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 reason for Vegas is as follows. A bunch of white men—Mormons, miners, railroad barons, mobsters—were standing around in the middle of the desert, swatting flies and asking each other: How can we get people to come here? When they actually managed to do it, when they lured people to Vegas, their problem then became: How can we get people to stay? A far greater challenge, because transience is in the DNA of Vegas. Transient pleasures, transient money, thus transient people.

More than 36 million people go through Vegas each year. Before a big heavyweight fight or convention, they fill just about every one of the city’s 150,000 hotel rooms—more rooms than any other city in the United States. At checkout time, Vegas can shed the equivalent of nearly 20 percent of its population.

Though people enjoy coming to Vegas, what they really love is leaving. Every other passenger waiting to board a flight out of Vegas wears that same telltale look of fatigue, remorse, heatstroke and get-me-out-of-here-ness. I spent two months reading Dante in college, but I didn’t really understand Purgatory until I spent five minutes at McCarran International Airport.

When I first opened a checking account in Vegas, my personal banker’s name was Paradise. I wasn’t sure I wanted to entrust all the money I had in this world to a woman named Paradise. In Vegas, she assured me, the name is not that unusual.

She spoke the truth. I met another Paradise. I also met a girl named Fabulous and a girl named Rainbow. She asked me to call her Rain for short.

One Friday afternoon, withdrawing cash for the weekend, I asked the bank teller if I could have it in fifties.

“Really?” she said. “Fifties are bad luck.”

“They are?”

“Ulysses Grant is on the fifty. Grant went bankrupt. You do not want to walk around Las Vegas with a picture in your pocket of a man who went bankrupt.”

Irrefutable. I asked her to give me hundreds.


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