It was my last day in Vegas. Nicole and I wake up around 9, dress and have breakfast at a local favorite eatery: The Cracked Egg. I nearly forget it's the last Friday in Lent as I order my bacon and pancakes, and quickly tell the waitress to change my order to hashed browns.
"I also can't drink tonight," I say sullenly to Nicole. "Or snack."
After a quick shower, and a change, we arrive at The Strip. The weather has finally warmed up to a nice 75 degrees. Nicole has a plan for a tour of The Strip part two: The Wynn, The Venetian, The Bellagio Fountains, then dinner and meeting up with her friends at The Gold Spike, and lastly, seeing Freemont Street and The Life Cube.
We park at The Wynn's sister hotel, The Encore. Nicole points to one of many "Day clubs" in Las Vegas, where partiers drink and swim and waitresses rake in thousands in tips. There are some revelers leaving day clubs drunk in their bikini's, and a threesome of bro's flip-flopping across a street.
"Ew," says Nicole, "that guys' shirt says 'Party Like Bill Cosby.'"
"That's disgusting," I say.
"I want to let you see a day club, I'm taking you to one the next time you visit," says Nicole. We walk into the Encore lobby and find the entrance. We approach the door but are stopped by a gigantic "dress code" warning sign.
NO PANTS ALLOWED.
I look down at my jeans, which have been such an impediment the whole trip.
"Only in Vegas are no pants allowed!" I say laughing. Why are we surprised?
We walk to The Wynn and admire the lobby decor, namely a hot-air balloon fashioned out of fresh flowers. We make a pit stop for coffee, and go to The Venetian to see the "canals." Inside The Venetian shopping center runs a canal just like the one in Venice, replete with gondoliers. It's beautiful, puzzling, shocking American commercialism at it's best. I wonder: what do the Italians think?
We walk to some of the old casino's just to play a few in the machines. A casino representative cajoles me into getting a "Player's Card" with my name engraved on it. I do it, imagining that a Players Club Card from the Casino Royale is a great souvenir and when noted to the right person could make me look attractive or repulsive or dangerous or frivolous. Instant street-cred. It'll be like when I tell people I swam chin-deep in the murkey waters of Coney Island beach. Most people say, "Wow you're disgusting," or "Wow, you're brave." Now I can add to that, "I'm also a Players Club member at the Casino Royale. Put that in your pipe and smoke it."
I play $10 in and win $30 (on a penny machine) and applaud myself. A pair of tourists from India stop to admire my win and laugh.
"You did very well!" they say. I forget my mantra ("Win and leave") and lose it all.
"You'd think I'd be immune to these sorts of pleasures," I want to say to someone. But the row of stools on my left and right are empty.
Leaving a casino in the daytime is like waking up from a nap. It's dark and smokey indoors, and outside the sun is baking and reflecting off the sidewalks. I even start to sweat. There are more people than there were before. On one of the sidewalks, melts a homeless woman. She's got two large breed dogs, and Nicole wants to pet them. She's kind to us and opens her wrists when she talks, revealing two Grateful Dead tattoos.
"I like those," Nicole says.
"Now and forever," she says.
We see a woman handing out calling cards for the brothels, Nicole grabs them and holds them out.
"Look!" she says. There's a woman with a poodle perm and metallic pasties smiling at me. Nicole tosses the cards in the air and they flutter to the sidewalk, where there are already hundreds of them littering the ground. "Everyone does that. The ground is covered in them."
We go into the Flamingo, which feels like an era of Vegas that has long since passed. There's a restaurant outside with a sign, "The last and only $3 Shrimp Cocktail in Vegas." The aesthetics of The Flamingo seemed prime for a clientele from the late 70s and early 80s who ate shrimp cocktails, wore patterned silk shirts and talked into gigantic cellular phones. There's a garden full of exotic birds and large koi.
We keep walking and land ourselves at The Bellagio, again, to catch their water show, then grab a cab at Caesars Palace back to our car at The Encore.
"Where are you from?" asks the driver.
"She's visiting me from New York. I live here," says Nicole.
