When one visits Las Vegas for the first time, it’s appropriate to arrive later than expected and in the middle of the night, surrounded by no one but the hardiest of the drinkers, gamblers, and hustlers.
The grandeur and scale of the mega-casinos is rather overwhelming. We stayed at the Venetian, and its sister casino, the Palazzo, is now considered the largest building in terms of square feet in the entire country. The building it knocked out of first place is that little known government office you may have heard of called The Pentagon.
Yes, the biggest building in the United States used to be the Pentagon, but now it is a casino. A casino that has its own Lamborghini dealership. With priorities like that, who needs mental health?
It doesn’t take much to notice though how much constant maintenance is required to keep the strip and the casinos looking pristine. Floors are being buffed and rebuffed. Lights are being replaced. Fountains are shut down for maintenance, as are escalators, slot machines, and just about anything that requires electricity. And there ain’t much in this city that doesn’t need that. Luckily, they have Hoover Dam nearby.
Meanwhile, just blocks away from the strip, the streets are in such poor condition—if from the heat or constant use who is to say—that I wouldn’t want to drive a car over those cracks, let alone a big, burly city bus. A mile from the strip, it looks positively desolate. It was just a military stopover in the desert once upon a time.
In a city with drive thru wedding chapels, free and constant alcohol for gamblers, a restaurant called the Heart Attack Grill, and venues for most every vice imaginable, is there even a need for mental health services? If instead of those flatbed trucks continuously driving up and down the strip advertising escorts and “companions,” what if there was a mobile therapy office available for anyone to jump in when the light was off? Would anyone use it?
As part of my first job out of graduate school, I would answer the after hours phone lines for the State of Oregon Gambling Hotline. If you have ever played video poker in Oregon, you would have seen the phone number somewhere on the machine on a sticker. Now, honestly, most calls that I answered were from very drunk people who wanted to get their dollar bill back when the machine malfunctioned. Seriously. Those folks didn’t see their addictive behavior contributing to their poor quality of life. They probably couldn’t even tell you the color of their shoes. And when you suggested that gambling was a problem, they would invariably hang up on you.
Las Vegas exists, amongst many other terrible reasons, because of the American myth that good mental health isn’t important. Not important if you have enough money, real estate, security, bling, fame, or designer shoes and luggage to fill up all the emptiness inside of you. If you can drink yourself into denial, then Vegas is the place for you. It’s the modern rendition of the Wild West that it a lot harder for some of us to realize never existed in the first place. We want to believe, but all Vegas can promise is to take your money (and your hat).
One very slippery salesman got me to sit down in his store and then he tried selling me some moisturizer that was merely 700$ a bottle. He assured me that not only was it Sofia Loren’s favorite moisturizer, but that it actually contained crushed diamond powder. Now, I could believe one of those if I read it in a book, but both? Unbelievable. And that’s how Vegas is. For brunch at The Winn, I was able to choose—nevermind eat—in one sitting (not in any discernible order): French toast, bacon, pizza, congee, Belgian waffles, rice Krispy treats covered in chocolate, a breakfast sandwich, more bacon, and about 13 different varieties of potatoes. It’s exhausting, but at the same time you can’t help but love it.
Since the shootings both in Portland and Connecticut last month, there has been some nominal headlines about how lack of mental health services is attributing to these shooting sprees our country is number one in the world for. Americans seem to not want to acknowledge preventative care for pretty much any illness—be that obesity or depression. We are a nation of quick fixes, of a colored pill for what ails you, mother’s little helper, and so the debate about mental health care only comes up after something really terrible happens. Because we don’t want to think about the real chances, the real odds that everyday people are just going to snap when the pressure gets to them.
Meanwhile we delude ourselves with fantasies like Las Vegas.
I felt a kind of freedom in Vegas, honestly. A place that was as surreal and artificial as one can imagine outside the realms of spaceships or mutant superheroes. It was taking a vacation from responsible, rational adult living.
Is that why we go there? And what does that say about us? Or more importantly, what does a refuge like Vegas mean to the repetitious, exhausting, everyday world so many of us are plugged into?