The Big Cheese

Few things are stranger than leaving Venice and arriving at the Venetian. To be displaced from one of the world’s cultural jewels to the Las Vegas strip was an of out-of-body experience.

Don’t get me wrong, the Venetian is a superb hotel, built on the site of the old Sands, of ratpack fame. Sheldon Adelson built it after a trip to Venice, hoping to capture the magic of the Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia. The resort cost one and a half billion dollars, but money isn’t everything—the casino hotel overglitzes and underwhelms when compared to the real thing.

Mind you, this is Vegas, where everything is fake—from the croupier’s smile to the showgirl’s tits. Walk the strip and you see the very worst of humanity: obese, loud, stoned,  hell-bent on having a good time. From the airport to the car rental center, the whole city is festooned with slot machines, and the casinos wallow in the greed of the punters—if there was ever a Gomorrah, this is it.

On a corner a woman hands out illustrated escort cards, which passersby promptly discard. The sidewalk is festooned with boobs while a megaphone blares, calling for the sinners to choose Jesus. Right next to the preacher, a guy touts a different experience—a trip into the desert to fire machine guns.

I was in possession of cheese, which needed to be kept cool. When I asked the reception if they could keep it for me in the kitchen, I was told that no public items could be stored. But this is America, and a solution was at hand—if Mohamed couldn’t come to the mountain… they’d send a fridge up to my room.

The Big Cheese. A fridge is brought to my room for express storage.

The Big Cheese. A fridge is brought to my suite for express storage.

If you can imagine a completely artificial environment, the Vegas strip is it. When you walk into the Paris hotel, a bizarrely French-themed casino, the ceiling is a dome of blue sky with cotton-wool clouds parked here and there amid spotlights.

Not too bright, just enough for the slot machines, blackjack and roulette tables. It’s eight in the morning, and already the die-hards are glued to the spinning screens. The signs are vaguely French, enough for the masses to warm to the theme—just in case they don’t get the point, there’s a massive Eiffel tower.

The strip really messed with my head, and I spent my evenings downtown, a far more entertaining area. If you walk up Fremont Street, zip-liners swish above you and live bands hold forth on multiple stages.

Celebrity clones take a bow after performing on Fremont Street. Neil Diamond and Elvis rub shoulders with Sinatra and Lady Gaga, introduced by Robin Williams.

Celebrity clones take a bow after performing on Fremont Street. Neil Diamond and Elvis rub shoulders with Sinatra and Lady Gaga, introduced by Robin Williams.

This is where the Mafia built the original casinos, using the profits from criminal activities in Chicago. Las Vegas is remarkable for that also—Supermob, a great book by Gus Russo, tells the story.

Not only did Vegas thrive and expand, but the money skimmed from the casinos went on to build Hollywood, in what is undoubtedly the greatest money laundering operation in history—a double whammy that remains unbeaten to this day.

Vegas is the glitz of new money, and the bad taste that often accompanies it. I was asked a couple of times whether I was at the IBM convention—a mere twenty thousand people.

The city has an amazing carrying capacity for tourism, and conventions featuring one hundred thousand or more delegates occur annually. The local fauna seemed a ripe recruiting ground for the Trumpster, and I took the opportunity to hold my own straw poll—waitresses and cab drivers were my focus group.

“America’s broken, and Trump can fix it. We can have Clinton after.” The phrase was repeated over and over, although I never figured out what exactly was broken.

Super Tuesday has moved Trump closer to the Republican nomination—a part of the US is clearly disconnected from the Beltway and believes he will solve their problems. I’m sure he won’t—Trump is the best example of corporate egotism I’ve ever seen.

I pointed out that there’s a chasm between corporations and government—when a company fires fifteen thousand people, its stock goes up. Society is left to pick up the pieces: unemployment benefits, retraining, medical support…

I gave them my two cents: companies are like friends, government is like family. If you dislike a friend, you part ways. With family, you share the happiness and the grief.

Time to leave Las Vegas, I’ll need a very strong reason to return. I head north up Route 95—I want to visit Indian Springs, home of Creech Air Force Base, featured in Atmos Fear. It’s from here that the drone pilots fly missions over Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

I sneak a few pics and move on, doesn’t seem sensible to linger.

And I have a wonderful reason for moving on. After being besieged by throngs all week, I’m alone in the desert, not a soul around.

Wild flowers color the desert on the border of Nevada and California.

Wild flowers color the desert on the border of Nevada and California.

Outside there are rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas. Spring flowers bloom, courtesy of El Nino. I breathe the good, clean air, unable to understand the attraction of the city I left behind—this is the real America that I love, not the plastic illusion of Trump and Vegas.

Welcome to Death Valley.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

 

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