Las Vegas: In Search of Real
I was looking for seedy. Or, sketchy. At least something real.
Don't get me wrong, the Wynn Las Vegas is a gorgeous hotel, way above par for Las Vegas and most anywhere. The spacious, well-appointed rooms seem right out of Beverly Hills. Marble bathrooms, silken sheets. The best minibar you can find and mood lighting and automatic shades covering floor-to-ceiling windows offering spectacular views.
Of Las Vegas.
The Wynn infomercial has beautiful women guests visiting exotic Asian restaurants, ponds and spas that litter the property. But this is a man's place. At least, the Las Vegas I know.
I notice it on the United flight out of Dulles. Ten to one men to women. No kids. This is not family vacation, if you get my drift.
I'm on business at an annual restaurant finance conference at the Wynn. The men are well-dressed. Blue blazers and tasteful, conservative patterns. Women stand out like peacocks with their bright jackets or scarves. There are about three of them in this group of 2,000. Okay, more like five percent of this finance and major restaurant conference. But still -- a tiny, brightly colored minority. Like a few rescue flares scattered across the vast, dark Pacific.
The Wynn is plush and comfortable. I have a great conversation at The Parasol Bar with a restaurant leader I didn't know before. Hailing from Utica, NY, he reminds me what a hero Steve Wynn, an upstate New York native, is for creating all this. Luxury. More luxury. Signifying luxury. Parasols ... get it?
The casino beeps and chimes all day, but it's plush and luxurious. Russian voices, Chinese everywhere. They are wide-eyed and flocking here. They are not the women in the infomercial.
The conference is fun and productive. The attendees seem happy.
A cell phone blings. "Honey ... you will not BELIEVE! I'm having dinner with WOLFGANG PUCK!"
At the end of Day Two I am jonesing for something real. Something not camera-ready. It's Las Vegas -- seedy would be OK. Simple would be a relief.
I drive at a snail's pace north on Las Vegas Blvd. -- you think I-66 is bad? I'm thinking I won't find the scruffy northern end of town that still is reputed to be gritty and real, carrying the spirit of old Western towns. Pool, beer, cigarette smoke -- has it all become fuel for a glistening tower?
I turn corners and circle around without direction. About to give up. Then, like a blinking red light, the Stateside Lounge butts in to the left. Ugly neon dressing up a dark, foreboding façade. A truck or two out front. It looks promising. I park.
Smoky, dark, with a few people at a quiet bar, I feel hope.
No sooner do I sit down than "Joyce" has introduced herself and her companion Joey and bought me a draft Bud. ($2.25)
I meet the owner of the bar, Dottie, and the regulars plus Dottie's visiting sister from Missouri, Lavinia.
"This is a neighborhood bar," Joyce says. "We're like family." They are still looking at me like I might be a cop.
Then, a little later, "We like you. You're family now." Ummm ... OK!
They're headed to a pool night at another bar. Unlike them I don't carry a personal cue. I successfully decline but enjoy watching their excitement. They are 60-somethings. A guy with a long, white pony tail that touches his belt.
Who is going to drive to the pool night? Who will drive back? This is a long debate. Lavinia heads back to Missouri Monday. I'm learning a lot about this posse.
After two-and-a-half beers it's time to hit the road. Ashley the bartender slaps down a hand-written receipt marked "food." Perfect.
I drive around the northeast perimeter of the city looking for a motel. Just a bed and bath. Shivering, I stand in lines. The independent, the Comfort Inn. I drive on Lamb Blvd. and Craig St., Pecos. So many empty boulevards...but no empty rooms.
"You'll have to drive south to Prim to find a room," one clerk says. "Prim"? In this state? I laugh even as I wonder where the heck I will stay.
It's getting late, getting cold. "Sorry, nothing but smoking rooms left." Hmmm.
My rental car is clean. Having found real fun and real people, maybe I'll experience the very real compact back seat as my manger. I pull my Italian suit jackets and running tights out of my suitcase. Every last thread will be used to keep warm tonight. As the mercury hits 35, I realize my shoes will stay on. It's 10:00 and I'm fading out in the Ford Focus backseat motel.
Was it a dream, was it real?
What happens in Las Vegas ...