There are no stars over Las Vegas. The buildings glow brilliantly, like gold bars, but the sky is as smooth as black glass. Only a luminous crescent of moon burns in the center. Even though this is the desert and the air is perfectly dry and clear, so you should see thousands of stars, there are none. The city’s lights outshine the heavens.
During the day, many of the roulette and blackjack stations sit empty. Later they fill, and the card tables open up like night flowers. Rivers of people flow through the gullies of the casino, around the banks of slot machines and gaming tables. Gamblers play without the rhythm of natural light. The uninterrupted sound track of ringing bells and chirping machines eventually becomes soothing. From where I’m standing, my hotel balcony 300 feet above the Strip, there is a hum, not a roar, like a quiet air conditioner, to the city.
I’ve been sent here on short notice for three days. I could spend them all at the amazing restaurants I’ve read about, created by the world’s, or at least the Food Network’s, most famous chefs. Or I could attend nothing but Cirque du Soleil productions: The troupe has one for the Beatles, one for Elvis, an aquatic one called O, and another show christened KÀ.
People come to this fairy-tale oasis in the desert precisely to indulge themselves in the over-the-top sensuality and dazzling entertainment. I can see how it could be liberating just to give in to the excess, the drinks, and the games.
Once you accept the notion that Las Vegas is really a massive, rarefied, and elegant year-round state fair, everything clicks. Altogether, a great day out.
But before I give in to the fantasy, I want to see the flip side of this casino-laden, circus-cloning town. So, on my second day here, I hire a man named Michael, the nicest, if perhaps slowest, driver in Las Vegas. I ask him to show me where the locals live, take me to where the locals go.
“This is Chinatown,” he says with a sweep of his arm as we crawl along Spring Mountain Road. Both sides of the road are lined with elongated strip malls distinguished by exaggerated, stereotypical Chinese facades and borderline ethnic-mocking names. Signs for Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, and Filipino shops abound.
We continue on. For days, it seems. He drives so slowly I wonder if it would help if I got out and pushed. He does, to his infinite credit, though, tell me everything about every square inch we pass. “Mike Tyson lives here,” he says, as we creep through Seven Hills, an exclusive neighborhood south of the Strip. “He hangs out at the barber shop.”
On the northwest side of town, a strong gust of wind blows us into Summerlin, a community of linked villages with names like the Canyons, the Ridges, and the Mesa, where lovely homes nestle in bosoms of greenery behind shoulder-high white walls. Overhead, mountain ranges of clouds glide across the pure blue sky.
We drive through North Las Vegas, or Northtown, as it’s known, past graffiti-tagged housing projects and barren lots. “There’s been a recession, a lot of desperate people here,” Michael says. “Like the wild, wild West.”
He takes me to the Red Rock Casino, part of the Station Casinos group, which runs gambling establishments on the outskirts of town, frequented mostly by locals. The casino is gigantic and beautiful. Its floor is bigger than most commuter rail stations, and its buffet restaurant is huge and extraordinarily diverse. Locals receive a discount at the spa.
Having seen where Las Vegans live and play, I’m finally ready to plunge back into the other “real” Las Vegas, the realm of dreams and showbiz and wagers on which the town was built.
Michael drives me downtown to the old end of the Strip, which is narrower and more relaxed than the newer section where the Bellagio, Paris, Luxor, and Mandalay Bay sit. We go into the Plaza, where the Rat Pack played, and the Golden Nugget, which looks and feels like Miami the way I imagine it was in the ’60s. The Nugget’s famous shark tank holds 200,000 gallons of water and 300 sea creatures, including 16 sharks. It is placed
in the pool, so it feels like you’re swimming with the sharks. A security guard hands me an information card that suggests ways you can help save sharks. I mean, if you want
to save sharks.
Before I return to my hotel, Michael and I check out Oscar’s Steakhouse, which introduces itself with the unambiguous signage BEEF. BOOZE. BROADS. The proprietor is Oscar B. Goodman, a former mob lawyer who recently finished a 12-year run as the city’s mayor.
On my third and final night in Vegas, my curiosity piqued by the varnished newspaper clippings on the walls of Oscar’s, I walk over to the Tropicana, one of the Strip’s seminal hotels, to visit Mob Attraction.
This “entertainment experience” traces the history of the Mafia in Las Vegas, detailing the transformation of a tiny desert railway stop into the crown jewel of organized crime and hedonism’s Promised Land. Staged on the site that once housed the mob’s private indoor tennis courts, the Attraction is a combination of exhibits of photographs and memorabilia, and an interactive tour.
A holographic James Caan, in a tight, light-gray suit and a white tie, suddenly and spookily appears on a wooden door, like an effect from a Harry Potter movie. Looking very tough, if somewhat stooped by age, the ghostly Caan begins the narration: The mob, forced to find new life after Prohibition, is about to migrate west. He sends me off to meet a heavyset young guy—a real human, not a hologram—who has mastered Steve Van Zandt’s hulking posture in The Sopranos. Legs spread wide, fingertips laced in front of his belly, he looks me up and down and decides—rather quickly, I think—that I’m not a cop. He gives me an envelope to take to the boss.
I walk a few feet down a darkened corridor made to look like an old New York City street. Another hood, nattily dressed, hair slicked back like it was painted, asks me where I’m going.
“I have an envelope for the boss,” I say.
“OK, he’s over there,” he growls, extending a tree-limb-like arm toward a small, disinterested-looking older man sitting 20 feet away. The capo is alone at a tiny table outside the pastel facade of a café, an espresso and a cannoli in front of him, untouched. A bodyguard, also well dressed, also with fingertips laced, stands next to the table.
“Fat Tony sent me to find the boss and give this to him,” I say to the guard.
“Big Tony.” I am corrected. “Big Tony sent him over with the envelope,” he informs his boss, who receives this news with weak enthusiasm.
“You did well,” the boss says. He takes the envelope, checks the contents, is satisfied I haven’t lightened them, and says to his lieutenant, “OK, maybe we can use him. Start him as a driver, one of the cars. He seems like a good kid.”
Lips are pursed. Gangsters clearly trust me. “No, let’s start him with one of the trucks,” the bodyguard says. “You want a job, kid?”
I very much do! And I am now drafted into the criminal underworld. The boss tells me the police are watching and warns me to say nothing. I’m quickly nabbed and pulled into the station. When the sergeant asks me, in a period-perfect, swollen Irish accent, what was I doing just now, I rat: “They’re Mafia! I’ll tell you whatever you want! Just watch my back when the time comes, OK?”
From there, I time-travel through the next couple of decades as the mob, occasionally consulting me, builds Vegas. Along the way, more holograms—Caan and Sopranos alumni Tony Sirico and Frank Vincent—jump out at me from odd angles, scaring the life out of me, and continue the story of how the mobsters learned to skim Vegas, and the ways they “took care of ” people who betrayed them. This won’t end well for me: I was one of those people. I find myself in an abandoned warehouse and instantly get the sinking feeling that this isn’t for another promotion. Bang! Up pops another one of their damned holograms. Sirico tells two thugs with submachine guns to “get rid of him.”
After I’m whacked, I stroll through the exhibit’s final door. I find out there is life after death in Las Vegas. It’s a gift shop.