Vegas! Come for the money-draining machinery, stay for the sociological bonanza. I’d never been to Vegas, and never intended to go. But a few months ago Mrs. Crazy Uke proposed a trip for Mr. C. U’s half-century birthday, and I said yes without hesitation. Why, I could see it all: basking in swankery with the guys while the women spent the day at the spa; touring the garish monstrosities of the strip, stuffing ourselves with meat, taking in a show, and asking the liver to take one for the team. Great!

Forgot all about it until a few weeks ago, when it was time to make reservations. Everyone else was staying at the MGM Grand, but to me that meant one thing: FIRE. I imagined it as a dank 70s era tomb with endless corridors, a charmless warren designed specifically for coin extraction. The Parisian was out of the question, for obvious reasons. I chose New York New York, because it was right across the street from the MGM, and because there was just something perverse about going to Las Vegas to pretend I was in New York.

Flew out on Friday. I am not a happy traveler, most of the time. The process of getting to where you go makes me tense, frankly, and I start to vibrate. It’s one damn thing after another: getting out of the house is a production. (Lock doors, set timers, set alarms, cancel newspaper, lug luggage, back out of garage, smash into Gnat’s Radio Flyer wagon, drive it into the side of the garage, destroying it, back up, remind wife that the thing was too heavy and too small and let’s just go) Then it’s the drive to the airport. Then parking. Then checking in for the e-ticket. Then the rectal exam at the security system. Then the trek to the gate. Only then can I relax, but of course I don’t because now I have to get on a plane. I don’t need drugs to fly, and I don’t need booze. I just need the thing to get up and get down with a minimum of hokey-pokey. Take off! I struck up a fascinating conversation with the woman in the next seat, who had a child the same age as I did. Turns out she was my wife! Which reminded me: it had been a long time since we had a vacation together since Gnat was born.

This would be the first.

Three hours later we’re there. Nice airport, but the new wing led to a tram which led to the baggage area, which was some sort of 80s-era Cavern Of Hellish Din. Out to the cab line. Temps in the 60s. The line’s moving nicely. In fact it’s moving with such speed I suspect a gigantic mincing machine is at the end of the line, consuming everyone with millions of small sharp blades and selling the fleshy slurry to ChumCo. The reality was worse. The big stampede led to a rope line that folded back and forth like an intestine, and while this moved briskly enough, there was an audible gasp when people saw that this line fed another intestine, twice as long. Fifteen minutes of shuffling along. Gave you a chance to see your fellow travelers – lots of guys in that 30-50 Beefy Man category, a few women whose conspicuous bosoms appeared capable of holding the entire Oxford English Dictionary, the obligatory Vegas Lifers training oxygen tanks, and most of all the small beige smear of small late-middle-aged people who’d come to pay offerings to the Beast. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.

Our cabbie was an ebullient chap who’d lived her all his life. Nah, the old Vegas was dead. (I would hear this often.) Traffic was heavy, this being Friday, but no one was honking. Even by New York New York. You’d think that NYNY would exude some field that required people to honk for no frickin’ reason, but no. We were at the hotel in a trice, and: oy. Scale model Statue of Lilberty. The Empire State Building, half size. The Chrysler. The Century Towers, of all things. Modern details everywhere. It should have been hiliarious and ridiculous and a perfect example of American Babbitry, but really, you just look up and think: wow. That’s a half-size Empire State Building, right here in the desert. That means that America has 1.5 Empire State Buildings.

Inside: the mellifluous cacophony of the gaming machines, the tintinnabulations of the bells. It’s the most amazing sound – like the chatter of some alien species that communicates entirely with melodic percussions. Even the grossest sound – the vomiting of coins into the metal baskets – sounds refreshing, like a wave crashing on a shore. Then there’s the smell, something you haven’t smelled in a long time: cigarettes, in a public space. Cigarettes, and lots of them. Ahhhh, second-hand smoke. How I’ve missed you. We made our way through the slots to the front desk, not noticing how the outside world fell away almost immediately. The lobby was designed so that natural light almost shrank back out of fear as soon as you reached Slotland. The minute you heard the bells, you shed the outside world, and its antiquated concepts – the diurnal cycle, fiscal stewardship, dietary probity. The new light fell on you now, and it was golden and soft, and it said: go ye and do it.

The room was fine; nothing special. (In a typical telling detail, the only thing notable about the room were the exceptionally soft sheets.) We explored. The lobby, it turned out, was not the main gaming earea. Ho, no. Acres of tables and slots stretched beyond us, a billion machines conversing the same sibilant tongue, grouped by New York neighborhoods. Authenticity level = zero. Upstairs was a Coney Island boardwalk with Nathan’s hot dogs; elsewhere, Shrafft’s Ice cream. That was as New York as it got, I thought, but then we explored the restaurant district. (It is no longer an exaggeration to describe these hotels has having “districts,” for that’s what they are in size and nature.) It was another scaled down model, perhaps 3/8th scale, an idealized mid-century Greenwich Village. As an example of set design, it was remarkably clever – even the manhole covers smoked. But had I come across the country to visit Nevada for the unconvincing illusion that I was in New York?

Who cares?

We had our choice for shows. There was “Zumanity, Another Side of Cirque Du Soleil.” As the brochure described it: “An intense visit to a world where human inhibitions are unveiled.” I do not think this means what they think it does. Voila, the inhibition, revealed for all to see! Also known as daily life. The fellow at the info booth was more specific: “It’s definitely for adults, not X-rated, but it’s off the tracks. They have two women swimmin’ around in a fishbowl.” Right away, the difference between Vegas and the Mall of America is revealed: ask the info desk at the Mall what’s showing, and they’ll tell you about the Snoopy Theater; here the guy cuts right to chase and tells you that you got your lesbo mermaids guaranteed. OR we could see Rita Rudner, whose languorous, daffy delivery is belied by her wicked material! Showing nine times a day. You can’t escape Rita at NYNY; her ads are all over the place. Her face is on the card you hang on the door to ask that the room be cleaned. (Zumanity is on the side that asks for privacy. These people do – not – miss – a - trick.) It’s Rita’s voice on the wake-up calls, which really gave me a start. Then I learned that we were all going to see the Blue Man Group, so that was the end of that. Doll up, head down, across the bridge to MGM to meet everyone else.

MGM Grand was not what I expected. Of all the hotels, it’s the one that doesn’t have to be something else, and hence is the most authentic, in that genuinely-inauthentic way Vegas has perfected. We walked until exhausted, set up camp at a bar, were joined by the rest, and set out for the territories at the far end of the hotel. Had dinner at a stark and stylish Italian restaurant, and if I’d still had any notions of Vegas as a gauche and showy crass-factory, they were put to rest here. An exceptional meal, great company, bright faces all up and down the table: oh, yes, this was a good vacation.

We passed on the Blue Men, wandered back to the hotel, got a drink, and I settled in for the obligatory episode at the slots. That’s going to be the column for next Sunday, so I’ll only say this: I put in ten dollars, found myself up 14, and said well, I win! Cashed out. Enough for me.

Stood at the window overlooking the city from our 33rd floor aerie: hah, Vegas! Hah! I’m up fourteen dollars, and you can’t have it back!

Or so I thought. Part two, tomorrow.

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