I don’t get it. I’m an avid people-watcher. But I’ve never been a Las Vegas fan. Seems contradictory, right?
So when a friend of mine announced a birthday weekend in Vegas, I decided to give it another shot. And this time would be different, as it wouldn’t involve the debauchery-laden bachelor party or wannabe scenes out of Swingers. At least I wasn’t planning on it this time.
So Vegas, what’s it about really? Let’s start with some economy. Business Insiderrecently ranked it the #1 most miserable city to live and work in.
That’s, um, strong. The unemployment rate is over 13%, the foreclosure level is among the highest in the country, and the housing bubble imploded house prices to a tune of 60%. Ouch. But it’s also the place where at 2 a.m. the nightclubs are pulsating, you can play slots at 7-Elevens and 80% of all visitors return within a year’s time.
Back in North Park, my weekend begins as I jump into the Super Shuttle. Fellow passengers quickly learn of my roundtrip Spirit Airlines ticket bought for $36 (plus taxes and baggage fees).
For the next ten minutes the shuttle mocks me with the vision of chickens falling out of overhead bins inside the soon-to-be plane adventure. After the Super crew hears that Spirit offers seat choices with a price, I’m asked if the oxygen masks are free in flight. I’m wished good luck as we roll into San Diego’s growing airport. I sincerely thank them, as I wonder if my airline decision will come back to haunt me.
Just before touching down in the Vegas airport, I gauge how close The Strip is to the runway. There are a few hours to kill before my friends show up – I’m walking it.
“Take a public bus if you’re worried about money. You can’t walk to The Strip from here.” An airport security guard, hearing my walking question, briefly looks me over.
Three-and-a-half miles and a little over an hour later, I reach the goal: my beloved (read: inexpensive) Imperial Palace Hotel.
But not before I walk most of the four-mile Las Vegas Boulevard, feasting on the sight of a bonanza of characters owning the sidewalk. Swarms of Spanish-speaking, hourly paid workers (one of them tells me that they get paid $5 dollars an hour, as he shows me pictures of his beautiful town in El Salvador…on his iPhone) loudly flick nudie-club cards in my face.
Only in America: Las Vegas Blvd.
As it’s the opening weekend of the "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour", numerous MJs are moonwalking around town. Marilyn is standing over a metal vent on the sidewalk blowing her white dress up too high. The list goes on with characters – of a wide variety – performing something every ten feet. How did I not love this before?
Whether you want to see a multitude of Cirque du Soleil shows that leave the audience genuinely awed, North America’s only predator-based aquarium, aptly named Shark Reef, or various other exhibitions and attractions, Las Vegas provides.
What Vegas also bestows upon its visitor is the almost expected-unexpected.
Where else are you going to find a 50-year-old white guy, now affectionately known as “White Mike”, working it like Michael Jackson for three hours on a dance floor in a casino lobby? How about a lady, with fists wrapped like a boxer, throwing combination after combination on the same dance floor next to White Mike? There are some moments in life that I’m rendered fundamentally thankful for.
It’s now midday Sunday. My friends have already driven out of town, headed for L.A. For some reason I scheduled my return flight for 9:20 p.m.
It’s as if I completely forgot the excruciatingly agonizing hangovers on Sundays in Vegas. But unknowingly to me, my mind already had this subconsciously planned out: my very first solo day in Vegas. I seamlessly make friends with a few locals. Something is in the air. One of them is a bartender born and raised in Las Vegas – perfect. I hear thoughts like “Vegas is a place that makes or breaks you” and about an art movement growing quickly in downtown with an event called First Fridays.
The city is becoming somewhat of a website-hub with companies like Zappos.com based here. Locals refer to bars or clubs as either “On The Strip” or “Off The Strip,” but describe which area when referring to “Off The Strip.”
I listen to stories describing a reality where absolutely anything can happen. The moment to leave for the airport arrives too soon. I have one more question for the seemingly rare Las Vegas native: “If you had to pick one sentence that sums up Las Vegas, what would it be?”
Without hesitation I’m told, "I love it." That’s, um, strong.
I’m on my way back to San Diego (I departed Las Vegas at 1:20 a.m. after being delayed four hours – yes, I can hear the Super crew cracking up again about Spirit Airlines). I notice a sign covering an overhead bin reading, “Some Vegas stories are OK to share. Others should just stay in the air.”
Besides thinking it was strange to come across a message like this on a plane, I’m beyond eager to share all my Vegas stories. Thanks for welcoming me with open arms, Vegas. I’m definitely making a return trip, just like the other 79.999996% of visitors do.