For those looking from afar, Las Vegas fantasies magically erase recession

The daily headlines are more depressing than a double shot of Solzhenitsyn.

Critics say Vegas has gone Gulag. Mortgage crisis, layoffs, slumping construction: Our neon recession story has replaced Siegfried & Roy with fear and loathing.

There’s no question times are tough, and the crisis many locals face is devastating. But as I sipped an Irish whiskey Thursday night at the Go Bistro at San Francisco International Airport, I was reminded that the great Las Vegas magic act is as powerful as ever.

However fleetingly, Las Vegas is capable of transforming endless thousands of working Joes and Josephines into carefree party animals. They dance across our Dali-esque canvas, collecting colors as they go along.

I interviewed three persons about what they’ve heard about the Las Vegas economy. One knew there’s a housing crisis in Southern Nevada that ranks worst in the nation. Two couldn’t wait to tell me they got great room deals.

For visitors, it’s not the factory. It’s the fantasy.

Two young Hawaiian men embraced their neighbors at the bar like bruddahs from other muddahs and immediately struck up conversations with beautiful young African-American women. The Hawaiians bragged about the deal they scored at Harrah’s. The girls were sleeping at a relative’s house, they said, if they got much sleep.

That generated a thumbs-up from the Cary Grant of Kona in the natty Trilby.

“All the people delayed for Vegas are here,” he announced, raising his glass.

To my immediate left, the Happy Couple negotiated wedding plans on the back of a cocktail napkin in a scene like a cross between “Bridezilla” and “Barfly.”

She talked about tuxes not only for the groom and best man, but for the groomsmen as well.


Yes, to accompany the bridesmaids.

At this point I’m guessing the groom’s Vegas wedding party fantasies were replaced by visions of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He was panicked, but trying to remain calm. He reached for a compromise and a Coors Light. A few more people would be OK, maybe.

Does he mean it, she asked, her body language softening.

“I’m not saying I want a big wedding,” he said as they drained their bottles. “I’m not all, ‘Do what I want.’ I told you what I want. But if you want a bigger wedding, it’s OK. We should talk about it.”

And they did, adding elaborate detail that will only fit on a restaurant napkin. Big wedding, indeed.

At least they were traveling together.

Three clicks to the left sat “Dude, Where’s My Car?” Guy. You know the type. He was unbelievably charming and funny — just ask him.

You’ve heard of the Rat Pack. He was the leader of the Pack Rats, the late-night party rodents who scurry from club to club with 20-something energy and what must be the world’s last Platinum Visa. When they hear “recession,” they think “early male pattern baldness.”

Dude ordered a couple cocktails and four Patron shots for his posse. At this bar, the price of those drinks will almost pay for a one-way ticket to Las Vegas. Liquor in hand, Dude held Muni Court for his boys. He was loud, but the bar was slightly louder, so of course he raised his voice.

In fragments I heard, “Dude, it’s on! Getting married … the Venetian … It’s my bach (pronounced ‘batch.’) Four days … I’m swearing by the club scene.”

And I’m feeling like Methuselah.

Sipping a little more Jameson, for research purposes only, I recalled the conversation I heard while waiting for my outward-bound flight from a noisy McCarran between a darling 4-year-old blonde and her mother.

“What’s that sound?” the child asked.

“Slot machines,” mom said.

“Can I play?”

“No. It’s gambling. You’re not old enough.”

“What’s gambling?”

“It’s when people put in some money hoping to make more money.”

That’s gambling. And these days you can find gambling almost everywhere. But you can’t find Las Vegas everywhere.

For locals, Las Vegas is a factory town. For visitors, it’s a fantasy. Because we regularly peek behind the curtain, we sometimes forget what the city symbolizes to outsiders.

These tough times have thinned the parade of party animals, but the great Las Vegas magic act goes nightly.

The next time some expert says we’ve lost our mojo, tell him it ain’t so.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at

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