The pandemic forced tourists to see us hospitality workers as the real people we were all along


"Please check your appearance” — back-of-the-house mirror

I am looking down the length of a massage table that’s dressed in rich linen. I am using it as a writing table. I’ve used this room as a writing space for 10 years; before that, I used it as a place to hide my hangovers. To steal a line from Virginia Woolf, this is a room of my own (except on Mondays and Tuesdays, when it belongs to a different woman with different things to hide).

I am an aesthetician; it is my job to beautify and rejuvenate. This room is full of bottled potential, perfumed purpose. Things emulsify in this room; they marry, compress, and relax. Things disappear in this room: worry, dehydration, money. I disappear in this room. I am just a pair of lavender hands and the word certainly. I am a voice floating outside closed doors, whispering, May I enter? In retrospect, I have trained my whole life for this career. Hyper-vigilance born of a dysfunctional childhood turned out to be just the trait required to meet the high standards set by Forbes in order to be awarded five-star recognition for a resort spa in Las Vegas.

I know just when to unleash a cascade of elegant variations of Are you comfortable? I can sense when you’ve become overstimulated by the roulette wheel on the casino floor, when you’re afraid of solitude but someone booked this service for you and it becomes my job to ease you into the terrifying ecstasy of self-care.

I become whoever you need me to be in this room. Everything adjusts: temperature, lighting, sound, texture. Even I am pliable, adaptable, at your service, needless. Do you need me to co-sign your delusion? It would be my pleasure. Need me to listen to your confessions, your hungers, your bloated grief? I am a vacuum of space; pour into me and I will take form. My nervous system and my belief system are muted. (A co-worker of mine once burst a blood vessel in her eye while stifling a sneeze — thinking that the autonomic, the histamine-driven processes too vulgar or human.) This has always been the safest angle for me, to be a hovering kindness in a gold-trimmed kimono, a magnetic badge announcing my name.

If I forget my name badge, I can borrow a spare one from the drawer of abandoned name badges. I can be anyone. Who do you need me to be?

*****

In Las Vegas resorts and casinos, the illusion of timelessness, of endless indulgence must move in a seamless, liquid way that hides the real, the blemished. The hospitality machine can never appear too complicated. It mucks up the fantasy that we workers are always available, but we exist only when you’re hungry or thirsty, lonely or bored. A guest asks me: Where do the cocktail waitresses come from? They seem to just materialize from patterns in the wallpaper, or up from the manic carpet like beaming parade floats, never a run in their pantyhose or a pulse in their outstretched arm. Hospitality holograms, I joked with the guest, and yet it’s not too far a stretch. We are in charge of the levers and pulleys, the trap doors and subterranean tunnels, where, beneath the action, a whole underground community marches along a less ritzy runway lined with scavenged carpet from imploded casinos and scuffed-up banquet chairs saved from the abyss of liquidation sales. Hospitality holograms play chess in the dealer’s lounge, flaunting perfectly manicured hands — hands like butter, hands that speak, levitate, pitch, rake. When these hands are in motion, the casino floor looks like a field of spinning windmills shuffling luck itself. Hospitality holograms shop at the employee store, essentially an enormous vending machine filled with travel-size Excedrin, Cup Noodles, and rows and rows of pantyhose.

*****

At first, I was surprised that everyone was coming to Las Vegas during a global health crisis. Did they want a slice of the slashed hotel room prices? Did they want a glimpse of the bizarre emptiness? Some of the tourists were appalled that the virus even existed in Vegas. What kind of monster sneeze-guards Vegas? It’s an oxymoron and a threat to the whole architecture of distraction.

Initially, I was angry at having to weigh a paycheck against my health and my family’s health — angry at having to carry this glittering ball we call commerce over the threshold of human decency. And yet, while presenting a tourist with their “mask coaster,” I was often told that I was the first stranger to touch them since the world shut down. This cut right through my PPE and into my heart. They’d remove their face covering and place it onto the disposable luxury paper towel, where it waited for 50 minutes like a blue breathable nightmare finally ignored. Tourists were escaping — four quarantine walls, wildfires, the shrinking spirits of darkening teenage children; they were running from a screen which tallied pandemic deaths with 9/11 airplane icons.

The intelligence in service positions is anticipatory empathic dexterity. There is wisdom in hands-on work. Jobs deemed “manual labor” are not less meaningful as a vocation, especially in Las Vegas, where attunement to others’ needs is the backbone of the city.

*****

Now Las Vegas is at full capacity again. The plexiglass was removed like a pandemic striptease. I feel the fullness of the tourists’ touch deficit. I am the person they imagined over the telephone, weeks ago, the pleasure promised with a held credit card. Their desire rubs up against my convictions against capitalism, corruption, greed. It says, You’re the one who gets to be the first — to feel their loneliness, to witness their undressed wound of isolation. How can I turn away from the messiness of our biology, the petri dish of belonging? As the pandemic leaks into its third year, and business has steadily increased to an unsustainable level, I realize it’s not the grim spectacle of Vegas during a pandemic that’s causing the increase in business; rather, it’s the same spell that has always made this place so hypnotic, only now it’s garnished with a fat slice of nostalgia, creating an even bigger ache for a hit of forgetfulness.

