15 Hours in Paradise
A layover in Vegas
This is a Carousel guest piece by Matthew Pegas
I hit Fremont Street and the magical thinking starts right away. We’re all chaos magicians in Las Vegas, trying to draw order from randomness and spin silver dollars from black bile. I’m on a 15-hour layover between Los Angeles and Philadelphia on the way home for Thanksgiving: next flight not until 1am. I just Ubered to this side of town from Harry Reid International Airport, baptized into Vegas energy by the slot machines in the terminal and a driver who looked like a stripper on her second career. It’s a brisk, blue-skied November day, and I’m alone and feeling lucky.
I accidentally arrive at the Neon Museum two hours before it opens, so instead I beeline back a mile of drive-over sprawl and pass under the highway to Fremont Street. I’m heading to the El Cortez, one of the oldest casinos in Vegas dating back to 1941, and my favorite for gambling. Gambling: not exactly a problem, but I’ve got potential. After my last trip to Vegas, I told myself that maybe I wouldn’t next time, but what else am I going to do with two hours? I envision channeling anxiety into light-green money energy to beat the house. That’s the kind of thing I mean by magical thinking.
Once I’m in the El Cortez, I survey the $10 blackjack tables. No, I’m not a high roller but once I start gambling, I won’t stop thinking about it until I leave. On my last trip here, with a couple of friends, it got to the point that I worried I was acting like a junky about it. “Oh you two want to see the view from the top of the Stratosphere? I’ve seen it before, but that’s cool: maybe I’ll just go, I don’t know, play a few hands of blackjack or something.” Moments like this gave me pause and made me consider whether I’d be a better traveling companion if I didn’t let myself get pulled onto the adrenaline roller coaster of gambling. But again: I’m alone today and there’s no stopping me.
I choose the table with an Asian woman dealing because moments ago I got a spam voicemail from a woman chuntering in an Asiatic tongue. Perhaps a sign? And sure enough, from the moment she presses my crisp $100 bill into the cashbox and slides over 20 red $5 chips, luck is with me. I’m up $20, now $30, now $40. My heart thuds like I’m closing in for the kill. I’m paying close attention to each card as it is revealed, searching for meaning in each number, suit, and face card, considering what this card means in proximity to that one and the significance of repeating numbers as if these are tarot cards with clues to my fate. [SI1] I’m staying ahead. My tablemates take notice: an older black man sipping a Big Gulp and a married couple in their 40’s from Northern Alabama. They all insist I utilize the bonus bet options, as they have every hand to varying results. They try to explain how the bonuses work, but at the speed the game is going they might as well be speaking Swahili. I take their word for it and place two additional red chips in the small circles next to my main bet and yes! I win, enhancing my winnings threefold. A vision of the Wheel of Fortune tarot card spins around in my head. I’m two hours into my 15-hour layover and my luck is already decidedly on the upswing.
But as soon as I get the hang of the bonus bets, the magic is gone. I lose a couple of hands. It’s time to quit while I’m still ahead. I thank my tablemates for their help and leave, cashing out $55 up. I still have an hour before the Neon Museum opens and I know exactly where I’m going next: to the Plaza hotel at the end of the Fremont Street, where I remember cigarette vending machines the first time I came to Vegas four years ago. Yes, at some point at the blackjack table in the El Cortez I came to the realization that I’d be buying cigarettes next: indulging in another vice that I very much “have the itch” for but have managed to avoid outside of carefully selected occasions for years. This is my day alone and fulfilling every petty urge I have is going to be the whole of the law.
I enter the Fremont Street Experience: a row of Las Vegas’s most classic casinos which since 1995 have been housed under a barrel-vault canopy LED screen designed by legendary mall/casino architect Jon Jerde. Fremont is a different speed than the more-visited Las Vegas Strip. Here, casinos are just casinos, not the tricked-out megaresorts of the strip, though Jerde’s flashy LCD screen and several stages of hard rock and country bands playing free shows all-day-every-day make it something of a unified party experience of its own. When I first came to Las Vegas in 2018, Fremont Street felt rough and tumble in a fun way, but it got worse over the past couple of years and crossed the line into being actually gross. Homeless men lounge around with their asses out, and there’s a piece of human shit on a side street. My Uber driver warned me as much: that this side of town has deteriorated in quality since the pandemic.
I pass a crowd surrounding a group of young black men with a row of white tourists lined up and a boombox playing. In another city I’d think this might be kind of ethnomasochist demonstration, but in Las Vegas I can tell it’s just a good old-fashioned street show. Other tourists take pictures with people in various forms of sexualized costume: the lubed up torsos of “Thunder Down Under” for women and gays, and thong-clad feather dancers and BDSM lady-cops for us straight men, although I can’t help but notice that some of them are tackily wearing beige leggings under their thongs to combat the November chill. [SI2]
I reach the Plaza and head straight for the back, where indeed there are three large, blue vending machines packed with varieties of Marlborough, Camel, and Parliament, just as I left them. $15 per pack. I’m probably going to smoke three and throw the rest away so the price makes me hesitate. Well, I saw a $10 blackjack table on the way in: if I can win the money for the cigs I’ll buy them[SI3] . I sit down next to two boomer-aged tablemates in poor health: one morbidly obese and the other taking portable oxygen.
