Vegas Ups the Ante

Vegas Ups the Ante

John Huba On a casino floor
John Huba On a casino floor
Las Vegas has gone back to the basics: tempting people to find out what it means to be naughty—people like Walter Kirn. Here is one man's odyssey.

A stupendously fat woman in a flame-red wig and a skintight fishnet bodysuit that emphasizes every lump and pucker approaches me holding out a large, ripe strawberry. I'm sitting; she's standing. Her bosomblocks out the lights. An instant later she's straddling my lap and pressing the wet berry to my lips. To make her leave, I open wide and bite, but the creature isn't finished with me yet. She kisses me on the forehead and on one cheek, leaving behind smears of waxy lipstick. The audience members beside me laugh and snort, except for one straitlaced older fellow, who cringes. The she-monster bats her false eyelashes at him and holds out another berry. He knows he's next.

This is all warm-up: the real show hasn't started yet. Its clever-stupid title is Zumanity, a production of the renowned Cirque du Soleil, whose sold-out Las Vegas spectacles are famous for combining world-class acrobatics with slick, high-tech theatrical effects. The shows are designed to astonish the whole family and send them back to Tulsa with vivid memories of something other than the Friday night when Dad lost his bonus at the dollar slots. Zumanity is different, though. The show at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino—described in its high-flown promotional literature as "an exploration of love, sensuality, and eroticism in all its forms and from all perspectives"—is for adults only. No children allowed.

The fat woman leaves, accompanied by her male counterpart—a shirtless pretty boy with feathered blond hair who's been thrusting his pelvis into ladies' faces—and the main event begins. The MC is a husky transvestite in a black corset who cackles and leers in the manner of Joel Grey's character in the movie version of Cabaret. As percussive, synthesized music pounds the air, the circus performers, some of them quite naked, attempt to beguile us with erotic set pieces that would be fun to portray to a psychiatrist as one's own dreams, to see what he prescribes. A beautiful woman is hoisted toward the ceiling while holding in her teeth a strip of cloth from the end of which dangles a spinning male dwarf. A lean contortionist in a business suit strips off his clothes and proceeds to pretzel himself into a series of startling, boneless poses. Two sleek female swimmers dive backward into a tank and slither around like copulating mermaids. The show concludes with the entire cast simulating a smorgasbord of sex acts on a slowly revolving stage-within-a stage. Caligula would be pleased, but certain audience members have already walked out in a huff. They expected something more wholesome, perhaps.

But they shouldn't have. The show represents the brazen new Las Vegas, whose slogan, repeated in nonstop TV commercials, is "What Happens Here, Stays Here." No more kid stuff. The desert resort that reinvents itself as regularly as Whitney Houston reconciles with her abusive husband has decided to play down its family-friendly roller coasters, video arcades, and juggling acts—the relics of a failed push toward tame good fun that was meant to help the Strip compete with Disney World—in favor of the lustier amusements that built the city in the first place. Having finally awakened to the fact that no one wants to throw a wild bachelor party, blow a month's pay, or vomit out the moonroof of a powder-blue stretch limousine while under the observation of giggling 10-year-olds, Las Vegas is back to doing what it does best: getting restless grown-ups into trouble and sending them home to their spouses, neighbors, and bankers babbling flimsy, incoherent cover stories.

I woke up that morning in the Bellagio hotel with only one goal for the weekend: to comport myself as though I'd never attended Sunday school, participated in the Boy Scouts, or had parents. I want to leave here with something to be ashamed of that's not actually shameful, because it happened in Las Vegas. The idea is not to sin, but to come close, in the same way that the Venetian and the Luxor, two of the gaudier hotel-casinos, approximate Venice and ancient Egypt without really looking like them at all. I want to indulge myself in corny, play sin.

The first thing I'm ashamed of is my suite. It's far too large for one guest and has four televisions: big ones in the sitting room and bedroom and smaller ones in two of the three bathrooms. With so many places to bathe and freshen up, and so many programs to watch while doing so, I'm momentarily paralyzed. I turn on the Bose Wave radio for relief and order a room-service breakfast of fruit and oatmeal. The silverware is heavy and worth stealing, as befits what may be the city's grandest hotel, where hedonistic overkill is standard operating procedure. What the Brooklyn Bridge is to steel cable, the Bellagio is to polished marble. Almost every smooth surface in the place will yield up your reflection if you stare hard enough. And yet the effect isn't one of vulgar excess, Las Vegas's longtime specialty, but of something much rarer and harder to pull off: good taste on a truly colossal scale.

Out the window lies Las Vegas in the daylight, a hungover showgirl without her makeup and with an unexplained bruise on her left cheek. After steaming my pores in the walk-in sauna-shower and overdoing it with the free shampoo in order to make the maids bring more, I go down to the pool for an illicit tan. The sun itself is sinful in Las Vegas, demonically direct and damaging.

