Sunday, September 30, 2007

The high-rise shadow of megastructures protects me from the sun in the morning. I think of this as the only advantage to their incredible height and breadth and excess. Every year, four late Septembers in a row, I walk to work on this gaudy, tawdry strip. I dodge tourists with cameras pointed upwards. I wait for the dust behind a bulldozer to settle so I can cross with a crowd at the light. Each time I return, a new stack of several thousand more flights hangs within steel frames, erected by the same handful of developers, paid for by the wide game room at their base and the nickels of seniors, the desperate last bids of the poor, the blank checks of foreign high rollers, the fleeced wallets of the willing, dwindling middle class. And meanwhile, the imploded former icons of garish entertainment augur future projects that make Liberace's coat look like a mud flap.

Yet the people around me disagree in their numbers and in their smiles. They find this place wondrous and exciting, delighted by the giddy thrill of kids at a carnival for adults.

As usual the appeal escapes me. I don't know from popular. I imagine the spectacle of a desert basin left alone, of the green remnant that was "the marshes," "the fertile valley": las vegas, an oasis centered in a wide stretch of baked sand. I live in the wrong time, as the saying goes, but at any other time I would probably be dead. The thing is I live now, not in self-imposed exile but incredulous and pretty much on my own. The billions spent here to erect ever more elaborate houses of cards, expressions of ego and one-upsmanship, could eradicate urban blight, could clothe and house and educate millions, could rebuild Detroit and New Orleans and criss-cross the country with passenger trains, could discover cures or new sources of power, could re-ice the Arctic or figure out a way to replay time so we could witness Rome's ignominy and see in slow-motion the same process of its extremes in full flower here.

As I wander a little on Thursday night on the dark street under the monorail, a skinny fortyish woman in blue jeans and a long-sleeved striped shirt, either a size too large or no longer fitting, stands on the median of Paradise and Sahara. She sees me, her shock of grimy hair caught in the glare of headlights from an SUV, her body backlit by the sheen of the Hilton a couple blocks away. As I pass she raises her cupped hand to her mouth and forms a circle with her fingers, then jerks them quickly back and forth.

"No thanks," would be the answer to the question if she had asked it. I feel the same way about the whole sad, sick, pathological town that stretches out away from us, that hemorrhages, blinking, glittering toward the horizon, far and wide from this wayward and desperate moment.