Welcome to Sin City, welcome to Las Vegas
There are a couple of Latino girls dressed as Las Vegas cops blowing kisses at passers-by and inviting them to take a photo with them. “Make a memory, baby. Make a memory.”
Well, at least what they would be dressed like if they were cops moonlighting as strippers. They’ve got the hat and the badge but also fishnet stockings and heels so high that they’d be rank outsiders in a foot race while on ‘duty’ against…well, anyone.
For a five or ten dollar bill they’ll flank you from each side and give you a kiss on the cheek while you take a selfie or ask your mate to. Most guys grab their asses as the photo is taken but they don’t seem that fussed about it. As long as that moneybox keeps getting filled, they’ll keep on turning a blind eye. Or turning the other ‘cheek’, as the case may be.
A few metres away from them a six-year old kid is doing his best impression of Michael Jackson dancing. He’s pretty good. And opposite him an Asian teenager is belting out Sia’s greatest hits. They each have a plastic beer cup in front of them and if that cup keeps getting fed with Dead Presidents, they’re happy. The show goes on.
Thousands of people pass me by. They’re laughing, pointing, sipping cocktails, taking selfies, taking it all in.
I’m in downtown Vegas. Where else?
‘Make a memory’ is sort of Las Vegas’ new slogan. In 2002 an ad agency came up with ‘What goes in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ which really caught on and became an open invitation to misbehave however you wished, knowing that whatever sins you committed in Sin City stayed at the city limits.
But two factors contributed to that slogan not really being used that much anymore.
The first were the tragic shootings by a lone gunman in 2017 that left 58 dead and over 800 people injured. Keeping with the slogan seemed insensitive and inappropriate.
But the even greater factor was the worldwide obsession with Social Media. One too many tagged photo of a holidaymaker cavorting with someone who wasn’t their partner, making the drive back home from airport pickups all over the world resemble mild Spanish Inquisitions. Things stopped staying in Vegas like they used to.
But all that’s to worry about later. While you’re here it certainly hasn’t stopped anyone from having fun. Scrap that, from having the time of their lives. Whether it’s just for the night or a long weekend, here you can be and do whatever you want.
Oscar Wilde once said he could resist anything except temptation. His resistance here would have lasted the time it takes to mix a Martini. And that’s just the drinking.
Gambling? There are over 40 Casinos on the strip alone. Choose your favourite.
Drinking? Drugs? You got it. What’s your poison?
A show? Sure, buy your tickets right over there.
Poolside daytime Blackjack? You see those Victoria’s Secret wannabes standing there in turquoise bikinis? They’ll be your dealers. Remember to tip.
You like girls? Wanna go to a strip club? I’ll introduce you to Tiffany. She’ll look after you.
In this town you leave judgement, discrimination and any sense of hierarchy at the arrivals gate. Here we’re all the same and if you can’t accept that everyone is allowed to march to the beat of their own drum, then don’t bother coming.
I’m here for my best friend’s bachelor party. 18 guys have travelled from very different places to give him a good sendoff before he starts a new chapter of his life. Most of us don’t know each other but we all have two things in common. We all know the bachelor and we’ll all leave this place in a few nights’ time not quite knowing what hit us.
We go to a bikini contest by the pool on the roof of our Hotel. 14 of the most beautiful girls you’ll ever see are joined by an 82-year old woman called Esther with seven grandchildren who says she enjoys bridge and Sudoku. They’re all playing for a 500 buck prize. All or nothing. This is Las Vegas, it couldn’t be any other way. After 15 minutes of the contestants twirling and twerping, Esther is declared the winner.
With all due respect to good old Esther, it’s the most rigged contest on US soil since the 2000 US election when the swing state of Florida forgot how to count votes properly and George W. Bush became the 43rd President of the USA and the most powerful man on earth. But no one seems to care. As she walks off the stage there’s just more cheering, drinking and partying. Esther walks away. Fuck Sudoku. She’s just won 500 dollars and is hitting the roulette table.
We shoot craps and then we go and shoot some guns. An ex-army guy who looks like 80s action star Dolph Lundegren talks us through it all and then lets us unleash. There are bullets flying everywhere, a deafening noise. For 90 something bucks we all get to be John Dillinger for quarter of an hour. Make a memory. One of the guys in our group has a natural talent for shooting. The centre of the target is decimated, the paper hanging out after being butchered by shell after shell. ‘’Nice shot’’ says Dolph.
A 10 year-old girl with strawberry blonde hair rocks up to where you shoot. Dolph hands her a hand pistol but she’s not interested. She prefers the AK-47. She may not be old enough for some of the rides at Disneyland and her default channel on her TV may be Nickelodeon but that doesn’t stop her from having a soft spot for a particular assault rifle and today, clearly only the Kalashnikov will do. Her first shot misses the bullseye by a couple of inches but the target isn’t so lucky the second time round. It’s bang in the middle. That American Sniper guy would have been proud of that one. ‘’Nice shot’’ says Dolph.
I told you we were all the same here.
We hit the tables. The guy sitting next to me is on a break from buying blood diamonds in South Africa. He came back from his trip to Johannesburg tired, stressed, overworked and a little fed up. ‘Well, that’s the blood diamond industry for you.’ I tell him. ‘Yeah, he says. It’s getting increasingly tough to make an honest living these days.”
The dealer cracks a few jokes. She’s witty, smart, cheeky. Oh… and drop-dead gorgeous. Back home she’s a 10. Here she’s a soft six. She tells us that dealing Blackjack is ok and she enjoys talking to the players and seeing them win.
In this regard Vegas is unique. Every last dealer or croupier here is on your side. They want you to win. Ask them what your next move should be from a probability point of view and they’ll tell you. They refer to perfect Blackjack strategy as ‘the book.’ They’ll clap and congratulate you when you win and they’re genuinely upset when you get a bad beat.
Yes, the cynics would say that the more you win, the more you’ll tip them but that’s not the full story. What they want is for you to enjoy their hometown and all it has to offer. They don’t get bonuses from their employers for you losing and they know that every Casino-owner is rich enough, so they’re batting for your team. A cheerleader and coach all in one wearing a name tag, dressed in hot pants and displaying the sort of cleavage that would see them thrown out from many a country club up and down the country. But this is Vegas. Sexiness sells.
She tells us that she’s got about six months left at the tables before she embarks on her chosen career.
‘Actress, model…errrr comedian?’ I guess
She smiles, shakes her head and hisses at me. ‘Sssstripper.’
One night we go to Omnia, a nightclub bang in the middle of the strip. Superstar DJ Calvin Harris is playing. I see clubbers hooking up on the roof terrace with the backdrop of buildings 50 storeys high, members of hen parties posing for endless pictures, a guy who tells me he’s the CEO of an oil and gas company skinning up before blowing a perfect smoke ring of high-class marijuana. The only thing I don’t see is Calvin Harris. It’s been that sort of week.
We decide to go a nightclub called XS. It often makes Top 10 lists of the best clubs in the world. Whoever called it that was a ‘it does what it says on the tin’ sort of person because the excess is everywhere.
There are about 15 bars, you can rent different areas outside so you have a bit more privacy and there are a few swimming pools and palm trees outside just for good measure. Muscular men, regular guys in tight-fitting shirts, tanned leggy locals and a few hundred more people from just about every corner in the world drink vodka cranberries, mingle, dance and admire this disco heaven in the middle of the Nevada Desert.
I’m chatting to a girl from LA who works in a bank. She tells me she comes to Vegas every two years or so. In the tough times when she’s working round the clock and under pressure to bring in more big clients she remembers that her next Vegas trip isn’t too far away; it’s sort of what keeps her going. Like oxygen.
She looks around her at the decadent décor of the club, the empty Champagne bottles, the designer stilettos and the huge skyscrapers and neon lights surrounding the nightclub. “Can you smell that?”
She drains her drinks, smiles and walks off.
Everyone has come to see DJ Marshmello. Some guy who woke up one morning and decided he fancied mixing music in front of thousands while wearing a marshmallow-like mask for hours. The buzz of just being in this town and the late nights have started to take their toll on me so I have to make sure I’m not actually imagining things by this stage.
Locals tell me he always dresses like that and as per usual, no-one thinks anything of it.
When the craziness kicks in
Ah, the fatigue. I have one of those watches that tells you how many hours a night you’ve slept, how many paces you’ve walked and your heart rate. I normally sleep around 7 hours and 10 minutes a night and it’s normally 68 beats a minute for the old ticker. My average for the first three nights is 2 hours and 42 minutes. The consensus among the group is that’s quite a lot and that I’m clearly not partying enough.
I go to bed exhausted every night. But there’s something about this place that just doesn’t let you sleep. If the party just carries on and the Casinos never close then why should you be allowed to sleep? I go to sleep dreaming of splitting Aces and getting 10s, stacks of chips three feet high, the guy dressed like Elvis who put a grand on double zero at the roulette table, of hamburgers the size of hockey pucks, of girls dancing in the ‘Temptation Pit’ besides the gaming tables and nightclubs where the DJ is a giant marshamallow.
This night I’ve clocked just over three hours of rest, a proper lie-in by the alarming standards of this trip.
I think ‘Jamie doesn’t do lie-ins in Vegas.” as I get out of bed.
I once read that talking about yourself in the third person is the first sign that you’ve gone mad. Musician Kanye West does it. So does maverick cricketer Chris Gayle. So it’s probably true. I’m part of a club I don’t want to belong to.
I head to the Casino floor. A few hours have passed since I was last here but for the most part nothing’s changed. The madness keeps going.
My watch tells me my heart rate is up at 129. The adrenaline in the air has entered my veins and made me wired, restless, anxious, ecstatic. And I’ve only just woken up.
I grab breakfast from a place on the Casino floor called The Earl of Sandwich. No prizes for guessing what I ate.
The eponymous inspiration for this joint was a famous blue-blooded ‘bon vivant’ who asked his staff to create a way of him being able to eat without having to leave the card table during mammoth gambling binges. Ever the hedonist was the Earl. They came up with the concept of the sandwich in what was probably the first example of fast food the world had ever seen. Three centuries later we’re all still tucking into them. Who said gambling contributes nothing to society?
So breakfast done and with time to burn I sit down at a Blackjack table. After all, it’s already 7.20 am.
The guy on my right is talking basketball. The NBA finals are going on this week and the huge TV screens in the Sportsbook section are showing replays of last night’s game. The barely human LeBron James is winning rebounds, providing assists and racking up endless points in the highlights reel in a one-man show rarely seen in the history of the NBA. ‘LeBron sucks” he says. He likes Stephen Curry.
LeBron has won every single major award in the game of basketball on both the domestic and international front and is a valid name in any discussion about the greatest basketball player of all time. This guy must be crazy if he doesn’t like LeBron. But then again, by this stage we’re all crazy.
I put some chips down. Order a beer. I request a massage from the girls who for two bucks a minute works away at your shoulders as you split, twist, stick and double. I high-five everyone when the dealer goes bust. Then the dealer high-fives everyone when the dealer goes bust.
After three nights, what I’m doing right now has all become normal to me. Me. A guy who fusses about the temperature at which he roasts chicken, feels sick at the incorrect use of an apostrophe and watches Test Match Cricket over a gin and tonic and egg cress sandwich. I’m not quite Coronel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now just yet but the end result is the same. My surroundings have turned me into someone who doesn’t play with a full deck. The cards for reasonableness, logic and discipline were discarded long ago and are scattered somewhere on the strip.
It’s like Vegas has injected me with a syringe full of craziness while two strippers dressed as nurses have held me down and told me in no uncertain terms that while I’m here, this is now who I am. Get on that flight and go back to your daily routines and normality but while you’re here, you play by our rules.
At least I’m not the only one. The syringe has clearly been doing the rounds with every other member of my party because everyone seems to be contaminated.
One of the crew has woken up at 8am to pay a solo round of golf for 500 bucks. I ask him if he’s worried about his credit card bill. He answers that he’s worried about his short game.
A father of three who owns his own recruitment business plays Blackjack and doubles up on a 400 buck bet to 800. The dealer is on 6 but pulls 18. He’s on 10 and makes it to 20. He’s won 800 dollars before you can say Mental Health Act.
A splinter group called the C-Club is formed. It’s not a curry club. Secret meetings are held in a hotel room at various times of the day. Daily attendance is compulsory, excessive attendance is frowned upon. Go figure.
One guy went to a strip club called Sapphire with the rest of us. He dropped two grand and then literally lost the shirt off his back. He rocked in at 10am with bare torso leading the way. He’s a gym bunny so the cocktail waitresses on the morning shift weren’t complaining. So if in between the cigar smoke and empty glasses of Jack and Coke at Sapphires you find a well-pressed white Huge Boss shirt in a large with a couple of lipstick marks on the collar, get in touch. It was one of his favourites.
On my second night I left the Hotel Bar at 8am and bid goodnight to the last man standing. When I came down for breakfast three of hours later, he was still standing.
We’ve all lost the plot. We arrived a fresh-faced, well-rested, chatty bunch and we’re pretty far away from that right now. We wanted a party and we couldn’t have had a bigger one had Charlie Sheen co-hosted it with George Best.
It’s our last morning and we’ve gathered at the Hotel Lobby. Eyes are bloodshot, faces pale, shirts unbuttoned, time for one last anecdote about the previous night’s excesses.
Physically, Vegas has beaten us. It’s taken on each and every last one of us the same way it’s hosted so many of the greatest fights in history and it’s pounded our asses. Money-wise, it’s slapped, kicked, kneed and butted us around for 10 rounds McGregor-style then picked us up off the canvas, held us upright and then pounded us some more.
But that’s missing the point. If you want to get fit, go to a gym. Eat your five a day. Drink plenty of water. Go to bed early. Don’t smoke. Stay within those recommended units of booze. Cut back on carbs.
If you want a guaranteed return on your investment, buy stock in Google or real estate in the suburbs.
I think back to those two Latino girls. ‘Make a memory, baby.’ They know the score. The memories I’ve made this week are of a bunch of great guys who have done things in the spirit of this unique town. We’ve stuck up for each other, laughed together and made it a week to remember. Hollywood can try and bottle that up and make a movie out of it. Yeah, the Hangover was funny and Ocean’s Eleven made you want to look up the price of flights to Vegas. But I’m not sure you can quite recreate that feeling on film. Either you’ve lived Vegas or you haven’t.
There’s a great scene at the end of the MASH movie where Hawkeye is told he’s about to go home after a couple of years of round-the-clock surgery a few dozen yards from the front line combined with sessions of drinking home-made moonshine, Poker marathons and sleeping with as many nurses as there are hours in the day to do so. The first feeling is one of joy and relief. The next few aren’t. He’s inebriated by the insanity and he’s afraid to go back to living without it. I know how he feels.
And yeah, it’s time to go home. Back to being lawyers, bankers, boyfriends, husbands, fathers, neighbours, law-abiding citizens who pay their taxes and eat prawn and mayonnaise sandwiches at their desks so as not to get behind on their work. It’s back to school runs, Skype meetings, games of squash, grocery shopping, salary reviews, daily commutes and looking forward to 3pm football kick-offs.
No-one says it. No-one has to say it. But we’ll never be the same people again that we were when we arrived.