Letter from Las Vegas: What are the odds of all this, you have to wonder. Here we are in Las Vegas, my two boys and I, taking part in one of those reality shifts that Las Vegas is now famous for — as much as for the 24-hour gaming rooms, as much as for the showgirls, and as much as for the glitter of the Strip. Now every hotel is its own theme park: The Venetian with canals and singing gondoliers; Paris with a full size replica of the Eiffel Tower; the Luxor with a facsimile of King Tut’s Tomb; a shark reef at Mandalay; a lion preserve at the MGM Grand (appropriately); and more and more and more.
And increasingly it’s all linked by indoor walkways and silent monorails, which transport you from one reality to another as quickly as a slot machine gobbles up a roll of quarters. So with my boys, ages 10 and 8, freed from school thanks to the annual teachers convention, I decide to treat them to a little dose of virtual reality. In a down economy and with a work schedule that doesn’t give much more than four-day weekend, Las Vegas is the looking glass into such exotic destinations as Paris, Venice, Cairo, and Old England.
So here we are heading toward Paris, and passing through New York, New York, on the way. We are at the base of the Statue of Liberty, near the construction wall that has become a garden of T-shirts and hats from firefighters and EMTs in a tribute to 9/11 created by tourists — a touch of heartfelt reality that is going to be incorporated into the permanent design of this artificial environment.
There I see him, a stiff, dark complexioned fellow, arm outstretched awkwardly, hand open. I immediately think of a J. Seward Johnson sculpture. But a second later it moves and talks: "Can you spare a dollar, mister?" Not today, I answer, with just a touch of guilt at the obvious lie.
Illusion is king in Vegas. Siegfried & Roy charge $110 a head for their combination of magic and lion taming at the Mirage. In a concession to economic reality we opt for a $60 ticket to Lance Burton’s magic act at the Monte Carlo and a $42 ticket to the jousting tournament (complete with baked chicken you eat with your hands, medieval-style) at Excalibur.
Keeping the illusion real is not always easy. The casinos have always banned clocks and windows, for example, to insulate the players from the outside world. But now there’s a new challenge: While other breakfasters are playing Keno one morning, I bet to myself that more than 50 percent of the men in the room will have a cell phone strapped to their belt. I win, and that doesn’t count the guys who make the wife carry the phone.
The rule in Las Vegas is that anyone under 21 can walk through the gaming areas on their way to other attractions, but they cannot loiter near the gambling tables. I see the wisdom of the rule at breakfast. My boys are fascinated by the Keno numbers that pop up on display. Twenty numbers from 1 to 80 are chosen every 10 minutes or so. You can try to match up to 20 numbers and the payoff varies according to how many numbers you play and how many you match.
You can even win by losing! If you pick 20 numbers and fail to get a single match the payoff on a $5 bet is something like $500. My older boy sees a pattern — twice in a row the game has turned up a plethora of numbers in the 40s and 50s. I have to remind him of the coin toss question: If you get 20 heads in a row tossing a coin in the air, what are the chances that you will get another one on the 21st toss? It’s still 50-50. The coin can’t remember what it has done.
And I remind him of the other rule: The house always wins — even in the surreality game. In Venice we pass by a white marble statue of a Renaissance figure, surrounded by awe-struck tourists who have placed folding money at its feet. "How can that be?" I wonder out loud as we pass by. "It’s fake, Dad," the eight-year-old says. "No, that’s real money," I reply. Later we see a similar statue and I realize what the child meant: The statue is fake. I had been had.
In Paris we see some real Seward Johnson sculpture, a woman checking her purse on a bench; a laborer taking a lunch break, his lunch box at his side. A few doors later we see the laborer standing — this time the human sculpture, in meticulous bronze make-up, is mimicking the sculpture that mimics humanity.
In a little magic shop tucked along one of the Parisian side streets the kids are enthralled by a magician who levitates a playing card and spins it around his body and back to his hand. For $19.95 we can buy the materials for the trick and get a backstage demonstration. The kids plead; I acquiesce. We are all caught up in it.
Later I think about that panhandler in New York, New York. Was that a man down on his luck in Las Vegas, or was that an actor playing a character from a Manhattan sidewalk? I’m pretty sure it was real, but I wouldn’t want to put any money on it.