Las Vegas is a destination for bachelorette parties, milestone birthdays, and anniversaries. In other words, celebrating social occasions with others. Even gambling with your parents can be a communal activity; I was with momma when she won four hundred dollars on the slot at the Orleans Casino. Celebrating is better together than solo.
At the time of this writing, I’ve been to Las Vegas five times. Twice with my family, once with my female friends, and another two times alone. Unsurprisingly, I experienced the city differently each time.
Trips alone to Las Vegas aren’t popular; it’s more the exception than the rule. Sure, solo travellers who travel for extended periods of time add it to their route, but many meet other travellers in hostels and experience it as part of a group. After all, everyone wonders how they’d fare if they did Vegas Hangover style. I know I do. Those guys took the saying ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ to a whole new level. Let sleeping gambling dogs lie, I say. It’s reasonable to argue that people behave differently when in Las Vegas. There is a heinous, daring side to each of us that the city permeates; we’re in a cocoon that tells us our sins, aren’t really well, sins.
I always wanted to see Las Vegas alone, because I was curious to see how I would enjoy the middle-of-the-bright, gaudy yet lovable chaos that is sin city. When I’m with others, I only notice the shine around me on a superficial level. I focus more on my friends and family, enjoying my time with them.
But going all by my lonesome allowed me to absorb it with a more discerning eye.
Las Vegas is a living art form I’ve never seen in any part of the world. I see it as a functional artistic space that imitates life but re-creates a memorable bubble through superficial originality. For example, I didn’t feel like I was in Venice (Italy) when I walked the canals at the Venetian hotel, but the feeling of being in a lavish imitation of a Venetian canal is something I distinctly remember. I will never even consider Caesar’s Palace akin to my time at the Roman Forum in Rome, but the memory of saying goodbye to a friend under the indoor, fake sunset sky at the Forum Shops is one I recall with manufactured nostalgia.
The Paris hotel made me feel like I was in a make-believe romantic boutique hotel. Having stayed there during one of my solo trips, I was comforted after a bad breakup. Although I was depressed and mourned my dead relationship, the hotel’s ability to mix romance with glitz gave me the distraction and amusement I needed to push him out of my mind and heal in a debaucherous-like environment. Think a classy love motel off some highway, but with the touch of The Strip’s swank.
I walked from one end of the strip (Circus Circus) to the other (Mandalay Bay) and dragged my feet to the Las Vegas sign close to sunset. My feet were aching and sunblock melted off my face. This was July. It was a dry hot desert type of heat that enveloped me like a cozy blanket.
At the MGM Grand shopping gallery, I passed a section cordoned off, likely because a new tenant was moving into the space and construction was happening. On one of the plywoods was a quote by Voltaire, on how ice cream was exquisite, and it was a pity it wasn’t illegal. Even an old Frenchman who didn’t live in the same century–when Las Vegas was still a bare, desert of nothingness–understood what a rambunctious, belligerent environment can evoke in peoples’ psyches. Whoever made the decision to use the quote in a high-traffic area was smart and understood their audience.
I loved the art in the Bellagio hotel’s reception. It was ostentatious and purposely pretentious. The displays pretend to pretend, mocking everything that Americans aren’t, and not caring. If you want to see how the United States takes pride in its’ liberties, look at how it intentionally imitates old European styles in its Vegas hotel lobbies; cartooning centuries of history. I laughed.
On my second solo trip, I stayed at the Luxor, where I hung out at one of its’ busy pools one afternoon. Most Americans are carefree. Families gathered and splashed each other silly, while peacock couples showed off their beautiful bodies. I spotted a few European pairs who were more reserved, tentative and looked with bemused expressions; I couldn’t tell if they were making fun of their counterparts, or were wistful that they weren’t as jubilant.
I looked around, self-conscious all of a sudden and noticed I was the only one alone. What did people think of me? Didn’t make eye contact with anyone, not because I don’t like people, but because I didn’t really want to connect. All of my senses–including the invisible sixth one– were gathering information. What this information was, I didn’t know. But the distractions kept me present.
I veered off The Strip and visited Herbs and Rye, a local, unassuming, restaurant and lounge. I found it online after reading articles on how Las Vegas bartenders went there to drink coz of the atmosphere and creative cocktails. I entered the establishment, which was like a steak house in the 1920s. The atmosphere was Prohibition era. The working bartenders wore bow ties; the menu’s font was old-fashioned. There were men dining in suits. I half-believed it was a film set, a world built just for me. This part of Las Vegas was posing as real.
I ordered something with an egg white, lemon and gin– refreshing. Next to me at the bar counter, I meet, what do you know, a patron who was a bartender on The Strip.
“Vegas bartenders come here to drink,” he proclaimed. He was handsome, slightly shy, and quintessentially Latino American with a Las Vegas upbringing. We chatted.
He proceeded to show me around old Vegas. We headed to Fremont and meandered in the Golden Nugget, following the gigantic tank(s). Container Park was another stop, a gentrified area attempting to appeal to the up-and-coming earners who will hold the majority of the country’s wealth in twenty years when most boomers will perish.
I was curious about the burlesque scene, having been a performer. With just a quick survey, I saw that the burlesque in this town was now a bit clinical. Even though the Burlesque Hall of Fame is a coveted annual event by the global glitterati, the competitions, costumes and people are now refined packages of glamour. Gone were the careless airs of play. The swaying hips were now pronounced rather than sashayed effortlessly. There were probably smaller, lower-key, likely seedy bars where the performers of the old world still existed, but they may be strippers now, instead of artistic performers. Or maybe I needed to dig a little deeper. Perhaps on another trip in the future.
I don’t know if I would’ve met the bartender at Herbs and Rye, or picked up on Voltaire’s quote demonstrating that the city knows who it is, or feel romantic melancholy in a Parisian hotel, if I were visiting Las Vegas with friends. I chose Vegas solo. For solo is how I got to know it a little better and realized it was subliminally sending me multi-faceted messages on how it wishes to present itself to the world.