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Desert Companion

In Excess, There is Hope

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Mandalay Selfie
Illustration by Brent Holmes

1. The idea was to drive the Strip from Sahara to the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign and ponder the immensity of the Route 91 shooting in hopes of finding some sense, or insight, or cause for tentative optimism to be shared in this essay you’re reading right now. But on the afternoon of October 5, a punishing construction bottleneck in the shadow of the Fontainebleau (yes, it’s still there, simultaneously gleaming and peeling, a startling portrait of glamour in decay) has brought southbound Strip traffic to a complete freeze, which is not helped by the fact that, additionally, about 40 percent of the drivers around me are also gawking at two young women improbably jouncing along the sidewalk in impossibly high and tight Daisy Duke short-shorts as though this past week didn’t exist.

Death and allure and mundane urban hassle; it’s an aggravating, silly, heartbreaking tableau on this raw afternoon. But — let’s do the good news first — it’s a provisional sign that we’ll be okay. Look at us, still honking, still leering: I’m happy to report the Strip has not lost its basic power to attract and antagonize us. (But, screw the literary conceit: I do snag the first U-turn available and take I-15 to Tropicana.)

 

2. On the freeway: That thing you do where, at first, you look-but-don’t-look-but-can’t-help-but-look, just teasing your peripheral vision with it, testing yourself, like the way you can’t resist touching the edge of a very sharp knife or a razor because its sharpness just seems to dare you to touch it, but you have to apply just the right pressure so you can tap the sharp edge without cutting yourself, and you almost make a little game of it, until you’ve mastered the game to the point where you can look right at Mandalay Bay and bear how sharp and salient it is now. No longer a resort, never just a resort ever again, but a stubborn afterimage of a building that a madman weaponized one terrible historic night. It will take some time to get used to this new structure in our midst.

 

3. I confess that on some astoundingly naive preconscious level, I thought Las Vegas was metaphysically immune to something like this.

For example, when we learned that five of the incurably unsmiling and joyless 9/11 hijackers had made several inconsequential visits to Las Vegas the summer before the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, I remember dimly thinking some species of, Well, yeah, why would they target us? I reasoned that our city’s bumptious, empty charisma and the fundamental gratuitousness of our very existence somehow put us safely below such grave notice. We’re the loping, harmless louche. What did we ever do to anybody?

 

KNPR's State of Nevada
Oct 05, 2017

A Solemn Scene On The Strip

 

4. Passing CityCenter may give you a longing ache as you remember the so-called Vdara death ray, how slapstick that was — projectile light emanating from the mirrored windows of a casino, aggressively overtanning guests at the pool. That was the worst of it, once upon a time, that cartoon analogue now on the other side of a vast gulf.

 

5. If you want to visit the impromptu memorial that has blossomed on the median at Reno Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard, it’s easiest to park at the Excalibur. Like pretty much everywhere else on the Strip these days, you’ll have to pay for parking, a minor-key indignity that will feel newly mocking and mercenary in the light of this tragedy.

Maybe it’s me — maybe my starvation for optimism was such that I would desperately chew at whatever was at hand — but something random happened that made me smile. In one of the restrooms at the Excalibur, the automatic paper-towel dispensers are on this setting that unfurls sections of paper towel at absurdly luxurious lengths — two, two-and-half, three feet of pristine white ribbon heedlessly pouring out as though in defiant celebration, as though in a stubborn affirmation of excess that suggested, again, some faint pulse of vital Vegas ethos beating beneath. If this is impoverished and desperate religious thinking that deserves to be laughed at, I’m okay with it.

(Excessive, too: A hoard of 23 guns in a luxury suite. Excessive, too: Six-hour waits at blood banks because the outpouring of support has been overwhelming.)

Support comes from

6. At the memorial on Reno Avenue, amid those grieving and reflecting, you will inevitably see people taking selfies in front of the candles, flowers, and photos. In this context, the ritual posture of the selfie — phone high, chin up, hip cantered — will strike you as especially indecent and narcissistic. You will see people taking selfies in front of Mandalay Bay, too, like I did. Some tourists were even angling their phones to ensure the 32nd floor’s two jagged black deadeye windows were looming over their shoulder.