"New York!" the driver says. He looks at us through the rear view mirror. "I love New York. I used to live there."
"Hells Kitchen for eight years," he says proudly. "You know all those annoying bike taxi's?"
"The rickshaws?" I ask.
"Yes. I owned a few of them, and ran a tour company. As soon as I settle some business in Vegas I'm moving back. The day I sign the divorce papers I'm going back to New York and I'm not looking back. I hate this place."
"I like Vegas," I say.
"My tour company could tell you all the secrets of New York," says the driver. "I can tell you where the oldest bar in New York is, things like that."
"You mean McSorley's?" I ask.
"Yep," he says.
"Isn't there some dispute whether it's Pete's Tavern or McSorley's?" I ask. He explains the dispute. I turn to Nicole. "McSorley's is great. No women allowed until the 1970s. The only food they have is a sleeve of saltine crackers served with onions, cheddar cheese and mustard made with beer. And the lights are on and there's no music. It's amazing."
"What area do you live in now?" asks Nicole. He says the neighborhood, but I wouldn't know it.
Nicole nods. "I want to move out there, but I don't want to be in an HOA."
"Damn HOA's," mutters the taxi driver.
"They told me I couldn't park my bike on my porch, it was 'an eyesore,'" says Nicole.
"There was a marine, a vet who tried to hang an American flag and they wrote him a nasty letter," says the driver. "So he painted his whole house red, white and blue, and they evicted him. Took the house out from under him."
"Why didn't they report about this on Fox News!?" I exclaim.
"They did!" says the driver.
The taxi rolls into the drop off area at The Encore. It's time for Japanese dinner. A little ways from The Strip is the Las Vegas version of Chinatown. We share a table with a father and daughter from Reno. The father finds out that I live in New York and the daughter is impressed that I work for the magazine I work for. I order a tofu soup, a miso cod, and a mini-chirashi sushi. The cod is so rich my stomach starts to turn. Nicole's bok-choi soup comes with a slug floating in it. (We get a new one, of course.)
By 10 o'clock, we're late meeting Nicole's "Burner friends" on Freemont Street (and by "burners" I mean, the friends she met at Burning Man).
"It's all the poly people," she says. I make the mistake of confusing polyamory with being a swinger and Nicole has to teach me the difference. I'm always thinking I'm far more worldly than I actually am.
Freemont Street is the old Las Vegas, surrounded by bars and high rises where the hipster-slash-bearded contingent live. According to everyone I've met, it's where the Las Vegas residents go when they want to go out. We walk to The Gold Spike, and a group of about ten drunk men approach us on a street corner.
"Where are you from?" the drunkest, a blonde bro in a polo shirt, asks.
"Alabama," says Nicole.
"Did you go to Alabama?" he asks, referencing biggest school in the state. Nicole went to their rival school, and jokingly offended, laughs.
"Hell no!" she says. "War Eagle."
The drunk is miffed.
"Where are you from?" we ask.
"Oklahoma," he says. I smirk, having always imagined that small town boys can hold their liquor because there's nothing else to do but drink and build up an early tolerance to it. He's completely glazed over, looking past us, about two hours and two drinks away from a blackout.
I approach the bouncer and I am cut off by a line-jumper who was smoking a cigarette.
"You go, you go," he says waving me forward. "I was kidding."
"It's my line," asserts the bouncer. "I say the lady goes first."
"I was kidding," snaps the smoker. The Oklahoma-drunk can't stand waiting any longer.
"Hey!" he slurs. I dash inside.
"We lost the Oklahoma-drunk in a fight," I say to Nicole, who laughs. In a quick, almost deceptive transition, we've made it out of a pitch-black bar and outside again, to a huge courtyard lit with spotlights. There are various arrangements of picnic tables, a bar in the center, a life-sized Chess board, corn hole, shuffleboard and the like. There's a large group of Nicole's friends at the Chess board. She turns to the first girl, who has purple and black braids cascading down the right side of her face, a large locket adorning her neck. I'm introduced. I put out my hand, but her friend opens her arms.
