The Real Buddhist in the Real Las Vegas

April 5th, 2013

Years ago, I taught a creative writing class at a community college in rural Ohio. One young man in the class wrote a short story about a man and woman on their first date, who decide on a whim to go to Las Vegas. In the class workshop, I said, “It’s interesting how your run-on sentences and unbroken paragraphs add to the surreal nature of the story. It helps create the sense of a crazy, dreamlike world where someone can say, hey, want to go to Vegas? and then pow! they’re in Vegas.”

The student, a soft-spoken farmboy type, looked a little deflated. “I don’t know. I just wanted to write about two people on a date. I tried to think of something cool people would do on a date, like go to Vegas.”

I’m not sure if he knew that Las Vegas is a city surrounded by desert, a destination that would take hours to reach from any other city. It seems possible that he thought Vegas was a generic noun or a brand name, like people on a date might stop at a Vegas after their dinner at a Cheesecake Factory before they go to a nightclub. To a teenager in Fremont, Ohio in 1998, one’s best guess as to what it’s like to be grown-up and single seems to be a mish-mash of still frames from music videos and car commercials. The handsome man says to the beautiful woman, “Let’s go to Vegas,” and like Beetlejuice, you only have to say the name enough times and you’re there.

I’d almost forgotten all about this student, certainly forgotten his name and face, and forgotten the juvenile misunderstanding of an actual place. That is, until two weeks ago, when I, for the first time in my life, visited the real city of Las Vegas, and found out that I, too, had misunderstood the real place, mistaking it for a city that only existed in imagination.

Las Vegas, Paradise

I found Las Vegas very unsatisfying, but I hope you don’t think I’m saying this in a holier-than-thou Buddhist kind of way, that I’m claiming to be wiser than the hungry ghosts who come there in search of unfulfillable desires. No, I didn’t leave with a meditation on the pervasiveness of desire and suffering; I just left annoyed.

Here was the secret surprise of Las Vegas: it is the least sexy place I have ever been. Yes, I realize that means I’m putting it below Cleveland, below Calcutta, below Holdrege, Nebraska. But I think of experiences in other cities. When you walk down the street in Chicago, and you’re stopped in your tracks by an absolutely gorgeous human being, just waiting for a bus or walking to an appointment, or when you stop by a little diner in San Jose and your server is just radiant. Sexy.

This doesn’t happen in Las Vegas. I once heard a comedian talking about New York City, saying that often in Manhattan, he doesn’t know where to stare, because at one angle, there’s the most beautiful woman he ever saw, and in another, there’s the craziest man he ever saw. In Vegas, the alternative is a woman who thinks she’s the most beautiful you ever saw, and a man who’s paid to act like he’s crazy, and you can tell they’re both a little bored with the act. There are giant posters with images that look like human bodies, but the color of the skin is bronzed to the point of chemical, the shape barely human. Women and men, either one–you can tell they are supposed to be sexy, designed and shaped to be sexy, but as for any of the feel of human contact, totally nothing.

Ask About Late Checkout

My hotel key card came in a paper jacket that encouraged me to ask about late checkout. I found out that this means “Ask, so that we can tell you no.”

This served as a working metaphor for all my experiences in Vegas. The text, the publicity, the signage all exhorted the reader to ask for anything. “Let us know anything we can do for you.” “Ask for whatever you want.” But dealing with real people was the uphill climb. Most of the customer service workers were surly and took a put-upon attitude. If you make a plan, the layout of the place is designed to sidetrack you from that plan.

The city is a master of judo. It uses your own momentum against you, causes you to spin up and fall on your face. Las Vegas doesn’t seduce you; you seduce yourself. I can’t blame it for being what it is, but as for me, it made me grateful for Detroit.

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