“Did you like California?” I asked when I learned that he has just been visiting from North Carolina.
“No, sir, I did not. I did not like the desert and I did not the Democrats.” He also missed his motorbike, which he had left in the care of his platoon. I shared his pleasure at heading eastwards. I was becoming tired of the effeminacy of the Pacific coast, where the men are prettier than the women and their dogs wear clothes. “The terrorists want to kill us all,” said the marine as we hit a rough patch that could’ve been turbulence, could’ve been a hijack. “That’s what these Democrats don’t understand,” he said. “It’s kill or be killed. We gotta wipe those mother fuckers out.” He wore a baseball cap with a Confederate flag printed on it, accompanied by the misnomer: “Proud To Be An American Sportsman”.
Sitting up front was a large black lady in a cowboy hat. “I know you didn’t just pour me a diet coke,” she said to the stewardess. And we pitched forward into the black night towards North Carolina.
Last week I took a well earned break from Los Angeles and drove to Las Vegas for the weekend. I’m proud that I made the 600 mile journey there and back by car because it proves that those petty driving license people back in Britain were wrong to fail me five times. I actually failed my US test just before I went out too, but there’s a Californian loophole whereby the written exam certificate counts as a permit to drive while accompanied by an adult. That’s a fine example of America’s can do spirit. Letting someone drive to Vegas and back who has failed his test a grand total of six times is yet one more reason to love this country.
The drive took us through Death Valley, up three thousand feet into the hot, sandy mountains of the Mojave. Once you pass the last gas station, you’re on your own up there. We pulled over at the top to smoke cigarettes and count cacti. The desert imparts its own sort of wisdom. “Stay here too long and you’ll die,” it says. It’s a reminder that parts of this planet are still alien worlds that defy colonization – a happy reminder that man has his limits and can only take so much. God’s mystery is multifaceted, and often cruel. For want of a gallon of gas, we might have stayed up there all week, lying beneath the motorcar waiting to die, evaporating into the dust.
If we had done so, we wouldn’t have discovered Victoriaville at the bottom of the mountain. Victoriaville comprises a vile Denny’s restaurant and the historic Royal Hawaiian Motel (long abandoned and covered in whatever passes for a weed). Above the gas station is a model UFO; silver and round with a cone top. Coming over the ridge in 90 degrees, it looks for a moment like it might be the real thing hovering on the horizon looking for a place to get a beer. The guy at the pump says it dates back to the Sixties, “When UFOs used come here all the time.” Perhaps the decline of the Royal Hawaiian was due to falling demand among little green men for water beds on Route 15.
After another hundred miles of nothing, Vegas suddenly erupts from the desert with an Eiffel Tower and a circus tent. Las Vegas is an antidote to Los Angeles. Vegas is camp but not gay; it’s the adult heterosexual’s Disneyland. The fantastic architecture is another example of that American “can-do” 'tude. Want a shopping mall with a river in it that you can ride gondoliers on? You got it. Want a pyramid, a castle, the Champs Elysee, and a giant Coke bottle that lights up at night? Buddy, you got it! In an hour’s walk, the pedestrian passes through eight different centuries, five continents, and half a dozen capital cities. Yet, beyond the occasional shark ballet or electronic Beethoven tribute band, every fantasy offers the same thing: gambling, sex, and cocktails. The best casinos are those that provide all three at once. We spent several hours in Treasure Island watching girls in pirate costumes serve drinks to Chinese men playing poker, their cards dealt by a Russian model in a bikini.
There is no time and space inside the casinos. It’s either permanent dusk or artificial midday, and the floors are built in concentric circles that make it very easy to get lost, give up looking for the exit, and stay for another 12 hours at the same table. Each casino is connected by indoor walkways, so it is also possible to exit one casino only to find yourself lost in another. We went from Venice at six pm to a Roman forum at 11am in five minutes. The only thing to do is wait uselessly by a machine until a lady dressed in period costume offers you a drink. I looked upwards from the poker table in the Bellagio and my reflection was refracted back at me in several hundred silver balls of glass. It was like being voyeured by a fly.
I love Las Vegas. It has an energy that is unique – a sense that people are determined to enjoy themselves whatever the cost; that anything is possible, that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, that it’s all right so long as the police never find out. All the windows are barred from the third floor up to prevent suicides. The topless dancers have degrees from LSU; the hustlers came from the east and didn't quite make it as far as Hollywood. For Anglo-Saxon/Irish drunkards like myself, it posses the thrilling challenge of “and what would you like to do next?” Chug beers in a paddling pool? Drink champagne from a Gucci shoe? Take a bath in a Margarita? If the desert that surrounds city is the world drained and bleached of life, Vegas is the huddled masses of humanity drawn together by the warm glow of the polystyrene sphinx - an electronic, supersonic, whizz-bang, roll-em high Hell. All are equal in their sin. Some people walked around in shorts and t-shirt, but not an eye was batted at the hungry looking gentlemen in black tie who dashed from floor to floor in search of fresh flesh.
Las Vegas is a cathedral to Capitalism, celebrating the best and worst of that system. Its potential is unlimited; its willingness to serve is admirable. But it feeds hungers that could never, should never, be sated. I drove back to Los Angeles hung-to-the-over, reeking of gin and nicotine. We stopped at Victoriaville, sat on the bonnet of the car, and threw pebbles at the flying saucer. I tasted pleasure and all I wanted now was a cup of PG tips.