Thursday, May 26, 2011

Let Me Introduce You to Primm

If you've flown to Las Vegas, you've never known Primm. If you've driven to Las Vegas and you weren't coming from Los Angeles, you've never seen Primm. It is the pre-show to Las Vegas, home to three casinos: Whiskey Pete's, Buffalo Bill's, and the Primm Valley Resort and Casino. They've got a roller coaster called The Desperado, but I find most fascinating the relatively high-end convenience store near the state line. I don't know the name, but when you walk in, there's that long hallway leading to the men's and women's restrooms that has a huge framed map of the United States stretching all the way. That's to your left. To your right, just before the convenience store, is a tight bank of slot machines with stools. Then, there's enough space to find what you might want to eat or drink for the drive back. Mainly snacks and sandwiches, and of course there's coffee and all kinds of sodas. I miss Vegas Chips, which I had on one drive back. Those were made in Las Vegas, but no more. On our last trip, we couldn't find them. They'd just disappeared. It reminds me of one trip to Vegas (We always drive), after we passed Primm, and we found a riverboat-shaped casino that had been closed and pretty much abandoned. The next trip, we drove past Primm and that riverboat casino wasn't there anymore. It had been torn down, dismantled, but think about it: Only in the desert can a riverboat disappear like that. And that's when I knew that Las Vegas was for me.

Yesterday, I received a book in the mail I had ordered upon learning that becoming a resident of Southern Nevada may be more possible now than in years before. It's called In the Desert of Desire: Las Vegas and the Culture of Spectacle by William L. Fox. Fox writes about art galleries in casinos, the shark reef at Mandalay Bay, as well as how Las Vegas barely funds museums and zoos. It's of course also about the spectacle of Las Vegas, but, to quote the copy on the back flap: "This compelling, disturbing discussion of entertainment and the arts in Las Vegas shows how our insatiable modern appetite for extravagance and spectacle has diminished the power of unembellished nature and the arts to teach and inspire us, and demonstrates the way our libertarian society privileges private benefit over public good."

I'll read about all that later. I found this book while wandering through the listings on Amazon for books about Las Vegas and I immediately wanted it after I read the first page of chapter 1. This is Primm exactly as Fox writes about it. I've never known the border making itself apparent like that as Fox writes about it, but I do know that once you cross the border into Nevada, the road becomes much smoother. They're maintained a lot better in Nevada:

"The border between California and Nevada makes itself apparent ten miles before you cross it. When you drive around the last curve on Interstate 15 before descending from the eponymously named Mountain Pass and into the Ivanpah Valley, several enormous structures appear at the far end of the playa, a lakebed that since the Pleistocene ended almost ten thousand years ago has been more dry than wet. Three hotel-casinos, a discount mall, and a nearby 500-megawatt, gas-fired, water-cooled power plant flank the freeway, forming a surreal gateway into the state, one that declares, "Abandon reality, all ye who enter here." The allusion to Dante's Inferno is strengthened not only by the feverish temperatures of the Mojave Desert but also by the sight of the Desperado roller-coaster on the left at Buffalo Bill's. It's actually a "hyper-coaster" that is one of the tallest and fastest in the world. Its cars drop 215 feet and hit 95 miles per hour at the bottom, which in my book is considerably more like torture than entertainment. Las Vegas is still thirty-five miles to the north, but the address out here is 31900 Las Vegas Boulevard South. Only a range of hills, another arid valley, and 319 blocks to go.

The high-rise hotels of Primm rise out of the Mojave with nothing to buffer them from the floor of the scorched alkali flat. No trees, houses, strip malls. It looks like a set for a cheap cowboy movie, the Wild West architectural touches on Whiskey Pete's and Buffalo Bill's not even trying to echo a real western town so much as a cartoon one. The layers of resemblance are not coincidental."

Basketball As It Has Never Been Played Before

I know exactly what we did on our first trip to Las Vegas, I know exactly what we did on our most recent trip to Las Vegas. But I can't always keep straight such details as when we first went to the Pinball Hall of Fame and I found my heaven in all those pinball machines, or when we went to the Fantastic Indoor Swapmeet on Decatur Boulevard, and I found not only a laminated poster of my favorite Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but also the two guys who ran the business who were just as passionate about movies as I am. Not only would I have been content to chat with them all day, but come the time we move, I would have loved to man their area of the swapmeet. I think it would have been an honor to work for them. (I'll see if they're still there, but that's not the kind of job I want.)

I don't think this story happened at the same time as finding that poster. I get the feeling, though, that it happened on our second trip to Vegas.

I still was interested in a career in aviation back then. And Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University had a building on the grounds of Nellis Air Force Base. So before we left for Vegas, I made an appointment with one of the admissions officers there, to see what was available, to tour the classrooms. Meridith had the same desire, at the campus of Le Cordon Bleu, and we had done that the day before. She got the better deal. They had free, fresh little pastries on trays in the lobby.