The people in the water and on the lounge chairs look like the stars of a vast real-life commercial for America's most aggressive cosmetic surgeons. Middle-aged hairweaves with liposuctioned abs finger Viagra tablets in their swim trunks' pockets while hitting on twentyish nose jobs with store-bought breasts and teeth so white they could be worn on a necklace. At least two of the guys are the actor James Caan, I'd swear, and the girls all look as if they were lied to as high school juniors about their incredible modeling potential. At three o'clock, as the skin on my bare chest starts to brown and bubble like well-done pizza crust, I rise from my chair regretting that I've never had work done or sat around naked with anyone who has.

It's always wisest, in my experience, despite the advice of the mental health professionals, to gamble while depressed. That way I'm already unhappy if I lose and I'm doubly delighted if I win. I choose the blackjack tables at Caesars Palace because the cocktail waitresses there wear the tiniest, tightest high-heeled shoes. (Foot discomfort in women stirs my blood.) An hour later, $200 poorer—thanks, it seems, to the good luck of other players—I try on a succession of gold Swiss watches in the hotel's Forum Shops. Putting wear on fine timepieces I can't afford and wasting the energy of busy salesmen accustomed to dealing with Hong Kong real estate magnates accords with my resolution to be naughty.

Night falls slowly, as it always does when a lonely man needs it to fall quickly. By six I'm mad with lust, but also hungry. I dine at Aqua, the Bellagio's swankest restaurant, and order for my main course what the blond waiter describes as the house specialty: foie gras. For me, foie gras is one of those French adventure foods like sweetbreads, escargots, and frog's legs that I allow myself to eat only when I'm disoriented by air travel and confident that the chef knows better than I do. At Aqua I get the feeling that everyone knows better than I do, including the decorators. The tall windows, fresh flowers, and light colors provide a respite from the city's bombastic interiors.

"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.

Tonight will be dedicated to youth, though. Dressed in my glossy new shirt and accompanied by my girlfriend, Lola, who's popped down from Colorado for the big evening, I take a cab to the Palms Casino Resort, young Hollywood's preferred Las Vegas playground and the setting for a recent season of MTV's The Real World. Lola is excited, and she grows more so after three quick roulette wins achieved with my money but whose profits she pockets—with my macho, big-daddy blessing, of course. ("Luck Be a Lady" and all that.) The Palms makes a man feel virile and confident, like there's a lot more where that came from. It's not a joint for tourists with fanny packs or for medallioned James Caan types. It's aimed toward more contemporary, New Age hipsters who drive sporty roadsters or tricked-out SUV's instead of long sedans. Sinatra wouldn't have liked it; it's where Ben Affleck plays.

We order two New York strips, done rare, at N9ne, the hard-to-get-into steak house off the gaming floor. Our waiter is an old pro from Chicago, brought in by management for authenticity. He may be the smoothest waiter I've ever had, and the steaks are top-notch, too. I don't drink alcohol but Lola does, and she says her wine is so good that she's breaking her rule and ordering a second glass, which I don't tell her is actually her third. The sound system is magically discreet: the music is somehow soft enough to whisper over but loud enough to entertain us when our conversation falters. If I knew Lola just a bit better I'd propose to her.

Up we ride 55 stories to Ghostbar, where we've been told we might glimpse Britney Spears. (In fact, she stayed at the Palms before her "wedding," and turned up at Ghostbar and N9ne.) It's one of those places that showcases its bartenders, who are better looking than the patrons, a few of whom may be bartenders from lesser joints. The bar is packed with a fashion-forward crowd that might easily camouflage a pop star. The one spot that isn't SRO is a two-foot-square area on the open-air deck that juts out over the city like a diving board and would be the perfect launch pad for a drug-related celebrity suicide. Lola walks to this spot—she's seen it on The Real World—and stands on a large transparent brick of glass through which I can see tiny cars far, far below. The glass doesn't cave in or shatter. My girl's immortal.

Moments later she's chatting with a cocky young movie producer whose shoulder-length ponytail may be a clip-on and who's dressed in a flowing caftan-like white robe that belongs on a Middle Eastern desert nomad. He flew in from Los Angeles for a drink, he says, and I wish for a second, but only for a second, that chatty Lola had taken the plunge.

She drinks more wine and tells me she wants to dance. Surprisingly, she wants to dance with me. Back down the elevator we go to Rain Las Vegas, the loudest nightclub I've ever set foot in, jammed with wall-to-wall twitching human plasma that seems to be drawing its energy from a high-voltage light show I'll still be seeing when I go to sleep in a few hours. Dancing at Rain is like being trapped inside a rock star's brain during an overdose. My lone, obsessive thought: Fire exits. The good news is that I'm pressed so close to Lola that I can feel her heartbeat through her shirt. The bad news is that a dozen other dancers, wedged in just as close, can feel it too.

As we dance, a question of etiquette absorbs me: How does one ask a woman he's still getting to know to accompany him to a strip club?The Johnny Mathis Voice told me the other night that I have to check out a place called Crazy Horse Too.