I turn $30 to chips and start playing. After losing my first hand I win the next two to go up $10. So I’ll round my winnings from El Cortez down to $50 and spend the extra $15 on cigarettes. I still almost falter back at the vending machine, some higher part of my decision-making psychology holding me back. Since I’d also need to buy a lighter, I determine that my decision will hinge solely on if there are matches at the bar. And it’s Vegas so of course there are: an entire cardboard box of Plaza branded matchbooks. I choose Parliaments and light my first one while I’m still inside because that is part of the novelty here as well. I haven’t smoked in a couple of years. The first puff almost makes me cough followed immediately by an invigorated euphoria.
I leave through the revolving door of the Plaza and start walking up Main Street, away from Fremont and toward the Neon Museum. My neurochemical reward-system is thoroughly bombarded—and in a way that I know will make it harder to resist engaging in similar behavior in the future— but as I put blocks between myself and Fremont, my Parliament dwindling to the butt, I feel free, like I’m escaping the fantasy-land pleasure zone in one piece and with my luck still on the upswing.
I get to the Neon Museum and spend more of my money to stand in the sun amidst the old signs. I feel a sense of respite here. I’m going to be tempted to smoke and gamble more later, but the energy of the neon boneyard reminds me that I don’t have to if I don’t want to: that instead I could find a café to read or write in. If the energy of most of Vegas is Dionysian, then the energy of the boneyard is Apollonian: glitzy signs carefully marked and preserved in a plot of desert land bathed in sun. A caption at the front of the exhibit explains that neon signs are engineered to convey as much information and enticement as possible within the split second it takes to look at them. Out there and plugged in they are part of the chaos, but in here and turned off they are Apollonian freeze-frames and a part of historical preservation. The Neon Museum isn’t very large, but it makes up for this with the singularity of its collection housing the only remaining signs from the Riviera, the Stardust and other Vegas resorts of yesteryear.
I have another cigarette after the museum. I’m going to have three in total, and this is my second. I could have stopped at one, but I won’t stop on the unlucky number of two. I’m going to gamble one more time too but not yet. Instead, I walk another mile and a half down Fremont Street to a café I punched up on Google maps and start taking notes for the present essay. It’s an artsy spot down the street from the Container Park shopping center, and obviously part of the artsy/hipster milieu that has taken root downtown.
I flip three Thoth tarot cards out of my backpack before writing: a little ritual. They are The Tower, The Two of Swords (Peace), and The Five of Pentacles (Worry). I look at the Two of Swords, indicating the present, and indeed feel at peace inside this relaxed coffee house secluded from the strife and worry outside. Tarot is a cope, a search for meaning, and an attempt to make order out of randomness like so much else I’ve done today and like so much else we all do, every day. It’s not so much that I think tarot cards can predict or alter the future as that I think they provide a rich vocabulary for interrogating the present and past, and in-so-doing equip us to deal with the future to the limited extent anything can.
I saw a number of “Elect Republican Joe Lombardo” signs earlier, looking very out of place off Fremont and was reminded that we are a few weeks out from a Midterm elections in which Nevada was an important battleground. Tarot, gambling, and watching election results come in are all processes of projecting meaning, hopes, and fears onto images, colors and numbers are they not? Like this man’s grinning mug on the TV screen, with a vote percentage below it larger than the other guy’s is going to flip this state a new color, which is going to make my life better in XY and Z ways. Like gambling and tarot, voting could be described in pessimistic moments as a cope, or—as one of my older online friends described certain political machinations in a book called The Rats of Nationalism—like a Candyland game which mesmerizes you with colors and perceived progress into an illusion of control while in reality the game boils down entirely to chance. The reality of voting, and blackjack is a step up from Candyland, but not as much of a step up as we’d like it to be. What little power we do hold over reality is tempered by a far larger degree of chance. Let’s leave it at this: voting is like tarot, it doesn’t work, but one of these days we’ll pull The Emperor, right?
I leave the café when it closes at 5pm. The sun is setting, and the energy is getting darker. The last time I was here it was summer and the vibes were pseudo-utopian, but this is the more honest Vegas: dark, cold, and mean. Whether my luck remains on the upswing or not, I feel I’ve entered some kind of psychic underworld. I see it on the skid-row faces as I walk back toward the Container Park. An ambulance blows by me, sirens blaring, heading toward the Fremont Street Experience: another causality.
I’m feeling deeply energized. I’m not wasting money on another Uber. I’m going to walk all the way 7-miles back to the airport if I can. I see the Stratosphere towering in the distance: almost exactly midway between Fremont Street and the northern edge of the Strip, two miles from each. I start to walk toward the Strat but not before stopping at an occult shop on Fremont Street called “Sun in Pisces”. I buy a new pack of tarot cards—the traditional Waite deck—because my last Waite deck was stolen along with my car back in LA. They recovered the car, but not the cards or much else inside of it. I’m so amped on the occult significance of everything right now that the energy feels right to replace my deck, and if I had any doubt about the $25 price tag, it’s mitigated when I see the card displayed on the front of the box: the Wheel of Fortune.
