Funny how a sudden craving for a deep-fried Twinkie can grip my soul, but a few hours of drinking on East Fremont always does it for me -- something about my body's early-warning system, sensing hangover! hangover!, clamoring for greasy food product to sponge up the Maker's Mark sloshing around my guts. Besides, it's only 99 cents.
So, off to Mermaid's it was -- you know, the casino with the Amazonian she-hawkers out front who look like intergalactic refugees from planet Loud Fabric. This was more than a stroll up the tourist crawl, mind you. This would be a late Saturday night excursion that would require me to venture into the very thick of the Fremont Street Experience.
Yes: There. Whenever plunging beneath the Experience canopy is unavoidable, I have to steel myself, hold my breath a bit, as though I'm about to dive into icy water -- something about my body's early-warning system readying itself for contact with the questionably dressed shoals of stumblers and gawkers who support our economy. You know, The Others.
I harbor a deeper, inner resistance as well. Intellectually, I've long considered myself a sworn foe of the Fremont Street Experience. In terms of urban aesthetics, the Experience canopy makes as much as sense as putting a lid on a Roman candle, robbing the Glitter Gulch casinos of their belligerently gaudy contrast with the night sky. The Fremont Street Experience also erased from the city's map one of the few streets in town that's actually fun to drive. And, of course, more than a smidge of my resentment comes from the fact that the Experience's parking garage and its wicked stepsister, the mall-turned-morgue Neonopolis, were shoehorned into place at the expense of small business owners forced out with eminent domain (a ham-handed move by the city that cost it millions in legal settlements.) I''m not the only one who holds this principled grudge against the Experience. I have many friends -- snoots like me who consider themselves Vegas connoisseurs -- who nurture their contempt like an exotic weed. And those officious security goons and bland junk kiosks? Don't get me started.
But that deep-fried Twinkie beckoned. Of course, my timing couldn't have been worse. The hourly light show was in full blaze, some low-grade LSD nightmare that involved gaming chips kicking up their showgirl legs. The touroid gawkers and stumblers were thickly amassed, with their margarita vases and sacklike clothes and gaping mouths.
Oh, I tried. I tried to hate it. I tried to sneer. I tried to shore up my usual postured contempt as I cut through the crowd like a barracuda in dumb hipster jeans.
Instead, I stopped and craned my head canopyward and gawked along with them. Oh, how I gawked.
Fine. You got me. I confess: I like the Fremont Street Experience. I didn't realize it, but I've been liking it for years. I like how the canopy's lovably ill-wrought tastelessness has turned it into some bleating inverse of the Sistine Chapel. I like how it sits on the front door of the East Fremont Entertainment District, glittering and stupid, daring us to question the invisible line that separates tourist and local, visitor and resident, Other and Us. I like its freakish, misfired wholesomeness. I like the absurdity of how the canopy parades chintzy Vegas stereotypes along a quintessential Vegas street. I like seeing a cheap, muscular spectacle wrest five minutes of attention from the brains of the addled and distracted -- a rich metaphor for Las Vegas if there ever was one.
And a long-lived metaphor, no? The Experience has been around for nearly 15 years. That's historic by Vegas standards, and in this suicidally protean town, I'll take my history where I can get it.
O troubled pedestrian mall, you are not aging well, but that is our brand of grim glamour. O troublesome canopy, you affirm one of the central propositions of Las Vegas: Done correctly, bad taste can transport us. Happily, happily I gawk.
As for Neonopolis? Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Ask me about that in another 10 years.
Andrew Kiraly is editor of Desert Companion.