Las Vegas: An American Paradox

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J.R. Moehringer rolls the dice on life in Sin City

"You have to be grateful in Vegas. It's the great lesson of the city, the thing I'm taking as a souvenir," says J.R. Moehringer. (Jared McMillen)
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As she counted out the money, I looked down at sweet, smiling Ben Franklin. I recalled that he had a weakness for fallen women. I recalled that he said, “A fool and his money are soon parted.” I recalled that he discovered electricity—so Vegas could one day look like a phosphorescent candy cane. Clearly, I thought, the C-note is the proper currency for Vegas.

Hours later I lost every one of those C-notes at a roulette table. I lost them faster than you can say Ben Franklin.

Vegas is America. No matter what you read about Vegas, no matter where you read it, this assertion invariably pops up, as sure as a face card in the hole when the dealer’s showing an ace. Vegas is unlike any other American city, and yet Vegas is America? Paradoxical, yes, but true. And it’s never been more true than during these past few years. Vegas typified the American boom—best suite at the Palms: $40,000 a night—and Vegas now epitomizes the bust. If the boom was largely caused by the housing bubble, Vegas was bubble-icious. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the Vegas area leads the United States in foreclosures—five times the national rate—and ranks among the worst cities for unemployment. More than 14 percent of Las Vegans are without work, compared with the national rate of 9.5 percent.

The proof that Vegas and America are two sides of the same chip is the simple fact that America’s economy functions like a casino. Who could dispute that a Vegas mind-set drives Wall Streeters? That AIG, Lehman and others put the nation’s rent money on red and let the wheel spin? Credit default swaps? Derivatives? The backroom boys in Vegas must be kicking themselves that they didn’t think of those things first.

The house always wins. Especially if you never leave the house. Vegas has been home to some of the most notorious hermits in American history. Howard Hughes, Michael Jackson—something about Vegas attracts the agoraphobic personality. Or creates it.

As my time in Vegas wound down, I often found myself bolting the door and pulling down the window shades. My self-imposed seclusion was motivated partly by Caligula, partly by my book. Facing a tight deadline, I had no time for Vegas. Consequently I went weeks in which my only window on Vegas was the TV. Years from now my clearest memories of Sin City might be the ceaseless stream of commercials for payday loans, personal injury lawyers, bail bondsmen, chat lines and strip clubs. (My favorite was for a club called the Badda Bing, with a female announcer intoning: “I’ll take care of that thing. At the Badda Bing.”) From TV, I concluded that a third of Vegas is in debt, a third in jail and a third in the market for anonymous hookups.

Many of those personal injury lawyers were jumping for joy in 2008, when a local gastroenterology clinic stood accused of gross malpractice. To save money, the clinic allegedly used unsafe injection practices and inadequately cleaned equipment. Thousands of patients who went there for colonoscopies and other invasive procedures were urged to get tested immediately for hepatitis and HIV. A wave of lawsuits is pending.

With growing horror, I watched this medical scandal unfold. To my mind it symbolized the Kafkaesque quality of 21st-century Vegas, the negligence and corruption, the widespread bad luck.

Some nights on the local news a segment about the clinic would be followed by a piece about O.J. Simpson’s brazen armed robbery at a local casino hotel, then one on Gov. Jim Gibbons’ denial of a sexual assault allegation, or a story about Nevada’s junior senator, John Ensign, cheating on his wife, though he had once declared on the floor of the United States Senate that marriage is “the cornerstone on which our society was founded.” Shutting off the TV, I’d walk to the window, listen to a nude game of Marco Polo raging around Caligula’s pool, and think: I have a front-row seat at the apocalypse.

I shave, get dressed, drive down to the Strip. My friends, a man and a woman, a longtime couple, love Las Vegas. They can’t imagine living anywhere else. Over tuna sashimi, Caprese salad, ravioli stuffed with crabmeat, they ask what I’ll miss most about the town.


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