"I'm a hugger," she says. So I hug back, suddenly remembering that I'm with the poly-crowd tonight. Love is their thing.
I make puppy-dog eyes at the bar, wishing through some Catholic-loophole I could have a cocktail because I'm with strangers and my nerves are high. Oh the sound of the rack-rack-rack-a of a cocktail shaker! I'm sure there's a combination of indulgences I can use after-the-fact, I say to myself, but there isn't so I don't drink.
Nicole tosses a bean bag across the AstroTurf and it lands, and slides up, falling into a hole soundlessly.
"You do, it you do it!" she says pointing to the corn hole game set up.
"I've never played!" I say.
"You have not been on a frat house lawn then," she says.
We rejoin the group, and Nicole is congratulating the first girl I met on the large locket on her neck. A man comes up and starts telling us how he made it, and when the two of them walk off, Nicole leans into me.
"That's her collar," she says. "Her dom gave it to her, meaning that she's his main sub. He made it himself. As soon as I saw it, I knew what it was, and I wanted to ask her about it." She points to the man, who is now standing with another woman. "That's his wife over there."
It immediately strikes me that they are so normal looking. Not just normal, hell, conservative. The man is in navy khakis and a blue button down polo shirt. I'm fascinated by the wives' security, she looks as though this doesn't phase her.
We all gather to walk to The Life Cube, a big public art structure in a parking lot right off Freemont Street. It was built by the Burning Man community (Nicole and her friends) with the intention of being lit on fire the following weekend. It had become a big gathering spot for Burners, and it was the next stop for us.
On a street corner , everyone points to a gigantic metal sculpture of a preying mantis, it's the size of a semi.
"What is that?" I start to ask, when all of a sudden two flames shoot out of the mantis' antennae.
"I'm a little pyrophobic," I admit, now sliding over closer to the group, fighting the urge to turn around and run.
The mantis emits two more large blasts of fire.
"How are we still friends!" laughs Nicole, seeing the irony in that her favorite day of the year is the day when they light an effigy on fire at Burning Man.
"A man is in there, controlling the flames," says Nicole. There's a crowd taking pictures. "That's Container Park a whole park made out of containers."
"You have to take her," gush her friends. "There's a playground but at night adults are allowed on it."
Nicole and I split from the group and approach the mantis.
"I don't want it to... you know," I say. Nicole laughs. We give a guy our ID and enter the park. It's really cool, like a piazza with stores and restaurants. We go to the playground, and climb up a ladder to the second floor in the dark.
"This is cool!" I say. There is a slide that leads to a dark abyss.
Nicole, without warning, dives down it screaming.
"You can't do that!" I shout at her. "You don't know what's down there."
Then I hear her voice laughing several floors below me.
"Come on down it's so much fun!" she yells. I look at the dark hole. I stick my head in, but I can't see to the bottom. I put a foot in, then withdraw it. I put my hands on my hips: there's a metaphor in this, I think to myself. Then a young couple approaches, and they jump in fearlessly and I hear them laughing at the bottom. Hunter S. Thompson would have jumped.
I climb back down the safe way and Nicole is laughing at my carefulness. We have to catch up to the group, and continue toward The Life Cube. But first, a pit stop at The Atomic Lounge, a bar where we'll be making drink run. Or rather, she'll be making a drink run.
"The scientists who developed the atomic bomb used to sit on the roof here and watch the tests from far away," says Nicole.
"Just like, 'Dr. Atomic,'" I whisper, and my eyes follow from the roof east, further and further, imagining the great big cloud rolling over the desert. God, the moral conflict! My chest feels heavy on behalf of all the people who developed the atomic bomb. How did they sleep? How did they eat? Hipsters are spilling out of the front door and onto the courtyard. I climb on a bar stool and fake like I'm choking an imaginary neck.
"I just need a drink," I say, and the bartender hops up on cue, smelling my desperation.
"Oh no," laughs Nicole, "she's my DD." She orders a spicy-summery pink mescal concoction that I'm jealous of, and puts it in a plastic cup.
