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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The last box is packed and taped shut, the moving truck will be here first thing in the morning. My footsteps echo loudly through the empty rooms.

It’s 7 p.m. I’m supposed to meet friends for dinner on the Strip—one last meal before leaving Las Vegas. I’d love to cancel, but the reservation is in less than an hour.

I fall into a chair and stare at the wall. It’s quiet. In two years I’ve never heard it this quiet. I wonder if something is wrong with Caligula.

I think back over the past two years, or try to. I can’t recall specifics. Places, dates, it’s all a blur. For instance, what was the name of that crazy club where we went that time? The Peppermint Hippo? The Wintergreen Dodo?

The Spearmint Rhino. Yes, that was it. Eighteen thousand square feet of semi-nude women. My friend G., visiting from the Midwest, wandered around like a Make-a-Wish kid at Disneyland. He came back to our table and reported, saucer-eyed, that he’d seen Beckham and Posh in a dark corner. We laughed at him. Poor G. He doesn’t get out much. What would Beckham and Posh be doing in some crazy Vegas club? Minutes later, on my way to the men’s room, I ran straight into Beckham and Posh.

I came to Vegas to work on a book. No one comes to Vegas to work on a book, but I was helping tennis great Andre Agassi write his memoir, and Agassi lives in Vegas. It seemed logical that I live here until the book was done.

I knew, going in, that I’d feel out of place. The glitz, the kitsch, the acid-trip architecture—Vegas isn’t me. I’m more a Vermont guy. (I’ve never actually lived in Vermont, but that doesn’t keep me from thinking of myself as a Vermont guy.) Writing a book, however, greatly increased my sense of alienation. Vegas doesn’t want you writing any more than it wants you reading. You can sit by the topless pool at the Wynn all day long, all year long, and you won’t see anyone crack open anything more challenging than a cold beer.

And it’s not just books. Vegas discourages everything prized by book people, like silence and reason and linear thinking. Vegas is about noise, impulse, chaos. You like books? Go back to Boston.

The first time this hit me, I was driving along U.S. 95. I saw a billboard for the Library. I perked up. A library? In Vegas? Then I saw that the Library is yet another strip club; the dancers dress like wanton priestesses of the Dewey Decimal System. The librarian busting out of the billboard asked: Will you be my bookworm?

She almost sat in my spinach salad. I was eating in an overpriced steakhouse west of the Strip when she appeared from nowhere, resting half her derrière on my table. (The steakhouse was crowded.) She wore a miniskirt, fishnet stockings, opera gloves to her elbows. Her hair was brown, curly, jungle thick, and yet it couldn’t conceal her two red horns.


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