in General

A Canadian in Vegas Where Culture Goes to Die

I had a short trip to Las Vegas, which was my first time there and the first time I’ve been in a major US city in the past 7 years. It was a bit jarring for me coming here and I thought it would make an interesting story. 1

Quick warning, as if you didn’t know this was coming: an epic city like Las Vegas deserves an epic post/story to go along with it.

Las Vegas: Where Culture Comes to Die and Be Reborn as a Bastard

Coming from the hotel industry, there is a concept that is fairly well-known that can be applied to any part of the hospitality industry (casinos, restaurants, hotels, airports, etc): when someone has a bad experience at the start of their travels, they put up blinders to ignore the good stuff that happens afterwards, and any additional negative situations get heightened.

I mention this, because my trip didn’t start out wonderfully.

My alarm went off at 4:30 AM to ensure I could leave and get to the airport by 6 AM. I knew it was going to be a bit of sacrifice, but it was the only way to make sure I arrived in Vegas in advance of my conference which started real early the next day. To check in, I thought I would use one of the kiosks since a line was forming for the counter. Since I was going to the US, it asks for my final destination, which is fine, but since I purchased my flight with the hotel through WestJet, the system should be smart enough to recognize where I am heading. A small nuisance compared to what happened afterwards.

My flight went to Vancouver where I had to change planes to head on south to Las Vegas. Everyone boarded the plane, plane left the airport to take its place on the runway to get going when the pilot announced we had to turn back due to a maintenance issue. Better safe than sorry, especially in that situation. What was the problem? A faulty blackbox.

Of course, we couldn’t leave the plane while they fixed the issue, and the plane had to be turned off while they worked on it. Nearly an hour passes with a full plane, no air conditioning. It doesn’t make for a great way to start the trip.

Jump ahead to arriving at the Vegas airport.

For anyone who’s never traveled there, the airport is really close to downtown- so close that when the plane is driving up to the airport, you can clearly see The Strip a few city blocks away. People are already excited to be arriving in Vegas2, but seeing those towering and quite distinguishable hotels rising out of the sands is quite a wonder.

Then as I walk out of the gate, the first thing I see? Slot machines. Then a sign advertising a gun place where you can fire off a machine gun. Then a Tap Out store (gear for the UFC). Turn a corner and I see all the restaurants we don’t have in Canada (at least in western Canada). All of this combined with all the different personalities walking around make for quite the wakeup call.

The hotel I stayed at, Treasure Island, is located on the north end of The Strip. The shuttle bus drove from the southern point of The Strip past all of the other hotels before arriving at mine. It reminds me about the phrase, “Land of Opportunity.” Everywhere you go on The Strip are flashing signs promoting the low minimum bets on the table games, the free drinks, free slot machine play, plus all the various live shows you can see. This isn’t even mentioning the billboards that are driving around the city or people wearing shirts passing out flyers promoting “Hot Girls In 20 Minutes.”

In Vegas, anything can happen. No wonder people want to lock their stories up here.

The way all of the hotels I walked through are designed, including Treasure Island, is the reception area is a good distance away from the elevators to the rooms. You check in at the desk, and then as you’re walking to the elevators, you see the slot machines, the table games, the bars, and finally the elevators. These hotels are very, very good at up-selling their products any chance they get. It’s incredible to me.

With the sun shining and the temperature being in the 90s, I decided I better get outside and walk around before starting to think about why I was in Vegas in the first place.

I have been in some major cities before: New York, Chicago, Paris, Vancouver, to name a few, but never have I seen such a mix of personalities all thrown together into relatively small confines. The Strip would be at least an hour walk from one end to the other, and the casino space is huge, but it feels small to me because of how visible everything is. From my hotel window, I can see 20 different casinos/hotels, easier at night. During the daytime, you can see at least five different casinos anywhere on the Strip, depending on which way you’re facing.

Everyone has heard about the various themed casinos: Caesar’s Palace, the Luxor, the Venetian. The variety between the casinos is only matched by the colourful people here. I don’t even know where to begin with this. Las Vegas is a destination city for a few key reasons, from what I can see and have heard:

  1. A conference/convention – plenty of cheap hotel rooms, meeting space, restaurants, direct flights across North America.
  2. Wedding – a woman on my flight had her wedding dress, walking the Strip several wedding parties were getting photos taken.
  3. Bachelor/ette parties – one group of guys on my flight and a few groups of women going to party.
  4. Gambling – I have heard stories about how much money people have won and lost in Vegas, and now I’m seeing them. Blackjack tables at home have a maximum of $200 a hand. Here? I’ve seen upwards of $2,000 on a regular table.
  5. Tourists – to see what all the hub bub is about, take photos of anything and everything, and buy tacky tourist tshirts.

These groups make this city different than other major cities because all the activity is in one area. In New York City, to use a well-known example, wedding parties are getting photos taken in Central Park, meetings would be in Lower Manhattan, gambling is in Atlantic City, partying happens at night.

Las Vegas is a prime example of what Mikhail Bakhtin called the carnivalesque: in essence, a party atmosphere where people are making up the rules. Drinking on the street, buskers everywhere, people dressed up as Optimus Prime and Barney hoping to get tips. The only thing missing is the public nudity of New Orleans (then again, maybe it happens at night and I’m missing out).

