Waking Las Vegas
I am flying to Las Vegas on a commercial jet to meet my
brother and father. As the plane flies over New Mexico and Arizona I am
struck by the strange absence of foliage. The Western terrain with its
sculpture garden of nomadic mountains is foreign to me. Whole parcels of
land pass without habitation except for rocks and heat and desolation.
This terrain emerges as the perfect home for carrion such as vultures, a
creature that lives off remains.
The plane approaches Las Vegas’ McCarran airport, the
city as an afterthought in the desert. The casino skyline erupts from
emptiness. I am struck by the number of pools and the geographic
isolation. The captain announces the temperature, 105 degrees.
Beyond the arrival gates, shiny, slot machines stand as
sentries to guard the airport corridors with whirring reels instead of
weapons. Several rows of slots greet the disembarking passengers. A few
travelers pause to pull down one of the black arms or press a colored
Above the cavernous baggage claim at McCarran airport,
streaming videos present the hotels’ musical extravaganzas. Tommy Tune
promises 180 sets, 300 dancers, 2000 special effects while the Lord of the
Dance’s Celtic women in provocative leather outfits step dance
across the screen in the shimmer of lights.
I’m reminded of my mother, a talented stepdancer, who
passed away a few weeks ago. I am Irish, born in Dublin. My mother leaves
me adrift in this strange country, America.
I did not think that cancer would be a sneak thief. It
entered our lives loudly in 1992 and disrupted everything with great noise
and hysteria. Cancer stole my mother. After being an 8-year survivor of
breast cancer, her blood tested positive for the return of the disease,
MRIs revealed no visible evidence of a tumor. She had survived a
mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy. The silent invasion in her blood stream ultimately stole her away.
My beautiful Irish mother departed to the spiritual part
of this journey on May 10, 2000. She was an actress, flamboyant and arty,
with jet black hair, ivory skin and huge green saucer eyes. As a child, I
imagined her to be the most beautiful woman who ever lived. She combined a
brilliant intellect, strong opinions and a boundless thirst for knowledge.
She loved language and emotions and ornamental decoration like green glass
swans holding pink silk flowers. She left a trail of flowers and stuffed
animals in artful motifs so you knew wherever she had been in a house.
On May 10, 2000, I sat in my office at a trade
association in Washington, DC where I worked as a financial writer. I
dragged through an uneventful work morning filled with Dilbertisms,
coffee, e-mails and voice-mails. The day was distinguished only by our
department’s voiced regrets that our group ticket had not won us the 100
million dollar powerball and instant retirement. At about 10:30 a.m., the
caller I.D. on my phone displayed my parents’ Chicago phone number. My
father’s voice, a thick and heavy brogue, came over the phone,
"Mary, your mother is dead."
Odd words. Strange, cataclysmic, a slow subject verb
association and the room is on fire. I immediately choke out the words.
"Are you sure?"
He had not called 9-1-1, a doctor or a priest; first, he
contacted me. "She’s dead, Mary. She died in her sleep."
His grave tone of voice assured me that my life has been
dramatically altered. I hang up the phone after telling him I will call
later. I begin not to cry or weep but to howl in anguish. I recall the
generations of keening women who wailed throughout the Irish countryside
during wakes. It is a piercing sound that disturbs the studied equanimity
of these ultra modern offices. I revert to my Celtic identity frightening
the buttoned-down WASPs all around me. A Celt knows how to mourn --
invasion, famine, the shedding of blood, the loss of a tribe member --
raw, uncluttered decibels of grief
In the days following, we conduct 2 masses, a memorial
service and a reception. No population of a tiny Irish village will pause
and say goodbye to my mother. In Chicago, a city of three million people
her passing will barely be noted. We will not have a traditional Irish
wake where the corpse remains in the house for days. In the house of the
dead, the clocks are stopped, the mirrors turned to the wall or covered.
In the village, the grief stricken remain all night drinking tea or
consuming large quantities of alcohol.
As we waited quietly for the end of one service, I asked
my father if he would like to go away for a few days. As he looked around
at the reminders of my mother’s life, he said. "I’d
like to go to Las Vegas."
