The first time I remember visiting Las Vegas, I was about to go into eighth grade. I was really into U2′s The Joshua Tree, which was oddly appropriate for the family driving vacation my family was taking that summer across the Southwestern United States. An early stop was to be in Las Vegas, and I was skeptical. Because the state of Nevada has always made me skeptical.
Waikiki? when you could Las Vegas? the billboards for the Tropicana Hotel kept questioning us on the road there, and it became an absurd philosophical conundrum between my brother and I — a way to bond with one another across the distance of almost four years and the expanse of the back seat of the brown Peugeot station wagon we were forced to share. Who buys French cars? Waikiki? when you could Las Vegas?
We had never been to Waikiki, my brother and I, but we had been to Kauai the summer before. And moreover, we had been to South Lake Tahoe, Carson City, Reno. Even then, we felt more than qualified to say, Waikiki? I’ll tell you why. Because it’s fucking Waikiki.
Still, for the whole trip, there was no end to the amusement:
Yes, Why? Why, indeed?
Absurdity united us. Back then, it may have been the only thing that could.
This must have been at the beginning of the renaissance of New Las Vegas, before Las Vegas became what it is now, the Disney version of Las Vegas. The Tropicana was, if not Waikiki, a lot closer to it than we had expected. There were water slides and pools and things to do that were maybe not designed specifically for kids, but they were at least kid tolerant. You could swim up to a blackjack table and drink a virgin pina colada, and maybe it wasn’t legal strictly speaking, but it was the early eighties, and nobody really cared, particularly if you were sitting with your dad.
I remember wandering around the grounds of the Tropicana by myself, thinking about topics that are the in the usual purview of the tweenage girl (e.g. How am I going to keep this tan up for back to school if I have to be in the car for two whole weeks straight?! and I’ve GOT to find another tube of Palé by L’Oreal on this trip! None of the stores in California have it! OMG!). There were two boys around my age that I kept running into, ostensibly by chance. I thought one of them was kind of cute but the other one always wore a tank top and had a bad haircut, and seemed like he wanted something. One day, I got in the elevator and the one with the bad haircut and the tank top got in the elevator after me. I immediately got out of the elevator and ran away. Why do the guys who like me always have to have the bad haircuts and the tank tops, I thought? Waikiki? when you could Las Vegas?
We stayed a few days, and overall it was enjoyable, a pleasant trip, and that in itself was strange. But Nevada is strange. It sneaks up on you. When I think of Nevada, I first think of the strangeness of its geography, the way that it forms a neat diagonal edge on the side of California that always made it the easiest state to find in my United States map puzzle. Then I remember a line from an early Facts of Life episode — because all of my cultural referents must hearken back to early eighties sitcoms in the manner that real authors use the Greeks or scripture — in which Blair Warner says that the only people who live in Nevada are “compulsive gamblers and divorcees.” These days, compulsive gamblers and divorcees can live anywhere: they no longer need to go to Nevada to hide their sins. Besides, the “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” slogan was always just a publicity stunt: the first thing you notice when you show up in Vegas, other than those ridiculous foot long slushy things (Why would you walk around with those as an adult? Waikiki? when you could Las Vegas?), is that everyone has a camera, and everyone is sharing exactly what they are doing, with whom, and how, and when, and why.
Nevada will always make me skeptical. But it’s also the kind of thing that can sneak up on you, scare the crap out of you, and then make you realize you were looking at things the totally wrong way. Waikiki? Why not?