I have now been to Las Vegas four times in my life, twice in the last six months. This is, in my view, a sufficient amount of direct experience to conclude with confidence that I don't get it. The phrase "_____ is why people hate America!" is overused, but it is tempting to say that Las Vegas is in fact why people hate America. Tempting, but wrong. At least based on the vast quantity of Japanese, European, and Middle Eastern tourists blowing obscene amounts of money there on any given evening.
That Vegas is garish and overdone requires no discussion. For many people this appears to be part of its charm. It creates for its visitors a unique experience. Bear in mind, however, that getting kicked in the nuts is also a unique experience. My primary issue, however, is not that the Strip is an incredible sensory overload, nor that everything that passes for entertainment – gambling, strip clubs, celebrity chef restaurants – is staggeringly expensive and leaves one with the feeling of being on a steam locomotive, shoveling piles of money into the roaring fire of the boiler.
Not pictured: taste, restraint, dignity
No, my problem is that I developed my mental image of Vegas as a kid from things like James Bond or old Rat Pack movies. And when you visit for the first time, it hits you: no one is wearing a tuxedo or playing high-stakes baccarat. It's a bunch of slobs walking around in flip-flops, their rolls of fat and Tweety Bird tattoos protruding from clothes that might have fit 5 years ago, stumbling up and down the strip with giant novelty frozen drinks in a container shaped like the Eiffel Tower. It's every jackwagon you see riding the average city bus, except they're piss drunk at 2 PM and they won't get out of your way.
The casinos, despite the amount of time people seem to devote to discussing their relative merits, are substantively identical once inside. And the patrons are almost universally depressing – old people, some attached to wheelchairs or oxygen tanks, listlessly pressing a button on a slot machine for hours and hours until the Social Security check is gone. The younger people are a mix of fratboy types and the kind of crowd one would meet at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the bad part of a rural Midwestern city. You see people who look like the only time they leave casinos is to tend to their meth labs or sell whatever they can burglarize from the seedy apartment blocks set just off the strip. You see a lot of old cocktail waitresses who look like they've lived indescribably rough lives, the kind that makes you look 60 when you're 42. You see pawn shops with lines of people out the door (and around the building) displaying baby strollers in the front window. There's nothing even fake-classy about the city. It's just sad. Apparently I'm more disturbed than most Americans by throngs of sex workers who look beaten up and strung out.
I enjoyed myself because I was with my friends and that's where they wanted to go. I will go again if it gives me the opportunity to be near people I like. But I do not get it. I do not understand the appeal, other than that many people enjoy an adult version of a low-rent Spring Break – say, whatever destination is two or three steps down from South Padre in terms of cost, class, and vomit coverage. Lots of people see Vegas as paradise, but all I see is one of the ugliest things in America built in the midst of one of the most beautiful. For the thousands upon thousands of dollars people spend there – throwing money away in casinos, paying for bottle service in tacky clubs with $30 drinks, seeing overpriced shows, shopping in "luxury" mall stores, or jamming $100 bills into the thong of some runaway from Beloit, WI – it blows my mind that none of the city's visitors could come up with a better destination on which to spend all that money.