I can never seem to say Las Vegas without adding a "Baby!" at the end. A Dean Martinesque, smoky, rat-packy "Baby." All 1950s highball glamour and stylish debauchery. The first time I went to Las Vegas I was just out of college and driving cross country with friends. This was the late 80s and Vegas (baby!) at the time was not at all what it is today. In today's parlance it felt downright "sketchy". Also we were traveling on a shoestring budget - staying in campgrounds or mostly sleeping in the car - so even if there were more elegant dining or sleeping options in Vegas in 1988 I was financially incapable of accessing them. In those years Vegas was (and probably still is) plain old sleazy.
My time there was memorable though, as it was the place where I experienced my worst hangover ever. A hangover so severe that I most definitely should have been hospitalized with alcohol poisoning.
In college we all drank a drink called the mudslide, which is a deliciously sweet but deadly combination of Vodka, Kahlua (a coffee liqueur), Bailey's Irish Cream, ice, and heavy cream or ice cream. It's like your classic thick yummy diner milkshake with about 3-6 ounces of booze per drink, depending on who is mixing your drinks. Mine always had 6, I made sure of that. The mudslide packs a punch, deceptively hidden by the sunny, child-like, ice-creamy flavors. Mudslides are delicious but very fattening - who knew? So, as I waddled out of college and into my new life, I decided that I would give up my beloved mudslides in favor of the Black Russian, which is an equally sweet, powerful and disgusting cocktail which combines 5 parts vodka to 2 parts coffee liqueur but was much better for my figure.
We pulled into Vegas in my friend's family's station wagon and we hit the town. I remember that we had somehow scraped together $50 cash each and that was what we were allowing ourselves to spend that night. I hit the blackjack table and but for one small loan from my friend (after I had lost all my money and wanted to get back in the game) I kept that $50 going for several hours. I was hooked. The gambling was intoxicating for sure and I fully understand people who are trapped in that adrenaline-fueled addiction, but what really kept me sitting there were the free drinks.
When I first sat down, a sexy (but on the wrong side of 40) little creature sidled up next to me. In my memory she was dressed like a playboy bunny of yore, but I know that can't be right. "What'll you have sweetheart?" she purred at me. I was 21 years old, but looked 18. I was amazed that she was even asking me what I wanted. I was dirty and dusty from the road and most likely sporting some horrible 80s get-up like MC Hammer pants and Flock of Seagulls hair.
"How much is a Black Russian?" I asked her - praying she wouldn't "proof" me as I had left my fake ID in the car. Also I only had $50 and that was for gambling. Granted we had "pre-gamed" in the car before entering the casino. Passing the warm vodka bottle and a short stubby joint among us until we were each several shots in. "Oh don't worry about that Honey, they're free!" she cooed. I couldn't believe my luck. I settled in and ordered one Black Russian after another after another after another all the while playing $5 hands of blackjack. Even the waitress was impressed. "You must have a hollow leg" she laughed in awe. "I guess I must" I agreed. By the end of the night I had had 7 Black Russians - at least 14 shots of alcohol - not including what we had in the car beforehand, and was still able to play cards and speak coherently. I felt happy, drunk but not wasted, on top of the world. I was $50 poorer than when I arrived but I had been in the casino for over 4 hours. Money well spent, I reasoned, for such a grand old time. As I was getting ready to leave the blackjack table I mentioned to the card dealer, or "croupier" as he corrected me, that I felt wide awake, oddly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the 4 a.m. hour and after 6 strong drinks. "That's because they pump obscene amounts of pure oxygen and God knows what else into the AC units to keep y'all awake and alert. No matter how much you drink, you're not gonna pass out in here." "Oh" I responded, "that sounds like my idea of heaven. Nice and chilly, no clocks, no windows, endless booze, what more could you want?" We laughed together as I got off my stool and walked a surprisingly straight-ish line out the door.
The next morning I couldn't move. I could not walk or hold down anything, not even water. Imagine the worst hangover you have ever had and then give that some steroids. It was brutal and intense. I had trouble opening my swollen gummy eyes and was honestly afraid that I might have inadvertently caused some brain damage. I recovered eventually but was left shaky for several days.
But this is not about my hangover per se, this is about Las Vegas on the whole and what I see there.
