I’d been to Vegas many times before I turned 21. I didn’t know the Vegas of the movies or the late-night sinners, though. I knew the Vegas of dark empty parking lots, seedy outskirts and Circus Circus.
It’s hard to describe the feeling I get disembarking from a plane in the airport there, with the omnipresent ching-ching-ching of the slots, the red-eyed smoking grannies tugging quilted bags full of lost hope, the weekend strippers in Juicy sweatpants and too much makeup. It’s a high, knowing I’ll have a story to tell when I leave, a bad-ass party weekend where I cut to the front of lines, floating around on youth and short skirts. But underneath that lies the knowledge that behind the shiny façade of the strip are the back-alleys off Fremont Street, and farther back in the city away from the tourist traps are the steak-house strip clubs open all night, where the fat old girls that can’t make money at the Spearmint Rhino play slots until 1 a.m. and barely look up when the front door creaks open. Behind the knowledge of my present youth lies the knowledge that it won’t last much longer.
The homeless shelters are packed full here, and most of the bums sleep in deserted buildings or behind the truck stop. We used to roll in late at night, us kids pressed to the windows and staring at the beautiful lights, the Venus-fly-trap city surrounded by real life and the destitute. We would park in truck stops or far back in the dark parking lots of the old hotels and casinos, the ones that no longer paid a security guard to kick out anyone who wasn’t spending. When we came in with a nice trailer, maybe the Airstream and a presentable-looking van, they left us alone anyway because we might be retirees traveling the country and even now inside the too-cold casinos, preserving minutes of what was left of our lives with whiskey and video poker.
Dad would disappear when we got there, maybe for a day or only for several hours if his luck didn’t hold. Now I know you get free drinks sitting at a blackjack table, though then I didn’t even think about what he was doing. What money did he use? Was that our welfare check reduced to shiny chips on the plush green table? But we didn’t think about that, not then. We thought about how hot it was waiting in a van, how the day dragged by punctuated by flies or hopefully a walk to the gas station for something cold to drink. Mom never wanted to leave the trailer, knowing he could walk back out and want to leave in a second, pissed off and taking the anger out on her if she wasn’t ready to go. Furious if she wasn’t there to watch our shit.
But sometimes, sometimes he was lucky and he came out smelling of a good cigar with a wide grin on his tanned face. He’d have on his nice clothes and just-shined boots, and a wad of money in his pocket. He’d say “Come on kids, we’re staying here tonight,” and joy! That meant a room with real beds, a TV, a shower! We’d haunt the hallways of Circus Circus, the garish colors and clowns everywhere, giant lollipops the size of your head- how do you eat those anyway? I remember the motorcycle spinning in the cage, I was sure there was no way the daredevil would stay on it, no way he would be able to slow down. I remember the trapeze artists high above our heads, remember wondering if that flimsy little net would keep them from dying broken among the crowds of upturned faces. And in the morning we would leave early, before it was hot, the day dawning sullen and the future not as bright as the one we’d just left behind.
I went into Circus Circus a few years ago with a girlfriend. The carpet smelled of old milk and too many years of cigarettes to be a place meant for kids. And it never was, of course – like anything in Vegas, a trap. A place to lose your money and drink, smoke and whore – this one was just decorated with childlike things. Looking over the railing in the center arena where the circus performers were, I saw piles of cigarette butts, inches of dirt and popcorn and probably vomit. The paint was peeling, the cocktail waitresses wore masked smiles but their eyes were full of hell. It was Fear and Loathing, and all I wanted were drugs to make it bearable.