Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017

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All that glitters

As the capital of faux, Las Vegas is one of the most unique places you can visit

There’s no place on Earth like fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada. How could there be? Las Vegas, after all, exists as an ever-growing urban fabrication, a facsimile of everything of significance that has come before it. Indeed, Vegas seems to revel in its role as a copycat city, a morphing metropolis that picks and chooses whatever iconic architecture its high-roller denizens want to assimilate.

Strolling down the city’s surreal carnival-like Strip, one encounters a plethora of imitations. There’s a replica pyramid and Sphinx and a supersized Disney-esque Cinderella castle (ultimately meaning that this is a copy of a copy). There’s a one-third scale Eiffel Tower and a condensed New York City skyline, circa 1930. Then there are the replica Venetian canals, the pre-fabricated Greco-Roman columns, and even a fake, manmade volcano that diligently erupts once an hour, on the hour, five times nightly.

It’s not just the architecture: even some of the people are walking, talking facsimiles. You don't have to venture all that far to encounter an ersatz Elvis or a bogus Beatle, performing on a casino stage or busking on a city sidewalk. Even when the original artist has made his final curtain call, in Las Vegas, a carbon copy shall live forever — or for as long as people will pay. The only thing that’s real in Vegas, after all, is money.

Still, while doppelgangers rule supreme, there’s a measure of irony to be found. It eventually dawns on you that because Vegas is such a shameless copy of everything that has come before it, the city is, by default, one of the most unique and wholly-original places on the planet. It’s as if this city, impossibly-located in the heart of the Mojave Desert, actually has an unofficial mission statement to celebrate and covet fakery — and do so with over-the-top shamelessness.

Shameless promotion

While it’s true that first-time visitors to the Vegas Strip tend to look upon the surroundings with mouths agape (some feel awe; others, revulsion) love it or hate it, Las Vegas is never boring.

For all its sensational success today, Las Vegas has always been a big bet. Over the decades, numerous dreamers doubled-down that the masses would flock to a place where vices wouldn’t just be legalized — they’d be celebrated.

Even though it no longer has a near-monopoly on gambling, Vegas continues to attract more visitors. One of the draws is that the city has always been synonymous with escape. Once upon a time, it was the grifters and drifters, the mobsters and hucksters who were drawn to this pseudo-sanctuary. Today, it's suburbanites. Mr. and Mrs Middle America (and those from far beyond) come not so much to sin in Sin City. Rather, the appeal seems to be that the option to sin is readily available.

They say “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” — a cheeky wink-wink, nudge-nudge catchphrase that is now the official tourism slogan for the city. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Tall tales of over-the-top Vegas adventures (think The Hangover) seldom “stay” in Vegas. Such illicit yarns are repeatedly told, albeit to selective audience members — lest the next visit to Vegas be for a quickie drive-thru divorce.

Easy marks

Amazingly, while so many of the city’s billboards promise that a mere roll of the dice or press of a button might result in vast riches, very few punters actually do hit the jackpot. Do believe the hype when they tell you the house always wins. Yet, incredibly, few suckers fly out of McCarran International Airport seething for having been pick-pocketed by one-armed bandits. They typically tell their friends and family (and even themselves) that they “broke even.” How fantastic is it that this clip joint can brazenly fleece its guests — and yet the vast majority of victims fly home with goofy smiles on their faces and an oath to return for more of the same? When it comes to the art of the con, Vegas has no equal.

For all its tackiness and over-the-top bravado, even a cynical, non-gambling teetotaller has to admire the sheer audacity of such a place. Las Vegas exists because it can. There’s no such thing as nostalgia in the Vegas vocabulary; indeed, true to its origins, the city is always about “reinvention” and the “next big thing.” Even when a legendary casino such as the Sands or the Stardust has outlived its usefulness, they are never preserved as historical monuments. Better to vaporize ’em in order to make way for the next billion-dollar baby.

Yet you don't need spend a single red cent (and there are still slot machines that accept those coins) in order to have a memorable time in this city of extremes. For my money, Las Vegas is the best city in the world for people-watching. Park yourself outside a casino and simply watch the dreamers and drama queens meander by. Or mosey up to a craps table and observe what happens to human nature when two little black and white cubes are bouncing around a table.

On the losing end

One of my most enduring memories of Las Vegas occurred while staying at the Paris casino awhile back (as an aside, let it be said that the Paris is pure bliss on Earth: Parisian fashion, Parisian cuisine, and best of all, not a single Parisian). I spotted a 40-something man sitting at a slot machine, the side of his shell-shocked face resting on the bosom of his female companion. He was staring ahead, as if in a concussed trance, while the woman, her eyes distant, gently patted his head as if to say, “it’s okay, it’s okay,” when, obviously, nothing was even remotely okay. The sight conveyed a feeling of utter hopelessness. What sure thing did not come through? Did he literally bet the house?

As captivated as I was by this poor duo, I crossed Las Vegas Boulevard and visited the Bellagio, famous for its $40-million fountain. Every 15 minutes, 1200 dancing plumes of water soar some 140 metres into the sky to the tune of classical music – making one almost completely forget this city is situated in a desert that receives less than 10 centimetres of rain annually.

After the H20 spectacle, I returned to Paris. I was gone for almost two hours, and yet, that couple was still there, as if frozen in time. The man was still sitting with his head on his companion’s chest, and she was still gently stroking his head. I desperately wanted to pry, but decided not to.

Still, there are things to do other than gamble (or watch people, or watch people gamble). No matter how upscale things get in Vegas the emphasis is always on glitz and kitsch. New York may have the Museum of Modern Art and Washington has the Smithsonian. But where else on the planet would you plunk the Liberace Museum or, say, the Pinball Hall of Fame?

Topless vampires

Then there are the shows. The prevailing theme: overkill. Indeed, when I was last in Vegas, there were no fewer than seven different productions by Cirque du Soleil. Passing by the Stratosphere, a show called Bite was playing, which, according to the marquee, promises not only a classic rock soundtrack but “topless vampires.” Only in Vegas.

Those celebrities who are slightly past their best-before date always seem to find a welcoming home in Las Vegas, too. So it is that Donny & Marie are at the Flamingo and Andrew Dice Clay plays the Hilton and even Carrot Top can be found at the Luxor.

Leafing through Las Vegas Magazine, ads promoted activities, ranging from CSI: The Experience to helicopter flights over the strip at night to skydiving (both outdoor and indoor.) One ad screamed for attention: a blonde clad in a sexy black dress was flashing a million-watt smile as she lovingly cradled an AK47. “Try One,” read the ad for The Gun Store. “Shoot a real machine gun!” (If machine guns are a too extreme, not to worry: The Gun Store also stocks “more than 60 different handguns, rifles and shotguns you can shoot!”) Again, it’s just so Vegas.

During my final night in Sin City, I found myself at the Planet Hollywood casino (or simply “PH” as the in-crowd refers to it.) As the hours ticked by, the casino became increasingly busy. Soon, an indescribable white noise took over — slot machines chiming, roulette balls bouncing, wheels of fortune spinning, dice rolling, patrons talking and laughing and sometimes cursing. There were no clocks, nor were there windows. Was it 2PM or 2AM? Lost in the moment, everything became just one big neon blur.

I was playing blackjack in a special section called The Pleasure Pit. Every dealer was a lovely young female clad in skimpy lingerie. The exploitation going on was nothing short of outrageous. I’m a man, after all, so how dare the PH casino management take advantage of my inherent inability to concentrate and multitask in such a sensuous setting? In any event, I was losing my shirt. And eventually it hit me: the Las Vegas experience is really all about enduring an exquisite violation. And being thankful for it.

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