It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose…
By Mark H. Bloom with Jason Scholder
It’s not even how you play the game.
In this case — and in this story — it’s better to avoid the game altogether. This is a story about the perils of gambling: not the game itself, but the sordid, seedy, sinful, and downright scenic world that surrounds it.
I’m talking about one city in particular, and you can probably guess which one.
Venice? No. That’s not Venice in the photo on the right, although it’s from the Venetian.
Few places in the world exude as much appeal and disgust at the same time as Las Vegas, Nevada, USA.
If you’re winning, you want to stay forever. If you’re losing, you can’t get out of there fast enough, assuming you can scrape together the bus fare. In Vegas, a barstool is just another place to play video poker. Heck, in Vegas, you can play a slot machine while taking a piss. The city is gritty and dirty and alive in a way that no other city can match, although Washington, DC, comes close.
Las Vegas may be the ultimate American city, a shining example of everything this great country stands for: greed. It permeates the air along with the stale cigarette smoke. It’s etched on the waitress’ face when you overtip her by accident. It seeps into your pores as you feed another 20-dollar bill into the hungry slot machine. Its seductive ring bellows in the cacophony of one-armed bandits.
Greed is what drives Vegas. Greed keeps it awash in casinos, prostitutes, and five-dollar all-you-can-eat buffets. Greed tastes like a hamburger made from Kobe beef—sure it’s good, but it’s still just a hamburger (a twenty-freaking-dollar hamburger).
Here I am, drunk on greed. I want some too! No matter how reserved you may be when you arrive in Las Vegas, sooner or later, it gets to you. Sooner or later, you succumb. Sooner or later, your wallet empties along with your wits. Sooner or later, you pose for a blackmail photo.
Travel agents will tell you that Vegas today is much more than a gambling center. It’s a tourist destination with thrilling rides, sightseeing extravaganzas, and family-friendly resorts. But don’t be fooled. A family vacation in Las Vegas is like a PG movie starring Traci Lords or Johnny Wad. There’s really only one thing on everyone’s mind.
I went there to gamble, sure, but it was the people I saw who made the trip memorable. You might even say they ultimately paid for my trip, since I’m writing about them now. (“Honest, that trip to Vegas was a business expense!”) You are all my witnesses.
When I travel to Las Vegas, I stay far from the glamor of the Strip. I get a small room in Downtown Vegas, where the old-fashioned casino/hotels pander to the chain-smoking elderly and the very lucky Hawaiians. You don’t know what Hell is until you’ve been verbally abused by an 80-year-old ex-nurse for stumbling between her and one of the three slot machines she’s playing simultaneously.
Downtown Vegas has a mystique all its own. While the Strip draws crowds for the quality and diversity of its attractions, Downtown draws crowds for the quality and diversity of its characters. If the Strip makes you feel like you’re on a strange planet, downtown will make you feel like you’re in the nearest bus station or spaceport.
Caesar’s Palace on the Strip is an example of the kind of shiny, new structures that make the Strip a shiny, new place. It’s as real as your chances to hit it big.
In the world of Downtown Vegas, I found a 24-hour, drive-up pawn shop, an oxygen bar, and even a bingo club—everything a geriatric gambler would need. Aging rock stars, foreign acrobats, overweight showgirls, and passed-out partiers? I’ve seen them all. Downtown is as close as you can come to “Old Vegas,” when casinos existed for adults only.
In the midst of the downtown casinos lies Fremont Street, home of the famous giant neon cowboy and The Girls of Glitter Gulch (a topless bar). This is where reality and fantasy merge. I got caught up in the blinding lights of the Fremont Street Experience — a light-and-music show broadcast on a canopy covering the entire street. A cross between a video game and an air assault, the Experience is often too surreal and garish to look away.
But I did, because the people beneath the canopy put on a much more interesting show. Vagrants who didn’t so much rely on the kindness of strangers as insist on it. Tourists whose outfits shouted at pickpockets for attention. (Tip: don’t be one of them.) Sloppy drunks who weren’t content to keep their bodily fluids to themselves. All under the canopy.
If you go to Las Vegas, be sure to check out the downtown scene. Stay in an old hotel, one with character and characters. Watch the crowd, not the neon. Win or lose, it’s a sight you’ll never forget in a site that’s more sanitarium than sanctuary.
If you feel the burning, itching need to go to Vegas to gamble (and you know who you are), you’re just asking for trouble. They say, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” but it’s much better when it happens to someone else.
Mark H. Bloom is a published writer and editor originally from Salem, MA, aka The Witch City — where an early American gambler named Elias Derby sent trade ships to China and became America’s first millionaire. After spending time on both coasts, Mark now lives in the mountain town of Asheville, NC. He entertains himself writing creatively and professionally while editing books and coaching writers. Get in touch with Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his full bio below.