Perhaps the phrase least likely to be heard in Corvallis (besides, “I think this whole organic food thing is a scam.”) is, “I like Las Vegas.” Though you will not hear me utter the former, I happen to roll with the latter.
Seeing the topography leading up to the green blob on the desert floor that is Vegas is worth the flight. The reds and browns of the soil and the stratified rocks and hills intone Georgia O’ Keeffe’s palette. The final approach sees the gradual shapes and textures exchanged for erect glass buildings sprouting from the twinkling bed of moving traffic that surges like blood cells through arterial freeways. Parks and arenas are everywhere, carved into the desert with unimagined engineering acumen and a touch of water-guzzling hubris.
Yes, there is a vulgarity to Las Vegas. But, that vulgarity is much like the vulgarity that is the United States. Before we get our jimmies too rustled about a city born of vice and violence, it might do to take a glance at the genesis of the only country (as of this writing) to put a human on the moon…and without the benefit of the metric system. It is easy to get mired in the rampant consumerism and glorification of excess that is sprayed at you from a tanker of glitter as soon as you deplane. But, that’s like hating Corvallis because a few of the bicyclists are total douches. Occasional smugness is the price we pay to live in God’s Country. It is ostentatiousness that defines Vegas. There is a reason the Consumer Electronics Show is held there. Any molecular amount of technology that can be used to add glitz or flash to the strip has been taken and tweaked to do more than it would in any lab or classroom. The city is alive and its tachycardic pulse can be seen and heard. It is overpowering. And it should be.
But this is not why I visit Las Vegas.
My childhood friend Ron, with whom I began my career in the theater business, has a house there. What brought him to Vegas wasn’t the gambling or the nightlife. The city is one of the world’s epicenters for entertainment. The biggest names in the biz performed there, and still do. These people helped shape our cultural landscape, one show a night—two on Sunday. Ron and his partner Dave are musicians and this town is steeped in the kind of entertainment history they embrace. Las Vegas is the mecca for people who can detect the nuance between the sexy sequins and the lifetime of training it takes to walk out onto a stage in a town that will eat you alive.
Ron and Dave live in a mid-century modern home in an old suburb of Vegas. It’s a single-level affair on a corner lot with a nice pool and spotless rockwork where lawns would be found in the northwest. Most stars, artists, performers, agents, and writers from the ‘60s and ‘70s had homes in this area at one time or another. But the neighborhood aged and not well. Now people who fix houses up into a place to call home are buying here, and not to just flip. The less civic-minded are getting weeded out, yards are being cultivated back to the intended aesthetic, palm trees are pruned into presentability, and a sense of community is branching out. Ron can build anything, a skill that comes from a career of owning movie theaters and rental property. So, the once crumbling cinderblock fences and sun-warped patio rafters are squaring up nicely. Dave keeps the place comfortably clean. Uncomfortable for me since my esthetic leans toward the less civilized and I do not want to offend my hosts. Four decades of friendship has bought me some wiggle room with Ron. Dave seems to have a capacity to tolerate my unintentional transgressions.
Walking the strip with Ron and Dave is like a guided tour of a city that has had more incarnations than this year’s political campaign. Las Vegas started as a one-horse desert town and grew into the 29th largest city in the United States in 100 years. This can provide the pieces for a good story. And my two hosts know the story of almost every building that was originally built where and who owned this piece of land before it became that casino. This is endlessly fascinating to me. Ron, in what seemed like a departure from reason, took me to a mall. I’m not a shopper, as evidenced by my wardrobe. As much as my hosts might silently wish to see me refrocked, this mall trip was to see the world’s most expensive place to rent a storefront. We ambled along the wide walkways lined with shops I could never afford to shop in—and noted that access to affluent customers is what they were really selling. Our stroll found our path merging with an Italian tourist family. The dad-person and I stopped dead in our tracks, in a synchronized WTF moment, both of us looking down the gangway at the same wooden monstrosity. I do not speak Italian, but I had no doubt he was using the less sophisticated phrase for testicles and penis. His wife-person whacked him on the back. He looked at me with the universal expression for, ”Am I wrong?” I said, “No shit.” He looked at the wife-person, who was trying to divert the eyes of their children, and he said, “Lui capisce!” She glared at me. I looked back at Ron and Dave who were tilting their heads like confused puppies, then I watched the gestalt moment pop and they saw it too. Thanks to me, it will never be unseen. (See picture.) You’re welcome.
Ron and I do his annual drive back to Oregon in his old van. This year we were pulling a very large trailer, which rendered the van as gutless as a riding lawnmower pulling a boxcar. It sets the pace needed for two guys to catch up on the year since we last spent real time together. I am grateful for the handful of good friends I’ve kept over the years. They represent a wide swath of personal, economic, ethnic, sexual, and political orientations—and I hold them all very closely. They see no need to change me and know they will be afforded the same. Many people don’t have time for people who don’t see things as they do. It never made much sense to me to care about their issues when I know that person would lie down in traffic for me. My poorest friends are the first to make sure I have money when times are hard. My rich friends know I can make money so they give me their time. This is wealth. Yes, I wouldn’t mind a spin in a $100,000 sports car down the Vegas strip. That doesn’t mean I’m not happy to walk to Tommy’s for breakfast with friends I see daily. Soon after leaving Reno, the desert falls behind and the trees and grass overtake the landscape. The sun sets onto the I-5 strip and the old van keeps chugging along. It’s the 48 hours on the road with Ron that makes the next year of an occasional lunch together okay. Ron will return to his Oregon family and I will return to my Corvallis concerns and commitments. It’s time for another fundraiser for the Darkside. We need a new projector and we need a new marquee. After being in Vegas and seeing the Aria’s 260-foot LED marquee, I think I’ll have to tone down my expectations. We just need something not completely overshadowed by the Whiteside’s fancy-pants marquee. There’s a good chance the city would never let me have a 260 foot marquee, anyway.