Mounce: Lost Vegas: A Texan in an Emperor’s Palace

EDINBURG, RGV – “I just got back from a long, long trip, along…” the APPIAN WAY? Well, at least the “Appian Way” in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Didn’t see Caesar but DID see Santa Claus (drunk, stumbling up steps in “Paris,” beneath the “Eiffel Tower”).

Yes, weird occurrences and people-watching reign supreme in Las Vegas. You can’t believe the states of dress, overdress, even undress. But, that’s mainly on the “Strip,” not in the other city, the real city, where workers live, where life is more normal. But, in the Strip area, things have changed. There is now even a “Mob Museum.”

I flew with friends and family from McAllen. We flew direct via Allegiant Airlines. Prices were reasonable, but there is little space in the classless seating, no free water, no free coffee. And, oh, you insist on taking luggage? That will be $50 extra, please. A sign of the times? On departure, the pilot welcomed us aboard, then warned “remember, what happens in Vegas… ends up on YouTube.” Even the flight attendant (same crew, both ways) joined the banter; she announced on return “Welcome to Maui, Hawaii.”

Accompanying us were many cowboys from south Texas. (“All hat and no cattle?” Who knows?) They joined fans from Nevada and the rest of the West for a rodeo competition. (Las Vegas wrested the Wrangler National Finals from Oklahoma some time ago.) Another sign of changing times: I passed a sport’s bar on the way through the Monte Carlo (the one in Vegas; it is so easy to get it confused with Europe). Dozens of rowdy cowboys were whooping and hollering, watching TV. But it was not football. They were cheering televised bull-riding.

I hadn’t been back in over 50 years, since the old days when the Mafia/Rat Pack ruled and ran Las Vegas. In even older days, “Atomic Cocktails” were served for visitors viewing mushroom clouds during testing. Now, who rules Vegas? Another type of Robber Baron, perhaps? Among others, Kirk Kerkovian, owner of Caesar’s and over one-half of all the hotel rooms. Add Sheldon Adelson, 12th richest man in the world, and contributor to multiple right wing, tea-party candidates all over the country.

Yes, I felt guilty, supporting with my meager payments possible enemies of the people. Yet, on the other hand, Deutsche Bank owns the “Cosmos.” I was so confused and may be so wrong about Vegas, coming from my knee-jerk liberal ideology. At first, I detested the rampant consumerism, the orgy of capitalist excess.

I partially assuaged my guilt by rationalizing the expenses as “helping the national economic recovery.” I went with my daughter for purposes of attending a wedding. I didn’t take my wife, but not for reasons you may think. She had been there recently but also had been there long before, to hear Frank, as an adoring ingénue. The casinos and airlines offered fabulous “paquetes” to Mexicans. They made their money back from hordes of people gambling. At that time, my spouse did not gamble; today she plays a mean Blackjack.

I don’t gamble, or don’t do it well. I am afraid of my skill (or lack of it) at poker or Blackjack. I just watch. I am dyslexic, so even the hundreds of multi-colored, cleverly named slot machines (from “Beverly Hillbillies” to “Willy Wonka” to “Lord of the Rings”) are overwhelming. (My daughter swears I don’t know how to choose them well.) But there are too many gambling “lines” to watch–no longer just “cherries” and gold bars. And I thought my “lucky 7” was mine alone until I saw the multiple sevens everywhere. Oh, so many (they make you believe) possibilities. And, of course, so much to lose.

No longer “one-armed bandits,” of course; one merely pushes a button (more people can play and play faster; get the logic?) I lost my limit quickly. My daughter won and missed the opening of the clever, thought-provoking “Blue Men” show, rather than leave a winning machine. Her $400 was probably “reinvested” quickly and thoroughly on subsequent nights.

