The nearly-deserted street mirrors the faces of the losers. At dawn, the Las Vegas Strip is strewn with cups, vomit, broken bottles and cigarette butts — as forlorn and pitiful as the haggard, exhausted look of the gambler who didn’t know when to quit.
Time runs backwards in Vegas. Every night, as the sun sets behind distant mountains and a hundred million lights ignite the desert sky with a kaleidoscope of color, it’s a new day, filled with the promise of the big win. Like magic, Las Vegas Boulevard has been scrubbed and scoured – a clean slate, the previous evening’s sins forgotten, the page turned, a new beginning.
Weekend gambling warriors, bachelor and bachelorette partiers, and tourists of all stripes make Vegas the frenzied and unruly destination that it is. Young women in impossibly high stilettos and dresses barely covering their derrieres wobble their way through the casinos and onto The Strip. Intoxicated fraternity boys rove like herds of wild boar, their manners just slightly better than the rednecks dressed in their finest Duck Dynasty garb. The glamour of the Rat Pack era is gone forever. A stumbling, drunken bride, screeching expletives at the top of her lungs, is a far more common sight than is an elegantly dressed woman or a man in a tux.
In morning’s harsh glare, twenty-something girls still in party dresses make their way down the sidewalks, barefoot now, four-inch heels in hand, with smudged mascara and messy hair. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” may be clichéd and trite, but there is no doubt that this city encourages and celebrates behavior that would be unthinkable anywhere else.
Free alcohol flows freely, and the drinks are strong for anyone who plays the games. Folks who, under normal circumstances, would never touch tobacco become enthusiastic smokers in Las Vegas. The acrid stench lasts for days, permeating clothing, handbags – even luggage – an unintended souvenir to be carried back home. There really is a drive-through wedding chapel to unite the most impulsive of lovers!
There are neither clocks nor windows in the casinos. The lighting is the same at 10:00 a.m. as it is at midnight – it always feels like midnight. Players who commence at midnight may be at the same table at 10:00 the next morning. This is the desired outcome produced by the science and art of casino design. A casino even experimented with piping the aroma of freshly baked bread through the entrance doors, hoping to attract gamblers with a whiff of comfort food.
The constant clamor of the slot machines becomes white noise. A jackpot results in earsplitting bells and piercing whistles, intended to attract non-players. The slots, which seem to cover acres in the center of every casino, are the domain of the older crowd. So intense is their “work,” their faces appear set, almost grim. Buses arrive continuously, belching forth hordes of senior citizens who feast on cheap buffets and play penny slots for hours on end. Las Vegas is a service economy, and this is a stingy bunch. Hotel and casino employees tolerate them, eyes rolling discreetly with disdain.
The homeless seem a little different in Las Vegas. Since homelessness is what it is, the throngs of revelers must be what cause their condition to seem even more brutal than it does in other large cities. The sight of people with nothing amid crowds of drunks with wads of money they’re throwing away – almost literally – seems even harsher, somehow.
Nearly everything in Vegas is make-believe. There’s a fake Paris, a phony Rome and a pretend New York. Most of The Strip is a carnival of the absurd. But the lights – ah – the phantasmagoria of nighttime Las Vegas lights. It’s a vision that even the sternest Bible belt Baptist must secretly appreciate. From above, Vegas is an explosion of garish and dazzling colors, like a Fourth of July fireworks show that lasts until sunrise.
At daylight, the brilliant display evaporates, and Las Vegas Boulevard lays exposed. Like an aging stripper under fluorescent lighting, the grime and refuse in the street are like the heavy makeup that settles into the lines and creases on her face. It’s morning. For at least eight or nine hours, there’s the feeling of something real in Las Vegas. It’s the desert, with its pure, pristine light and crisp, clean air.
Inside the casinos, with neither a clock nor a window in sight, it’s still sometime around midnight.