When I lived in Las Vegas, my title at United Parcel Service was “Bad Address Clerk.” Because Vegas is a town of drifters, grifters and shifters of identity, packages would continually go astray, paralleled by the wanderings of their addressees, who in a month’s time in Vegas might have changed their residence—and their jobs, spouses and perhaps even their sex—two or three times. And then disappeared. So my shelves were filled with boxes large and small, for which the drivers could find no recipients.
Thus, if I exhausted every means of trying to locate these souls-on-the-wing (this being the 70s, many phone calls and phone book scratchings later), I would get to OPEN the packages, and, CSI-like, try to ascertain the whereabouts of the recipient by something in their contents. Guess what? People send very interesting things in the mail. Tear gas, for example. Firearms. Naughty things (I kept those). Jewelry. It was a diverting job, for a while; too bad it didn’t keep me out of the casinos.
In the early days of my living there, when I made my regular forays into the larger casinos, I would so often not be able to figure out where the doors were to leave. The glittering passageways were labyrinthine, so it seems like you’d always be led back to another part of the casino. Add to that that there were no clocks inside and that most of the windows didn’t let you clearly see out (and add to that a free drink or five), you’d have little sense of how much time you’d spent in there. After I’d lived in Vegas awhile, I understood how to leave, but that still didn’t seem to have saved me any money.
They have these wonderfully convenient check-cashing services at all the casinos, where if you cashed your check, you might get $10 credit at the tables. I once lost my entire week’s paycheck at the blackjack table, thirteen straight losses, in less than fifteen minutes. I moved to Vegas to save money for school and left with as much as I had when I arrived: none. I proudly exercised my right as an American to be an idiot.
But the gambling, the sheer extravagance: the mind-boggling wonderland of the casinos, with the mingled sounds of shouts from the craps tables, coins gushing into metal trays from the slots, big-timers in silk suits with their painted ladies on their arms, lowlifes grubbing along the carpet looking for a fallen nickel. Billions of dollars thrown at Chance, never a goddess known for a break.
It’s been said before, but it struck me too, that the whole of Las Vegas, a totem of extraordinary excess, a place built in the recesses of the high desert, appears to be—and probably should be—a mirage. Extravagant recreations of New York and Parisian streets, a large simulacrum of an Egyptian pyramid, fake (but erupting) volcanos, gaudy battles between big pirate ships and their nautical nemeses on artificial seas. Speaking of artificial seas, shockingly wasteful drawing of water from the parched desert, so much so that the land has dramatically sunk in some areas. (Not to mention the sinking of so many homeowner’s loans in the last few years.)
But even though I left Vegas broke, I did leave with something: a car. And it didn’t cost me a dime—until later. It was given to me and my Vegas housemate right on the freeway spot where we picked up its frustrated driver. He’d left it for dead: a serviceable ’65 VW bug that simply had some problem with its coil wire. I was later able to legally register it—under something like an “abandoned vehicle” statute—as mine. Later, I drove it to Northern California, where I began college. I used it there for several months, so that I no longer even considered how oddly it had been acquired; it was my car.
Even when a uniformed police officer came to my English class and asked if there was a Tom Bentley there, I figured that it was my hair that had probably broken some law (my 1976 hairdo was very expressive). No, it seems I was in possession of a stolen car, of all things, and that I’d have to come to the station and straighten it out. It was easily straightened out: the car was owned by a woman in Vegas that had just loaned the car to our freeway doofus, and she’d discovered his poor stewardship upon her return from Japan, where she’d been touring with an entertainment group. Her particular talent was removing clothing from the profound grounds of her architecture (I saw some black and white glossies of her in/out of costume; she might put you in mind of Elly May Clampett after five vodka tonics, wearing a mail-order Lady Godiva wig).
Her name was (and might still be) Angel Blue. Under her name, the tag line on the glossies read: The Heavenly Body. As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up. And neither were the cops, who despite my protestations (and my registrations), took the car and gave it to Ms. Blue’s lawyer, who had tracked me to my academic lair. The real question I wanted answered was this: what was a stripper of Lady Blue’s talents doing with a ’65 Volkswagen? Ah, America, where Flannery O’Connor could have one of her unforgettable characters, Hazel Motes, say, “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.”
But that bit of weirdness never soured me on Vegas. I’ve continued to visit, fascinated, amused, horrified, over the years. Despite its wrongness, I love Vegas. It’s SO wrong, so lurid, so fantastical, so wasteful, so filled with hope equally mixed with crushed dreams. That reminds me—I haven’t been there in a couple of years. The way Vegas works, they tear down half the city every couple of years and build new ersatz extravagances.
Gotta go soon, while Nero fiddles….
Editor’s Note: This piece took 2nd place in our 2013 annual travel writing contest.