love/hate Las Vegas

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A friend asked me this morning what it is that I like about Las Vegas. I gave it some thought and realized quickly that I don’t actually like Las Vegas all that much.

Las Vegas is dirty, it’s grimy, it’s hot. Everyone is in a hurry to have their needs fulfilled. Here is some cash, now feed me, entertain me, dance for me, liquor me up. I want it all and I want it now. Las Vegas is cash and booze and sweat and flashing neon lights and sex and sultry street corners.

Las Vegas is a middle-aged woman, weather beaten and exhausted, standing in an assigned section of casino, wearing a pink fluffy feathered headdress and a corset and a sequined tight dress that exposes her shoulders and legs and cleavage, with bright pink lipstick, holding a tray of drinks as she pretends to smile at each tourist rushing by her but she really just wants her next cigarette break and to get back to the couch that she sleeps on in her small apartment but she still has six hours of work ahead.

Las Vegas is the six college guys who flew from the east coast for a weekend away, all sharing one hotel room, and all with different goals for the weekend: pool lounging, sheer drunkenness, getting smashed at a strip club, picking one slot machine and not leaving it until the bank account is empty or the jackpot is won, finding one girl on vacation and spending the entire time with her, and betting big at a poker table. And they will all find it, with ample amounts of food, before they trudge back to their plans on Monday morning, exhausted for the long flight home.

Las Vegas is the sixty year old couple from Tallahassee who think $3.50 is too much for a shrimp cocktail, and where is the best buffet, and can they fit in five shows in three days and still get in time to shop at that mall over there.

Las Vegas is the mother of four, setting her kids loose on the casino amusement park while she slumps in the corner with a margarita that is taller than her toddler.

Las Vegas is me, in a 26th floor hotel room at Circus, Circus, standing in the window at 5 am and looking out at a city that comes at me in layers. Brown rolling mountains on the desert horizon, a sun rising slowing in pink and orange. Massive shiny hotels looming in patchwork sections of the landscape, massive juggernaut structures full of thousands of people, all pursuing their vices. Long roadways with hundreds of cars zooming in every direction, every one of them impatient. Sporadic green trees withering in the already 90 degree heat. Helicopters hovering in the sky. Small homes and local businesses, all brown and red and tan, where the tired masses head from work to home or home to work, all exhausted. And the connecting pieces between them, every inch neon and concrete, electricity and stone. It’s heavy and hot and fast and exhausted and shiny.

Las Vegas is… vice. It’s sin. It’s all of the baseness of humanity stripped down to its core. People come here for the heat and the sin and the neon and the concrete. And while those are the very things that repel me, I suppose that is the very thing that I love about Vegas. The baseless humanity of it all. The opportunity to go away, sin and get dirty, and then get back to regular life.

It’s gross/beautiful. It’s filthy/pure. It’s love/hate.

Why-oh-Wyoming

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“Now remember, just because he has a mustache, it doesn’t mean he’s 21. Make sure to card before selling alcohol. The risks are just too big.”

As the public service announcement ended and more country music came back on the radio, I looked across the vast stretching snow-swept plains that extended in every direction, rolling black and brown peaks in the distance, a few rocky outcroppings stretching into the sky. The sun was just coming up over the peaks and I could finally see the terrain, after a few hours of driving in the early morning darkness. Gusts of wind blew light drifts of snow across the road.

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I pulled into Rock Springs, Wyoming a brief time later, here for a work shift for a few days. As I stepped out of the car, the wind cascaded across me, biting and much colder than I had anticipated. January in Wyoming was a bitch, clearly.

I shivered and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck, nestling into my coat, and stepped into the nearby gas station, a local place with the god-awful name of the Loaf ‘n Jug, it’s sister station the Cum n’ Go right across the road. Yes, spelled just like that.

Half of the gas station/convenience store was devoted to the sale of liquor. I looked around, hearing more country twang from the loudspeakers, and saw several shelves full of booze. Hey, the locals needed something to keep them warm. Several dead animal heads hung on the walls over the shelves, deer and elk and a mountain goat or two. My eyes fell on one of the bottles of liquor, a cinnamon red of Fireball Whiskey, with a handwritten sign over it that said “Buy two bottles of Fireball, get a free fishing lure! Inquire at the desk!”

As I munched on my trail mix and sipped on my hot, and terrible, gas station coffee in the car, I realized I had thirty minutes before my shift began. I grabbed my phone and Googled Rock Springs, Wyoming, figuring I may as well learn about the city I was in.

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I read about how, in 1885, the Union Pacific Coal Department was able to hire Chinese workers at a lower wage than White workers, so they, of course, hired more Chinese. The White workers rioted in an explosion of racial tension, burned down 75 homes, and killed dozens of Chinese. I didn’t see a single report of a White person killed. I read how the local newspapers at the time had sympathized with the White man’s plight, and how 16 men had been arrested for the murders, but all were acquitted one month later, met by the cheers of their loved ones for their heroic actions. It was with a pit in my stomach that I thought of recent anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic content in the media, in the current presidential campaign, and I wonder, for the one millionth time in my life, if we have evolved as a species at all.

