I have a confession: I haven’t been to Las Vegas in nearly eight years, but I still tell people I grew up there. In fact, I stopped living there full time in 2000, before I knew how to shave or how terrible I should think Papa Roach is. But I still cling to Clark County for reasons selfish, social, and drastically existential. Since leaving Vegas, I’ve lived in Central Pennsylvania. Central PA, for the lhonored who have not been forced to spend much time here, is a wasteland that I openly refuse to call home. There is not merely a lack of culture or life here, but a persistent attitude against those things, a desire to maintain a version of American society that is unanimously hated within its own boundaries. The mentality between Lancaster and Harrisburg is one of self-abuse. Social and economic programs that promise vitality are regularly kicked to the shitpile in favor of nothing. When the city of Harrisburg meant to rebuild a defunct trash incinerator as a jobs project, it failed and cost the now-bankrupt city millions. When a recent audit tried to decide whether the government or the company they hired was to blame, they picked a third party: the people. While the rest of the country acted in disgust toward Penn State for the Sandusky child rape scandal, you didn’t have to go further than any sports bar here to find defenders of not just Penn State, not just the papal Joe Paterno, but even Sandusky himself. Things could be worse, but they definitely are not allowed to be better.
In contrast, Las Vegas is one of the most frequently changing cities in the world. One year it will be Disneyland, the next it will be Mad Max territory. The powers of Vegas have a never-ending faith in the desperation of those still sleeping deep enough to feel the American Dream, and the people of Las Vegas are less the servants at the world’s largest country club and more the palm fronds in the winds off Mt. Charleston, not being enforced by strongmen in pinstripes carrying six-shooters and fountain pens but natural forces, the rising of heat and dropping of cold in the dogged human spirit that only wishes to expand upon the Dream. It is less a city of fear and loathing as it is a city of optimism in favor of cynicism. And it is this optimism that reinforces the need for nightly live pirate shows, shark aquariums, fountain shows set to Boticelli, $2 all-you-can-eat buffets, volcanos set to David Bowie, a living Caesar, recreations of Venice or Paris or New York, all with a layer of self-awareness surrounding the schmaltz of the shows, the plastic of the cityscapes, the sin it proudly touts that passes green paper over green felt table-tops. But when you counted your losses and returned to Grand Rapids, Boise, Seattle, or, worst of all, anywhere in the god-forsaken grease stain of California, the actors and guards and dealers returned to Somerset, Henderson, or Fremont.
My father drove a cab in Las Vegas for nearly 20 years. As he gained more experience and respect, he was given weekend night shifts on The Strip, possibly one of the busiest and most profitable areas to be a cab driver. He had plenty of stories about tourists, about degenerates, about celebrities (a shortlist includes Axl Rose, Steve Martin, and Gallagher). Amongst the locals, there is a certain ambivalence toward Vegas’ reputation as the semen-stained sheet in America’s laundry bin. When Prince Harry was caught on camera skinny-dipping in Vegas (giving the world a firsthand shot of the Crown Jewels), the world exploded in a tabloid fever while Vegas shrugged and ordered more shrimp. This is a town that used to be run by mobsters, where the chief sights in its golden age were the Rat Pack getting shitfaced and fucking anything in sequins. The only time I can remember the Vegas populace taking news with anything more than a frown was when the federal government wanted to use Yucca Mountain — a mere 100 miles from Vegas — as a dump site for nuclear waste. Not that Vegas is any stranger to radiation. 96% of Nevada is federal land and was a hotspot for nuke testing in the 50s. When nuclear testing was opened for public viewing (seriously), Vegas treated it as yet another tourist attraction. The highrise Sands casino (which was demolished in 1996 as my father took me to the blast site when I was seven) offered free goggles and window views of the mushroom clouds, offering attendees “atomic cocktails.” I’m uncertain if there has been any locale in history so devoted to having people come and go at the denigration of its people, its land, and its own air. Pish-posh to your fallout worries; there’s money to be made.