I heard of a local farmer in his “over-halls” who came faithfully, once a month, to win or lose (mostly lose) at roulette. He came when the faithful Social Security check arrived. Oh, the persistent hope of the poor and working class! On that naiveté (of thousands) are millions made for the Robber Barons. Las Vegas’ owners have changed, but perhaps not the “game.” They “built” the city but, lest we forget, lest they forget, so did we all. The Federal government and we taxpayers helped. Please do remember (and do appreciate) Hoover Dam, military bases, state and federal roads and the key role of government stimuli.

The City is well run. But the “Strip” was gerrymandered out of the city’s tax district. Former Democratic Mayors, Oscar (and now wife, Carolyn) Goodman run a clean city. Tourism is king—or Emperor. The impressive shows, such as “Jersey Boys” and others, are still tops. I thought the Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson” would be tacky. It was not. Michael and his legend were respected. The cry of “Makes No Difference If You’re Black or White” and the humanitarian themes were pervasive. I cried unabashedly when Michael’s astounding, moon-dancing hologram dissipated before our eyes into stars and smoke, leaving the innocent Child/Michael/All of Us, standing there, alone, on the darkened stage.

All these stimuli, together, impact the senses inordinately; they overloaded mine. There is, on one hand, the virtual world created by the magic of the lighting and technology of the stage. There is the déjà vu of the re-creation of the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. There is the “real” (yet unreal) world of the casinos, their denizens smoking like fiends (thus, fueled by nicotine, free booze and the oxygen pumped in), fixed in their chairs.

There are no clocks, no chairs in the hotel lobby other than those meant, of course, to be sat in so that you play and play—and play. There are only a few (and very small) messages printed below some machines with toll free numbers to call for help with gambling addiction.

It was a real/unreal fantasy. The cacophony of sights and sounds was an assault on the senses and on my sense of ethics and philosophy. Is it all for the good? For the bad? Was I wrong to be participating in this mixed homage to greed, hope and desire for pleasure? (Oh, how I coveted that revolving Audi, mine, perhaps, for just one additional dollar bet.)

I thought I might be very much in the wrong for participating. Then I saw (in “Rome,” near the “Trevi Fountain”) the Martin Lawrence Gallery. It features Dali’s largest mural (“March of Time and Papillion”)—a mere $8 million. It boasts the last series by Warhol of his acerbic, tongue in cheek homage to the American West: John Wayne juxtaposed with Annie Oakley, Custer with Geronimo, the Buffalo Head Nickel with “Liberty” highlighted, ironically.

All this in the “Forum,” near Caesar’s, the most lucrative mall in the world. But Fendi, Jimmy Choo, Balenciaga and other high end shops were empty; mostly tourists just gawked, as did we. The 50 foot high, beautifully painted but fake sky overhead, changing in color from dawn to dusk, bathed all in the momentary feeling of charm and internationalism. But, of course, tourists are not burdened with having to try to know a different language or culture.

Then I forced myself away from the casino area. Back in my room, I negotiated with courteous Hispanic and Asian staff. There was even an awkward Bosnian. Talking with them (really, interviewing—I can’t turn off the social scientist in me) about wages, assimilation, satisfaction, etc., and with very honest Malaysian, even Uzbeckiztani cabbies, rounded out the trip. Would I return? Not anytime soon. Perhaps in another 50 years.

Without question, Las Vegas (“The Meadows,” named by early Spanish and Mexican explorers and merchants) makes one question ones values, motives, and philosophy. It made me question myself, my country, its ethos and its destiny. This city was built through lawlessness by “wheeler dealers” of different ethnic groups, fueled by Mormon bankers. Think not? Just study the fascinating history. Its dominant elites still influence U.S. politics.

Las Vegas is now maintained by the natural lust and greed in man (and me). It is, perhaps, an all-too-familiar (though “over the top”) example of U.S. zeitgeist. Love it or hate it (and I do both), it is with us, it taunts us and, to a degree I regret and disparage, it shapes us. The Emperor had some clothes, but not many. This Texan was “lost” in Vegas. But I have returned and have found myself (I think, I hope).

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