Calling Las Vegas home
by Hannah Fleming; illustrations by Emma Kearney
I am sitting with a rare specimen on a Saturday afternoon—Coll Junior Tompson (CJ), a first-year Las Vegas native. We are perusing the Buzzfeed list “28 Signs You Grew Up in Las Vegas,” which CJ claims he’s never read. After a few halfhearted chuckles at jokes about rain in the Mojave Desert and stripper schools, we stop scrolling at #20:
20. You were taught all the words to “Home Means Nevada” in elementary school and could probably recite the whole thing right now.
“It’s all about how much pride you should have in your home state,” CJ says. Like many other state songs, the lyrics reference sunsets and native plants and are set to a pleasing piano melody. They do not, however, mention Las Vegas.
I tell CJ about my spring break, where I had the opportunity to watch what a friend called “the steel smog trap” rise from the suburbs lining I-15. Our destination was a campground in Red Rock Canyon (about 15 minutes from the strip), but downtown Las Vegas held a certain allure for me from that point forward. While my companions were climbing and otherwise enjoying the desert weather, I went day-tripping with a hat, sunglasses and a notebook. Aside from the Chacos, I would like to think I resembled the female version of Hunter S. Thompson.
I ask CJ if he’s ever seen the movie or read the book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” He says no. I tell him it doesn’t matter because there weren’t any carnivals and I wasn’t on mescaline.
“A lot of people—a weird amount of people—ask if I live in a hotel,” CJ says. He grew up in Summerlin, a suburb about 12 miles northwest of downtown. “People are like, ‘There are houses?’ Yes, there are houses. It’s a metropolitan area with two million people. A lot of people think it’s only the two-mile stretch,” he says.
CJ says he had a “mostly normal, pretty average” childhood. He attended a public school with upwards of 3,000 students. It was on the larger side because the schools are part of one big district. His dad is an insurance salesman, and the craziest thing CJ sees in daily life is a local Elvis impersonator driving around in a pink Cadillac.
“You’ll be walking around Wal-Mart, and there will be this guy in a full Elvis get-up shopping. I think he’s Korean so they call him Korean Elvis,” he says.
We compare our favorite spots. CJ’s is the Venetian Hotel: “There are canals and gondolas.” He says Mandalay Bay, another hotel, now has a beach to complement its 1.6 million gallon wave pool. Upon further research, the beach boasts 2,700 tons of imported sand. It’s all about the numbers, especially when it comes to the thousands of guests in each hotel which, from the inside, seem much like miniature cities: restaurants, casinos, malls, pools, golf courses, chapels and health centers are often included in the price of a stay. Theoretically, you could win enough money to get married and honeymoon at any Las Vegas resort until you had to leave for the hospital (where there is free valet parking) on account of secondhand smoke.
CJ and his friends would occasionally go to the strip on weeknights when they were bored. “I would feel weird staying at one of the hotels. It’s never had that appeal for me…I might just go home if my friends and I are all there and see my family for a bit,” he says.
I relay a perception at the Red Rock campground: is it true that all of the people who live in the surrounding area work at the hotels and casinos? CJ confirms that this notion is partially accurate, but there are plenty of small businesses, many of them dry cleaners and dessert shops. He knows parents who are floor managers and security guards. “A friend’s dad is a floor manager at the Bellagio, so he just walks around the Bellagio all day. People come in to try some kind of illegal gambling scheme…those never work out. There’s cameras everywhere,” he says.
I thought of wandering around the city’s most renowned hotel and watching old men slumped over at slot machines. They were staring at the blinking lights while I was looking at the upside-down shrubbery that is the Bellagio ceiling. According to their website, the ceiling is adorned with “2,000 hand-blown glass flowers,” courtesy of the glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.
William Davis, a comparative literature and German professor at CC, visited Las Vegas in the mid 1980s when he and his friend were both in grad school. “It was a little smaller and seedier, I would say—like the end of Scorsese’s film “Casino,” he says. They were on their way from Utah to Los Angeles and stopped in Las Vegas for the night to try a doubling strategy in roulette.
“It’d be pretty hard to cheat in roulette. The only way you could cheat is if you knew the future,” Davis says. “We tried it a few different places. The dealers, as soon as they saw what we were doing, could hardly suppress a smile like ‘Oh, we haven’t seen that a million times.’”
Roulette, unlike card games, requires no strategy or skill. It is named after a French diminutive for “little wheel.” “Every time you play, the odds are the same,” says Davis. Most commonly, players place bets on the colors red or black, or whether the range of numbers is odd or even.