Today, several weeks later, we meet in Las Vegas at
Harrahs hotel and Casino. Each Las Vegas hotel boasts a theme. Harrahs
hotel portrays Carnaval. Carnavals, in diverse ages and geographical
locations, occur just before Lent time, the 40-day period of Catholic
asceticism that precedes Easter. In the center of Harrahs facade a golden
harlequin sports the jester’s costumes. The lobby is filled with
people including my father and brother.
In Harrahs casino the interlocking network of rooms
sparkles: an amalgam of kinetic lights compete with the sound of coins
hitting against metal. A pre-taped group shrieks, "Wheel of Fortune!" a
Greek chorus behind the click of coins and the swipe of the dealers.
I pass the sports betting section, a huge high-tech room
with multiple television monitors. Serious gamblers study the video
screens. The space reminds you of DarthVader’s den, the frivolity
of sports and the intensity of the gamblers mating to produce something
dark and slightly sinister.
The hotel room represent vintage 60s decor, purples,
gold, orange psychedelic color swirls on faded wallpaper, a decade frozen
in time and color; the 60s, the frenzied decade my family arrived in
America. As a child, I feared that we would be separated in this strange
country; as an adult I worried about the broad American space between
Washington, D.C. and the Midwest. All time occurs on one line of
demarcation – before and after my mother’s passing.
My brother, father and I visit the renowned Harrahs
buffet with islands of food everywhere. Although the restaurant appears
flooded with light; the food occupies a darker section. We wander around
and gaze at the dishes that defy classification: oriental vegetables with
brown gravy, macaroni with a pasty version of cheese, and vegetable
swirling in an unexplained cranberry sauce. A desert tray displays cakes,
brownies and cookies. The all you can eat challenge blazes from the
wall and menus. In search of the perfect meal, we sample a number of
delicacies. However, the final product is a collection of mediocre dishes
adorned in parsley and monosodium glutamate.
That is the magic of Las Vegas, a town that compels you
to believe in abundance as it strips everything away. Behind every theme
hotel a factory of technology conjures the illusion that you alone will
strike it rich, that Lady Luck will smile inevitably in your direction.
The intensity of this belief forms the strange dialectic of Las Vegas.
Roving crowds and streams of humanity perform the same mechanical task,
inserting coins, pulling levers, pushing buttons, betting on cards, wheels
and reels. Each person zealously believes that he or she will beat the
As we leave to explore the strip, night falls and a
million bulbs spill incandescent light over the roaming crowds. Two
central images dominate the center of the strip: the poster of Siegfried
and Roy, the legendary animal tamers rendered ageless with leathery tanned
faces and excessive smiles; and the enormous skull marking the Treasure
Island casino, a reminder that ultimately luck will never be a lady.
As first-time visitors, my brother and I initiate
ourselves by visiting the various casinos. In Vegas, we drink heavily
because we wear the grief of our mother’s death like a thin film of
sweat prescribed by the 100+ degrees temperature.
As we walk across the bridge to the elaborate facade of
the Venetian hotel, a husband and wife stand at one side screeching at
each other. He focuses his rage. "You will never, ever say anything like
that to me again."
My brother and I retreat to Harrahs outdoor lounge, a
small oasis in the midst of intense heat. In this crowded space, we watch
the outdoor lounge acts as we fend off the high temperature with a cold
one. An entertainer wearing a blue polyester wig and a yellow jumpsuit
sings Beach Boys’ oldies. My brother and I expected to find a city of
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop, tuxedos,
cigarettes and post World War II angst.
My father retreated to the hotel room several hours ago
and weariness compels me to join him. My brother wanders off into the
night swallowed up by a crowd. I come into the room as my father snores in
the other bed.
I always read myself to sleep. On this first Las Vegas
night I am accompanied by Sherman Alexie’s short stories on his
Native American world, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven.
Native Americans cling to their culture tenaciously, mysticism and
ancestor worship and the reverence for the inexplicable. In one story
Alexie’s hero learns from his college bound son that 98% of the universe
is not seen. So the father determines that he will say hello to things he
does not see.
