Most of my colleagues, even those who consider themselves “open-minded” and would call themselves “critical thinkers,” express deep knee-jerk loathing for the City of Las Vegas. This is my 35th trip to this fair hamlet, and while I’ve got a healthy streak of masochism running through my being, I’m no idiot (in the classic, traditional sense of the term; besides, my masochism tends to involve partial nudity, a rubber ball, and a leather riding crop). Anyway, as the plane begins its descent and I notice Las Vegas, appearing as a glittery bejeweled outcropping in a desert, I begin to worry about how much Vegas trash-talking I’m going to have to hear. As the landing gear descends, I furtively gulp my third micro-bottle of Dewar’s and think, “No, surely not … even the most stick-in-the mud sociologists will appreciate the complexities, contradictions, and multiple facets this city, like any city, presents to the onlooker, ESPECIALLY the trained onlooker (i.e., sociologist).
We’re barreling down the runway, the plane’s wing flaps straining to slow us down, and all the iPhones and Blackberrys spring to life as though they’ve all been simultaneously animated by some geeky deity in the pantheon of gods. Hell, I’m no different. I turn on my iPhone and just as start to plug in the earbuds–and thereby allow The Germs to drown out the usual stupid phone calls wherein passengers scream “Okay, stay there, I’ve just landed, I’ll be right out,” as though they’re the ones who flew the fucking plane–a cacophony of conversations erupts. I realize at that moment that this airplane truly is full of sociologists. “Okay, well, they appear to be happy,” I think. “But maybe they’re just happy they didn’t die in a fiery crash. Let’s give them benefit of the doubt,” I decide upon deeply colloguing with myself.
As I make my way to the exit, I look to my right and notice once again the Captain’s official uniform cap. It hangs from a depressingly standardized flip-out peg on the wall of the cockpit, with the top of the hat against the wall and the inside of the hat facing out. While boarding the plane four hours ago I noticed the cap, which in itself carries little interest. What intrigued me was that the Captain had placed a photograph inside of the clear plastic pouch attached to the underside of his cap, the lining that rests upon his pate when he’s wearing the military-looking lid. In the picture I see him, a woman who appears to be his wife, a mid-teens female, and a girl who looks to be about 10. It’s a staged picture, but they seem happy. They’re smiling. Wherever they are, it’s a sunny day. Life is good. In that moment. But why does it carry this picture with him? And in his hat, of all places? Why not his wallet? Or his briefcase? (Maybe I’m just feeling guilty because I “carry” my personal pictures “in” my iPhone and iPad.)
During the flight I had been thinking about this hat/picture frame, and on the way out I began wondering what my fellow sociologists would make of it. Superstition? Sentiment? A simple matter of a human personalizing his workplace. After all, the cockpit is to the pilot what the cubicle is to … most American middle class worker people. Then there’s the whole line of thought I suppressed while we were in the air: What if there’s a pragmatic reason for the picture’s placement inside his cap? Is the cap fire resistant? Is it a way for the Captain’s hat, and therefore the Captain himself, to be identified in the event of a crash? If that’s the case, then the people in charge don’t really know who’s flying this plane, in which case we’re all fucked and tattooed in the same hole. Or maybe it’s a combination of personal function and superstition, as though the pilot has decided that if he’s going to die in this airplane, he wants to be able to grab his cap and leave this world (by crashing into it, no less) while staring at those he loves most in the universe.
As a lump appears in my throat and tears begin welling in my eyes, I decide that I’m going to love everyone and everything on this trip. Don’t worry. It happens to me quite often. From nowhere these moments of rarefied, suffusive emotion absorb me, and I embrace a deep, if fleeting, love for humankind. In this case it lasts until I cross the threshold dividing the plane from the jetway.
The first thing you notice when you fly to Vegas–aside from its appearance on the desert landscape, which to me is comparable to (or with?) the presence of a darling freckle near the pubis of a lover on whom I enjoy performing cunnilingus–is the HEAT. I step into the jetway and the heat plasters me. Walking up the ramp into the terminal I can feel the desert beckoning me with a diabolical cackle: “Hello, water vessel. I am now going to suck you dry. When you drink, I drink. So drink often and in large amounts. Otherwise you will die.” So I oblige the demon desert and stop at the nearest bar. I don’t have to walk far. It’s situated about 100 feet from the gate. Which gate? Hey, remember, it’s Vegas. You can find a bar within 100 feet of ANY gate. Let’s not even talk about the slot machines. Damn. If I had a nickel for every slot machine in the LAS airport, I’d … well .. probably try to gamble those nickels and quadruple my money.
At the bar I decide to mix things up: “Gimme a Cracka!.” The bartender, nonplussed, says “What the fuck?” I clear up the confusion: “A White Russian Hillbilly.” Now, most of my kinfolk come from Appalachia, and we’re proud to call ourselves hillbillies, but of course not everyone around whom I use the term knows that. Still, though, the bartender doesn’t know what a WR Hillbilly is. “It’s a standard White Russian,” I explain in my most professorial tone of voice, “but with a splash of SoCo and a pinch of Jack Daniels.” Now he gets it. “And make it a double, in a plastic cup. Because I got some serious shit to explode.” Now, here’s a word of advice. Never say “explode” in an airport. It freaks people out, and it’s actually a crime. I think. Or at least a gross violation of normative conduct. I drink my WRH in three gulps when suddenly I realize the company I’m keeping: A phalanx of angry-looking TSA agents.
Ultimately they buy my explanation: It was an innocent, if stupid, slip of the tongue brought on by the uniquely delirious delusion that the City of Las Vegas induces in its visitors: That you are in a special place where anything goes, all the time. The airport is dressed up like a casino, for god’s sake, and every casino is dressed up to be about as disorienting as anything you’ve ever experienced. Like I say, they finally relent, half-heartedly accept my explanation, and let me go on my way. But not without a stern warning from a man with deflated baby pools for jowls: “You better be more careful in the future; or else we might not be so … so … lenient.” If an anal probe is lenient, I definitely don’t want to experience harsh.
Four body cavity searches and three hours of interrogation later, and I’m in baggage claim trying to find “a red bag, with black trim, on wheels with a handle thing.” The “lost baggage agent” seems as lost as my bag. No help. I even offer a bribe to this poor lost soul, this agent who’s probably been demoted so many times she’s now feeling lucky to be lost and rudderless in the American Airlines juggernaut. When the bribe doesn’t work, I know I’m fucked. My bag is gone. No weed smoking for me this week, I glumly conclude. (Yeah, always pack the weed in your checked bag. They rarely investigate, especially when you do what I do: stuff it inside of a lubed up, recently-used looking vibrator on which you’ve written a man’s name with a Sharpie.)
Suddenly, probably from the heavens, a man appears. He’s dashing in his black suit, white shirt, black tie. I look down and see that he’s holding my bag. How do I know it’s my bag? Because the tag on my bag advertises my advocacy for DRUG REFORM (ironic given its contents, huh?). Turns out the guy is a limo driver. A wave of nausea runs over me as I realize that he might just as well be Jesus. I run to the nearest trash can and vomit. Once I’ve finished upchucking my bad American Airlines lunch, he tenderly takes out his cloth handkerchief and plucks off a few chunks of vomit clinging to my chin hairs. “Sir, may I offer you a limousine ride to your hotel?”
And that’s how I ended up getting a limo ride from the second greatest airport in the world to one of the greatest places in the world: “The Strip” of Las Vegas, the bosom of the city, where for the next 6 days my life will nearly end, but I’ll have one hell of a time.
To be continued ….