Lost Vegas: 4

In Nevada on July 2, 2009 at 12:00 am

West Coast 2 057 

There are downsides to Downtown: After decades of 24-hour partying and virile abuse, Fremont Street has seen better days. The Plaza Hotel looked a little weathered. Our shower-head was clearly rusting. The carpets in our room were obviously stained by one bachelor’s party or another.

In general, Vegas is a foodie’s nightmare, and Downtown offers only the most mediocre cuisine. Fremont Street is plastered with signs for steakhouses – but even the photographs of prime-rib, designed to pique interest, looked like slabs of melted brown plastic. Then again, Vegas is a land of quantity over quality, and if gourmet cooking doesn’t mean much to you, the Downtown buffets are a bargain: At the Plaza, Kylan and I got breakfast at the Lucky 7’s Buffet, where, for $7.77, we consumed enough eggs, pancakes, muffins and sausage to keep us distended all day. The other options were Lombardi’s, an award-winning, white-tablecloth Italian restaurant, and the Great Moments Café, which also offers high-end fare. Downtown fed us well, but by trip’s end, we felt nostalgic for Pittsburgh’s good taste and variety.

And then there were the prostitutes. No matter where we went, I felt the presence of the world’s oldest profession. Every time Kylan went to bed early, or left to use the women’s room, or even checked the front-desk for rental-car info, I was suddenly pounced upon by hookers.

“Looking for a good time?” was the usual catchphrase. Or, just to get me talking: “Hey, baby, you like my outfit?” Downtown’s looser atmosphere and thinner crowds made street-walking much easier; when single and lonely men visit Las Vegas, they don’t book a suite at the Luxor; they find some decrepit Downtown room and sneak off to the bar.

One gets used to saying, “No, thanks. I’m just waiting for a taxi.”

Our only regret is that we didn’t stay at the Golden Nugget. I was half-expecting gold-mine dioramas and giant statues of Yosemite Sam, but the Golden Nugget defied easy category: The casino floors were conventional, with loud carpets and the constant thrum and ping of slots machines. But when we passed through a set of glass doors, we found a spacious outdoor court, festooned with deckchairs and reminiscent of a Polynesian resort. Hotel guests lounged on wicker settees and gazed at the court’s centerpiece – a bulbous aquarium, where medium-sized sharks swam with ordinary tropical fish. Vegas hotels love to show off their use of water – a symbol of luxury in the baking desert – but the shark-tank was mesmerizing. Then we noticed the aquarium’s requisite gimmick: A man-sized tube ran through its middle, starting from the hotel’s second level and ending in the little pool below. The water-slide wasn’t long, but guests could say, with bravado, that they had slipped through a shark-tank and lived. 

When we left Downtown, Kylan and I booked a room at Circus Circus. The carnival-themed casino is inexpensive, functional, and easy to get around – and it’s still a fair distance from the Strip’s most suffocating crowds. Part of our stay was also nostalgic: Hunter S. Thompson trashed a hotel room in Circus Circus during his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas odyssey.

When I mentioned my plans to an acquaintance in California, he concluded, “Oh, so you must have kids, then.”

I don’t, and I certainly wouldn’t take them to Sin City. But if I did have a litter in-tow, we’d probably take them to Circus Circus, where a massive gallery of Skee-Ball and Pop-A-Shot games surround a central circus ring, and unicyclists, acrobats and clowns perform every 45 minutes. The games section, called the Midway, supplies guests with video-games and air-hockey at any hour of the day. Or night.

Not that I had planned to munch on mescaline and threaten waitresses with knives, but Circus Circus was far tamer than I imagined. Sure, there was an old-Vegas grittiness here; the buildings were old and dimly lit, and its frugality seemed to draw a quirky crowd (I met a man at the pool who had just been fired from his San Diego job, so he decided to book a room here for three full weeks as he heartily partied and pondered his life). But Circus Circus had a pleasant, homey quality to it. If the County Fair in my hometown offered minimalist rooms and Pay-Per-View, it would probably feel a lot like Circus Circus.

The hotel’s latest claim to fame is the Adventuredome, a five-acre, indoor theme-park implanted in Circus Circus’ second floor. Neither Kylan nor I had visited an amusement park in years, so it seemed fitting to invest in a day-pass. For $24.95, we could ride the roller-coaster, try out the 3-D simulator, or experience a G-force drop. The lines were short, so it didn’t take long to exhaust our options; the climbing-wall cost extra, and the gallery games didn’t interest us. As a veteran of “Star Tours,” I was expecting more of the 3-D simulator. The Melvin the Martian video was funny but not very clever, and the chair itself was immobile; instead of feeling sudden drops and light-speed, we were sprayed in the face and jabbed in the kidneys by invisible prods. It felt less like a thrill-ride and more like an instrument of torture.

We left the Adventuredome after only two hours. The park’s slogan is “act your age somewhere else,” and by early afternoon, Kylan and I were hungry for somewhere to act our own age. In a way, this summarized our Las Vegas sojourn; we had spared ourselves the usual crowds and sensory-overload. We had dabbled in Vegas’ vintage past. We’d met some people, if fleetingly, and had enjoyed some nice conversations with locals and travelers. And we had cheated the system; although Vegas compels visitors to gamble, we had risked only $20 at the slots machines, and won about $7 back. When we finally boarded our plane and watched the sunburned city recede into salt-flats, we felt grateful for a week of hedonism, but also relieved to be going back to real-life.


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