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A night to forget in America’s ‘Sin City’

It was hot. Every sign along Boulder Highway was showing 111 degrees. I was a little worried about our engine, but I knew the hotel couldn’t be much farther.

“There it is,” my wife said, pointing to a tower of blinking neon up ahead: Las Vegas East Hotel and Casino. I pulled off the highway and into the parking lot.

The place was huge: sixteen stories of shimmering lights surrounded by acres of blacktop and a massive covered garage. We got out of our car and walked up to the entrance.

The interior was standard-issue casino: red carpeting, dim lighting, cigarette smoke, half an acre of slot machines, and a smattering of dour slot jockeys. But we weren’t here to gamble. We were here to take in the scene.

Years ago, we’d spent a memorable evening on the Las Vegas strip wandering through the casinos and gawking at the hotels. Sure, they’d seemed tasteless and overblown, but that was half the fun.

Now, after three sleepy weeks at my mother-in-law’s midwest farm and another four days driving back west through the flatlands, a night in Sin City sounded pretty good.

We walked past the slots to the check-in counter. The desk clerk, a mellow guy with a kind manner, asked if we’d like a view of the mountains or the Strip. I opted for the Strip. “I’ll put you on the sixteenth floor,” he said.

The room, as advertised, had a great view. There was the Strip off in the distance, a few minutes away by car. After dropping off our bags, we headed straight back downstairs. If we were going to see Las Vegas Boulevard, we decided, we’d better do it now. We’d need an early start the next morning to make it back to Sacramento that evening.

We headed out of the parking lot in the general direction of Las Vegas Boulevard. After a few blocks, we came to Flamingo Road, a wide commercial thoroughfare lined with fast food chains and gas stations. It didn’t look like much, but I liked the name and it was pointing in the right direction. I turned down it.

“Does this go to the Strip?” my wife asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “It sounds like it oughta.”

After a few blocks, I saw a McDonald’s up ahead. “You feel like a smoothie?” I asked my wife. “Sure,” she said.

A trim, middle aged woman took our order. We leaned against the silver railing and waited, basking in the air conditioning. Outside, sirens wailed. We’d been hearing them off and on all afternoon.

After a minute, the woman brought our smoothies. “There you go,” she said, sliding them over to us with a big smile.

“She seemed happy,” my wife said as we walked back to our car.

Farther down Flamingo, the traffic began to slow. Pretty soon, still over mile from the Strip, we were moving about a block every ten minutes. “This is ridiculous,” I groaned.

“You think we should just forget it?” my wife said.

I stared at the line of cars ahead of us. Our air conditioner was wheezing mightily. “I guess so,” I said finally. “It’s probably rush hour. By the time we get there, we won’t have any time to walk around.”

It was disappointing. A big dose of tinsel town kitsch was the whole reason we’d come here.

I made a U turn and started back up Flamingo. After a couple blocks, I saw an Arco station with cheap gas. “That’s a pretty good price,” I said to my wife. I pulled in to a pump, went into the convenience store, and got in line.

A grungy little mart crammed with candy, chips, and pop, this was not exactly the Las Vegas of our dreams. In one corner, three grizzled guys in tank tops were cranking away at slot machines.

“Thirty dollars on pump four,” I told the clerk when my turn came. I handed her a couple twenties. “Sure,” she said cheerfully. She dug into the register and handed me back a ten. “Have a nice day.”

“What a place,” I said to my wife when I got back in the car. “Why would anybody go somewhere like that to play the slots?” I eased the car back onto Flamingo. “The clerk was sure chipper, though,” I said. “People do seem pretty friendly here.”

“They do,” she said.

After a few blocks more, I saw a Carl’s Jr. ahead. We’d read in a recent Newsweek that some Carl’s Jrs. were experimenting with a grilled fish sandwich, a “healthy” option that, according to the writer, was “delicious.” Las Vegas seemed like an unlikely place to be testing out healthy options, but we decided to check just in case.

