The heartbreak hotels

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 December, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 December, 1995, 12:00am

THE first thing to strike me on arrival at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas was not the slot machines themselves but rather the smell of vomit and stale beer emanating from them.

The departure lounge was littered with human detritus. Hung over, washed up and cleaned out, they sat slouched in their chairs or collapsed on the carpet, bleary eyed, waiting for the plane which would take them back to their safe, normal, routine lives and away from the fantastic magic kingdom which had sucked them in and extracted all their money.

Most of my fellow passengers, however, appeared oblivious to or simply chose not to notice this scene of post-hedonistic malaise.

Vegas is a Mecca for white trash, a desert oasis offering instant salvation instead of the mere promise of bliss in the hereafter. The temples of The Strip gleam in the bright desert heat during the day and sparkle throughout the warm nights, enticing pilgrims into their air conditioned sanctums where the slot machines, roulette wheels, blackjack and craps tables lie in wait.

The casinos are monuments of kitsch. This is not just tacky decor, this is appalling bad taste on a grand scale. Nearly all the casinos now have their own particular 'theme,' ranging from the Egyptian pyramids and Mississippi river boats to medieval England and ancient Rome, all having far more in common with Hollywood than the originals they claim to represent.

The city has only been in existence for about 60 years and if it had not been for the coincidence of two events triggered by the Great Depression, it would still be the small railroad stop and mining town it was in the 20s.

The depression led to the great public works programme which included the Hoover Dam just down the road from the rail stop and led the Nevada state government to legalise gambling in an attempt to kick-start the economy.

Thus we had a vast supply of electricity and water and very liberal gaming laws in a small town about an hour's flight from Los Angeles.

The first to realise the potential of this combination were of course the Mob and more specifically Bugsy Seagal. Organised crime, with not a little help from corrupt and just plain gullible local politicians, built a monstrous business empire which turned Las Vegas from rail stop into a city now approaching a permanent population of one million.

Thanks to the minimal tax base granted by the gaming industry, Las Vegas has now attracted rather more legitimate business corporations and many people are establishing retirement communities near the artificial golf courses which have sprung up in the suburbs.

In response to such recent developments, more and more casinos are trying to attract families to Vegas, to turn Sin City into Disneyland. And to a large degree they have succeeded. The girls have been taken of the streets and the guys handing out 'informative' literature have been pushed into the background.

Almost all the casinos now offer something for the kids, from theme parks to special effects shows. But no matter what they do, there is no disguising the fact that these are still casinos.

Their basic function, their sole reason for being is to extract money from gullible punters and make astronomic profits for their owners, criminal or otherwise.

Everything is made possible by the slot machines. The lavish entertainment of Seigfreid and Roy, the all-you-can-eat buffets, the free drinks, the ridiculously cheap hotel rooms and the low cost flights only exist because the slot machines and roulette wheels allow them to exist.

Those who play the slots obviously don't understand what is going on around them. If they just stopped to think for a moment about how the loud glittering building they were sitting in was financed, they would cash in their chips immediately.

But they don't think, and that is what the casino owners are banking on, literally.

They sit in a zombie-like trance, hunched over the machine with their cup full of quarters, cigarette slowly smouldering and drink nearby.

You cannot win. Everybody in their heart of hearts knows that you cannot win.

But they are still willing to take a chance, holding out against impossible odds that they, out of all the millions of punters who visit Vegas each year, will be the one to hit the jackpot.

They rarely do. They just end up at McCarran Airport dazed and confused, trying to convince themselves that next time their luck will change.