“For doubling—let’s say you bet a dollar. If you win you would bet another dollar, but if you lose, you would bet two dollars. If you lose that time, you bet four dollars and so on, the principle being that with 50/50 odds you eventually win back the money you lost,” Davis says. “It requires that you not chicken out.”
This is easier said than done, especially if you start with a two dollar minimum and the stakes double twice as fast. For the frugal student, an adrenaline rush becomes panic if the bet is over a couple hundred to keep doubling. “Eventually, we gave up on the whole thing,” Davis says. “I think I only lost 40-something dollars.” He acknowledges, at least, how it could become addicting. “Roulette has a certain excitement that seems somehow more exotic than slot machines. There’s a thrill in the wheel spinning each time towards an uncertain future. You’re betting black, and red has come up five times in a row, and you can’t help but think that it won’t come up again. There’s no advantage to switching colors or switching even/odd,” he says.
The odds are the same when entering Vegas on a day trip, just to see what you find. There’s a good chance you’ll see the dark aspects of the city in broad daylight. I found that it’s easy to feel overstimulated looking at all the colorful people, buildings and the glaring Planet Hollywood sign as you drive down a narrow multi-lane road. I came across bridges with glass borders and a permeating smell of urine, Pin-Up Pizzas and a Zippo mega-store. I found that you could valet park a car for free and easily wander into a hotel pool. Afterwards, the pool attendant could be waved down to bring you towels and an ashtray.
Then there were the men and women who handed out stripper cards on the street with a quick flick of the wrist. They often didn’t speak or attempt to look tourists in the eye—I collected many of them, several Angelicas and Ambers, Tiffanys and Tonys, on my way to take a ride up the Paris Hotel’s “Eiffel Tower.” The top was the equivalent of a 460-foot birdcage where you could take photos through the tiny, cutout holes in the wire. The attendant, an older woman with a plaster face, had her elevator speech ready to impress. She delivered it as the Bellagio fountains danced below us.
“The eight-acre lake cost 40 million dollars to build. Super shooters blast water as high as 240-feet in the air. The songs they choreograph the fountains to include classics such as ‘Viva Las Vegas’ and ‘Proud to be an American,’” she said, not pausing for a breath.
As I’m experiencing the somewhat limited 360-degree view, the bald attendant at the top smiles widely and compliments my hat and sunglasses. He then turns to a woman with a tattoo of crooked musical notes. “What a lovely tattoo!” he exclaims. “You must be a musician.”
I left that day feeling a coat of something unfamiliar on the surface of my skin, the remnants of the beef carpaccio I ate for lunch churning in a stomach that had been exposed to a steady spring break diet of silty water and GORP. Perhaps it was the fake nice vibe that many Las Vegas residents maintain. As CJ says, “It’s like Disneyland—everyone wants you to be there and be happy and buying everything.”
Las Vegas is home for not just CJ and his parents, but the previous generation of the Tompson family. “My grandpa worked on the nuclear test site outside of Las Vegas, and my dad was born there. My mom got pregnant really young, so they stayed because they never had the opportunity to leave,” he says. “A lot of people I knew went to college there as well and kind of got stuck.”
When I ask whether or not he would return permanently, he says he doesn’t feel a strong connection to Las Vegas as home. “I never found that anyone had a sense of pride for it. It’s hard to feel that sense of community when everyone who grew up there says ‘Yeah, I grew up there, it kinda sucked.’ I don’t know if anyone really enjoys it that much,” he says.
Though he’s never seen or read “Fear and Loathing,” CJ does commend the dramatic nature of 2008’s blockbuster “21.” “I’m sitting at home relaxing, twenty five minutes away from where this is supposed to be happening. This is nothing what my life is like,” he says. I point to #21 on the Buzzfeed list.
21. Thanks to Nevada Day, you always got Halloween off from school.
“When I came to Colorado College, I was confused as to why we didn’t get Halloween off from class,” he says. October 31, 1864, is apparently the day Nevada became a state. And it is a beautiful state—especially right in the basin of Red Rock Canyon, surrounded by some of the more bizarre rock formations I’ve ever seen. The sun barely sets behind them. Instead, it transfers its light to the pink glow emanating from the strip.
William Davis had another take on the desert. “Driving across the Mojave when the sun is coming up, that was kind of depressing. Arriving in Las Vegas is so exciting and seems so adventurous and full of promise, and then you drive away feeling as though you’ve inevitably lost more than you’ve gained.” He pauses. “Or something like that.”
As CJ says, the place is “only famous for being famous”—the kind of swingin’ time that swings one way or the other. The Everywhere America that succeeds in coagulating and congealing itself into myth.