The only customers were two young parents and their kids. I went up to the counter. “Do you by chance have the grilled cod sandwiches?” I asked the girl skeptically. She nodded and pointed to the neon menu on the wall behind her. “I really like ‘em,” she said. “Okay, I’ll have two,” I said.

We found a booth near a window. The sirens were still blaring. Outside, under a scorching sun, an extremely skinny panhandler was walking briskly up and down the sidewalk past a line of cars idling at an intersection. He was holding a cardboard sign that looked way too small for anyone to read.

“Look at that guy,” I said to my wife. “What a day to be out there. I oughta give him something.” I rummaged through my wallet, found a five, and headed out the door.

As I approached the panhandler, five spot in hand, he looked over at me uncertainly. “You must be dying out here,” I said, holding out the five.

“I am,” he said. He looked at the bill a moment and then took it. “Thanks,” he said. “You have a good day.” He seemed surprisingly perky, considering.

“You too,” I said.

As I walked away, I began to feel a little foolish. “Jeez,” I thought, “why’d I say that? No way he’s having a good day.”

When we got back to our room, my wife turned on the TV, and I lay on the bed and dozed. Now and then, half awake, I’d hear a “whoosh” outside the window. A crash of thunder finally woke me, and I lay there looking outside. Wind was driving sheets of rain at the glass, and lightning was flashing all over the sky.

Suddenly, the lights went out, the air conditioner went off, and the TV went black. Outside, except for a few street lights, the city was dark. The wind whined and the room was getting stuffier. “Let’s get off this floor,” my wife said. “The wind makes me nervous.” We walked to the stairwell and joined a trickle of people heading down the stairs.

On the ground floor, the blackjack dealers were still dealing and the slots were still flashing. A few people were playing, impassive as ever, but others just sat glumly at the machines, watching people stroll by. If anyone was having fun, you’d never know it.

We went out the front door and stood under the overhang, watching rain pelt the blacktop. A huge generator roared in one corner of the parking lot, keeping the casino going. My jeans felt slimy. The temperature had dropped, but the air had turned steamy.

After a few minutes, a mustachioed man in glasses, tank top, and shorts walked outside and stood a few feet away from us, holding a can of Coors. He nodded at us, took a sip, and looked out at the parking lot.

We asked him about the weather. “I came here from southern California ten years ago, unfortunately. Sometimes this happens in July and August.” A couple hours after the rain stopped, he said, the ground would be dry as a bone.

The sirens were blaring almost constantly now. “Fires,” he said, taking a slug of beer. After a few moments, he said, “Well, I’m gonna give it another go.” He nodded to us and walked back into the casino.

We decided to try our room again. I checked with the front desk clerk to make sure our electric door keys would work, and we went back upstairs.

The power was still out, but the room was bearable. I got my toothbrush and went into the bathroom. When I turned on the faucet, water barely dribbled out. Suddenly, it came gushing out. The lights, TV, and air conditioner came on.

The next morning, as we loaded our car, the sky was clear and the sun was hot. There wasn’t a trace of water in sight. I threw our last bag in the trunk, and we pulled out onto Boulder Highway.

We chatted. Las Vegas hadn’t been quite what we remembered, we agreed on that. It had been pretty much a tangle of wild weather, traffic jams, power outages, sirens, and grim-faced gamblers. The only “strip” we’d seen had been the barren stretch of fast food joints along Flamingo.

The highlight had probably been the working people we’d run across. The fast food employees, the gas mart cashier, even the hard working panhandler had been about as upbeat a bunch as you’d ever hope to find in those occupations.

I have to admit, of course, if the best you can say about a holiday playground is that the panhandlers are personable, you’re not doing the place any favors.

My wife was more blunt: “I don’t think I need to see Las Vegas again,” she said.

I understood how she felt alright, but myself, I’d be willing to give it another shot. I’d just make sure to steer clear of summer, rush hour, and Flamingo Road.

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