To Vegas, with love and squalor

"Ooh, Las Vegas. Ain't no place for a poor boy like me."

— Rik Grech and Gram Parsons

Vegas is for suckers. It was for suckers as a dusty little Western town in the desert. It was for suckers as a mob town that sent trainloads of money to Chicago. And it's for suckers as a post-modern, corporate megalopolis/walk-through fantasyland for grown-ups.

The first time I ever saw a slot machine — in the '60s in the old Stardust — I dropped in a quarter and pulled the handle and lights flashed and bells clanged and a river of quarters gushed out. Wow.

Gambling is an activity that requires you to do the same thing over and over and expect different results. It requires you to believe that the laws of the universe do not apply to you.

The alert reader will note that each of these prescriptions is a definition of insanity. And with being 18 itself a form of insanity, you don't need any encouragement. But a fire was not kindled in me, and the gambling life was not mine. So when I found myself spending a week in Las Vegas recently it was with a vague conviction that a guy ought to be able to have fun in Sin City without gambling.

My wife had a convention, and I had plenty of vacation, so the plan was for me to shoehorn into her room and enjoy a respite on the cheap. Oh, the naivete!

Finding anything cheap in Vegas these days is like finding Mother Teresa in Hell. Those cheap breakfasts and buffets? Gone like Joe Pesci's character at the end of "Casino."

We're talking $100 meals, $150 show tickets, four bucks for a small bottle of water. Stuff you get for free elsewhere — the hotel gym, high-speed Internet — is $15, $20, $25 a day here. "Free" phone calls begin, so help me, at $1.50.

There are no microwaves or fridges in the rooms, and no place to buy anything for them if there were. Everything you want or need is in the back of 80 acres of smoke-filled casino.

On Day One I concluded that the people thronging the streets were professional athletes, trust-fund babies, Mexican drug lords and junketing AIG executives.

But no. Most of those trudging up and down The Strip day and night in their shorts and tattoos were Middle Americans, 30- or 40-something couples yakking on cell phones about jobs and babysitters, college kids with baggy shorts and cockeyed baseball caps, sun-dried oldsters with a taste for Bloody Marys at 8 a.m. Vegas runs on plastic, and they've never heard of a credit crisis.

Actually, scratch that. Kirk Kirkorian's Mirage empire, facing more than $1 billion in bond payments, is talking about hocking its hotels to the banks. The big casinos now owe seven bucks for every dollar they project they'll earn, a debt load nearly twice that of the next most leveraged industry in the country. Harrah's bonds are trading at pennies on the dollar. The real estate bubble here was an ocean, with land on The Strip going for $19 million an acre in 2007.

But the "Hot Babes Direct To You" truck still cruises The Strip non-stop, promising "girls in 20 minutes," and those dubious guys still line the sidewalks snapping their hooker cards at passersby.

Here, more is more. Faux Empire State Buildings and Eiffel Towers and Great Pyramids thrust into the desert sky in an orgy of light that can be seen from space.

The fountains at Bellagio (more than 1,000, along with 4,798 lights and 213 speakers) dance to opera and Broadway tunes as mallards swim indifferently on the eight-acre fake lake.

It's all fake, of course, and beyond arrogant. Is it a sign of the times that the new Yankee Stadium (the real one, in New York City) looks like nothing so much as Caesar's Palace?

Yet this tomorrowland of the imagination is weirdly stuck in the past. The hot acts in town are Cher, Barry Manilow, Tom Jones, Donny and Marie. Even the hot newcomer, Terry Fator, a singing ventriloquist, tells Michael Jackson jokes and has guests like The Commodores. Geritol, anybody?

I walk The Strip and gawk, swim a lot, spring for Cirque de Soleil's "Love," the Beatles fantasy which is, well, fantastic.

In a nation founded in the spirit of a Puritan ethic, Las Vegas is emblematic of the triumph, in less than four centuries, of something the opposite of Puritanism. It is crazy, costly, frustrating, fun, garish, wicked and deeply American.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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