I read about local industries and businesses and politics, about forms of entertainment (shooting ranges and the rodeo), about the long history of the state. And before long, it’s time to step outside the car, back into the biting wind, and to prepare for another day of work, this time in a strange and faraway place.

Later, I check into my hotel, and the kindly front desk attendant informs me that I’m just in time for happy hour. I shrug. It’s a week night, and only 5 pm, “But the drinks are free!” she exclaims. “One hour only!”

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And so 30 minutes later, a grandmotherly bartender mixes me a rather strong Rum and Coke. I take a few sips and make eye contact with the severed moose head hanging on the wall in front of me.

“He’s a beauty, ain’t he?”

I look over and see a woman behind me that I hadn’t noticed before. She looks as though she just woke up, her hair disheveled and in her nightgown, a large pink muumuu that drowns her. She takes a large handful of Lays potato chips from a bag she is holding and somehow fits the entire handful of chips in her mouth, cramming them in and not missing a crumb. She has no teeth, so she makes large gumming noises as she munches down on them loudly.

“Um, the moose?” I look back at his marble eyes. “Yup, a real beauty.”

The woman finishes gumming her bite and takes a swallow of the pink alcoholic mixture from the cup in front of her. “I bet he’s been dead fifty years.”

I look at her as she takes another handful, and realize I have nothing to say except, “Yup.”

And this is my life right now, I think. Me and this woman and a moose head at 5 on a week night, drinking free alcohol in a hotel bar in frozen Wyoming.

I give myself a little mental toast and take another sip.

 

Boozed

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My brother vomited on me when I was 7.

He came into the room drunk, at age 15, and vomited sticky alcohol on my bed, where I’d been sleeping. When I jumped out of bed, I landed in more of it, slipping in it and landing on the floor.

Twenty years later, I was working as a substance abuse professional  in a drug and alcohol treatment center on a reservation, primarily treating Native American clients. Despite having never tasted alcohol or drugs in any form, I assessed my clients on their alcohol struggles, pretending I was an expert. Teaching my group of adolescent males one evening, I assigned them to draw a picture of their first experience with alcohol, using markers, crayons, and colored pencils. On my blank sheet of paper, I drew a childlike image of my seven-year old self being vomited on.

During my time as a substance abuse professional, I saw some of the worst consequences of drug and alcohol dependency. Men who violently harmed others while using. Drunk driving related accidents that resulted in death. Children taken away by Child Protective Services due to parents using drugs in front of them. Sexual assaults. Prison sentences. And I saw the injustices of the system, stacked against the offender who has no money, endless lists of court requirements to accomplish that make holding a job and having family responsibilities impossible.

These experiences shaped my religious and cultural beliefs: that alcohol was bad, bad, bad. Growing up Mormon, I learned about the Word of Wisdom, a religious teaching that teaches Church members to avoid alcohol, drugs, and coffee. The teaching was pretty direct, but the culture that formed around it was one of distaste, disgust, and condemnation. I saw those who chose to drink alcohol, or worse, do drugs, as selfish, poor decision makers with little self-control who needed to make better choices and be called to repentance.

And then it was suddenly Christmas Day, 2011, and I tried my first sip of alcohol, a frothy taste of spiked egg nog. I was 33 years old. The drink was good, tasty, and I remember getting a feeling of anticlimactic awareness afterwards; I drank and everything in the world was still fine. A few weeks later, I tried my first vodka-cranberry, and a few weeks after that my first rum-and-coke. They were delicious and made me feel happy, comfortable, and relaxed. It took me longer to try beer and wine, hard alcohol and various mixed drinks. And I learned a very simple lesson: drinking alcohol is fun so long as you drink smart and responsibly.

I’ve come to love that loose relaxed feeling a drink can bring, like all the little wires of stress in my brain unravel and I just want to smile. It’s like slipping into a hot bath tub, that initial rush. Yet many make that fatal mistake of drinking more and more to prolong the result, but more leads to dizziness, muddled thoughts, electric brain and poor equilibrium and decision-making.

I’m 37 now and I still approach the world with a certain amount of naivete and innocence, but I do take care of myself. Last night, I went out dancing with a few friends. I had two drinks during the course of the evening, and smiled and relaxed and danced. And then I was done drinking and had water instead. I watched as some of the people around me started to get sloppy, slouching against walls, unable to stand up straight or walk well. I watched some get flirtatious with others, making their dates or spouses jealous. One man flirted with me aggressively until I rebuffed him, and I saw him ten minutes later drunk and asleep on a corner floor.

Many members of my family still have a very negative reaction to the idea of drinking. A beer in the fridge or a public mention of an alcoholic beverage elicits a sad, ashamed face, like the ones I give when I hear about some sort of deep offense or betrayal.

In most areas of my life, I dwell comfortably in the middle, on my own terms. I like alcohol, carefully paced and planned for, and enjoy the relaxation and sunny outlook it can bring. I prepare before I drink, making sure I’m hydrated and fed, and that I’ve exercised earlier in the day. Yet I get weary of those who drink too much or who don’t take care of themselves. Drinking responsibly means self-care before and after and arranging rides home.

My relationship with alcohol has changed a lot over the years. It can literally destroy. But a drink now and then is nothing to be ashamed over.