I managed to walk through the Strip at different times of the day, and the one thing that stood out to me is how different people’s fashion sense changes as the day grows older. First thing in the morning (meaning any time before noon), the older generation of travelers were up walking the Strip, with a few hungover young kids (easily identifiable by the huge sunglasses blocking out the bright sun). It’s by far the easiest time of the day to get from Point A to Point B without much pause.

In the early afternoon, there are still the regular tourists walking around, but the young kids’ movement is more in line with strutting and sizing up both the competition and the prey. It was during this time that I witnessed something that I thought was a fashion passé: pop-up collars. In Canada, I haven’t seen any popped-up collars in my travels, but I have seen and heard about them on American television. I swear I remember hearing about it a good five years ago and thought they would be long gone. Apparently, Las Vegas is a bit of a time machine.

I also saw a larger number of Hawaiian shirts, dresses too small and tight for the bodies that were wearing them, shorts too tight and small on the guys wearing them, and more makeup and hair spray than on a prom night. The perfume lay heavy in the air when walking around after 4 PM, as well, to the point where all the normally nice smelling scents mixed to create an obscure concoction that smelled like sewer gas at times.

At night, all the animals came out to play to find their watering holes.

Families pushing strollers to check out the water show at Bellagio or fireworks at the Mirage, couples strolling along trying to find those romantic spots to take in the sights, the cat callers come out in force to compete with their clichés compliments in hopes of winning the women who pretend to have never heard those clichés in their life, and the women prowl on the hunt for the places with the most men for the cheapest fees.

It would be wrong of me not to mention not only the street buskers, but the herds of card flickers hoping to entice anyone and everyone into taking a card so they can easily call upon escort services to be at their door in 20 minutes. Advertising is naturally aggressive and competitive for our eyeballs and attention, but these people are the manifestation of gnats in human form. Perhaps, I wouldn’t be complaining so much if instead of being approached by sweaty and ragged people wearing t-shirts advertising 1-800-XXX-XXXX, I was approached by young, good-looking, sweaty women wearing t-shirts advertising 1-800-XXX-XXXX.

Sadly, the girls wearing the traditional show-girl uniforms of feathered headdresses and short skirts were almost always standing around with frowning faces. I would probably be doing the same if my day was spent standing in the hot sun hoping someone would take a picture of me and leave me a tip. I am sure they would much rather be the street caller trying to entice people to pull the slot machines on the street to win free credits to Casino Royale3.

A curious activity that happened throughout the day when stuck in the pedestrian traffic (I stop short of calling it a mob) was overhearing the many conversations around you, and also participating in small talk with the people in front of you while you waited for the rest of the group to get onto the escalators so you could cross the street4. It’s the kind of conversation that’s saved for flights on an airplane or while taking a cruise. One woman apologized to me for cursing while going up the escalator. Then she took a sip of her Corona in hand. I responded the only way I knew how to:

It Doesn’t Matter Here

That’s the puzzling thing to me about Las Vegas.

Everywhere else in the world, people live their lives to certain standards, but in Vegas, people throw them down to the ground and stomp on them. Does it matter that you are sitting by the pool drunk at noon? Not really, there are thousands of others doing the same thing, at the same time as you. Does it matter if you lost $500 in a hand of blackjack? Nope, the only people that will know are the people at your table, whereas at other tables I’ve played at, people are more than willing to talk about their wins or losses.

It doesn’t matter how short your dress is, or how high up you pop your collar, or whether you want to wear a huge bottle of Red Bull around your neck like a trophy.

The cultural norms of your home town and country take a backseat when you’re in Vegas. Even myself, not one to do anything crazy, skipped out on my conference to explore the Strip some more. It was only the morning session on the last day, but if it was anywhere in Canada, I probably would have attended, because majority of the attendees probably would not have been skipping out on it either. I also threw away my paleo diet for three days to devour some of the food items I rarely touch – only because I was in Vegas and eating paleo on the Strip seems virtually impossible judging from the menus in the restaurants.

But it was Vegas, and it doesn’t matter there.

There is cultural significance to a place like Las Vegas, but it isn’t showcased as prominently as it would be in other cities. The shows that were highlighted are a means to get people into the building to pass by the casino or restaurants. There was no dedicated space for art and music that wasn’t attached to a casino/hotel on the main Strip.

The cultural importance for Las Vegas is more about having a safe place where people can let their guard down and behave in a more natural way. I’m not meaning getting drunk is a natural way of life, by the way. What I mean is letting loose in the way people sing in the shower or dance in their kitchen when people aren’t watching.

Las Vegas is a city where the private acts become public creating new cultural norms that are on display for all.

Normally, this is reserved for one off events: Mardi Gras, Superbowl, Cinco de Mayo, Canada Day, etc. Craziness ensues for 24 hours, there is a period of recovery, and then life goes back to normal. In Las Vegas, that craziness is 24 hours a day. I only witnessed non-craziness happening when waiting for the shuttle to pick me up from the hotel. Even the elevator was witness to some remarks that normally wouldn’t be said, and the gate in the airport before departing had slot machines that people were playing before getting on the plane.

There’s always a chance something more will happen.

  1. Quick note, the opinions here are my own and not meant to represent all Canadians.
  2. Hence the drinking on the plane beforehand. The guys beside me had four beers within the last hour of the flight, for example.
  3. I am sure there was a catch, but I never bothered to slow down enough to discover what it was.
  4. Which is a really smart feature for Las Vegas, having the overpass walkways for pedestrians on nearly every intersection. Good planning.