The Life Cube is just across the street -- and its glowing. There's a sizable crowd around it and inside of it. People are interpretive dancing, there's a drummer and a guitarist banging tunes. A few people are out on lawn chairs, and some are doing yoga poses and headstands.
We climb inside the cube. It's two stories with a locked staircase leading to a second story, which is off limits to the public. Each wall was painted by an artist, but now it's overlapped with notes and other drawings from visitors. There's a box for people to write their wishes for the world, which will also go up in flames when the whole thing is lit on fire next weekend.
The idea that something so beautiful and unique is being destroyed makes my stomach lurch. I'm such a nostalgia loving memorist who's wallet is filled with receipts from foreign countries and restaurant business cards that I can't bear to throw away. My house is the stuff of Marie Kondo's nightmares. I have a Willy Wonka chocolate bar wrapper from 1999, just because I do.
Nicole's friends are gathered and tossing around those glow balls on a string.
"Where did you learn to do that?" I ask a girl who's skillfully throwing her glow balls around her head and waist.
"Drugs," she says.
The creator of The Life Cube appears and is introduced. He's a man in his early 40's (I'd guess). He's in a sleeveless top and linen pants, and sandals.
"Where are you from?" he asks.
"New York," I say.
"Ah, then you can be back next weekend when we light this thing on fire. They're are all kind of flight deals to New York from Las Vegas."
I laugh. "I wish I could come back here."
We're interrupted by a woman trying to do a headstand against The Cube, and another woman from the far regions from the parking lot, runs toward her.
"Yes! Yes! YES!" she screams. She crouches on the ground next to the girl, coaching her, keeping her up on her head. "You got this!"
The clock strikes 11 pm. I'm clinging desperately to Las Vegas and I do not want to leave.
"I'll show you Freemont Street," Nicole she says. "then we'll go home." Freemont is the pillar of Old Las Vegas, The Strip before The Strip existed.
"As you can see," Nicole says. "This is way more weird than The Strip." We're passing all sorts of characters, there's a man dressed up as "Pinhead" and his wife is dressed up as a superhero. Lots of drifters. A pregnant woman in a lace, see-through pink, booty-cutting jumpsuit with a plunging neckline trots around. I see so many resurrected Elvis' and penis necklaces. A live cover song band is rocking the center of the street, and a crowd dances. I like the spirit of it.
11:30 pm and I'm dragging my feet behind Nicole to the parking garage, to the car that would take us back to Summerville, the threshold that would lead us to an unmade bed, a sleep that would bring me to a departing flight.
It's a terrible feeling to know that the party's over, and a horrible sight to behold fresh confetti on the ground. Half of me wants to go all-in, all night and recover on the flight, but Nicole's got work in the morning and I've got an 8 am flight I just can't miss.
It was sad to say goodbye to Nicole knowing that my next Las Vegas trip is now far away and her next trip to New York potentially farther. I give her a big hug the next morning at McCarren airport and thank her for everything.
Walking through the airport I know -- as the week's scenes play like a flip book and get filed in their order -- that I love Las Vegas. I'm no Anthony Bourdain or Hunter S. Thompson. I'm not a strung out journalist on a trip at the Mint 400. I'm a wallflower -- that's the irony in this. I'm not living Thompson's truth. I'm living my own version of a life on the fringe, unmasking in a slow dissolve. To anyone else: insignificant. To me: gigantic. It's a feeling that hasn't come around since 2011 over two famous cappuccinos in a Marylebone cafe.
So often I leave cities feeling like a vampiress, having sucked them dry for the sake of a story. I worry that I've relied to much on the stereotypes, or saw too little, or am getting it all wrong about "X City". I feel bad for the strangers who are going to get their conversations recorded verbatim, or the wrong element of their look played up, or their restaurant, or street or neighborhood ripped to shreds or elevated to the heavens by my pen going crazy 10,000 feet in the sky.
I have Poe-like nightmares on the flight (you know the ones, nothing but curious noises and your guilt fills in the blanks). I wake up anxious: "What if I'm writing it all wrong?" Then I reassure myself: "You'll do that chronological present-tense thing, and all will be well."
Besides, Vegas is already dry.