The New York Times
February 4, 2011
Lost in Las Vegas
By MATT GROSS
THE minute I walked into the steakhouse, I knew I was in the wrong place. Or maybe exactly the right place. This was N9ne, at the Palms Casino Resort, a few blocks from the Las Vegas Strip, and it was definitely not my scene. The slick design – leather in muted colors, steel and aluminum accents, and silly lighting – was one thing, but I’ve dealt with worse. No, it was the clientele: big men with vigorous, voluminous hair, a penchant for untucked dress shirts, done-up women at their sides and a kind of frat-boy bluster that terrifies a balding, neurotic little Brooklynite like me.
I came to know the men as the Shays – a term adopted by my friend Jennifer Cornthwaite, a V. I. P. host at the Palms whom I’d met at a bar a couple of nights before. It derives from an e-mail Jennifer’s ex-boss once wrote, in which he spelled “touché” as “too shay.” Soon, a Vegas type had been profiled: manly at a glance, uninhibited, at ease with cocktail waitresses and expensive cars.
The Shays were everything I’d never been, and nothing I’d ever wanted to be, and yet, despite my snide superiority, I was fascinated and envious. I took a seat at the bar, ordered a bourbon from the bartender – a dark, brooding, tattooed, intimidating fellow named A. C. – and prepared to confront my own fear and loathing.
This reckoning had been a long time coming, and not just because I’d been in Las Vegas for five days already. For most of my life, I’d been puzzled and perplexed by the city’s appeal – that is, when I thought about it at all, which was only when pop culture impressions came flying at me from TV and movie screens. As I understood it, this was the land of Liberace, a neon catwalk for the un-self-conscious preening of the “Swingers” crowd, a font of mob
nostalgia for “Casino” fans.
Then, in the last decade, I watched with disbelief as Sin City became the embodiment of American delusion, a boondoggle of billion-dollar debts and the “Ocean’s” series of movies, in which nothing was at stake except vast riches and the chance to wear nice clothes as you walked along thick carpet. Las Vegas, it seemed, had been developed specifically not to appeal to cash-poor, overeducated, unconfident introverts (i. e., me). And so, with the exception of a single hourlong layover at the airport in 2004, I avoided it entirely.
Then, about two and a half years ago, as you may recall, the entire American economy collapsed. And with it went Las Vegas: those mega-hotels, where millions of people gambled away money they didn’t have, were suddenly empty; so were the newly built, now foreclosed-upon McMansions. Today the city’s unemployment rate is 14.9 percent, possibly the highest in the nation. Las Vegas had been humbled.
Well, if the city could show a little humility, so could I. Climbing off my high horse, I booked a flight on JetBlue, planning to spend a week in Las Vegas with no guidebook, contacts or hotel reservations to help me find my way. I would have to rely, as so many have before me, on Lady Luck.
Amazingly enough, the Lady presented herself to me almost right away. I’d landed at McCarran International, picked up my Toyota Matrix rental and driven through the Strip at the bright and early hour of 11 a. m. In the full, clear desert light, it looked forlorn, a graceless jumble of glass and steel.