I am Irish and our Celtic heritage originates in an
excess of mysticism and pagan worship. My mother told us of how she saw
the banshee the night before her own father died of cancer. The banshee is
a female figure, who appears in a white hooded gown; her wailing foretells
the end of a life. Unlike native Americans, we Irish assimilated into
mainstream America by changing our names from Liam to William, from Sean
to John and learning to eschew tragedy. We sell insurance and cereal and
write advertising copy. We don’t believe in banshees anymore who
foretell the death of a loved one. We exile our supernatural beliefs to
history. I yearn for the mysticism of other cultures, the belief that the
world harbors ancestors and lore and magic.
The morning remains an unconquerable challenge during
these first few weeks. A brief amnesia occurs between the time I wake up
and the onset of consciousness. The ceiling comes into focus, a slow
awareness of the room. I am poised to assume my life, a kind of
complicated muscle memory with dawning awareness. With my second or third
conscious breath, my body shrinks sensing an impending threat in the room.
A voice from deep within me cries out in agony, Momma.
My inner child experiences the orange gold and purple wallpapers. I am
aware that I am waking Las Vegas. That a generation has passed and I am
alone in America.
I leave the room to seek the spiritual amnesia that is
the specialty of this town. The geography of Vegas comforts despair. A
kaleidoscope of images exiles grief: neon frenzies, grifters selling
condos and timeshares, gamblers moving from frivolity to a desperate
purpose. Grief searches for symbols, it looks to an objective correlative
in the real world. No grand sentiment survives the Vegas illusion that
everyone can be a winner.
I go down to the pool and inspect the bodies already
baking in the sun. It is 11 a.m. and my brother sips on a Margarita. He
gets me a beer and the sun blazes as we watch strangers struggling for
nothing more consequential than an even tan.
Later in the day, I gamble at the video poker machines
where I spot a man reeling around the casino, sporting a look of vague
disorientation. He wears a fashionable polo shirt, khakis pants and a
thick gold chain dangles from his neck. He holds his heart with one hand.
In the other hand he clutches a twenty dollar bill. I walk up to him with
some concern, "Are you alright?"
He stares at me and mumbles, "No, I'm dizzy."
He communicates the demeanor of someone fearing a heart
attack. I guide him over to a seat at the video poker game. "Do you have
panic disorder?" I ask.
His face changes to a more bitter affect, "How did you
know?" he asks as if I possess clairvoyance, as if he were suddenly naked.
Before I leave, I am hoping to locate an anchor for him.
"Can I get someone you're traveling with, or a family member to come get
"My daughter is playing cards," he says and points
vaguely in the direction of a row of blackjack tables.
"What is she wearing?" I ask hoping to recognize
distinctive dress amidst a swarm of young women gambling. "I told her not
to wear that outfit," he raises his voice.
Masking his hostility he tries to appear unnaturally
jocular. So I bid him goodbye and leave him to study the video poker
Outside of Harrahs, I am surprised by daylight. Adjacent
to the hotel, the Harrahs convenience store contains liquors, snacks,
coffee and all the last minute items that any traveler could need. In
front of the display window flanked by a host of sale items, a single man
occupying a wheelchair is oddly positioned in the blazing sun. The man
displays the kind of sunburn born in stone and urban settings, pink and at
the same time grimy. The man’s arms and legs have been amputated. Someone
placed a hastily fashioned cardboard sign requesting donations and a small
shoebox against his thighs. I will not read the black lettering on the
brown cardboard as he stares stoically ahead neither looking to the right
or to the left as a thin veil of sweat accumulates on his face.
I rush towards Caesar’s Palace. Roman emperors
and statues of the Golden Age decorate the manicured landscape. A two-way
moving sidewalk leads in and out of the casino. Go in on one side, exit on
the other, in a loser, out a winner - a Vegas assembly line of illusion.
I appropriate a slot machine near the classic cars where
patrons hurl in quarters to win one of the shiny white convertibles on
display. I ask the waitress for a beer. She leaves and does not return for
some time. Then she asks me, "Did you order a beer?"