You might think of these people as grief-porn predators and remark to yourself about the Inappropriateness of Selfies at a Time and Place Like This. I did just that, sublimating grief and confusion into misdirected outrage, sending Scott Dickensheets a how-could-they?! text going off on Selfies at a Time and Place Like This. “Deathies? Griefies? Grelfies?” I wrote.

Scott put it in perspective for me: “For some, they’re evidence that we lead ‘interesting’ lives. For others, perhaps it’s a touchpoint between their small lives and some larger reality.”

He’s right. For now, we are that larger, documentary reality. We’re otherwise used to being so unreal for visitors — used to being an exotic backdrop for a temporary, parallel life. I imagine that for many tourists, our clockless, radiant, myth-rich city is existing in time, in history for the first time.

 

7. A lot of people thought it was cheesy or lurid, but I really liked the “What happens here, stays here” ad campaign that began, wow, way back in 2002. It was more than a marketing slogan. It was an era when privacy and secrecy were our gold. The campaign turned them into magic commodities that allowed tourists to break rules and taboos they couldn’t break at home, to try out other selves, sample other identities. It was an era when temporary anonymity was a hall pass to a lab of harmless lifestyle experimentation.

It turns out that privacy could also be a tool for committing calculated, psychopathic mass murder; anonymity, an exploit for a madman to hack.

It’s strange to think that the “What happens here” era of Vegas as a palladium of secret sexy naughty permissive loaner lives was so … innocent.

That era is over. In the coming age of bag scans and background checks, what will we sell instead?

 

8. I had heard reports that Mandalay Bay was eerily quiet and empty to a degree that suggested, ooh, some profound, incurable infection by the spirit of death itself. I’ll admit I had a gawker’s interest in this desolation, particularly since I’d grown up in and around casinos — skateboarding in their parking garages, dropping quarters in their arcades — and so to me they’ve always been sites of dependably infrastructural festivity. Open 24 hours and perpetually alight, they are to me sturdily, profligately real.

It was certainly subdued. It was not, however, incurably infected by the spirit of death itself.

 

9. Conspiracy theory is just religion in different clothes. Both are a form of collaborative fantasy wrought through willful, specific, precise misunderstandings. Religion and conspiracy theory cynically hijack the otherwise lovely concept of uncertainty.

You will inevitably meet Route 91 truthers in real life or on social media. Treat them like you would someone trying to push a religious tract in your hand — as hopelessly deluded beyond reason, probably best ignored.

 

10. Friends from elsewhere ask me: How did this happen? Aren’t Strip resorts outfitted with sophisticated security and surveillance systems? Well, yes, but: Those eyes in the sky and security teams were watching the money the whole time, not the guests.

 

11. It should feel weird and wrong to see an Elvis serenading a newlywed couple in front of the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, and also Korean girls doing choreographed leaps with selfie sticks, and also people at the memorial, stony and red-eyed in their private grief, and also Illinois carpenter Greg Zanis planting a white cross for each of the dead, and also local Gilbert Perez herding tourists for hammy photos, hustling for tips as though, again, the last week simply didn’t exist.

This was all happening at the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign October 5, this swirl of giddiness and grief, but it didn’t feel weird or wrong. It felt, instead, matter-of-fact and sound — maybe because, as they say, life simply goes on, or because Las Vegas, so practiced at excess and extremes, can absorb the contradictions. We do and also in everything: abundance amid scarcity, artifice as originality, hospitality alongside rootlessness and transience, dumb luck and programmed pleasure, too much of everything delivered with scientific efficiency.

A great pain has interrupted the great pleasure we offer. We will absorb this contradiction, too. I don’t want us to stop being the nation’s loping, harmless louche. But I like the new questions we are asking. Not, What did we ever do to anybody? Rather: What can we do for everybody? What can I do for you? 

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