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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She said a mega-rich couple had hired her for the night. (Beckham and Posh?) They were hitting all the hot spots, and at each spot they wanted her to appear as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Currently the couple was cloistered in a private back room, “doing something,” and she was keeping out of sight, waiting for her cue.

“What sin are you right now?”


I’d have bet the farm on Lust. I wanted to ask if she was free after the traveling sinfest, but the couple was waving, calling her name. They were ready for some Sloth.

The Agassi book almost didn’t happen, thanks to my neighbor, Caligula, and his weekly bacchanalias. The skull-thumping music from his Coliseum-size backyard, the erotic shrieks from his pool and Jacuzzi, made writing all but impossible. Caligula’s guests represented a perfect cross section of Vegas: slackers, strippers, jokers, yokels, models and moguls, they arrived every Thursday night in all manner of vehicles—tricked-out Hummers, beat-up Hyundais—and partied until the shank of Monday afternoon. I learned to wear earplugs. They sell them everywhere in Vegas, even grocery stores.

It always comes as a shock to the newcomer. Of the 130,000 slot machines in Vegas, many are located in grocery stores. Nothing says Vegas like swinging by Safeway at midnight for a quart of milk and seeing three grandmas feed their Social Security checks into the slots as if they were reverse ATMs. The first time this happened to me, I was reminded of my favorite “fact” about Vegas, which is wholly apocryphal: a city law prohibits the pawning of false teeth.

Just after i moved in, Caligula rang my bell. He invited me over for an afternoon “cookout.” I didn’t yet know he was Caligula. Wanting to be neighborly, I went.

I met several statuesque young women in his backyard, in his kitchen. I thought it strange that they were so outgoing. I thought it odd that they were named after cities—Paris, Dallas, Rio. But I didn’t dwell on it. Then I wandered into a room where the floor was covered with mattresses. An ultraviolet light made everyone look super tanned or vaguely satanic. Suddenly I got it. I told Caligula that I just remembered somewhere I needed to be. I shook my head at his offer of a grilled hot dog, thanked him for a lovely time and sprinted home to my books and earplugs.

As a kid I was a gypsy, as a young man I was a journalist, so I’ve lived everywhere. I’ve unpacked my bags in New York, New Haven, Boston, Atlanta, Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle, Tucson. Each of my adopted cities has reminded me of some previous city—except Vegas, because Vegas isn’t a real city. It’s a Sodom and Gomorrah theme park surrounded by hideous exurban sprawl and wasteland so barren it makes the moon look like an English rose garden.

Also, every other city has a raison d’être, an answer to that basic question: Why did settlers settle here? Either it’s close to a river, a crossroads or some other natural resource, or else it’s the site of some important battle or historic event. Something.


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