Friday, May 18, 2012

Ooh Las Vegas

Much as I love the Junkies (and Gram Parsons), my version of this song would likely be called "Ew. Las Vegas."

I've written about this before. Much as I like to imagine that our spare time at our conference will be spent having Rat Pack like good times, it's just not my kind of town. Part of it is that I don't have the money to make it my kind of town. Nicolas Pileggi, who wrote Casino, wrote Las Vegas is a city of kickbacks. A desert city of greased palms. A place where a $20 bill can buy approval, a $100 bill adulation and $1,000 canonization. He left out the tip for nonprofit drones visiting for a convention, that $5 will buy you a cup of coffee and some cards advertising hookers.
Also, I have a hard time turning off the part of my brain that worries, and Vegas -- rather than releasing me from it, as it's supposed to do -- makes it worse. I worry about the prostitutes. I worry about the people slumped over the slot machines, their eyes flickering back the numbers. I worry about humanity as a whole, and American humanity in particular, and then I worry about myself for not being able to relax and enjoy the whole thing.

The best I can really do there is try to leave my body and consider it all from a cultural anthropology point of view. For a writer, Vegas is great material. What doesn't kill you is fodder.

Still, all things considered, Vegas mostly makes me want to get out of town and see the desolate, haunted country all around it. High desert ranges, sagebrush, tiny towns that seem like no one could live there. Towns like Hernandez, New Mexico, which Ansel Adams photographed in this haunting 1941 shot. I haven't been to Hernandez, but there are desert towns all over the West that still look essentially like this.

Moonrise, Hernandez

          after Ansel Adams

What is there, beneath this stone-hewn sky,
          but to cluster and keep low?

Strings of whitewashed crosses
                      maintain ramshackle piety,
a stay against the leathered palm of sagebrush,
the whims of mountains, clouds
    solid as snowbanks,
                     their pewtered canopy
over huddled shacks
stitched by need
              into a town.

The moon drags her train over soil
pocked with clapboard and sheet metal,
               a past-prime bride abandoned
at the altar. Her light
catches on sharp edges, stray nails;
                pale threads tear loose,
become thin sheets and shirts
                clinging to the lines,
flapping like wingshot birds.

                If you come upon it, turn away.
Whoever comes here must claim these things,
              must wear this shirt, its wind-licked lapels
              stitched with aces.
You must wrap herself in these sheets;
                     hold your loneliness close.
You must scuttle among crosses where the dead
                     crouch quiet in the bracken,
                            listening to the wind forget their names.


Anonymous said...

Not my kind of town either. Who wrote the poem? You? I think it's outstanding.

Will James
Gram Parsons InterNational

M. C. Allan said...

Hey Will, thanks for the kind comment! And thanks for pushing the Parsons issue -- until I read your blog just now, I had no idea he wasn't in the Hall of Fame already. That's craziness!

Thomas Derry said...

Very cool article. My single experience with LV was back in the 80s, when my girlfriend and I stopped in at a casino, and within 5 minutes had lost the $20 we'd set aside to play with.

I remember us talking it over as we left, and agreeing that the money, like Las Vegas, had never really existed.

M. C. Allan said...

Thanks, Thomas. Yeah, maybe the whole of Vegas should be called the Mirage, rather than just one casino.

You and your girlfriend did better than the couple in "Lost in America." :) If you haven't seen that movie, it's well worth a watch!