It’s 10:35 PM on the second-to-last day of CES as I sit on the hotel bed nursing my blistered feet, throat aching from the desert air and smoky casino hotels. Above and beyond the excitement of new computer hardware and the repetitive bleeping of slot machines, one thing is foremost in my mind: my desire never to set foot in Las Vegas, Nevada ever again. I might have to feign illness, "forget" my passport at home, or stuff my carry-on luggage with firecrackers to get turned away at security. Whatever it takes. Just… please, no more.
I had some idea of what to expect, of course. CES is big. Vegas is big. Both the event and the city seem to gather people from all over America—the world, even—in a carousel of craziness and misery. The only difference between the show and the town, I suppose, is that a bad day at CES is less likely to leave you with shattered kneecaps and a bloody nose. But only slightly.
I was even prepared for the general insanity of trade shows, having flown to Taiwan for Computex on three separate occasions. CES and Computex share many attributes: the huge show floors, the poorly lit hotel suites packed with demo systems, and the wealth of companies and journalists present. CES is an order of magnitude more insane, however. Not just because it’s even bigger, but because of where it’s set.
I land in a massive valley in the middle of the desert. Immediately after disembarking, I encounter rows of slot machines, the focal point of a cluster of airport gates. I hop into a cab. The driver, a middle-aged man who looks like he should be standing at an intersection with a rag and a squeegee, takes me down streets populated almost exclusively with hotels, pawn shops, and billboards that advertise a creepy-looking Italian lawyer’s bankruptcy protection services. Having arrived at my hotel, I dread going back out. But I have to.
As a CES attendee, my destination is one of the huge casino hotels on the Vegas Strip. I head to the Venetian, a cyclopean maze with hallways the length of city blocks, indoor canals designed by people who only ever saw Italy in pictures, actors in costume who look even more miserable than the guests, and worst of all, an unimaginably gaudy lobby that makes it patently clear who profits from gambling. Everything at the Venetian feels like a huge, gilded middle finger raised in the face of gamblers. "Look how much money we’re taking from you. Look at how rich you’re making us," the marble floors and domed ceilings bellow.
I guess the gamblers learned to tune that out.
Getting from point A to point B in the Venetian invariably involves a trip through the casino area. Sitting at a restaurant, about to sink my teeth into a stale, $10 turkey wrap and wash it down with a $3 bottle of water, I have to go back through the casino to get to a restroom where I can wash my hands. At first, I’m amused by trips through the smoky, dimly lit casino floor. But then I see the people sitting at the slot machines. I stare at one of them, and after a few seconds, he looks back. I see the utter despair and shame on his face. His glazed-over eyes tell me, "I have a fixed income. I have no life savings. I can’t stop coming here. Help me."
I walk away perplexed, thinking maybe they’re not all the same. But they are. I see them at other casinos, cigarettes slowly turning to ash in their hands, their hopes and dreams long smoldered away. I try to convince myself that the despair stops there. But it doesn’t. I walk on and past a cocktail waitress, fake breasts compressed by a dress that’s too small and gait slowed by heels that are too high. I look down and see fat, tired middle-aged women sitting at empty blackjack tables, their faces stern and cold—slave-masters but also slaves themselves. I see tourists from Asia and Europe who blew thousands of bucks on a trip to Vegas and are visibly regretting it.
Vegas is many things, but most of all, Vegas is despair. I can see it in the casino hotels, in the taxi cabs, and in the impossibly long streets populated only by concrete, metal, neon, and dirt. I can see it in the eyes of the counter clerk in the casino hotel’s food court, a short, portly man with a lisp who smiles without really smiling. I can see it looking in the mirror at one of the Venetian’s restrooms, where water stops flowing out of the faucet every four seconds and the automatic soap dispenser squirts suggestively into my hand. The abuse, it seems, knows no limits.
When Vegas isn’t making me wish I was far, far away, it makes me shake my head with disillusionment. The grandeur and garishness of Caesar’s Palace is more than a mere show of wealth. It’s a monument—not to ideology or religion, but to sheer craziness. What are two-story-tall statues, gigantic marble columns, and opulent domed ceilings doing in a casino resort in the middle of the desert? How do people continue to fund the construction of these structures in spite of themselves, out of a selfish and misguided desire to appropriate some of the wealth that has been taken from others? As a spiral escalator carries me into the upper levels of the shopping area, I think to myself that if aliens ever did crash near Area 51, it might have been because of what they saw here in Vegas.
The city’s surreal nature isn’t crystallized in my mind until I wade past the luxury boutiques into an elevator up to one of the top floors. Peering out the window there, I see no structures with any semblance of beauty other than casinos. Beyond them are myriad single-story buildings, halted construction projects, and highways surrounded by dirt. Beyond that, the desert. In the distance are the mountains, which look on unamused as the city slowly turns people’s sweat and tears into concrete and glitter. I stare off into the distance pensively…
Then, the PR rep we came to see finishes his chat with another press team and walks over to greet us. The carousel kicks back into gear. "How’s the show been for you so far?"