We parked near the security gate to Nellis, went to the little security office, and waited for that Embry-Riddle representative to show up, so we could get back in our car and follow her to the building. On the way, I got my first look at what Air Force barracks look like. Now, I know every branch of our armed services is about uniformity. You can't have wildly different personalities in a group if you want a tight, cohesive unit for defense. But looking at that depressed gray color of that building, I wonder: Did the Air Force take housing decoration tips from the Soviets? I determined that I could never serve in the Air Force or really any other military branch. What the armed forces does is heroic, but it's just not me.

After the discussion with the admissions officer, and after the brief tour, we went to a Wal-Mart near Nellis. This is where you'll find military families. It's quite possibly the most interesting Wal-Mart I've been to, because it genuinely matches the area. It's almost like the barracks themselves. There's no muck-about business here. You get what you need and you go. The mothers that I saw with their kids were very businesslike about what they needed to get. Nowhere in the three Wal-Marts here in the Santa Clarita Valley do you get that impression. Maybe only at the Stevenson Ranch Wal-Mart because it's the most rundown and you get that fend-for-yourself-because-we-ain't-doing-shit feeling there. At least at the Nellis Wal-Mart, they keep everything well-stocked.

While walking around that Wal-Mart, Meridith and I spotted basketballs. There's a hoop at America's Best Value Inn on Tropicana Avenue, where we always stay. And we didn't have a basketball. So we got a basketball.

Now, I loved going to Walt Disney World every weekend when I was little. It fired my imagination every time, even from the stroller I was always in. I loved the parades, and especially when performers would stop by during their route to say hello, since a lot of people in the park knew us that well, including monorail drivers. As I got older, and we visited less often because we lived in South Florida, I spent the entire day of every visit in Tomorrowland, never leaving, except to check in with my parents. I went on Space Mountain, the Tomorrowland Transit Authority, and Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress in a loop. My favorite time on Space Mountain was in 2000, when the guy manning the gate to the monorail at the Ticket and Transportation Center let us through after hearing about how we visited WDW all the time when we lived here. This was during Early Entry for hotel guests, when they'd get the run of the park for about an hour before the park opened to the general public. On that morning, I rode Space Mountain three times before it began to get crowded.

But I don't think Walt Disney World would have the same impact on me now as it did back then. I still fondly remember riding the Tomorrowland Transit Authority, Cinderella's Castle in front of me on one loop around the "Tomorrowland Interplanetary Convention Center" (It's where the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter was, and now Stitch's Great Escape is there), and loving that view because it showed me that some things can be combined agreeably, no matter how disparate they are. I don't think it would work for me today, even with the TTA's original soundtrack on my mp3 player (They replaced it with what sounds like a hyped-up, sugared-up advertisement for all the attractions in Tomorrowland, which is not at all necessary, because it takes you completely out of the area, and it shouldn't. The original soundtrack is far more imaginative).

It's said that Las Vegas is an adult Disney World. Having been there many times now, I agree. It's a hedonistic paradise, and exactly how I've always wanted to live my life. Not for gambling and drinking with reckless abandon, since I don't do either, and that's an amateur's way of experiencing Las Vegas, especially if you're still doing it on your fifth and sixth time there, but just because whatever you might be looking for there, chances are you'll find it. And most of the time, you'll find what you never expected. I've always wanted to live where people are unafraid to live, to be themselves, no matter how long they're there for. I get that impression not just on the Strip, but also in Henderson at a 7-11 we stopped at where the guy at the counter was good-natured, and in Boulder City, at the library, where they're proud to be where they are. It's not an act. It's genuine. Having lived in Southern California for seven years, I can tell when it's genuine.

The next morning, Meridith and I got out the basketball and went to the hoop, which is next to the pool area. Vegas is always at its peak at night with all of the lights, but to me, it's more fascinating in the daylight. It still maintains its appeal, though now you have to search a little more deeply for what you want. It's that kind of exploration that adds more to the nighttime experience, because you know the casinos even more intimately and especially the outside. You get to see more detail on the lion statues at the MGM Grand, the Eiffel Tower at Paris, and the opulence at the Palazzo. I'm still waiting to go to the Orleans Hotel and Casino. And I can't wait to go back to Eastside Cannery as a resident. It'll definitely feel different, locals' discounts for shows and other attractions notwithstanding.

For me, though, very few experiences can match shooting hoops at America's Best Value Inn, because Meridith and I were playing in the shadow of the MGM Grand. It's right across the street. Next to us is Hooters Casino Hotel. Next to that, if you squint, you can spot the Tropicana. Near the MGM Grand is New York-New York and you can see the facade clearly. Nowhere else can you play basketball like that. This is a truly unique spot in the entire world. Meridith and I have also played basketball there when it begins to get dark, and it's pure poetry that shows the dire need for a Las Vegas literary scene. I've found writers' groups in Las Vegas and in Henderson (I'm thinking about joining the one in Henderson after we get settled as new residents), and I hope they're writing about moments like that. Vegas doesn't only need what it already has in entertainment options and buffets and sex in many forms, but it also needs words that describe moments like that. During that one basketball game, Meridith and I saw the powerful white light at the top of the Luxor come on. This is my new Disney World. I know I can be happy here every day, and it's for moments like that which keep me going as a writer. If you can't find anything to write about in Las Vegas, then you shouldn't be a writer.