What Happens in Las Vegas No Longer Stays in Las Vegas
'What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas' - locals say with a grin; it is the city of walk-in marriages and divorces. But that is not all – it is also a much favoured venue for cardiologists to hold their annual meet, for politicians to conduct Presidential Debates, for fashion big-wigs to open high-end retail stores in fantasy malls and for ordinary tourists like me who like to see the world.
It was my first trip to Vegas that left me somewhat bedazzled. I must admit missing out on some of the finer nuances of this ‘one-of-a-kind city’. This time over I decided to be more vigilant. As a result, some of my memories have been unmistakably vivid.
If you thought begging was a stigma for only ‘Third world countries’, well think again. It was late in the night and a crisp winter wind was making its presence felt. Walking one night on the skywalk between two hotels I noticed this duo, people were rushing past with quick determined steps either engaged in conversation, staring at their mobiles or just lost in their thoughts. The two women, probably in their early seventies, were huddled together beside an odd assortment of tattered plastic Walmart bags. Wrinkled, leathery skin lined their painfully thin faces. They appeared small, almost fragile. One of the two was staring at a kitten settled comfortably in her lap; it was diligently licking the woman’s hand. The other held a small dog in her arms; she was stroking the its back with a vacant expression in her eyes. There were no begging bowls; no placards. Passers-by did not give a second look. They were just a darker part of the evening’s landscape.
Around the corner of the street, a man’s figure lay still on the side-walk. You could not miss his presence – after all this was the most famous street in Vegas- ‘The Strip’- as it is referred to. A black jacket covered his somewhat plump frame. He lay face down, arms hided his face from view, cap thrown over for greater anonymity. ‘I will not lie. I want beer’- his message was scrawled on a dirty cardboard that stood eloquently by the railing.
Not to be outdone, a young Afro-American boy supported a blue hoodie and a brazen attitude. A conspicuous placard announced ‘I am too ugly to be a prostitute’. I hastily averted my eyes in shame.
She stood at a traffic intersection where pedestrians wait to cross the road. Her short plump frame dressed in trousers and a hooded fleece, she puffed at a cigarette with a devil-may-care attitude. Her face was dark and deeply-lined, her features coarse and strangely brutal. Later on, I encountered many more of her breed. They were infesting the intersections of the famous Las Vegas Strip .Shuffling a pack of cards she extended a hand towards passers-by. Most people ignored her; several cards fell down and lay scattered on the pavement. I looked down. Shocked, I averted my gaze. The card had photos with phone numbers. Selling one of her own kind did not seem at all wrong to her. Shamed, my heart wept in silence.
If you think you can only have pretty hostesses on casino tables you are in for a surprise. Most of the hostesses on Blackjack tables, even the high stakes ones, were middle-aged women, many of Asian origin. They were quick, bright, efficient and seemingly tireless. On a particular morning, as I was walking down to the coffee shop on the first floor at 6 am, I realized that many of the card players had been up all night. I had passed them while walking up to the elevator the previous night. Some had masseuses attending to their aching backs and shoulders as they made strenuous efforts to stay focused on the game. What actually caught my eye were the hostesses – these were women my age, many in their fifties. They continued to shuffle cards, distribute tokens and conduct the business of the casino with admirable alertness despite their eyes being puffy due to lack of sleep.
My heart wept. These were hard-working women. They had to keep their pantries stocked and their households running. Who knew what adversity was prompting them to undertake such a long and difficult duty? After all this was a city with an unemployment rate of almost 7.6 %, one of the highest in the US. How very contrary for a city like Las Vegas!
And if you were nurturing the misconception that only men surrendered to the pleasures of gambling, most of the players at the slot-machines were women and they were not young – they were middle-aged and older! They stuck to their seats with a ferocious dedication and stared at their video screens with unwavering attention. A lucky strike was announced by a vigorous clapping of hands, cheering unabashedly and jumping up and down. I failed to notice the presence of many young people here. A sizeable younger male population occupied seats on the card tables. They were sunk in concentration while waitresses in skimpy attire tried desperately to get noticed. In Vegas, slot machines make their first appearance at the airport. After that they follow you wherever you go.
These Vegas shows continue with virtually unending awe-inspiring feats by supple bodies, moulded by years of gruelling training and practice.
‘Cirque du Soleil- Mystère’: I sat on the edge of the seat throughout the show. Sitting in the front row has many advantages -- one being you get to take a closer look at faces. I was more than surprised to notice the age of two male artists. They had given a sterling performance of body balance and contortions that had left the audience gasping. The older of the two was in his fifties. How could he perform without any damage to his cartilage and bones? My medical fraternity would have to look for answers.
What happens to these men and women as they fade into the evening of their lives? Who knows?
In the US young adults rarely take common vacations with their parents. I guess it is simply ‘not cool’. Family vacations, I feel, are more of an Indian or Asian practice. On this trip, we were accompanied by a young couple – my daughter and son-in-law. We had stopped for lunch at an eatery that gave a clear view of ‘The Atlantis Show’ at the Caesar’s Palace. It was a not-to-be-missed event where statues of Atlantis, his son and his daughter emerged from man-made waters and spoke and moved. The light and sound effects along with blazing fires were simply inimitable.
“Hello family!,” the tall, well-built young woman smiled. “I am your server today. So is it a birthday or anniversary- what are we celebrating? Without doubt, I was a little surprised by this unusual form of address. “No occasion. We are just celebrating togetherness,” I replied tongue-in-cheek. After all, young people do not accompany their parents for meals unless its Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, a birthday or any such occasion. Why do we Indians find it so hard to understand?
She was middle-aged, rosy-cheeked, plump and extremely pleasant – a sales-woman attending to my daughter. My daughter was a difficult customer. She obviously knew what she wanted and the saleswoman had been up to her toes for the past half hour. Now my offspring felt that though she liked the apparel, it was obviously beyond her budget. She was obviously contemplating on her decision when the sales lady interjected. “I tell you what, young lady, if you can just decide to wait for a week, this price is going to drop; I know it from experience. You give me your phone and credit card details. After a week I shall call you. If the price falls, you can buy it and I shall parcel it to you. If not, just let it be.”
The lady was obviously sincere about her job – she was there to help customers. I could see that she had not spared the slightest effort in doing her duty. What a woman! PS: After a week, my daughter received her expensive coat at a much reduced price. She saved much and only because of a caring sales lady.
Ending on a surprising note, what would you say if I told you that right in the middle of this city’s most famous street, ‘The Strip’, you have an open niche with flowers, incense, a small sign board that says -- “You are under constant surveillance here” and hold your breath…a roofless, open-air temple of Lord Brahma! There is no priest, there are no rituals to follow and if you so desire you may stop and light incense stick from the many that are kept there!
City of nocturnal lights, dancing fountains, buzzing casinos with its underbelly; a city that makes you laugh and cry, feel amazed and ashamed, admire and choose to forget – that’s Las Vegas for you.
(Dr. Venu Sanon MD runs the Divine Light Trust that caters to the healthcare and medical needs of scores of villages around Mussoorie. Venu is a poetess of no mean merit to boot with two books of poems to her credit. )