I walk into the sprawling neighborhood between Fremont Street and the Stratosphere, a little worried I’m going to be stepping deeper into a skid-row type situation but actually the rough-and-tumble element clears up almost immediately and I’m in a neighborhood comparable to your average section of the San Fernando Valley. By the time I get to the Stratosphere my feet are blistering. I didn’t wear the right shoes for this. I do my 20-minute evening meditation in a bathroom stall at the Strat because it’s the only place I can be certain I won’t be hassled. I mentally picture dark energy leaving the crown of my skull, and dissipating into a blue, cloudless sky above the mountains and red-rock canyons surrounding Vegas.
I start the next leg of my journey, passing Circus Circus, the Peppermill diner, and the Westgate where Elvis did his residency. By the time I pass Resort World—one of the newest casinos in Las Vegas, featuring shops like Fred Segal and Sugarfina and the residency of Katy Perry—I know I’ve hit bougie Vegas. I detour through the pleasant decorum of Wynn to make it to the Venetian where I enjoy an incredible medium-rare burger and milkshake from Black Tap next to the sports book. After dinner I make my way slowly up the strip, through the Mirage, the Link, the Flamingo Caesars, and The Bellagio where I stroll through the Christmas garden they just set up for the season. I’ve still got several hours before I need to get to the airport. I smoke my last cigarette overlooking the strip and throw away the rest of the pack.
The last gambling of the night happens at the Tropicana and it is a thrill-ride. The Tropicana is one of the older casinos on this side of town, dating back to 1957, and this bolsters my suspicion that I only have luck at older, shittier casinos. The Tropicana reveals that there are still places on the strip with a cast of characters that wouldn’t be out of place on Fremont street: a mix of locals and middle-class tourists taking advantage of low-minimum tables with friendly dealers.
I have one $100 and two $20 bills left in my wallet, and I’m determined to change the two $20’s into another $100, but I go down quickly on a $15 blackjack table, dwindling my gambling funds down to $10 which isn’t enough to keep playing. I slip my remaining two $5 chips into my pocket and walk away. I don’t want to cash these in yet, and there’s no way I’m breaking my hundred or using a credit card. I remember two singles I have in my jacket pocket and head for the video poker machines. I play Jacks or Better on a 25c machine and as if it’s some kind of proving ground I slowly but surely bring myself up to a flat $5: my ticket to one more shot at the blackjack table. I print my voucher and trade it right in with cashier for the third necessary red chip.
I set my three chips down on a new $15 blackjack table: it’s all or nothing now. I win and then I win again and again. I keep close attention on the amount of money I’m holding and the amount I’m putting at risk each hand: $45 in the bank, $15 on the table, now $63 in the bank because I got a black-jack bonus and $15 on the table, now down to $48 in the bank, but I quickly build back up to $63 and then $78. If I win again, I’ll have $93 in the bank which I think is a number of significant to Aleister Crowley. I stare at a black $100 chip in the dealer’s chip vault and focus hard on a mental image of myself sliding another $100 bill into my wallet. I’m trying to channel every iota of chaos magic I may or may not have flowing through me from this long day. I win another hand. $93 in the bank, $15 on the table. It takes me a second to realize this means I’ve hit my goal. I gather my chips with a jolt and the dealer has to stop me from carrying the whole pile of them to the cashier, telling me it’s going to be easier if I let him swap me one of his black chips for 20 of my reds. I get to the cashier and get to live out my mind’s manifestation of sliding the second crisp $100 into my wallet. Sweet success. Maybe two is an underrated number.
I don’t end up walking all the way to the airport, as I’m told this is a fool’s errand given the way the roads are laid out without sidewalks. I catch my final Uber from the Mandalay Bay, the southernmost casino on the strip and closest to the airport. It was also, of course, the site of the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. History. I briefly consider heading up to the 32nd floor and trying to take in the horror of the permanently-shuttered room where it happened, where Stephen Paddock holed himself up with 23 guns and all the rest. But then I think better of it. It wouldn’t be the first time I made such a morally dubious pilgrimage, however. Living in LA I’ve stopped by just about every Charles Manson sight of interest you can think of, plus a number of locations mentioned in Elliot Rodger’s My Twisted World, the Black Dahlia’s resting place, the Cecil Hotel where Richard Ramirez stayed, and so on.
Somehow or other all energy has to come out. This is one of the mystical lessons which writing—both fiction and non-fiction—has clarified for me. If energy is allowed to fester it will come out as something evil and chaotic but given the proper channel it is the source of all beauty and all light. Vegas takes your energy and whips it around like a pinball machine more often than not taking more than it gives. Today, however, the opposite happened. As the Mandalay Bay and the rest of the strip disappear, I feel blessed.