Las Vegas, the Great Litterbox
CAR WRECK SERIES 10: LAS VEGAS, THE GREAT LITTERBOX
Greetings, Dear Dirty America. I’ve finally made it back to ground zero. From North Dakota to Los Angeles, one thing is apparent in this country: we are on fire. Temperatures are in the nineties and up. Nebraska to the last grains of Nevada sand, the temperature rarely dipped below one hundred. In Colorado the fires are raging and puking smoke into the air.
In Utah, I drove past a fire burning atop a tall craggy hill speckled with trees and squat shrubs. Through the smoke the sun was the color pink. At one point the pink sunlight glared off a river. Extremely beautiful image. Worthy of an expensive postcard in a gift shop. A helicopter circled around from behind the hill. A very long cable attached to a giant red bucket swung from its underbelly. The chopper dipped the bucket into the sluggish Colorado river, and ascended again, bucket filled, to splash an impressive line of fires that probably wouldn’t notice the water.
What day was that? I don’t remember. I’d been driving since early Tuesday morning. I’d left North Dakota with a genuine salute to the sky, and a devotional prayer cast onto its fecund soil. Driving across country leaves you with a spinning head filled with blurry images, scenes, and snippets of songs and radio programs resonating between your ears.
The only relic I have from that long trip is a liter of water from my hotel in Las Vegas. I wanted to compare the taste with Los Angeles’ water. Las Vegas water has a slightly sharper taste, like there’s an extra added chemical. But it’s faint. LA’s water is yellower. Those are the most discernible differences.
I ended up staying in a far grander hotel in Las Vegas than I could both afford and deserve. But there I was, trapped in a room with a humongous bed draped with snow-white sheets and a fetching duvet cover, puffed and stitched for appeal. Dear Lord, I said to myself, as I stacked my bags on the wooden desk to avoid picking up undetectable bed bug eggs scattered on the floor or fabrics around the room.
I slept naked that night. I enjoyed the sheets. Outside, the heat was intense and heavy and smelled like it had already been used to cook thousands of pounds of pork and beef in a giant oven just beyond the city swell.
When I’d checked in to this fabulous hotel, the desk clerk was a kind man with soft brown eyes. I don’t notice eyes very often (especially on men!), but on this one, I did. He lowered my room’s rate from over one hundred to just under. I was grateful. I’m a writer, I told him, and don’t make much money doing it. I’ve been driving all day, and I can’t possibly search for another hotel. I’ll crash my car. I just crashed my old car in Los Angeles, and this is why I’ve ended up in Las Vegas.
He seemed to understand. He was from Michigan. He’d made the unendurable trip three times. “I can’t wait to get the hell out of this city, though,” he said. “I call it the Great Litterbox.”
That’s a good name, I said. Las Vegas seems like the city version of a human who doesn’t eat any fruit or vegetables. Just carbohydrates and sugars all day long. Like pancakes, cookies, white bread, pasta, white rice. And all of it smothered in either butter or oil, and infused with high fructose corn syrup.
“Blah!” he said. “That’s exactly like this city. Pumped up on everything unhealthy and fattening.”
And a lot of meat thrown in. Pork chops, creamy beef tips, chicken wings. All of that junk, I said. Anyway, good luck getting back to Michigan, I told him. Maybe our paths will cross again. We were probably friends in another lifetime. Or lovers.
He eyed me sharply.
You might have been a woman, I said, or me. It’s weird to think about, but at the core of things, we’re all just an essence blown into a physical body. And, it seems, we’re the same essence, from the same source, just blown into separate meat machines.
The night clerk started getting antsy after that. He handed me my electronic keys to my room and told me, “Good night, sir!”
After I dumped my bags onto the desk, I walked outside. The wind was as hot as the air blasting out of a blow drier. I imagined a great Con-Air machine, whining on high gear, just past my visibility. The giant blow drier was the God of the Great Litterbox. Employed to swirl the rotten air to give the impression of a fresh breeze, rather than a city choking on too much BBQ fat and gristle, too many morning waffles and syrup, and a deathly amount of gooey cheese and syrupy sodas.
But there is no hope for a fresh breeze in Las Vegas. The desk clerk knew it. He wouldn’t go near Lake Mead, he’d said. “I wouldn’t dip my toe in that cesspool,” he murmured. “I came to Vegas to make some money,” he said, “and now I’m ready to get the hell out.”
The allurement of Vegas seems to be that instant when you’re barreling through the rocky clusters and rolling sand dunes, thinking there’s nothing ahead for miles except the barren, God-forsaken earth, until you round the corner, driving eighty with Rush Limbaugh turned up so loud on your car speakers you can’t get a word in edgewise, and there she is, there it is. The shining city, where no city should be, scrawled into the vast blank litter box horizon. It’s a city drawn on the cracked wooden side of an old chicken coop in the decaying remains of a farmstead outside of Dwight, North Dakota.
If there weren’t so many eyeball-grabbing facades and shimmering metal surfaces, the people who travel to Las Vegas might actually catch on to what truly happens there: the American masses of hellbent money-seekers drive or fly hundreds or thousands of miles to dig various holes in the chunky sand, and then empty their pockets of cash as fast as they can, and then cover up the holes and wait for something to sprout. Hopefully a money tree. Hopefully a plant never seen before on earth. A plant that produces something greater than dollars. Maybe thick waxen leaves that when broken open ooze a pus that will heal our deepest, innermost woes.
But why do so many people travel deep into Nevada’s litter box to do that? A person can sink his money into the soil just about anywhere.
When my hotel phone rang at 2.30 in the morning, I grabbed it and said hello. I’d been sleeping, but a part of my consciousness always stays alert for just those types of early morning phone ringing moments. “Is this Peter?” a woman’s voice asked.
Peter’s dead, I said, but don’t ask me how it happened.
“Oh my God,” she said. Her voice squeaked. Her throat was dry. It was audible. Scratchy. Hard on my ears. “I just met him like an hour ago. He gave me this number.” She paused. Outside I could hear a car engine rev. “Who is this?”
It’s not Peter, I said. He probably gave you the wrong number on purpose. Men do that sometimes.
“But he really liked me. I was looking forward to this. Are you sure you’re not Peter?”
I’ve rarely been so certain of anything, my lady, I said.
“What do you look like?” she asked. “I mean, I’m blond, pretty tall. Nice figure. Are you busy? Is this the H—- hotel?”
I won a gun on the strip, I said. From a nickel machine. Put a nickel in, you might win a pistol. Well, I won. Now I’m cleaning it. Shining it up.
The line went dead. Do you know? I said to the dial tone, that the entire nation is on fire? Florida’s under water? Las Vegas is owned by banks. Los Angeles heavily fines their poorest residents for failing to move their vehicles on street cleaning days, but only issues warnings for people in upper middle class neighborhoods for the same offense? Did you know that Obama’s healthcare plan, recently upheld by the Supreme Court, might be a heroic first step toward the betterment of America’s citizens? Or it might be the worst possible legislation signalling the end of our freedom because it ushers in a system that might possibly refuse older people from having much needed surgeries or overweight folks from treatment because it’s just not fiscally practical?
The dial tone morphed into a beeping sound. Enough of this! I said. We’re preaching to the choir.
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