President Obama's trip to Las Vegas prompts one writer to reflect on how Sin City has changed since her youth.
President Obama singled out tourist-dependent Las Vegas as a place to avoid during the economic downturn. This has infuriated Nevadans, who are struggling more than most to keep vittles in the pantry and chips in the bank.
I recently visited Las Vegas and found it had morphed from a hayride into a bullet train, and from Hookers-ville into Kids R Us. When I lived there in 1980, it was all about high rollers, call girls, comps, 1950s décor, being laid back and knowing everyone who worked on the strip. It was a small town in big city clothes. Today, freebies are rare, and fast food is plentiful. Billboards reveal “ostentation in overdrive” with flashing fluorescents and snappy video presentations. Casino tables are relative “dead zones,” so hotels charge for everything else, from shows to monorail rides. It’s a supersized theme park with focus on the family.
Thirty years ago, I might have stumbled upon the Dirty Old Man Delegation, the Boozers Brigade or the Strippers Symposium. But during this trip I naturally found a kiddie-land favorite: the Annual Clown Convention, which was held at the Orleans hotel. I confronted a sea of painted faces, kooky costumes and bulbous, red noses; and got to root for my favorite contestant in the “Top Clown” competition. Most had “silly billy” names, such as Cricket, Snickers and Krinkles.
“I love kids. I had three for breakfast,” veteran clown Jim Howle told five children sitting before him on a makeshift stage. He pulled paper from his shoe, “Here’s a footnote.”
A pink clown whispered to me, “I’m a beginner and earn a living as a waitress and construction worker.” A brightly dressed Charlie Chaplin said, “I’m full time with a business license. I do 300 performances each year.”
Tables in the back of the room offered novelty items for sale from lime green wigs to Technicolor costumes, magic tricks and books. “Here Comes the Clown,” “Talk like a Dummy” and “Stop that Heckler” were a few of the titles.
As I watched clowns compete, I remembered my first visit to Las Vegas in 1977 when I was a sweet seventeen. I surely looked underage with my bouncy pigtails and running shorts as I trotted through Caesar’s Palace where I was staying with my aunt. An “over 60” man named Fred stopped me.
“I just won 13-thousand dollars gambling and would like to buy you a diamond bracelet. No strings attached.”
“Yeah, right.” I flashed a skeptical grin.
Fred led me to a hotel shop where I was gifted an $800 trinket. Then he wanted to gamble and nudged me from table to table stuffing chips in my purse, which I later tallied to be $2900. After this, he bought me clothing totaling $4000 at a Caesar’s boutique and topped off the two-hour adventure with the words, “Well, it was nice meeting you, young lady, but I’d better be going.”
I sprinted back to my room and dumped the loot at my aunt’s feet. She shook her head, “I wish I were young again.”
I wondered whether this was a common occurrence or a fluke. Did people just give away money in Las Vegas or did the gambling-town gods have a special crush on me?
My answer came a few days later when a man named Craig asked if I’d like to gamble with him. He was determined to hit the jackpot and stalked a row of slot machines like a 12-step program dropout, popping coins obsessively into one, then another and another. I agreed to play an adjacent row with a bucket of his coins. An hour later, I said good-bye, and Craig handed me a hundred dollar bill for my time, which I promptly showed my aunt.
In the 1970s and 1980s in Las Vegas, the generosity of strangers — or more specifically middle-aged men — was as predictable as buffets, headliners and showgirls; and the biggest recipients were those whose jobs involved tips. Small-town Americans would relocate to Sin City for a year or two to accumulate big bucks, working as blackjack dealers, bartenders, bellhops, waitresses or even prostitutes. As a University of Nevada student, I met dozens of these folks, who outlined their ultimate goal: to return to their home state to buy property or start a business with their “winnings.”
Over the years, Vegas has shifted from big spenders to tourists in order to stay afloat. The scores of “high rollers” from the 1970s and 1980s have either stopped coming due to the deteriorating economy or have gotten snapped up by competitors, such as Indian casinos. Nineteen states permit casino gambling. The growing gap between the rich and the poor has statistically led to fewer wealthy folk, and thus fewer big time gamblers. Casino owners over-borrowed and overbuilt, and the city now has the highest foreclosure rate of any major metro area in the country and the second highest unemployment rate at 13 percent. In an effort to pinpoint a new and steady revenue stream, the family was targeted. Today, the city caters to mothers, fathers, kids and even clowns, who are mostly middle-income and careful with their cash.
Seventeen-year-olds looking for a golden gift from the gods are probably out of luck. A veteran Vegas waitress recently told me, “You used to be able to count on the kindness of strangers. Today, tips are probably the same as in any other big city. Men full of cash are a thing of the past.”