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Las Vegas: Viva Lost Wages!

By Brendan Francis Newnam, Special to CNN
"Lost Wages," a pun pointed at the town's gambling industry, now applies just as aptly to its entire economy.
"Lost Wages," a pun pointed at the town's gambling industry, now applies just as aptly to its entire economy.
  • Brendan Francis Newnam takes road trip to "Lost Wages"
  • Newnam: Vegas was a subprime boomtown that is now the foreclosure capital of America
  • He samples Vegas' hyper-commercial present, ethnic-tapestry future and iconic past
  • Vegas: the image of American excess; Hoover Dam: the image of American restraint
  • Las Vegas

Brendan Francis Newnam hosts a national public radio show called The Dinner Party Download produced by American Public Media. He's the author of a new travel column called "The State I'm In." Follow him on Twitter @bnewnam.

(CNN) -- The radio was going on about the space shuttle's last mission.

I've never been a space person, but there was still something sad about it. America losing its step. No more space for us. Shuttle launches were like America's homeroom. The whole country checked in.

The whole business left me feeling wistful as my friend and I hurtled along in our own white craft drawing a line across the desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

A quarter of the way there: Tyvek flapping like flags in the wind. Half-built houses mark the edge of L.A. Metro. The high-water mark of the building boom.

Halfway there: We stop in Barstow for cheeseburgers and Cokes. And then it was back into the Mojave Desert. Mountains the color of cocoa sticking up from the earth. The sun a French fry lamp on the side of my face. Guilt from leaving work early tugged on me like the air conditioner dragged on the car engine.

Escape to Las Vegas.

"Lost Wages" my father used to call it. A pun pointed at the town's gambling industry that now just as easily applies to its entire economy. The great recession walloped Vegas harder than most places. It was a subprime boomtown that is now the foreclosure capital of America. What's Vegas like in a down economy? Are there a few more sips left in the champagne bottle? Yes. But it's flat.

When we arrived on the Las Vegas Strip, storm clouds were gathered around the Statue of Liberty replica. A double take confirmed that they were real. Rain in the desert, what were the odds? A rhetorical question in any city but this one. The Strip. America's Id.

Visiting there is like stepping into mainstream television: common-denominator vulgarity that you can't keep your eyes off of. "Pleasure" pumped into elephantine proportions. Like a basket containing the world's largest gourd held by a woman with the world's largest breasts.

Don't get me wrong, I like sex, gambling and tippling, but its hyper-commercialization brings me down. Like how passing a blown-up picture of a chili dog on a semi ruins your appetite instead of whetting it.

In the belly of the MGM Grand parking lot we unload our bags. Parents walk by holding children. Slightly older children walk by holding suitcases of beer. Everyone tingles with anticipation. There is an optimism inherent in a clean hotel room at the beginning of a weekend.

This will be my headquarters. I will hang my clothes here. This will be my desk. Las Vegas hotel stays carry an additional air of mischief. We'll drink here before we go out. I will close the curtains so the sun doesn't come in tomorrow. I'll choose this bed because it's closer to the door and God knows when I'm coming back.

We decided to walk over to the recently renovated Tropicana hotel and casino. In the postmodern Epcot Center that is Las Vegas, the Tropicana is Miami's South Beach. The building's handsome white gleam and jaunty retro sign held the promise of an excellent martini, and soon I was behind one the size of an office trash can. We were the only people at the bar; 7 p.m. is a dead zone in summertime Vegas.

All day long people attend pool parties. And then late at night they attend clubs. From 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. is reserved for showers, TV and energy drinks. Our booby prize was a video screen behind the bar showing an endlessly looping video of, well, boobs, and other body parts wrapped up in bathing suits and gyrating to music. Like songs that tell you how to dance, the decorations in Las Vegas are constantly showing you how you are supposed to behave.

Later, while eating hamburgers at Hubert Keller's "Burger Bar," we are surrounded by picture of hamburgers -- hamburgers that look much juicier and more appetizing than the ones we were eating.

Hours of blackjack.

In my back pocket I had a set of tips my father sent me. Don't hit if the dealer has 3-6 and you have a bustable hand. If you're dealt two aces always split them and then pray for tens, etc.

I withdrew $300 from the ATM and watched my pile go up and down for hours. Up. Down. Up. Down. I toggled from scotch to seltzer. Scotch. Seltzer. The dealers rotated. The fast one who prefers the ladies. The deliberate one who wordlessly guides the players. The efficient, emotionless machine who just deals, deals, deals.

And then there was the ever-changing cast of players. The fat drunk tanktopper smoking a cigarette filter. Two Irish kids with gelled sea anemone hair. The chubby secretary who would scratch the table with her pink-painted fingernail every time she wanted a hit. And at one point in the night, superstar singer Michael Buble and his Argentine underwear-model wife sidle up to the table and do well until a crowd of squealing girls forms and he is forced to cash out.

It's 3:30. Walk back to the room. A fight breaks out behind me. A girl lies legs-splayed on a flower planter in the lobby. A couple ruts next to the soda machine. A man lies face down in his own vomit. Prostitutes roam the floor looking for drunk prey. A topless guy smokes a cigarette in my elevator.

As the door shuts and the elevator lifts, I can still hear the bingbinging clamor of America spending its energy-drink money on Texas hold 'em.

In the morning it's dim sum on Spring Mountain Road, Vegas' version of Chinatown. Yes, the city has the skyline of New York and Paris, the canals of Venice and the pools of South Beach, but the real spin around the world happens in the neighborhoods that surround the Strip.

About 22% of Las Vegans are immigrants who were attracted by the low cost of living and the abundance of service jobs that don't require a higher education. The city's strip malls are an international food court. Eritrean and Chinese food. Mexican and Thai. We meet cabbies from Burma, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. This global village aspect of Vegas is one of the most exhilarating parts of the area and could be a draw unto itself. They could call it "American Census 2050."

From Vegas' future to its past: Downtown. The city's soul. Iconic Vegas. Neon and $9 prime rib specials. The home of old guard Vegas -- Binion's, the Gold Spike and the Golden Nugget.

There are $5 blackjack tables here and strawberry daiquiris with whipped cream. To draw some of the action back from the Strip, businesses chipped in and created the Fremont Street Experience, a barrel vault canopy 90 feet high and four blocks long. It shelters folks from the sun in the day and turns into a light show at night.

People rappel under the canopy. Buskers perform there. Concerts play. It's livened up the area, but it's what hasn't been done to the neighborhood that's going to save it: The old gambling houses in this neighborhood just feel right. An old piece of America that has hung on. A symbol that there is life after a bubble.

The next day we leave the greatest example of American excess and visit the greatest example of American restraint: Hoover Dam.

There are only 3,485 days and counting of water left in Las Vegas, literally. The canyon surrounding Hoover Dam is the evidence. Its walls are chalk white where the water line used to be. You have to move your head forward toward your belly to see where the water line is now.

I piss in one of the magnificent marble art deco restrooms that sit on top of the dam. The windows there provide a dramatic view of this modern wonder of the world. Nowhere in America today is a bathroom being built like this, nor will one be built in the near future.

Unless, maybe, someone decides to open up a resort on the strip called "America Then."

They could buy a mothballed space shuttle and hang it in the lobby.