Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Learning to Love the New Las Vegas

Last year, a strange combination of events helped me learn to accept the New Las Vegas: the glittery, MTV-loving, over-populated, traffic jammed, over-priced, worse-than-hyperbole Las Vegas. The Vegas I had been working so hard at disliking ever since… well, ever since Steve Wynn planted a volcano in front of a casino.

It all started at last year’s Vegas Valley Book Festival. I dragged my husband downtown for a day of listening to authors, but what I really wanted to hear was the last panel of the day on “Old Vegas, New Vegas.” New Vegas clearly trumped Old Vegas during this discussion, and that’s when my inner Old Las Vegan reared her ugly, progress-hating head. My post about the panel made me sound like I was ready to strap myself to the next casino slated for implosion—which, actually, wasn’t too far off how I felt that day.

Re-reading that blog post was the first step toward accepting the New Las Vegas, and two books finished off the job. Both are firmly rooted in the Old or New Vegas that they describe, and in reading both books, I had to admit that the transformation of Las Vegas was both predictable and necessary. Maybe not likeable, but unavoidable. This is a city with no logical reason to exist, so we have to re-invent ourselves every decade or so.

The late Susan Berman, author of Easy Street, the True Story of a Gangster’s Daughter and Lady Las Vegas, was an expert on Old Vegas. (Local journalist and author Cathy Scott wrote about Berman’s murder in Murder of a Mafia Princess.) I stumbled across Lady Las Vegas at the library, and while I enjoyed the nostalgia Berman’s words evoked, I had to admit that none of Old Vegas’ “founders,” if you will, would have hesitated to re-create the city’s image if it resulted in more profit. My own dad wasn’t a mobster, but rather a “known associate” of gangsters and a former bookie out of LA, and he was all about the Benjamins.

My journey inside the New Vegas began with a book review in the New York Times. Last year two books set in Vegas hit the charts: Charles Brock’s Beautiful Children and Joe McGinnis Jr.’s The Delivery Man . The NYT’s review of McGinnis’ book made me groan out loud because one of the main characters is a prostitute. I pondered this aspect of his book in a blog post: "Can anyone write about Las Vegas without a prostitute as a main character? I mean, realistically speaking, with 2 million people living here, just how many call girls can we possibly have?" To my astonishment, Mr. McGinnis sent me a thought-provoking e-mail. This is my story of Las Vegas; give it a chance, he said, and so I went out and bought the book. A better chronicle of New Vegas I have not yet found. McGinnis’ characters sound like so many people I’ve known, and his jaded teenaged prostitutes might have shimmied out of our phone book’s voluminous escort section; totally, scarily believable. Reading McGinnis’ fictional characters, it was easy to draw a straight line from my own loosely-supervised and decadent Las Vegas youth to the characters he described.

That was when I had to admit it: the Old Vegas was dead, except in the memories of the few of us who remember her. I’m not all that crazy about the New Vegas, but I’m doing my best. Now I wonder what the New New Las Vegas will be like—a waterless ghost town? A haven for some as-yet-undiscovered vice? A pioneer in building mass transportation to pull in gamblers? Who knows how our neon-encrusted city will adjust to the future, but one thing is for sure. It will be interesting.
Photo courtesy of Justin Taylor at http://www.sxc.hu/photo/737069

No comments: