Sitting alone, I sip a warm foamy cappuccino and read about feminism and race in America. Occasionally, a slender gondola slides into the canal beside me, the rich operatic voice of its striped-shirt operator tenderly serenading a couple. I smile in appreciation, as he takes one hand off the long wooden oar to tip his straw hat in my direction.
This is how I do Vegas.
I’ve never been here before, but at nearly 40 years of age, I have some idea of how this trip is supposed to go. I’ve seen the movies. There should be debauchery, nudity and mass alcohol consumption followed by a musical montage of me in a strapless black dress with a heavy diamond necklace kissing the dice of some hot millionaire who later loses everything by betting on 21 red. Oh, and gangsters with pinstripe suits with piles of cocaine. And tigers. And an elaborate heist set to a jazzy soundtrack with dreamy Clooney-types.
OK, maybe Hollywood Vegas isn’t the real deal, but by all accounts, I’m an epic disappointment in the revelry department.
I’m tempted to blame this failure on my age, but the truth is, Vegas is a super sized let-down when you are alone.
Bachelor/bachelorette parties, Elvis weddings, trips with friends and maybe romantic second honeymoons, sure. But touring around solo, not so much.
So, what was I doing in the Sin City on my own? My husband was here on business, so for the price of a cheap plane ticket, I could escape the dishes, laundry and carpool for a few days.
Don’t mind if I do.
However, it meant either sitting all day in my hotel room waiting for hubby to get out of his meetings, or exploring the GlitterLand alone.
Since I see myself as adventurous, I step into my cons and some butter-soft LuLaRoe leggings, high five myself for being so grown up, and head out to explore.
Vegas did not disappoint in the eye candy department; a massive dragon made of tiny red and gold lights, roman statues, Parisian murals, Elvis and “Hangover” look-alikes, bright neon lights, Harry Potter-like false ceilings, sparkling chandeliers, groups of tourists snapping endless selfies, mascot Pikachu and Hello Kitty holding hands, a rooster statue roughly the size of my house, curving escalators and endless confusing hallways.
Vegas also didn’t disappoint in the depressing department; smoke-filled rooms filled with vitamin D deprived gamblers, an unhinged homeless man loudly declaring the end of times, tiny pictures of naked woman littering the few patches of bare earth, stumbling drunks at 10 a.m. puking outside the Denny’s, aggressive men handing out pamphlets for “free shows” and the creepy Freddy Krueger who thought I’d enjoy him jumping out at me.
All this by 1 p.m.
I was exhausted by the sheer bigness of it all. I longed for when I used to drink, so I could numb it all down a bit. Instead, I decide to get some gelato and head back for MTV or “The Golden Girls” in the safety of my hotel bed.
But first I pass the homeless teenager with the padlock through his nose, lying in filth, drawing with a pen on small squares of cardboard images of such beauty I couldn’t look. His extremes terrified me.
The elderly man playing a violin while breathing through some clear tube, creating a kind of haunting sound, which I felt inside my bones.
A woman, who looked around my age, laying under some bushes with a blanket of plastic bags covering her mostly naked sore-covered body. The filth making me recoil with embarrassed pain.
The contrasts were so bright, so vivid, I became uneasy on my feet. The splendor and the filth. The strong and the weak. The privileged and the oppressed.
I wanted to permanently close my eyes.
“Somebody help me!”
A young woman, maybe early 20s, runs by me with a small boy, maybe 4. She is crying and telling the now gathering crowd of onlookers, she’s being followed by her ex-husband who is going to kill her. She points across the street, but I can’t make out anyone looking our direction.
“I have scars all over my body,” she cries. “He has been beating me for 10 years. I can’t get away from him.”
She takes out a cellphone and calls the police, giving them a report number and saying she needs help.
“I just need $200 for a bus ticket,” she says through tears.
“I just want to have fun,” the boy says.
The crowd slowly slinks away. What is wrong with these people? I stand next to her smiling at her boy and wishing I had snacks in my purse. I always have snacks. Shame on me.
“I’ll stay with you until the police come,” I say. “We will figure this out together.”
She looks around uneasy.
“Umm…,” she says. “I just need $60 and I can leave this town.”
“I just want to have fun,” the boy says again.
“Come with me inside the casino,” I say to her. “I’ll talk to the security guards and we will get you help. We can call a shelter and get you off the street right now.”
“I’m not allowed in there,” she says, eyeing the security guards I now see walking toward us.
I blink at her and finally see the scam. I see it as plainly as all the other people who already walked away. She grows uncomfortable and tells me to please go. I want to ask her why she is doing this. Maybe she isn’t running from an ex-husband who beats her, but clearly there is some reason she is on the street with a small kid trying to scam people for money.
My heart hurt.
I felt wounded.
I hug her, awkwardly, and tell her I wish her well.
The boy repeats his line a third time.
“I just want to have fun.”
“Take care kiddo,” I say and walk away.
Vegas is too much alone.
That night, my husband and I see a show about star-crossed lovers while snuggled together on a couch. I sink into him and allow myself to feel protected and safe. Privileged. Blessed.
I still see myself as an explorer, but in Vegas, I’ll stick to the fake blue skies of Pretend Venice with my overly priced cappuccino.