Las Vegas – city of attractions and distractions

  • Living
  • Monday, 07 Sep 2015

Las Vegas, a city of excesses right smack in the Mojave Desert. Photo: AFP

I’ve now watched a man lose US$600,000 at a roulette table. And he didn’t even bat an eyelid.

Yes, that’s RM2.54mil blown away on the number 14, which the spinning silver ball resolutely refused to land on.

Wanting to escape work briefly, my husband and I had visited Nevada to commune with nature at the magnificent Grand Canyon. Very briefly, an 800-word count limit would be a gross injustice to this natural wonder. If fate allows you to see it, do.

Awed by this bucket-list spectacle, we then headed for a different type of spectacle: Las Vegas. Perhaps best known for lending its name to the first of the CSI series, as well as for its lights, sights and excesses right smack in the Mojave Desert.

As this was also a belated anniversary break, and given our spartan lodgings while traversing the canyon, we treated ourselves to a stay at The Bellagio, most famous for its dancing fountains. As if to underscore the city’s status as a haven for gamblers, what should have been the “Lobby” button in the lift was simply named “Casino”.

Ironically, neither my husband nor I know the first thing about gambling.

After sloughing off layers of sunblock from our time spent outdoors, we dressed and headed out for dinner. Las Vegas at night is a dizzying sight with spectacular lights, neon signs and billboards. After dinner, we headed back to the hotel to take in the action at the casino.

We spotted the aforementioned roulette table by the crowd milling around it. The minimum bet for the table was US$1,000 (RM4,220). We threaded our way through the crowd to a vantage spot. Two gentlemen were playing – both inconspicuously dressed and looking like regular uncles, belying the high stakes.

Curious about the crowd’s ooohs and aaahs and tsk tsks, I casually asked a man standing beside me what was going on. Having a better understanding of roulette, this Frenchman explained, “The guy on the left has been betting on the same number and so far he’s lost US$400,000. This is now his last US$100,000.” Dumbfounded, we stood rooted on the spot, riveted by someone who could have technically fed a tiny island. Maybe even a tiny country.

A couple of rounds went by punctuated by his occasional grunts of irritation. Finally he thumped the table in frustration as the crowd groaned, signalling his loss. We made to go but then he nonchalantly lifted a finger at the croupier, who knowingly nodded and brought over a cheque, which the man simply signed. Another US$100,000 (RM422,000) and an espresso.

My husband teased, “Flash him!” I retorted, “What?!” “Do you know that that one chip he’s holding could be a down payment for a house for us in Germany?” The Frenchman beside us chuckled. We watched, as within the next 30 minutes or so, that amount too was lost.

As the dazed crowd dispersed, the Frenchman said, “It’s not about the money because clearly he has more than enough to spend.”

“Maybe it’s about power to beat fate or the odds or whatever,” I responded as we bid farewell to each other.

We then headed out for the Fremont Street Experience, which is a pedestrian mall and attraction in downtown Las Vegas. It was famously featured in U2’s video for I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, our prime reason for going there.

To me, it was worlds apart from the Las Vegas Strip, where we were lodging. Doubtless, it also housed some recognisable symbols of Las Vegas. For instance, Vegas Vic, that famous neon sign of the cowboy, the Golden Nugget Gambling Hall and the casino where Bono and The Edge stood singing their 1987 hit; my husband and I made a beeline for it to take pictures.

In all, the street had a carnival-like atmosphere with people zip lining under the canopy overhead while bands and singers performed at different spots. “Elvis” was there, dressed in a spangled purple bodysuit, entertaining the mostly inebriated crowd of bachelor and bachelorette party groups with You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog.

There were also “artistes” of other sorts, who at least to my eyes, looked pretty much down on their luck. They made a living standing around topless or with their nether regions criss-crossed with black duct tape. One man was walking around with just a thong on. Visitors could take pictures with them for a token dollar or so. Frankly I felt sorry for them.

However, I must admit that I did eventually pay for one picture – with “Michael Jackson”. He’d looked incredibly authentic until he said in a guttural voice, “I only pose for a tip, sweetheart.”

We had initially planned to then walk to the Little White Wedding Chapel where so many luminaries were married quickly – and sometimes briefly. However, we would have had to walk through desolate streets, and so we opted to ride a cab instead.

Our cabbie, a New Yorker, was willing to drive us past the church.

“So, how did you find Fremont Street?” he asked.

“Well, it’s different from the Strip,” we replied guardedly. (Nobody wants to dis someone else’s neighbourhood, right?)

“You know, to get the Fremont Street experience, you should ideally be drunk and with a group of people. If you go there sober and with your five senses intact, you’re probably going to look at everything and be sad. When you’re drunk, they can be kinda funny.”

Aptly explained.

“So, did you guys see ‘The Ham’?”

“The ‘what’?”

“The Ham. She’s this woman with like these large knockers? Who walks around topless and lets people take pictures of her?”

“No sir, we didn’t see her.” (Thankfully).

Eventually, we passed the Little Chapel and ended back at our hotel. We turned off all the lights in our room and quietly sat in front of our ceiling-to-floor window contemplating the sparkling city below. We both agreed: it was surreal.

Before we left the next day, however, we had to give the slot machines a go. My husband quickly lost his dollar. I chose a green machine vividly decorated with leprechauns.

I fed my dollar bill into the blinking slot and blindly hit a few buttons. A downward sounding tone signalled my loss of 25 cents, and then I gained a dollar, and then lost 75 cents again. I gave it a final shot and won 85 cents. I decided to cut my losses and cash in. The machine spat out a receipt for US$1.50. A modest win, but a win nonetheless.

And nothing as obscene as squandering US$600,000.

Brenda Benedict is a Malaysian living in Washington DC. She still cannot believe that someone could have lost that much money, which could otherwise have been used for far nobler causes.

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