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Vegas Ups the Ante

"Topless women, tasteful setting," I say.

"That would be Cheetahs or Jaguars," the driver answers. I consult the computer printout of sexy nightspots given to me by the Bellagio's concierge, who didn't so much as blush when I requested it.

"Jaguars," I say, choosing the fiercer cat.

On the way there my driver introduces himself as "the Johnny Mathis Voice." I ask him what this means. His response is complicated, far-fetched, and entirely typical of the gaudy life stories one hears from veteran Las Vegas service professionals. "Remember Laverne & Shirley, the old TV show?" he asks. "Whenever they had a bar scene with a jukebox and it played a Johnny Mathis tune, I was the person actually singing it. The producers couldn't afford to pay the real guy, so they hired me because we're soundalikes." The driver claims he grew wealthy aping Mathis but lost a lot of the money to two robbers who finished off their assault by kicking his throat and forever ruining his voice. I tell him that I believe him, and he seems grateful. And it's true: his voice does sound like a blown speaker.

Jaguars is dead. Most strip clubs are dead at eight, I learn. Eight o'clock in Las Vegas is lunchtime. Nap time. The room is so dark I can barely see the stage. I behold the dancers mostly in silhouette, like the babes in James Bond film title sequences, and I fear that they're less attractive than I imagine. The venue is impressive in itself, though: a sort of deluxe Tuscan frat house with inner balconies and cushy armchairs flanked by little tables just big enough for an ashtray and a shot glass. Nothing seedy, nothing frayed or stained. If the place served meals—and maybe it does—I'd be glad to eat one.

The Las Vegas topless scene is a couples scene nowadays, and there are several women in the audience who don't appear to be at all put out by the lap dancers crawling all over their mates. Some of these women are getting dances themselves and are enjoying them in a way that makes me wonder if men have a permanent future on this earth. Still, I long for more action. I call a second cab, absorb another round of nutty patter, and am driven to what the driver tells me is a friendlier, less lugubrious establishment favored by in-the-know locals: the Spearmint Rhino. I like the frisky, surrealistic name, but I'm curious as to whether its inventor spoke English.

The Rhino is smaller, smokier, and shabbier than Jaguars, but I like its straightforward spirit. The performers seem kind, not cold and predatory, and though a few of them are on the chubby side they radiate sympathy for their customers, some of whom seem to be stuffing their last few dollars into the ladies' sweaty garter belts. The lights are brighter here, too. What you see is what you get, no suggestive obscurity or artsy shadow play. It's like a Wild West dance hall, bold and raunchy. Some of the girls are named Kitty, I suspect, and a few have kids and husbands waiting up for them.

It doesn't pay to think deeply about such things, though.

I walk back to the Bellagio, steering by its luminous white turret and passing faces ecstatic and agonized, animated and thwarted—a living wax museum devoted to the follies of humankind. Las Vegas, especially along the Strip, is one of the great people-watching cities. The escort-service promoters work all night, handing out playing card-sized photos of women who plan, no doubt, to settle down someday but for now count their German shepherds as their best friends. Most of these calling cards end up on the sidewalk, and they're worth stooping over to collect; they make provocative bookmarks, but calling the phone numbers on them isn't advisable. Prostitution is illegal in the city, though one senses that the crime isn't often prosecuted.

What happens here, stays here. Tell it to the judge.

The happiest way to lose money in Las Vegas is by using what you had planned on wagering to buy luxury goods instead. In the Fashion Show Mall's Neiman Marcus I buy a polo shirt whose shiny Italian fabric James Caan would love. Wearing it makes me feel like I have chest hair and gives me the confidence to enter the Gucci store off the Bellagio's lobby. I want everything, even the women's stuff. Time to gamble and win.

"Changing one hundred!" my baccarat dealer calls. (In Vegas, this is like saying "Change for a quarter.") I've heard that baccarat is the game of royalty and that it's brutally simple as well. (Coincidence?) The only decision it requires is whether to bet with the player or the house; this is difficult for me, however, since my father always urged me to bet on myself, but I also recall that the house never loses. So I alternate. And win!

The next sin to compound is gluttony. The Bellagio's buffet is reputed to be the finest in Las Vegas, but it tempts me to mix incompatible cuisines that should never appear on the same plate or commingle in the same stomach: yellowtail tuna sushi, roast leg of lamb, granola with yogurt, apple pie, lemongrass chicken, o.j., and a cheese omelette. Because time is elastic in the clockless casino world, I'm not sure which meal I'm eating, lunch or breakfast, or if it's too early for a hot fudge sundae from the do-it-yourself dessert bar. (It's never too early.) The abundance is dizzying and amply confirms the truism that we live in the greatest nation on the globe—a nation that takes the best from every other nation and dumps it all out onto one tempting Las Vegas buffet tray.

At the pool I catch up on People and Us magazines and watch four young women in water up to their belly buttons touch and comment on one another's implants. Both Caans are watching with me. A lady lounging in the chair beside mine announces that her husband will be away all day attending the national window treatments convention. I chat with her over lemonade. She's much too old for me, but I'm interested in what might happen if she weren't.

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