I answer yes and she hands it to me with a look of
chagrin. "I've passed you a few times. It's just that you don't look like
someone who drinks beer."
As I drop the quarters into the machine, I am reminded
of the figure in front of Harrahs. It occurs to me that I will have no
luck because I have dismissed the poor and the sick. I leave Caesar's
Palace and the early evening crowd carries me across the street, a thick
knot of humanity seduced by the blazing lights.
I stuff some bills in the donation shoebox of the
disabled man marooned in this city of hopeful winners. I walk into the
Harrahs casino. The panic disorder man with his Izod LaCosta discomfort
The mornings, afternoons, and evenings of Las Vegas run
together as if the marker that measures time has been momentarily shut
off. The clocks at this blazing wake have been momentarily stopped. In the
uneven artificial light of the casino time stands still. Days do not pass
accumulating in years. No seasons exist in a casino; fall, winter, spring
and summer-- the colors remain metallic and gold, reels ever in motion.
The hunger for money, greed, is such a simple emotion,
whereas grief is inordinately complicated. It summons our sense of loss
and our fear of what is inevitable within this act of living. I grieve for
my mother and fear for myself. In the Irish act of keening, wailing for
the dead, the intensity of the mourning has been described by the Irish
writer, John Synge: "In the presence of death all outward show of
indifference or patience is forgotten, and they shriek with pitiable
despair before the horror of the fate to which they are doomed."
A bartender at O’Shea’s casino informs me that a
couple hit the grand jackpot at the Rio hotel. He eagerly tells anyone who
sits down at the bar. In a short time span, the patrons sitting on the
stools recount the tale of their winning. An unsuspecting couple entered
this arid land, spent several days enacting the Vegas ritual and then
Are there winners really? That night I slip away to
Caesar’s Palace and I start to play an Elvis slot machine. I make
the magic colors appear on the reel and that gives me a chance to spin
Elvis’ wheel of hits. I long for Jailhouse Rock, but instead I land
on Love Me Tender Love Me Do. Elvis performs the song in a tiny video
monitor and I win $250.00. Several men pass me as the quarters slide into
the plastic bucket emblazoned with the casino’s name. They pause to
comment on my good fortune. I respond awkwardly as if explaining cause and
effect, "Well, I’ve always really liked Elvis."
I stop short of telling them I don’t expect to
win or even believe that the possibility exists. It would be too
complicated for such a short exchange. An intermittent amnesia absorbs you
upon the death of a loved one. After I make Elvis sing, I immediately
think about calling my mother.
I wander away from Elvis. It is midnight and a man walks
around the casino with a baby crying in a stroller. I am reminded of the
Elvis’ song in the ghetto where a "poor little baby cries." Urban ghettos,
gambling ghettos, winning ghettos and grief ghettos all run together in
one strange and all consuming phantasm. A paid escort with an elaborate
helmet of blonde hair and cleavage looks to the father and the child with
Later that night I see my brother who has won $1,500 at
the New York, New York casino. He saw the Ellis Island hall and knew that
this would be good luck with its intimation of immigrants arriving and
expecting to find the streets of gold. My college friend’s Italian
grandfather always told his grandchildren of his immigrant dreams, "When
we came to America, we thought the streets would be paved with gold. Not
only weren’t they paved with gold, they weren’t paved and we found out we
were going to be the ones paving them." Is Las Vegas paved with gold or
will we have to pave it?
I wander on the strip because the never-ending noise
becomes an antidote for rumination. The Casino Royale shrieks its "Free
Margarita" message to the crowd. I walk into Harrahs Casino and its
depiction of Carnaval, the celebration preceding Lent. In a Roman Catholic
Church during Lent all the statues are covered in purple shrouds. Vegas is
shrouded to me, all of the slot machines covered in purple.
The next morning I take my father to his favorite
breakfast spot, the Barbary Coast. He spends his entire day planning the
next breakfast at the Barbary Coast. The waitress brings him the huge
plate of eggs, bacon and hash browns. Two men converse loudly in the booth
behind me. "Yah, she didn’t show up till 4 a.m. And then she says the
$75.00 is a show up fee. If I want a blowjob, it’s gonna cost me $400. Is
that bullshit or what?"
