Las Vegas holds a special place in my heart, somewhere between skipping a beat and bleeding out. Vegas is the girl who hid in the back of the class unnoticed in high school; running into her at Costco years later, you see pock marks under scoops of sparkling makeup, framed by clanging bangles and cotton-candy hair to distract from the girl she once was. Forever the tease, Vegas promises your nervous caress (of a rabbit’s foot) will bring a big score. She pretends the marquees and bright lights will make you forget that real people call her “Home.”
My relationship with Las Vegas began when my late husband and I attended a time-share presentation for a trip to Mexico. After three tries to cash in the cruise that was always “full,” they offered us a free trip to Vegas instead.
“Las Vegas???!!! Why would we want to go to Las Vegas?” Jack asked. I nodded in agreement. No. Interest. Whatsoever. A minute later: “But we’ll probably never go otherwise . . .” he said, hand on bearded chin.
I nodded in agreement.
And so after that intro-dabble into Texas Hold’Em in Nevada, we began a life-changing endgame to “see the world by poker room.” We became serious students of the game and played in L.A., Barcelona, Connecticut, Slovenia, Oklahoma, Prague…
A few short months before my husband died, he wanted to take one final trip. I suggested San Francisco, once his favorite city EVER, Paris, New York… But no. Vegas.
Years later, I met my now domestic partner in Sin City. I was attending a “WPT Boot Camp” with Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patton. Bob flew in to meet me for the first time. We’d begun emailing through Match.com and then moved on to talking nightly on the phone. Our weekend whirl led to dinner at Vic and Anthony’s Steakhouse followed by O at the Bellagio, ice cream, breakfast, magic.
No getting away from Las Vegas now. I head there at least once a year, usually twice, to play in various poker series. I have my favorite casinos, favorite pools, favorite hotels, favorite cheap tournaments, favorite restaurants. My poker coach lives there. Friends have moved there. Whenever my plane lands, and I see the Strip’s iconic skyline in the distance, my blood pulses as if ionized, like a neon sign.
One thing: unlike most travel destinations, I never rent a car in Vegas. Taxis, Ubers, Lyfts are plentiful and cheap. I always enjoy when they ask if I’m meeting my husband or if my game is Bingo or slots. When I say “poker,” almost without fail drivers seem surprised, having prided themselves on their accuracy at reading their customers. One driver said to me, “Seriously? You are the last person I would ever imagine at a poker table.” This is what I long to hear. I count on disarming others in the game by them not knowing what to make of me.
Over the years, I’ve learned about the other Las Vegas—the one behind the bangles and glitter, flowing dollars, and hoards hoping to “get lucky”– from taxi drivers. Like hair dressers and bored waiters, they love to tell their stories and listen to yours.
Probably in his late 40s, Luis was a large and jovial man with dense black hair swept over his forehead. He talked about being raised with five sisters and one brother, the proverbial “Catholic Family,” although he corrected me with “Hispanic” when I said “Latino.”
Growing up with female-sibling overload gave him an almost intuitive understanding of women that astounded me, except for one point: he kept insisting women were smarter than men; I kept insisting we were just wired differently.
Luis shared home-life anecdotes and insights into traveling with a family of stragglers and the value of his wife’s way of thinking. His voice rose in his throat full-bodied whenever he mentioned her—a peacock spreading bold feathers, proud. He believed in her. He believed in his life with her. Her sense of humor. The way she tilted her head before asking a question as simple as, “Which drawer did you put the bottle opener in?”
I was awed by his kindness and generous spirit and how much he appreciated and admired the women in his life. He was self-confident enough that their strength in no way threatened his own. He was candid the way people can be when they’ve been well-loved.
He and his wife had followed his parents and siblings to Orlando from Brazil. Superhero-handsome, intelligent, and in his late 20s, Marco was still in graduate studies, but his wife was a working criminal analyst, who moved between local police and intelligence agencies, well-respected and in demand for her skills.
They had moved to Vegas to follow her career, but they weren’t happy. They found the city beyond the Strip ugly and depressing. The homelessness and poverty reminded him of San Paolo and Rio de Janeiro without the beauty. And he missed his family in Orlando. Those still in Brazil.
Marco had worried overall about Trump and his authoritarianism, but also felt the same thing with Bolsonaro, still in power, and worried about the state of the world. His wife believed that Trump fit several criminal profiles in addition to being a dictatorial threat with his cult-like followers.
They felt stuck. In, but out. Financially comfortable, the promise of a successful future—for both of them—looming. But happiness. No. Not here.
Can someone reek of Bible Seminary like fresh Ivory soap? Thin, pale, well-scrubbed, with a softly twanging voice, Jared had too-short of hair, oddly coifed.
Turned out Jared did, in fact, start out in College Bible study with friends in Tennessee, but then he read several novels and books of poetry, which led to even more, that took him “beyond” what he’d been taught.
