I went to Las Vegas for a sociology conference last week (American Sociological Association 2011). It was my first time ever in Vegas, and also my first time at a sociology conference. This combination, coupled with all the travel and moving I had done in the month prior (Apostle Islands -> Minneapolis -> Florida -> Edmonton -> Montreal -> Edmonton -> Las Vegas), made for a slightly overwhelming experience. But in the end, it was an educational and entertaining trip. I got to watch a wedding — wearing my swimsuit — in which the bride’s processional was “November Rain” (an interesting choice given the line “Nothin’ lasts forever, and we both know hearts can change”). I’m dividing posts into the three most salient events of the trip for me: my casino “stakeout”, my chance encounter with Steffi Graf, and an excellent talk I saw at the conference. Stay tuned for the latter two.
My goal in visiting Las Vegas was not only to go to the ASA, but also to see a long-lost connection who lives in Vegas who I’ll call Ray. Ray is an intriguing and engaging individual, but he is notoriously difficult to get a hold of. He doesn’t have a phone or an email address, and he receives all his mail at a post office box that he checks once a week if the sender’s lucky. How would you reach him in case of an emergency? Well, when Ray’s dad died, his family took out a large ad in the sports section of the Las Vegas Sun, which Ray reads regularly. It worked.
Anyway, I sent Ray a card two weeks before my visit in Las Vegas, telling him the dates I would be there and giving him my phone number so he could call me to set up a time to meet. I specified that my phone number was a U.S. number, and not Canadian, so he wouldn’t be charged international rates when calling me. I crossed my fingers as I paid the $30 Canadian it would cost to send him the card from Edmonton fast enough so that he might read it before I got there. But in the end, I was never too optimistic.
Before leaving, I asked our mutual acquaintances what would be the best way to find Ray. “Just show up at a casino and look for him,” were the responses. “He sometimes goes to Binion’s or the Golden Nugget.” I looked these places up: they were both in downtown Vegas, at a place called the Fremont Street Experience. I called Binion’s, and the bartender said Ray frequents the Golden Nugget now. I called the Golden Nugget, and the bartender said he can’t give any information about his customers out to anyone. I suppose that’s fair, given the nature of the establishment.
I was down on the Strip, about five miles south of Fremont Street. It seemed silly to skip the conference for the low probability of randomly seeing him downtown, but then again, it also seemed silly to be in Vegas and not try my all to see him. I The last afternoon of the conference, I skipped the sessions and decided to walk north on Las Vegas Boulevard to downtown.
Walking places in lieu of car, taxi, or bus, has always been a passion of mine. Especially when I’m somewhere new: what better way to see the surroundings than walk? The 105° F (41° C) heat, with blazing sun, didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. It was a dry heat, much better than the humid summer days we can have in Minnesota. I got out the most appropriate outfit I had for the occasion, which was, alas, my running gear. And not just any running gear: my marathon-running outfit, a skintight black outfit that looked more like a professional swimmer’s getup than anything else. It was the only outfit I had found when packing so long ago. If I was going to sweat and look ridiculous, at least I would do so wearing wicking fabric. And my backpack and running shoes.
The walk up Las Vegas Boulevard was as fascinating as it was slow-going and blindingly bright (I had lost my sunglasses amidst all the recent travel). It was clear that this place had a unique history, and that the theme of that history was seediness. Everything that you could imagine in a city’s underbelly, you could find on Las Vegas Boulevard: pawn shops; old hotels that rented by the hour, day, or week; wedding chapels; strip clubs; deserted, deserted parking lots and buildings; and of course, gambling. Between the Strip and downtown, Las Vegas Boulevard was actually pretty run-down, so much so that a local woman, perhaps sensing I was a tourist given my outfit, told me I should be careful. The one thing that was missing were prostitutes milling around, but it was the afternoon. Then again, I never saw prostitutes at all in Vegas, but instead many ads and fliers for “Girls in 20 Minutes”. Apparently Vegas has a discrete side.
After one water break at a random Chinese restaurant and a failed attempt to buy sunglasses, I reached the Golden Nugget, one of the oldest casinos in Las Vegas. The other times I walked through casinos, I did so as quickly as possible, en route to the conference, not wanting to look around. If I allow myself to look around, I inevitably imagine the worst: the grandma in the corner, whittling away her life savings on slots, for example. This time, though, I had to look around: I was looking for Ray. Due to his introverted nature, I doubted he would be at the poker tables. I also doubted he would be at slot machines, because he likes to watch sports. After uncomfortably winding my way through a series of snug-fitting chairs all lined up facing a series of games and horse races, with the people sitting on them all staring back at me, I settled on the slots bar in the center. Leaning over the slot machine, I described Ray to a bartender and then asked if he knew him. “Oh yeah, I do,” he said. “He’ll come here every so often, and I never know the next time I’ll see him. When he does come, he sits down at the end of the bar over there,” he pointed to where Ray sits.
Realizing the futility of what I was about to do, I said, “Okay, I think I’ll just sit over there and see if he comes. If you see him, can you point him toward me? And I’ll have a Coke.” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the woman next to me was looking at me and listening to our conversation. Yes, I thought, yes, right now I am one of those people who goes and looks for their loved ones at a casino because it’s the best way to possibly get in touch with them. Don’t judge me. I’m sure this type of thing happens more often than you think.
Sitting in a casino on my own personal stakeout, and wearing a bunch of black spandex running gear, I did what any good academic would do. I whipped out the paper I was reviewing and started to read. I also drank my Coke.
The paper was excitingly good, but I couldn’t help but look around a bit. Is this what Ray prefers over his friends and family? Why had Ray been in Las Vegas so long, and is this what made him want to move? What was the allure of this environment beyond one or two trips? The people-watching was interesting, but the artificial environment was tough to take. How many of these people had Parkinson’s? Well okay, I thought, the link between gambling and that Parkinson’s medication is old enough news that I bet nobody here does. Still, this was a Monday afternoon, and several people were alone playing slots. Average dopamine levels in the room seemed pretty low.
I focused on my review so as to avoid the at once comical and highly emotional situation. Finishing it up, I asked the bartender if I could give a note to Ray, tipped him highly, and took off to wander around Fremont Street. When we can’t see the person we’re looking for, we take comfort in seeing the same things that person sees. This is how I felt when walking around the Fremont Street Experience.