What Happens Here
© Copyright 2021 by Barry Purcell
Photo by Nicola Tolin on Unsplash
Everything I know about Las Vegas I have learned against my will. My first time, in 2003, was part of an extended honeymoon with my first wife which also saw us take in Hawaii and San Francisco. Originally we had planned to get married in Las Vegas, but it turned out that she did not want our marriage to be a post-modernist statement, filled with irony and self-referential humour. In retrospect, I can see her point. We spent two blurry days in that salt lake neon cabaret, blurry because this city will not allow you to slow down.
There was of course the betrayal of the spirit felt by anyone who visits Las Vegas, a betrayal of the human values which represent the thin rainbow line separating us from the fascists. The greatest betrayal I felt, however, was during a Cirque Du Soleil show at the Bellagio when the audience member selected at random by a dramatic clown to participate on stage turned out to be a performer.
In 2009, my first wife invited me to seal our divorce by taking a very platonic trip to Las Vegas with a friend of ours called Killian, who is one of those friends you meet every five years and who is always doing something more interesting than you. This time, he was in Los Angeles for a few months on secret business.
As he was going to be in Las Vegas, he said he wanted to meet a friend of his sister’s who worked there. All he knew about her was her name, her phone number and that she was a dancer. This described 85% of the women living in Las Vegas as far as I was concerned, but my ex-wife was on the case immediately. She booked a room for three people, and some things for us to do and then we headed out across the white, wind-farm-dappled plains of California and Nevada.
We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. Because the drugs I had taken were mainly acetaminophen (what the Europeans among you would call “paracetamol”), this meant that my nagging tension headache resolved itself into a negligible thrum.
I remembered Las Vegas as a town full of sound of fury, lights and whores, gambling and carousing, openly mocking any hope of evolution, celebrating that which should be eliminated from our culture if the human animal is ever going to level up. What the hell, I thought, maybe it’s changed.
Las Vegas had not changed. I don’t know what the opposite of “oasis” is, but this is probably the only place on the planet where that word could be used. It’s in the middle of the desert but it’s a depressing cesspit of messy alcoholics, garish flashes and glares, a constant background din of bleeps and whistles, all cheered on by a committed crew of professional losers. It makes the featureless salt flats all around seem like heaven. Middle-aged women dressed like they were twenty years younger were bringing drinks in plastic cups to loss-junkie animals at three o'clock in the morning. And there they were, throwing chips onto numbers and colours, and laughing about it with their new temporary friends: “Daddy needs a new pair of shoes!" Daddy wants stabbing in the teeth, more like.
Our first sign that Killian’s dancer friend may have been understating herself was the frequent occurrence of her image on street corners, huge billboards and the occasional bus. “Wait,” he said as the first bus whizzed past us, comparing the marketing material with a blurry photo on his phone, “I think that’s her!” And so it was. This friend of Killian, unknown to him due to the wilful under-informing of his sister, was the lead dancer in one of the Cirque du Soleil productions. He wandered off into the brightly-lit dusk to find his friend, leaving me and my ex-wife alone in the room. I have no idea how their night went, but we didn’t see him again for some time.
As is traditional among her native people (Californians), this trip to Las Vegas was assumed by my ex-wife without any consultation to be an opportunity for us all to visit the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon was such a wonderful break from Las Vegas that I could actually feel my brain unclench.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the Grand Canyon is a giant hole in the ground. There’s nothing wrong with that, but without getting into too many details, it is unambiguously a giant hole in the ground. I understand that this is a trivial observation and I’m not the first person to mention this but a part of the Las Vegas hangover I was going through led me to mention this out loud within earshot of the Arizona state tourist liaison who was dressed like a forest ranger and spoke about the canyon with pride as though he had personally spent thousands of years sculpting the sunset layers of rock himself. I love holes but I don’t see the point in being proud of them. In my confusion, I said this out loud too. He confused my garbled platitudes for being underwhelmed and felt like he had to address the issue as if it were a customer complaint.
He stood with me on the edge of the ledge that looks over Eagle Rock holding a paper mug of coffee and said: “You should go to Winslow if you have the time.”
had never heard of Winslow, but apparently it was also in Arizona and
within reasonable driving distance of the Grand Canyon. Remember that
this was specifically to address his perception of my complaint that
the Grand Canyon was just a big hole in the ground. I mumbled
something, afraid that I might accidentally say something even more
offensive to this very patient man.
“Go to Winslow,” he said. “They have the biggest meteor crater in the world down there.”
The third time I went to Las Vegas, in 2010, was very much against my will. As Stephen King said: “Fool me three times, shame on both of us.” I was inveigled into an informal college student transport scheme and so I found myself driving three friends from the University of California, Riverside to what they imagined was going to be an amazing night of clubbing.
This time, I was under no illusions and prepared for the worst. I was determined to stay all night in the grubby North Las Vegas apartment which had a wonderful view of the other side of the apartment block. Despite the architect’s best attempts to remove all reference points from the field of vision, once evening fell, an unmistakeable radioactive glow diffused its way into the atmosphere just above the apartment where a Hispanic couple were screaming at each other.
The girls taxied to a club in Las Vegas and left me where I was. I made the terrible decision to wander around the complex to talk to any of the lost and broken people of Las Vegas who looked like they would not try to kill me for looking them in the eye. I spoke to seven people that night, and everyone’s story was full of misery and there wasn’t much in the way of redemption or satisfaction of any kind.
When the girls rolled back into the apartment at 4am, I told them nothing about the unfolding human tragedy in seven different layers all around us. I just made them hot chocolate and put them to bed.
Later that morning, I bundled them into the car as quickly as I could and shot straight for the highway home. One of them shuffled conscious long enough to notice what was going on and insisted that we stop at a small market to “get stuff”. This “stuff” was not food or drink or magazines. It was a variety of fridge magnets, key rings and pens, all garishly decorated with images of landmarks I never wanted to see again. For a town whose motto is “What happens here, stays here,” they sure sell a lot of souvenirs.
Barry Purcell lived in California for six years but he is back in Ireland now and writes political pieces for Areo Magazine and Arc Digital.