My father blissfully continues his breakfast as he is
slightly deaf. As the conversation continues, I realize that companionship
comes at a price like all things in Vegas. Vegas tantalizes your senses
with impressions: the memory of flooding lights, the impact of white and
blue reels, a portrait of a royal family and the sound of coins smashing
All sexuality in Vegas displays that shined up,
gleaming quality that communicates that "it will cost you." Insouciance, pouty lips, peroxide blonde and long legs conspiring to remind you that
it’s important to have enough to afford it. But people in the casinos are
alive with another kind of passion. The passion to beat the house consumes
That afternoon, the searing heat pushes toward 110
degrees. On the solid blocks of cement, you understand what life really
has to offer. It is a long walk up a hot concrete city. I am taking my
father to the Stratosphere for an afternoon lounge show. Waiting for a bus
in the 100 degree heat you pass from the man-made artifice and illusion of
the casinos to life as it is lived. He complains bitterly about the heat
and the waiting. I yell at him and tell him to be patient. He is a man who
has just lost his wife and I am his daughter. The 100-degree heat causes
us to turn on each other. Biology has its own imperative that exists
underneath all the metaphor and the triumph. Hot and frustrated we turn on
He screams at me in the torrid heat. "Your mother
wouldn’t put up with this."
I tell him that we will not go to the Stratosphere
instead Siegfried and Roy’s animals wait for us across the street at the
Mirage. We walk quickly into the maze of restaurants and stores within the
hotel. We emerge outside near the guest pool. Unfortunately, Siegfried and
Roy’s zoo animals have been given a midweek holiday. I notice that the
dolphin exhibit is open. My father acquiesces to an afternoon of aquatic
The tour guide directs us to a large pool where silver
gray heads of dolphins bob in an out of the water. Our small crowd
explores the elusive beauty of the dolphins. The tour guide takes us below
ground where huge picture windows allow an unobstructed view of the sea
creatures in their natural world. The sleek motion propels the silver gray
bodies from one side of the tank to the other in an effortless concert of
movement. An odd moment in this town of man made beauty encountering the
profound grace of these creatures.
I watch the animals as they move effortlessly around
each other. The tour guide tells us trivial zoological details of their
habits and origins. My face is pressed against the window not unlike the
children who stand around me. I am aware that innocence exists in the
world, inchoate and inviolable.
The creatures do not acknowledge our presence as if we
are irrelevant. The tour guide explains about a recent birth within the
tank. From one end of the huge tank, a small dolphin slides in a feat of
silken grace to the other end. The dolphin urgently seeks out its mother.
Its small fish body comes to her and finds her teat. The baby dolphin
nurses on her as they move together slowly in the tank, a spectacle of
mother and child. The connection is maintained through a series of aquatic
maneuvers. I pull back from the window astonished that in Vegas a reminder
exists of generativity. That one infant creature seeks out its mother.
My father and I stand apart from the crowd and watch the
spectacle. The tour guide is saying something and leading the crowd back
up the ramps that leads to the above ground. In this reenactment of the
new life and its mother, our grief re-ignites. I have seen my father cry
only twice in our lives – at his mother’s passing and at my own mother’s
We retreat from nature with its story of life and
generativity. We rush back to the casinos and their blinding lights and
the possibility of winning. Vegas manufactures an illusion in three days
that time does not exist, reducing our existence to winning and losing. We
take back this needed illusion to the offices, factories and farms that a
kind of triumph exists for us. We need that illusion that we can beat the
numbers because our days are numbered. We need to believe that success,
money and our own will renders us omnipotent.
We are waking Las Vegas every day of our lives. We are
disproving the odds. We are trying to walk away from the inevitability of
actuarial tables. We wake up and we win.
Mary Gannon has written and produced several continuing
medical education videos. Her play Other Voyages On A City Street
was produced at the Playwrights’ Center Theater of Chicago, IL. Her poetry
has appeared in Catalyst Magazine, and a short story "Spinning
Death" is forthcoming in a Virginia Writers collection. She is
currently at work on a novel.