From the January 1995 issue of TLD


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


A candle for Moe Greene


I might as well come out with my shameful secret: I really like Las Vegas. I acknowledge, O Best Beloved, that this is not the sort of admission expected from a contributor to a periodical that promotes Civility.

And it was not ever thus; my first visit to the City That Never Sleeps was a miserable ordeal, so dreadful, in fact, that I took the red-eye flight back to Trantor-on-the-Potomac rather than stay in Las Vegas one minute longer than necessary. The constant jangle of coins rattling into the slot-machine hoppers got on my nerves, the ubiquitous cigarette smoke made my eyes water, and the towering neon signs lighted up my hotel bedroom all night long.

But over time, I have come to realize that Las Vegas is a celebration of the (relatively) free market — a society where casual vice is not illegal, police and sheriff's departments keep a low profile and private institutions keep their own order, streets are safe after dark (granted, dark is a relative concept in parts of the city), and second-hand smoke and steak-and-egg breakfasts are still available without apology. Name your denomination or ethnic background, and there's probably a place of worship for you in Las Vegas. (For example, the city is home to one of only eight Anglican-rite Catholic churches in the entire United States.) Gamblers, after all, participate in a disproportionate amount of supplication. Las Vegas may not be a perfect place — I still haven't found a decent source for classical CDs, and the local WaldenBooks doesn't have a lot of depth — but it's not a bad first cut.

Vegas is a theme park for grown-ups; the primary fantasy is not dancing with fuzzy cartoon animals grown to life-size, but the possibility of wealth and luxury and freedom from responsibility. James Bond wannabes can stand behind the velvet ropes at Caesar's Palace and watch the international glitterati wager $10,000 chips at baccarat, while the rest of us — no longer chasing the perfect martini — can go to the "learners' tables" at any number of casinos to change $5 into 10-cent chips and ponder wagers on the red or black of roulette. It's impossible to win or lose very much in those circumstances, but having 200 brightly colored tokens piled in front of you makes you feel opulent. (Interestingly enough, the busiest tables I saw in the casinos are the ones that post $2 minimum wagers. As you wander the floor, there are often seats available in front of the $1 and $5 slot machines — but the nickel slots are the busiest spots in the house.) And whether you're risking $2 or $2 million, cocktail waitresses come by every 10 minutes or so, offering drinks on the house and wishing you "good luck" as they empty your ashtray.

There are nonsmoking sections in all casinos and restaurants, and even a smoke-free casino or two, but the vast majority of the gamers are typically seen through a blue haze. Non-smokers electing to take the next vacant seat at the blackjack table accept their smoking neighbors as part of the cost of playing the game. The smokers, in turn, freed from rigid and rabid regulation, tend to be genuinely solicitous of neighbors who cough or sneeze, and will frequently extinguish cigarettes even after they've been assured that they're not causing discomfort.

Despite what you see in the movies, the nightlife in Las Vegas, for the most part, is probably less risqué than you could find in the Heartland. It does incorporate lots of flashy lighting effects and sequins on every available surface, and, yes, the showgirls have very long legs and very low bodices, and spangled headdresses right out of Busby Berkeley movies at their kitschiest. But the two most expensive shows are totally non-erotic and almost invariably sold out: Siegfried and Roy's spectacular magic revue featuring their private collection of white tigers and Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Starlight Express," a weird spawn of "The Little Engine That Could" out of Roller Derby. For the truly low of budget, wide sidewalks invite passers-by to enjoy the quarter-hourly eruptions of a multistory man-made volcano on the front lawn of one hotel, while the establishment next door boasts a half-hour pirate battle extravaganza best described as a Robert Lewis Stevenson fantasy with the special effects that "Star Wars" has accustomed us to expect.

In recent years, Las Vegas has worked hard to rehabilitate its mob-managed image. The public records reveal no open involvement by organized crime. As a card-carrying cynic, I have to assume that underworld stakeholder interests are still present despite years of governmental housecleaning, but are hidden under layers of respectable documentation. Las Vegas's most visible underworld legacy, and no doubt its biggest asset in the gaming market, is a sort of 1920s wide-open attitude — a cheerful tolerance for life in the fast lane — but I doubt that Benny Siegel or Meyer Lansky would recognize very much of the city they established, given the renovation spawned by recent real-estate development. In fact, Bugsy's original hideaway at the Fabulous Flamingo was recently razed in order to expand a parking garage.

Oddly enough, other jurisdictions that have legalized gambling in an attempt to enhance revenues just haven't quite gotten the hang of it. Atlantic City casinos haven't cultivated the same profligate disregard of electric bills, and they've cut a few corners on costumes and decor. It's a little harder for a visitor to the Garden State's answer to Glitter Gulch to give himself over to the fantasy, and in a business where illusion is a major commodity, that's a big hurdle to overcome. More to the point, Atlantic City casinos close down for several hours every night as a — how to say it? — prophylactic measure. It's thought that the players need to spend a few hours in touch with reality, you see, to keep them from risking more than is good for them. Many of the Atlantic City casinos, incidentally, are barely able to meet their monthly mortgage payments and can't figure out why their Las Vegas counterparts are expanding and thriving.

The gambling boats that ply the rivers of Middle America are even more paternalistic (a polite way of saying repressive): to appease the disapproving moralists, their licensing state governments have enacted such limitations as a cap on the amount of money a player can wager, mandatory admission fees (yes, the patrons have to pay for the privilege of losing their money), and a restriction on the length of time a player can stay on board. A couple of states require that gambling boats be replicas of the paddle wheelers of the 1800s.

And Heaven forfend that anyone could begin play immediately upon boarding! While players at table games are able to exchange pocket cash for chips as soon as they're seated at the table, slot-machine players (who make up at least 80 percent of the clientele) typically must queue up at a cashier's window to purchase slugs for the machines. Actual coins don't always register in the machines' mechanical innards. And winning players, whether at the tables or at the machines, must convert their various tokens back to legal tender before disembarking the usual three-hour cruise. The net effect is that the typical player spends half an hour in line exchanging his money for tokens, another 15 minutes trying to find a place to play, and another half-hour changing his tokens back into negotiable currency.

Legalized on-board casino gambling has failed miserably as an alternative to taxation as a revenue generator for many of the states that have adopted it, and proponents are deeply puzzled.

Establishments having trouble with cash flow and related issues have attempted to increase revenues, when the laws permit it, by requiring higher minimum wagers than do many Las Vegas casinos. One gambling boat I visited had eliminated $2-minimum table stakes in favor of a $5 minimum for all of its blackjack tables. That means that a recreational player with $20 to spend could get wiped out in four hands and would be unlikely to count his evening as an overwhelmingly positive recreational experience worth repeating. Alternatively, such a "low roller" must increase his wager beyond the amount he intended, possibly becoming one of the "problem gamblers" gleefully cited by the citizens groups that have sponsored the current onerous restrictions (and making controlled gambling, like controlled rents and other encroachments on the free market, an activity doomed to deliver its own worst-case scenario).

As more and more state and local jurisdictions investigate gaming licenses as a possible source of revenues, opponents of legalized gambling point to Atlantic City and the riverboats to prove to us all that "that dog don't hunt." And alas, I fear they're right. If legislators try to please the protectors of our public morals by instituting paternalistic strictures on the way we play, we will all end up missing the boat.

Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion, where they've never really cottoned to blue-law Yankee carpetbaggers.

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