I grew up in Downtown Las Vegas off of East Charleston Boulevard. My mother and father were split, but my sister and I lived with my mother (even as she slipped deeper into mental illness and lost her job as a registered nurse in an ICU). The Showboat Hotel and Casino (now demolished), sporting the world’s largest bowling alley, was only a few blocks away. The highlight of our summer days included dancing on the hot asphalt in our bare feet while we waited for the ice cream truck, throwing rocks at scorpions, or calling 118 and placing bets on the top temperature (“I swear it’s 114! Watch, I’m right!”). We rarely did the staples of Las Vegas, meaning I’ve never seen the Blue Man Group, Siegfried & Roy, or David Copperfield, and our favorite family outing was to the In-N-Out Burger by the airport.
The one thing I suppose I’ll always remember about Las Vegas in contrast to Pennsylvania is the devastating effect trees seem to have on a landscape. When we first moved out here, my mother always said she felt like she was living in a tunnel, trees towering over every power line and the horizon something you need to be reminded about. In Las Vegas, you can see mountains that are nearly a hundred miles away. It’s an almost flat surface with no foliage or fog to get in the way of the purple mountains’ majesty. Lest we forget the Southwest’s famous dry heat. If you’ve never experienced such a thing, take my word for it: 100 or more degrees with no claustrophobic, strangling, vampiric humidity is a breeze compared to 80 with it. Most of the schools have no hallways, only canopies to protect from the sun as you go from classroom to classroom. In the winters, the realistic low is 50, maybe 45, and four inches of snow will shut the whole city down — until it melts before noon.
I miss Las Vegas. Intensely. But my conflict actually centers on whether I’m clouding my memory with the wisps of nostalgia we all do. My childhood in the Valley was not a happy one; my father was mostly absent and my mother was drenched in bedridden depression and numerous chemicals, so why do I yearn for an environment as if it was a semester I spent abroad? I have more memories of a kitchen floor covered in maggots or roaches, or my mother throwing glasses at my father, or late-night transitions to a neighbor’s house while red-and-blue lights paraded our front door. Why the hell would I miss that? Could it possibly be entirely about the climate and culture? For god’s sake, I haven’t even gone back since reaching the legal age to drink or gamble.
And given the fluid nature of the city’s identity, it wouldn’t even be my hometown upon returning. I grew up in Vegas during the boom years. I remember the construction of Treasure Island, the Bellagio, The Luxor, New York New York, and the Stratosphere–it’d be negotiable to say Steve Wynn had a larger impact on my childhood than Nickelodeon or Nintendo. I remember the chaos of Tupac’s murder, the shock of Mike Tyson going all bath salts on Evander Holyfield, and the Victorian mourning of Frank Sinatra, one of Vegas’ best spokesman. I remember Mayor Oscar Goodman, a former mob lawyer who threatened to cut off the thumbs of graffiti artists and became the first mayor of a major city to endorse a gin (Bombay Sapphire gin, thank you very much). But a post-recession Vegas is one with an unemployment rate of 12.8%, putting it farther from the national average and closer to Detroit. It is a city that lives on property, meaning the bottom of its prime market fell out during the mortgage crisis. But it is still the home of my first school, my father’s gravesite, my first cheeseburger and first favorite song and first movie in a theater.
Perhaps I need to return there merely to test its existence. The drab greenery we find in Central PA is obnoxious compared to a city with the world’s largest spotlight (on top of a glass fucking pyramid). In the time I can now go to Lancaster to watch butter be churned, I could have gone to the Hoover dam. In the time it would take me to go to Happy Valley to see my college friends become drunks or townies or both, I could have gone to the Grand Canyon. It seems nearly like a dreamland I came up with while staring out into space.
When I first came to PA and saw a commercial advertising a contest for a free trip to Las Vegas, I laughed. Now, I enter every single one. I was dragged and trapped here beyond my control and I’ll buy as many raffle tickets or sign up for as many newsletters as it takes me to, at the very least, visit my home. It’s centrally a battle to show I can regain control of my life from the outward forces that spun it into a chaotic mess, that if I can just see the wild stallions and watch the pirate boats sink than I have gotten past my parents’ mistakes and tragedies. Pennsylvania is a tragedy that happened to me long ago, and my personal crusade to escape it will not die.