The colourful, flashing lights. The phoney sound of clanging change when you’ve won twenty dollars back, money that makes your pockets feel fatter than they actually are when you split it into dollar bills. Until another machine calls you over and gobbles them all up again. The hazy air, thick with cigarette smoke that settles and lingers in the tacky maroon carpet. Waitresses walking around with trays, offering glasses of pornstar martinis for a smile and a tip, then it’s a vodka soda for five dollars until you’re happily exchanging one-hundred-dollar bills for a beer with your eyes half shut. People looking like they’re auditioning for a drag show, others looking like they work at CEX. My silver dress.
I glide through the crowd in the casino, my eyes wandering over the many slot machines in this low-brow area of the building. The people are… varied.
A man in suit trousers and a crisp, white shirt stares at the bright cherries, golden monkeys and lucky clovers in front of him, a cigarette gently burning between his fingers. He brings his hand up to take a drag without moving his wide eyes from the slots in front of him. His pupils are conflicted; the vodka in his glass wants to dilate them, but the bright lights make them shrivel up in protest. A couple sit at the bar together, smoking and laughing over rum and coke. She has jet black hair and blood red lipstick, and he has a ponytail and shades. Both are wearing leather jackets in this humid, windowless room. They’re not here to keep Vegas rich; they bought their drinks and they’re observing the foolish people around them.
‘Take only how much money you’re prepared to lose and leave your card at the hotel.’
I fumble with the credit card in my bag as I walk past a woman who I’ve seen since the minute I walked in, about an hour ago. The back of her dirty-blonde, greasy head doesn’t even move when she’s picking up her winnings. She found her lucky machine and claimed it. Every few minutes the speaker vibrates with the familiar clanging, and the screen flashes HUGE WIN! Her mismatched brown yoga pants and powder-blue stained t-shirt tell me she’s more susceptible to succumbing to the feeling it’s designed to give you. I don’t know how many times she’s won big money – ten, twenty, thirty dollars – but she’s fed it all back in again just to have that rush that comes from a computer telling her she can now have all her cash back, plus a tiny bit more of someone else’s. She’s the type of person these places feed on; give the poor a shot at winning. Give them the illusion that they can win until they lose it all and start again tomorrow. Make them feel good for a few seconds at a time and they won’t realise how much they’ve lost.
This place isn’t just for rich people. It’s a simulation; a place where you can feel rich without the riches. Whenever that machine spits out a voucher with a double-digit printed on it and showers you in praise, you feel like a king. A winner. Vegas is for the wealthy, but here I am winning! Little me making a winning in big Vegas: I matter. Everytime your brain processes that tiny win, a little shot of dopamine rushes into your bloodstream, over and over again.
And you keep wanting more.
The casino never shuts, the drinks never stop coming. The real world doesn’t exist and time stops inside a Vegas casino. There are no clocks to tell you it’s 5 o’clock and you’ve been here for six hours; there are no windows to tell you the sun is rising and it’s not really acceptable to watch the day begin with alcohol in your bloodstream and coke on your nostrils. So, when your body starts to fail, you get up from your leather stool, the imprint of your ass clearly marking where you’d been the last quarter of a day. Your brain relies on your legs knowing what to do, but they’re numb, so you stumble out of the casino doors at 6am and head for a burger.
The smell of stale cigarette smoke and the ringing in my ears overwhelms me and threatens to encase me in anxiety, so I walk out of the casino; immediately gulping in the fresh air I so desperately needed.
The Great Fremont Street Experience.
And what a spectacle it is. A large crowd bustles to the left of me, cheering in front of a stage, atop of which stands an all-male ensemble performing what sounds to be a country-rock melody that I’ve never heard. But the crowd is going wild for it.
I turn the other way and start walking.
Various street entertainers have set up in between the ever-moving crowd, from elaborate contortionists to ballerinas in mankinis to humble magicians with nothing but a hat and a pack of cards commanding the attention of around thirty awe-struck people; men, women and children alike. As I walk down the street, I catch my silhouette on a darkened shop window, the neon lights reflecting off the glitter on my dress.
This dress was made for Las Vegas; yet I feel like an imposter.
The music and chatter begin to drown into the distance as I head for the quiet darkness of the road ahead; there are no longer loud blues and golds and reds reflecting off my dress, but simple, subdued whites glistening in the streetlights. A few drunken people stumble around me, arms over shoulders and waists, spluttering loudly about how ‘dude, I need a burger’ and ‘look, she’s so sparkly.’ I smirk. The accent is something I’ll never get used to; it sounds, to me, like somebody plucked them off a TV set and they’re faking it.
Growing up, I didn’t travel much. In my town, I hear Eastern European. I hear Afghan and North African. I hear Indian. Whilst other people saw beaches and theme parks, we had our house renovated to accommodate for the growing number of children. You should be grateful. And oh, I am grateful. But now, the rest of the world feels even bigger than I thought it was, and I feel even smaller than I did before; an accent shouldn’t fascinate me this much.
I stop in my tracks and look up at the grandiose, regal building in front of me, my eyes frantically trying to explore every inch of it at once, my mouth slightly open, the corners turned up. The white light is blinding, clinical, but inviting me in; it’s exactly like it is in the movie and I’ve never been so excited. My dress sparkles, silver and sapphire reflecting off it from all angles, excited and pulling me through the doors of Fremont Street’s White Castle.
As I place my order and hear the rustle of my silver dress on the rock hard, blue plastic seats, I smile to myself.
This is where I’m meant to be.