A good friend of mine is an addiction specialist. Years ago she told me that she was going to a NAADAC (National Association for Addiction Professionals) convention and would be gone for several days. "Oh fun" I said, "where are you going?"
"We're going to Vegas!" she told me excitedly.
I was shocked and expressed my confusion. "Why in the world would hundreds of addiction specialists descend on Vegas? Of all places. Vegas is nothing but a playground for addicts. Why in the world would you go there?"
"Because" she told me, “there is nothing better for us professionals than to observe the addict in its natural habitat". She had a point.
I have been back to Vegas since my drinking days and have a new appreciation for all it has to offer. But despite the great restaurants, concerts, hotels and shows...honestly, I still feel the sleaze. In the Vegas casinos I have seen people so obese they can no longer walk, sitting in their wheelchairs, parked in front of the slots, for hours on end. There they slowly kill themselves, eating fried food, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and feeding endless quarters into the slots. It is truly heartbreaking to see. One man in particular stands out in my mind. There he was in all his addicted glory, simultaneously acting out on his addictions to food, alcohol, cigarettes and gambling. He looked so miserable. So defeated. So lost. I had compassion for him. He was an empty shell of a person. He was completely taken over by his addictions. As I was leaving I saw him signaling to a women who was most likely a hooker. The worst part of the whole sordid visual is that none of those things that he was going to for the human comfort (that he so obviously was dying for) seemed to be working for him. He seemed deeply unhappy. Nothing he was abusing seemed capable of comforting him. Not the food, not the alcohol, not the cigarettes, not the gambling, I'm not sure about the sex but I'm pretty certain that whatever transpired that night was fleeting, and depressing. After the deed was done the woman probably wheeled him back to his usual corner slot machine where he could indulge in all of his other addictions at once, in solitude.
Addiction is a parasite and like all parasites it does not want its prey to die. Addiction needs its host to stay alive so it can continue to feed. And that is what I saw in that man in Vegas. Nothing but a feeding station for addictions, of all kinds.
Vegas frightens me. It really does. What is this flaw we have as humans? This need, this craving, this intense desire to get out of ourselves. People have been getting fucked up ON PURPOSE since the dawn of time. When I die, assuming I go to heaven, I'll bring it up to the Boss. "Listen here, buddy" I will say, "humanity, on the whole, doesn't seem that thrilled about being human. We are constantly, chronically, trying to get the hell out of ourselves. People die every single day trying to escape from themselves. What gives?"
"Ah yes" the Almighty tells me kindly, "that WAS a big screw up. Sorry. Design flaw. We're, ugh, working on that for the next incarnation of human. You know, the ones with the chips?"
"What are you talking about? Design flaw?!? The next incarnation of human? That's just not cool, Dude. There are billions of us unchipped ones still wandering around. Dissatisfied in our humanness from day one and trying to escape from ourselves 24/7! What about us?" I demand. "What can WE do before all the well-adjusted happy chipped people take over?"
"Well, I guess if you are an addict and you no longer want to do drugs and alcohol but you still want a break from yourself sometimes there are other options."
"Oh yeah? Like what?" I countered.
“Let's see. Helping others is a good tool. Also exercise can work. Yoga? Attending 12 step meetings? Prayer, meditation, communing with nature? I've heard those are helpful.”
"Well thank you. I'm sure those things are helpful but all of them take time and patience and diligence and tenacity. All those things you listed take effort.”
God smiled down at me benevolently. “Ah, I see. You're one of those that was born chronically needing a break from yourself. Unable to handle your human condition with all that entails. So you became an addict. And now you are sober. But sometimes you don't want to expend the effort it takes to be in recovery. Sometimes you fool yourself into thinking that you don't have what it takes to get, and more importantly stay, sober.”
"Exactly!" I replied, glad that Yahweh was finally getting it.
"Well if you want to go back into self-destruct mode, so be it. That's your choice. And if you have any vacation time coming up I might know the perfect place for you to visit. In fact I created it for people just like you."
"Oh yeah, where?" I demanded, already knowing the answer.
I imagine God looking at me sheepishly then, obviously embarrassed about the "design flaw" in his first batch of humans. Erupting into laughter and wheezing out the words between deep guffaws he tells me...