Sunday, August 12, 2007


The casinos in Las Vegas seem exceptionally quiet these days, except for an occasional cheer from a cluster of people around the Blackjack tables. The clanking and clinking of money dropping into the bin of the slot machines is missing. It has been replaced by paper. Yes, slips of paper are given to you if you are fortunate enough to win anything. Somehow, it takes the thrill out of winning. No longer does that avalanche of nickels, quarters, or dollars spill out at you, but just a single piece of paper that sends you trotting to the Cashier to stand in line.

Unfortunately, this did not happen to me. I put my life savings..or so it seems...into the machines and they remained inert, giving me hardly a single cherry. Cherries are useless on Slot Machines. They give you a meager amount that wouldn't even buy you a cup of coffee. I played and played, cursed the machines, apologized to them, prayed and pleaded, to no avail. Neither the Odds nor the Gods were in my favor. I had, in my purse, just enough money to head homeward, and it was a struggle with my conscience to resist tossing that in a machine, too, just in case I might enjoy a last minute reprieve.

Finally, I gave up my gambling career and went to visit my brother, who lives in North Las Vegas, an older section of the city. Las Vegas has changed since I lived there. It was, back in 1960, a small city. The casinos were low, sprawling buildings. The downtown area bordered upon dereliction, with old casinos, a movie theater, and a few restaurants. The Strip was the place to be fancy. One had to dress up for the Strip, and if one visited the Sands, he could see the movie stars....Frank Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, Spencer Tracy, to name just a few.

Now the city is a soaring metropolis, with buildings thrusting into the heavens. I'm not sure it's better, but it is certainly richer. Almost every block has new buildings thrusting into the air, and how any construction worker can make it through those 120 degree days is a mystery. It is very, very hot.

The simple, easy streets that used to exist may still be there, but they have been hidden by expressways and overhead trains. It was difficult for me to find a glimpse of the city that used to be. The Strip has changed considerably, with many of the old casinos gone. The Stardust, where I worked as a cashier, has been imploded and carted away. It is as though my past has gone up in smoke, my memories lost in a fog.

Because of the heavy traffic on the Strip, they have put in a system of bridges. One cannot just cross the street, but must trudge to the nearest bridge...which may not be very near....and go through a system of escalators, elevators, or stairs to reach the bridge itself, cross it, then again use the escalators, elevators, or stairs. When you add this kind of walking and climbing to the blasting sunshine, one doesn't need any other form of exercise to stay fit. And I wonder if some of the elderly tourists do not pass out before they reach the other side of the street.

The heat is so intense that the pavement is like the surface of a very large frying pan, with a stove burner turned on high beneath it. After taking a walk with Jedi, I noticed that she was dancing around rather peculiarly. Then it dawned on me that her feet were burning. Her little paws were being cooked by that searing sidewalk.

So, from that time, I carried her. She was like a 25 pound, furry purse draped across my shoulder and in my arms as I traveled around, getting some mighty strange looks from passers-by, but at least saving her from nasty burns.

The downtown section of Las Vegas is a wondrous place these days. I have never seen such a change in a section of a city that was formerly bordering on being a slum. The old casinos have new facades. There are restaurants, gift shops, everything a tourist needs. The street has been closed to traffic. One can actually cross the street. Above, it has been roofed, providing blessed shade from that relentless sun and, at night, there is a great slide show on this ceiling, composed of aircraft zooming around, ocean creatures darting and swimming, etc. It's a sight to be seen. If and when I visit Vegas again, I will stay downtown.

The only dark episode in a fun-filled, though financially tragic, vacation was the sight of a street filled with homeless people. There they were, living on the sidewalk, hundreds of them, some of them with children, blankets strung around for makeshift shade, people clustered beneath the blankets. The temperature was 110 degrees on that day. These poor souls sat around beneath that killer sunshine trying to survive, ragged and needy.

In a city with hotels that emulate the lavish beauty of France, ancient Rome, or a city with casinos where money flows like water into machines and onto tables.....wouldn't you think they could spare a few bucks to provide shelters for their homeless? Wouldn't you think they could halt the construction of huge hotels to build a basic structure, just the bare bones of a building, to house these people? Wouldn't you think that some charitable city councilman would suggest air-conditioning in this building, to provide these people with some relief from the heat?

Yes, you would think so, but life is cruel, businessmen are greedy, and council members are blind! And folks like me throw money into machines and onto tables, without a thought to the misery others might be suffering, those hundreds of folks huddled in that miserable heat.

I make myself sick sometimes. I could have walked through that crowd and handed out a little change. "What!" you might say, "They'd just take it and spend it on booze or drugs!" Perhaps so. Perhaps so. But then, a few of them might have spent it on food, or diapers for the babies.

Yes, this is Las Vegas, the United States of America, the richest country in the world! It is a city of sunshine, but also of shadows, and the shameful darkness of those shadows extend their dreary arms across this land, marring its beauty, turning the spectacular into the tawdry, the laughter into tears.