*****

Everyone tries to pin down Las Vegas, to stub it out into a smoldering noun they can describe and thus extinguish, but you can’t capture Vegas. It’s a shapeshifting ether made of the collective yearning of its patrons. Vegas is the sound an elevator door makes at 3 a.m., feet drunkenly padding a carpeted hallway lined with sloppy room service trays and cannabis clouds. A boardroom full of marketing execs can’t predict what the city will do next. Vegas is the perpetual wardrobe change. It is a sensation — orgasm, heat stroke. When the pandemic hollowed out the city, when it was empty of the energy of potential, Vegas became colossal buildings with dry fountains. Do fountains even exist when there is no one to shove out of the way to get a good snapshot?

Vegas and desire have a symbiotic relationship. The Vegas vortex calls to the wanting: a cowboy, a Mormon settler, a mobster, a nuclear physicist, a president with a New Deal, a lone gambler, an outlaw, thousands of broken souls who are summoned to the Mojave Desert, by what? The dirt. A Vegas vortex begging to be materialized. The people came, pointed to the vast emptiness, and called it “The Future.”

My father was one of those souls. He was emotionally troubled and wickedly smart, working tirelessly to outwit a disability that resulted from contracting polio as a child. At 23, he rode out from Florida on a motorcycle he’d rebuilt to accommodate his leg brace. He lived in Naked City day-rate motels hustling card games until he landed a real gig as a blackjack dealer at the Jackpot Casino. He was captivated for the rest of his life by the Vegas vortex. Eventually, he became the director of the World Series of Poker, but not without handing over his physical and mental health in exchange for success. Bosses kept promising him an eventual place to sit down. He finally got it when he was forced to retire after his leg brace shattered during a fitting, and he moved on to a wheelchair.

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*****

The real Las Vegas is beneath Paradise. It’s the squeaky wheel of the bellman’s cart, the cleaning crew’s “Pardon the Mess” sign. It is the casino-cage mothers, shrinking in their sameness, graveyard chip-runners, hostesses with megabuck grins and hot-sauce holsters. They all wave to their children who slip by silently year after year like monorails every hour on the hour. The real Vegas is the toddler in the 24-hour daycare, two blocks west of the Strip. It’s the Hallway of Sighs, underneath the casino, where workers come and go, where they rebuild and disassemble their identities each shift, their wordless grief exhaled in transit among the hospitality haunts of decades past, still lingering as an omen in overhead fluorescence. It’s the employee escalator up to the casino floor that eats dreams and spits out rotator cuff surgeries in exchange. The real Vegas is a construction cone suffocating a flyer for the Leghorn Bar at the Chicken Ranch, it’s an employee garage just before sunrise off Koval and Spring Mountain, it lives in the armpit of Industrial Road, between a package liquor shop and the Little Darlings sign, which during the quarantine read: Sorry, we’re clothed.

You don’t hear about the stories of the hospitality holograms, stories about how design decisions, abusive scheduling, and service expectations affect the health of employees and their families. This is because calculated distance from the guest is as paramount as attention to detail. Invisibility is part of the required uniform; it’s stuffed inside the numbered garment bag sailing the mile-long conveyor in the back of the house. Bringing visibility to the humans who make up roughly 60 percent of the Vegas workforce would dampen the ethical amnesia; it would challenge the idea that Vegas is an honest city, the cure for the common life. It would illuminate what is sacrificed to keep the vortex pulsing.

*****

What has made me hopeful during the pandemic is the way it forced a crack in the veneer of the simplicity of hospitality. The reprieve the guest imagines when they book their trip online suddenly shifts to discomfort when they arrive and see us masked up and risking exposure for the sake of the “essential” pursuit of pleasure. A twinkle of accountability in their eyes gives me hope. My conversations with guests are no longer about the crab legs in the buffet, the most hydrating eye cream, what show to see on a Saturday night; they are about loss, most of it ambiguous and unfelt until arriving to this place that promises to suspend reality.

They share their experiences and ask me about mine. They ask if I have kids, how I managed to show up for work and juggle distance learning. They ask if my family is safe. I don’t tell them that even though I am fully vaccinated I had a breakthrough case of COVID, which I then passed onto my daughter. I don’t attempt to explain the complexities of contact tracing on the Strip, where a guest might come in contact with hundreds of people from all over the world in under an hour. Instead, I savor this tiny instance of humanity in our evolving interactions. This experience of being seen transcends my role in the service industry and allows me to be a real person, momentarily. It’s just my hands on humans without the division of class blocking the connection.

Storytelling has the power to create visible tension; it has the power to expose the underbelly of tourism, and with it socioeconomic inequality. Each time there is a genuine interaction between guest and employee, thanks to the shared trauma of a global pandemic, I feel hopeful for the visibility of the hospitality industry. Could Vegas, the sufferer of perpetual imposter syndrome, be craving enlightenment as its next charade? Is the vortex hungry for the spectacle of authenticity? Only the dirt knows for sure. Its radioactive persistence is sure to keep us pivoting for the next big thing to go boom in the desert. Φ

Jennifer Battisti is a lifelong Nevadan. Her latest work is the experimental memoir Off Boulder Highway (Tolsun Books, 2021).

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