I kept thinking of how my late husband, the college poetry professor, would warn his discontented, but wealthy, housewife students to “Turn back” unless they were ready to change their lives: “Poetry is a dangerous elixir once decanted.” More than one of his students ended up divorced, in graduate school, sequestered in a mansion, writing poetry.
Jared laughed at how he was now in “Sin City” and reading James Baldwin. If you’d told him this three years ago, he’d never have believed you. Told him that I was a big fan of the “Prodigal Son” method to finding faith by exploring the universe inside, that the best path to true spirituality is self-discovery. Let’s face it. Self-knowledge is a deeply humbling thing. We both admired how the Amish turned their young people loose into the world to see if the Amish lifestyle was what they truly wanted.
We then talked about Hesse and Steppenwolf and Siddhartha, and before we said goodbye, he decided to order them both on Amazon that very afternoon to read after Baldwin.
We started out talking about weather as soon as I answered that I lived in Alaska.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I know that latitude. I lived nearby, in Russia. Not too close… St. Petersburg. Tiny little snowflakes that packed hard into snow like boulders. The wind went right to the bone…”
“To the bone” was always one of my favorite phrases. We would enjoy this ride.
Cuban and full of machismo, Hector expressed himself in masterful English. He’d lived in the U.S. for maybe 20 years, brought over by relatives who hated Castro and the entire revolution.
Decidedly anti-Socialist, he could sense my liberalism and took it on himself to school me as thoroughly as he could in 20 minutes.
“Do you know where Socialism started?”
I shrugged. Had my ideas, but much more interested in where he took us, both in the cab and in the conversation.
“France. And the American Transcendalists took it up as their own. The Utopians.”
Aaah—a well-read man.
He bragged about the “immigrant spirit” and how Trump was wrong about that. “Immigrants are zealots—almost fanatically patriotic. If we stayed a country of first-year immigrants, we’d have the hardest working, most patriotic citizenship in the world.”
“Did you see Hamilton?” he asked, seemingly free-floating, but not.
“He was outside the box. Hamilton could see objectively what a new country needed. The American forefathers—what collective brainpower!”
There–right there–that zealous pride, that immigrant adoption / adaptation of superior patriotism.
Then Hector told me about the failures of South America, of Cuban health care (“Don’t believe for one minute that it’s better than here.”), of American capitalism going back to Teddy Roosevelt and the creation of the National Park system (“It was an enticement for Americans and foreigners to travel and spend money across the U.S. It spends fuel, fills hotels, connects states, sets up dynamic exchange.”)
“Don’t believe anything you hear. Venezuela… such a mess.” I asked about the country’s political corruption. “Well, sure… but Venezuela… its socialism led to the collapse. What a mess.”
I asked about American socialist programs like highways, education, fire departments. He insisted we have none. Our “socialist” programs invest our taxes, he said, to pay for services, that then pay the government back in other ways, even directly in many places.
I actually don’t know the market investments of government well enough to agree or disagree. My contrary nature wanted to argue, but Hector had me charmed with his immigrant enthusiasm.
Born in Romania, Marcellus was a large man who barely fit into his car. Gentle-toned and kind, he talked about his wife and two children and living in the south of Spain before settling in Vegas, and how now they felt inundated by the frenetic pace and tourist greed of the town. Ironically, he did like the money, but felt they’d lose their hearts if they stayed much longer.
He and his family were in preparation to move to Utah, as they had many, many friends there, and, as Mormons, longed for deeper community and peace. He put himself in my place and chuckled over the thought of a Romanian Mormon. He’d make a good writer, I thought, anticipating the questions and amusements of his audience.
Marcellus, like Luis, spoke with reverence about his wife, who he felt managed to stay grounded no matter where she was or who she was with.
We spoke about the beauty of Alaska, of Utah, of the world, and about his fears over Trump’s attacks on preserved lands. He hoped the new administration would overturn Trump’s many executive orders favoring corporations over nature. He worried that reversing Trump’s damage might get lost in a sweep of reforms. He loved Utah, its ruggedness, its soulfulness. He imagined setting up a charitable agency with his friends, his wife, something reflecting a love of God’s landscape.
In each of these trips, I was almost sorry to arrive at my destinations, as getting to know these previous strangers felt like the true purpose, the real journey. As I left each of them I felt oddly blessed and happy to have come to these intersections of life experience, brief as they were.
I’m not usually a “travel journal” kind of person, but so much happened in a very short space that I wanted to capture and share. Even places we’ve been many times can become fertile ground for learning how to become a better human.
Hector, the Cuban-turned-patriotic-American-Capitalist, maybe said it best, turning to me as we paused at a red light, “Do you know what’s the best thing about America?”
I got out of his way, nodding, so he could answer himself.
He pointed to me and then to himself. “We can agree or disagree and have real conversations outside of the State. Us. You and me. Isn’t that great?”