The Ugly American: Believing Las Vegas

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I began hanging out in Vegas when I was nine. It was the seventies. The perfect time for hanging out in Vegas. Back before it became frat boys drowning in shots from the sidewalk bars; senior bags of bacon fat zooming down the sidewalks in electrical carts; and bored-looking, silver-painted street performers acting like statues. In the seventies, it was a Rat-Pack, alcohol-soaked ashtray of a Las Vegas, with authentic whores and near-zero regulations.

For one, my seven-year-old sister and I could stand next to my mother all day while she played blackjack and drank free booze. She liked to order a cocktail called a root beer float. I’m not sure about the ingredients, but it did not contain any actual root beer, just sugar, lighter fluid and liquid Sterno or something. My mother was a mathematician before she became a missile scientist, and could count cards and calculate odds even if the dealer was using a six-deck shoe. It’s not against the law to be a card counter in Vegas, but the pit bosses were allowed to throw you out if they suspected you of it. Occasionally my mother would be asked to leave the casino, after which she felt proud. “They think I’m a threat,” she’d say. They were right.

I don’t gamble and I don’t drink enough to make Vegas worth my while, but I still love it there and return regularly, often just to drive up and down the Strip to check out the latest landmark to be torn down. The last to go of note (to me, anyway) was the famous La Concha Motel, with its iconic pink, wildly cantilevered roofline. I’m partial to motels, seeing as how my father was a traveling trailer salesman and we used to cross the country with him in the family Ford Fairlane almost annually. All the motels we used to stay at in Vegas are gone now, as are most of the historic anchor hotels that established the place as vacation outpost: The Stardust, The Desert Inn, The Landmark, The Sands, The Thunderbird. All replaced by less landmark-style commerce of some kind. The Strip, in fact, is starting to remind me of Cancun, that ass crack of all vacation spots, with 10,000 of the exact same T-shirt shops and sidewalk bars with garganto-boobed bartenders hawking Jell-O shots.

So I prefer downtown. My favorite hotels are the Four Queens, because as a kid I used the stay there with my mother, and the Golden Nugget, in which she used to own stock. Those hotels have been around for 50 and 70 years, respectively, and, like a couple of kind-hearted old cocktail waitresses, no matter how much makeup you slap on them, all the liver spots are still evident. Across the street is Binion’s Gambling Hall and Hotel, formerly Binion’s Horseshoe, built by a murdering mob boss in 1951. We only stayed in the hotel once and never returned. It was a little too tatty even for our tastes, what with the cigarette burns on the bed and bloodstains on the carpet.

Binion’s, though, housed my mother’s favorite slot machine, to which she’d resort after her blackjack system—the simple but genius, “You lose three hands in a row, kid, you leave the table”—played out. After my mother died, my sister and I sprinkled some of her ashes on the carpet at its feet. Later we told a blackjack dealer what we did, and she said, “Not surprised. Happens all the time. Vegas is completely coated with dead people.”

Hollis Gillespie writes a weekly travel column for Paste. She is a writing instructor, travel expert and author of We Will be Crashing Shortly, coming out in June. Follow her on Twitter.

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