Thursday, 18 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 12







Las Vegas grew from auspicious beginnings, a stop-off point for people travelling to Los Angeles, which ensured a station was built there when the railroad was extended manifestly west toward California. The reason why people paused there was because of the availability of water – an oasis in an otherwise arid landscape. Indeed, Las Vegas literally means 'The Meadows' in Spanish.
Fate was again kind to its inhabitants, this time during the great depression when the nearby construction of the Hoover Dam, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the efflorescent gambling industry provided employment in a country that was short of it. Growth stalled slightly during the Second World War, although the location of Nellis Air Force Base nearby provided a captive audience throughout the conflict and the period immediately after.
Perhaps more significantly the seeds for the Las Vegas we know today were sown when local hotelier Tommy Hull built the El Rancho Casino in 1941, what we might fairly presume to be the blueprint for the casino/hotel hybrid that has come to symbolise Nevada's most decadent of settlements. The style back then was for mock Western-style constructions, but these were soon superseded by the Miami influenced ‘carpet joints’ that prevail to this day.
            Back then, of course, The Strip didn't even exist. Downtown Vegas was where the action was, before they built New York New York, Luxor, Circus Circus, Excalibur, and all the rest. There’s still plenty of action to be had in Downtown Vegas but it’s been re-branded as the ‘Fremont Street Experience’. You may have seen this thoroughfare in the Bond film Diamonds are Forever, whereupon Sean Connery is chased all around it in a fast car. This would not be possible now as the area has been pedestrianised and covered over with a cylindrical metal roof. The whole thing resembles the Bentalls Centre in Kingston, but on acid: lights flash relentlessly and the place won't shut up for a second. It is a 24 hour city in a very literal sense. You could lose days and nights here, should you choose to stay indoors, which is perfectly possible given the level of amenity.

Our breakfast handsomely reflects the opulence of our surroundings. I have the steak and mashed potato, which comes with a free side-salad, a dressing of my choosing, and endless beverage refills, which in this case means plenty of juice and coffee.
            I say breakfast but it’s really lunch. We slept in late to prepare ourselves for what has been earmarked as our final fling – our last night of collective revelry before we go our separate ways. That it is to take place in Las Vegas is fitting.
            Mid-afternoon and we’re strolling about downtown, soaking up the vibe. Max and Charlie are keen to play at cards – El Cortez will do. They throw in $20 each for a session of Blackjack, and it’s not long before Nathan and I are digging into our wallets too.
An officious looking gentleman strolls over to see how we’re doing. I get the feeling that he’s somewhat suspicious of us. I'm actually on a bit of a role – I used to play Pontoon for jellybeans with my Grandmother and Aunt – and we’ all taking advantage of the free cans of beer that are routinely thrown our way.
            Max and Nathan are out of luck, Charlie has doubled his money, but I'm the real winner today: I'm leaving with $80 – $60 more than I went in with. Buoyed by the experience we go for a drink to celebrate.






We head back to our motel to freshen up. I have preserved a clean shirt for this night alone – a subtle plaid number which I like to think Chris Hillman (of The Byrds) might have rocked back in the day.
Our first destination is Circus Circus, a place of notorious mayhem, but by the time we get there the show’s over and the whole place looks more like the vestibule of some suburban bowling alley, alive with nothing more than video games and one-armed bandits.
So we head back to The Frontier to catch up on our drinking and settle down for almost an hour with a lounge act called 'The Fortunes'. They play all the favourites: Dock of The Bay, Knock on Wood, Chain Gang. Their between song banter discloses this triumvirate of manhood to be from Coventry, England. They moved to Vegas some time ago. The accomplishment of their act is testament to this.
Not feeling as drunk as we’d like, we head back to Gilley’s. It’s the same sort of crowd as before, although they've got a mechanical rodeo bull set up tonight. Max and I are both game, and give it a decent go, I think.
It’s an odd crowd that gathers in Gilley’s. They don’t strike us as your high-city rollers, or out-of-town types: it seems more a locals’ hangout. A sort of wild-west theme pervades. There are people wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots, and there is line-dancing… to techno?! In the name of transatlantic relations, I ask a random local if I can try on his hat. He says no, and in a manner that suggests that I shouldn't have dared even ask.
We see the rest of the evening out at Gilley’s. Unless you’re really into gambling – or maybe hard drugs – there doesn't seem to be an awful lot to do in Las Vegas. Nothing to beat Delirium, at least…


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