Hockey in the Desert – 3 February 3, 2016

As a writer, I spend hours a day inside my fantasies. Staring at my laptop screen—or more often at the floor—I’m fantasizing 19th century Egypt, Charles Dickens walking the streets of London, an Ontario commune in the 1970s or mayhem in a Mississauga chop shop during a police raid. (Novel, novel, short story, film script: based on a true story.)

In Las Vegas, what struck me most strongly was seeing other peoples’ fantasies acted out in public.

IMG_1802Leaving my hotel room for our first hockey game, stick over my shoulder, I watched the elevator door open and a schlubby man walk out. He looked like the Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons. The gut, the limp tee-shirt, the sagging jeans and an expression of befuddled ecstasy on his face as turned back to check on the two sex workers following him out. One was African American, one was white, the first tall, the second short, and both had enormous and remarkably smooth bosoms like trussed-up Victorian ladies or the rounded bows of ships breaking a heavy sea.

“My room’s this way,” he said, and there was his fantasy on display: sex with a black chick and a white chick at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Welcome to Las Vegas.

My friends and I has our own mild fantasy: winning our division in the hockey tournament. Call that one a fail. Otherwise, we’d flown south for more everyday pleasures: to be with friends, enjoy a few games of hockey, go for a hike, eat good food we didn’t have to cook, take in a show, a few drinks. A mild three and a half day break, nothing visceral, nothing huge, nothing fantastical.

But get out of the elevator downstairs, and you’re walking your hockey bag through a casino with ranks of slot machines and roulette tables, passing a huge number of people hitting buttons or tossing down chips, many of them smoking, most of them dressed in cheap casual clothes that looked as if they’d been washed too often.

They must have been animated by a fantasy of winning, beating the odds, but usually you didn’t see it. Most people looked bored as they hit the button on the slot machines, hit the button, hit the button, hit the button, although occasionally I’d hear a triumphant yowl half an acre of carpet away. Someone had won. A couple of times, I happened to pass by as they did.

IMG_1722Once it was a guy playing roulette. A small man, pale skin, black hair. He already had an impressive pile of chips in front of him, and the croupier was pushing an even bigger pile across the table. I tried to beam a thought into his head: Cash out, buddy. Cash out now. Take your winnings and go home. If you keep playing, you’ll lose it all and end up back where you started. Worse.

Fact: the average tourist in Las Vegas loses $500 gambling.

The black-haired man placed a new series of bets before the croupier had even finished shovelling over his winnings. The avid look on his face astonished me. I won. I’m a winner. I’m gonna win again, make my fortune, change my life. Everything will be better, I’m that guy, starting right NOW!

I’ve often thought that when we travel to all-inclusive resorts in Mexico or the Caribbean, we’re travelling in class. We’re not working, someone makes our beds, cooks our meals, minds our children if we want them to. We’re no longer middle class. We’re rich, certainly in comparison to local people.

In Vegas, I got the impression of tourists travelling not in class, but outside morality and prudence, two quintessentially American religious values.

Mind you, in the current U.S. presidential campaign, there’s been little prudence and even less morality on display. (Donald Trump: “I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”)

Yet, even though it’s naïve of me, I was appalled by the sketchiness. With prostitution legal in Nevada, the streets are patrolled by trucks carrying mobile billboards that feature backlit pictures of topless young blondes, GIRLS TO GO written across their nipples, a phone number to dial up an escort. (“Yummy!”) People push strollers through casinos, children and grandchildren navigated through nasty, smoky air and left stranded beside slot machines as Mom or Gramps gambles.

IMG_1715Vignette: I photographed a glittering pair of men’s shoes in a Christian Louboutin window one day—Roller-boat Pik Pik, I think they’re called—then saw them outside the boutique on a middle-aged man’s feet two days later. The young woman on his arm wore red-soled Louboutin four-inch spike heels that made her tower over him, and the two of them leaned against one another, probably unable to walk, both looking stunned by their extravagant purchases.

Overheard: One young woman saying to another in a little girl’s candied voice, “Today I feel so joyous. He finally promised me everything I’ve wished for.”

It sounded like a line of dialogue from a bad script. No wonder, with so many of the casinos looking like giant film sets: the fake pyramid fronting the Luxor, the New York casino with its double-sized Statue of Liberty and its squashed-together Gotham skyline, the half-sized Eiffel Tower not quite towering over the Paris resort. Nothing real. Nothing lasting, given how often the casinos are rebuilt. Break down the set, guys. Time to build us a new theme.

A couple of hours at The Mob Museum reminded me of the context—and I’d recommend a visit. As life in the eastern U.S. grew more staid during the 19th century, the chancers headed west. Oddballs, gamblers, criminals and prostitutes ended up in Las Vegas, which curators have translated from Spanish as “the meadows,” but which I think means something more like “the lowlands.” Here they built an industry of continual escape. And, as the museum makes clear, institutionalized crime.

As we drove through the suburbs one day, heading for an arena, we looked out at the scrolling developments where more than half a million people now live. One of my teammates said, “I guess most of them work for the casinos, one way or another. It’s like a whole town of people working for Big Tobacco.”

Sketchiness, fakery, immorality. The fantastical lack of prudence and restraint turn the city into IMG_1825a circus. And here’s the thing: I loved it. Bruce Springsteen:

As the Ferris wheel turns and turns like it ain’t ever gonna stop
And the circus boss leans over and whispers into the little boy’s ear
“Hey, son, you want to try the big top?”


To be continued