Las Vegas – First Impressions

I am sitting in V Bar at the Venetian, my subtly-scented home for the next few days. It is my first drink in Las Vegas – a grapefruit cocktail concocted by the bartender upon my request. Not too sweet, but not too terribly tart. The day is hot. As luck, and poor planning, would have it, Las Vegas has had three consecutive days of record-breaking heat (think 110 degrees) that looks to continue for the duration of my stay. On a good day, I hate the heat. When it gets to the high 80’s I’m uncomfortable. In the 90’s, I’m miserable. And in the 100’s, there’s no telling what atrocities I’ll inflict on an unsuspecting public.

Everyone told me not to worry – that this is a dry heat, not as sticky. Well, everyone is full of shit. 104 degrees is still 104 degrees – dry, wet, or soaked in gin. This is the kind of heat that hits you in the face as soon as you leave an air conditioned area. It’s difficult to describe if you’ve never been in it. Most of us have had that hot summer day moment in a city, when a bus or subway train stops in front of you, and the intense heat from the engine hits you right in the face, and it’s awful. Then the bus or train moves along and there’s the relief of coolness immediately afterward. Well, imagine that intense heat around you ALL THE TIME. It is relentless, it is energy-draining, and it literally left me with a headache after a few minutes of walking around outside. Still, Las Vegas, or so I was told, is not about what’s outside, but what is in…

After touching down at the airport and getting an initial thrill from seeing the Strip right there – big, bold and brash in the midst of the desert, and then watching it get bigger and bigger as we approached, my first impression was that it was, actually, largely unimpressive. It had immensity, it had bold, bright neon colors, but mostly it had the blatantly hollow and unmistakable air of FAKE to it. There was nothing real or authentic here – and while that may be the whole point of Vegas, it’s something I could never quite reconcile.

What’s the point of recreating Paris or New York or the canals of Venice (and all pretty badly) and pretending it’s beautiful, or even an approximate version of the real thing? And why would anyone come to the desert to see such a theme park? The same notion of paltry imitation I felt from Epcot Center as a kid is back again in adult form. Or supposed adult form, as the baby carriages and screaming children were rampant everywhere we went. Someone once likened Las Vegas to a Disneyworld for adults, and I can see that. Though as someone who never fully loved the Disneyworld experience as a kid, I was similarly underwhelmed here.

A word on the accommodations: The Venetian Las Vegas, and its sister property The Palazzo, are, on the surface, pretty enough. They’ve done their best to recreate the charm of Venice, from the Gondola rides (at $16 a pop, and electronically-guided) to the baroquely-gilded ceilings and archways, painted garishly in Renaissance-like scenery. The grand hallway off the lobby is a sight to behold, as is the immense scope and size of the front courtyard, but it rings of emptiness, of façade.

As for the room itself, it was billed as a full-on suite, and it was. My sixth-floor location looked onto the roof of the rest of the Venetian complex, and not much else, so any stunning vista of the strip was a world away, replaced by endless vents and ducts and fans.

Browsing the pamphlets on the hotel desk, I read that they recently received another 5-diamond AAA award, which seemed at odds with the two blown light bulbs in the bathroom and hallway, as well as the electrical outlet which the front desk tells me to simply reset, as it occasionally goes out. The holes in the pillowcases were disappointing, as were a few questionable stains on the couch, but those are nit-picky items – just unexpected for all the five-star billing that they’re so keen on advertising.

Overlooking all of that, I was determined to have fun, and to surprise my birthday mate Kim. The whole point of this trip was to meet up with JoAnn and Kim, and surprise the latter for her birthday. JoAnn and I hatched the surprise dinner at Tao a few weeks ago. We weren’t sure we could do it – a secret like that is too good to keep – but after putting an embargo on all things Vegas in FaceBook and my website, and only telling a few close friends of our plan, we looked set to pull it off. I dabbed on some of Tom Ford’s ‘Italian Cypress’ cologne – hey, when at the Venetian… and made my way down to V Bar to await the appointed moment.

Next to me, a woman with a 20’s-style bob, decked out in a sparkling, spaghetti-strap sequin dress, sits next to a man whom I assume is her husband, and whose outfit pales in comparison (a rather touristy striped polo shirt and khakis). I wonder if she is the slightest bit disappointed – her face is made-up perfectly, a slash of dark lipstick matches the severity of her bob. Her black earrings sparkle, catching what little light surrounds us.

The bartender has made an admirable effort, so I stay for one more drink before joining the girls at Tao. From the tray of nuts he has placed before me, I take a single walnut. It reminds me of Gram – and there, in a strange city, by myself at the bar, this melancholy memory makes me feel even more alone.

There is an exquisite joy – and sometimes grave pain – in being out of one’s element in a land far from home.

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