’s just past daybreak, and I’m standing at the entrance of a tunnel designed by Elon Musk’s Boring Co. that will open to the public shortly. Beneath the expansive Las Vegas Convention Center a fleet of Teslas are charged up and ready to drive us to the future.
Conventions have been the last thing to return to most cities, so for LVCC, the light at the end of the tunnel is the upcoming World of Concrete convention, the center’s first major booking in ages.
I guess for the rest of us, the future is not that certain. On the way over I passed the New York-New York Hotel & Casino, with its skyline replica of NYC. That used to be a kick, but now, at least for me, it conjures thoughts of whether that city will ever be the same after the pandemic, after so many 40th-floor residents fled for one-story ranch houses in Idaho.
The Mirage lobby is a little more relaxed this morning, and “Walking on Moonlight” is playing over the PA system. Shortcutting through the casino floor are two buddies coming in from opposite directions, synced up in stride directly in my path.
Where is everyone else? the gangly one asks.
“Justin is sleeping. No one’s seen Alex since the pool yesterday afternoon,” his friend replies.
I want to imagine that Justin is the guy who was holding court at the airport and giving his boys the “No, no, no!” motivational talk. The thought makes me smile.
No matter how bold you are, freedom will wear you out, won’t it? Especially in a town like Las Vegas. The American spirit is combustible — unstoppable — in a glorious way. And sometimes it’s also reckless, even abhorrent, but after more than a year of quarantine, being able to witness that spirit erupt in real time, in a giant release, was the real show in Vegas. Even if you are on the squeamish and tentative side, like me, it’s not hard to see the beauty in it.
In varying degrees, we each take our own gambles, and something tells me we’re going to need that pinch of Vegas in us to get through what’s ahead. Maybe we all have to blow on the dice for good luck.
T.M. Shine is a writer in Nashville. His most recent novel is “Dear Sarah, Lately I’ve Been Tripping People.”
Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.