"I think I'd like a lap dance," I tell Lola.

"That's cool," she says.

Bless the new feminism. May it last forever.

Our next cabbie calls himself an "entertainer" but declines to say in what sense, which always sounds creepy. Though there's no one around to overhear him, he informs us under his breath that he can get us "anything." I ask him what that means. "Anything," he insists. Nuclear trigger devices?Stolen antiquities?I'm pretty sure I know what he's referring to, but I'm not interested in going to jail tonight.

What happens here, stays here. Tell it to the narcotics squad.

The dancers at Crazy Horse Too have better surgeons and better genetic backgrounds all around than the ones at Jaguars and the Rhino. A dying tycoon would marry any one of them. The tiny stage in the center of the vast room is purely notional; the action is on the floor. There's a lap dancer for every lap, and there must be a couple of hundred laps: Midwestern party-boy laps, pro-athlete laps, window-treatment-conventioneer laps, and lots of adventurous wife and girlfriend laps. I sit down and add my lap to the squirming orgy while Lola ducks out to use the ladies' room.

The girls wander up to me soliciting dances, and I feel terrible when I turn them down. I feel as if I owe them cab money or something. The other men are kinder, courtlier. They call for drinks when the girls sit on their knees, then engage them in light conversation for a while as though it's important to make a real connection before getting down to business. The girls twirl their index fingers in the men's dimples or affectionately kiss their bald spots. The men tip their heads back and laugh. The girls laugh, too. When I was in high school in the swinging late seventies, having grown up watching Dean Martin movies and racy TV shows like Laugh-In and Love, American Style, I thought all grown-up parties were this way, and I was crushed when I later found out they weren't. Crazy Horse Too revives a teenage fantasy of semi-sophisticated public foreplay that I thought had died in me but has merely lain dormant, waiting for a long red press-on fingernail to tickle me under the chin and reawaken it.

I'm looking for a very specific type, and, given the immense selection of women here, I'm sure I'll find it. Sadly, the law of strip clubs dictates that the girl one fancies most will always be dancing for a nearby fat man who has paid in advance for 12 consecutive songs. Finally, my girl is released by her plump master. I give her the high sign. She's Britney's twin sister.

"Want a dance?" she asks me, bending near.

"No, I want a V8."

I wish I'd said that. Instead I say, not very confidently, "How much?"

They always say "twenty" and yet it's always double that. I know the game. No touchy, no kissy-kissy, just let your arms hang limply at your sides while whoever-she-is with the fake name and the no-good boyfriend who steals her tips looms nearer and nearer like a fleshly parade balloon and fills your nostrils with the smell of baby powder, which I guess they use to cut friction. I'm too old for this, I decide. And yet I'm not. No man is. Which is why Las Vegas prospers.

Lola approaches, my oh-so-tolerant date, and I shrug at her in a way that's meant to say: I'm almost done here and I'm not enjoying it, but, hey, I may as well get my money's worth. She'll understand—I think. I pray. But does she?She pivots, then veers toward the bar. It doesn't look good. Worse, Britney II is taking her time with me.

It feels like it's over: my date, my trip to Vegas, and—there she goes, right back to that old fat man—my lap dance. I scan the room for Lola. Where is she?I bought that dance for research, darling. Come back!

What happens here, stays here.

Tell it to your ex-girlfriend.

Here's the deal: unless there's a convention in town, you can usually pay less than a hotel's quoted rate. Simply haggle with the reservationist or go hunting on-line. Speaking of conventions, should you be unlucky enough that your visit coincides with a big event, be sure to rent a car (taxis will be hard to find) and book restaurants well in advance.

DOUBLES FROM $159. 3600 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 888/987-6667 OR 702/693-7111;

Caesars Palace
DOUBLES FROM $129. 3570 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 800/223-7277 OR 702/731-7110;

Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas
Where to escape from the ringing of slot machines. DOUBLES FROM $250. 3960 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 877/632-5000 OR 702/632-5000;

Green Valley Ranch Resort & Spa
A Mediterranean-mod retreat, minutes from the Strip. DOUBLES FROM $159. 2300 PASEO VERDE PKWY., HENDERSON; 866/617-1777 OR 702/617-7777;

Hotel at Mandalay Bay
Sleek, all-suite hotel with Vegas's only topless pool (for ages 21 and up). DOUBLES FROM $109. 3950 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 877/632-7000 OR 702/632-7777;

The Luxor Hotel & Casino
DOUBLES FROM $89. 3900 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 888/777-0188 OR 702/262-4000;

Palms Casino Resort
DOUBLES FROM $89. 4321 W. FLAMINGO RD.; 866/725-6773 OR 702/942-7777;

Ritz-Carlton, Lake Las Vegas
This lakefront oasis, 17 miles from all the action, has two of the area's top golf courses. DOUBLES FROM $269. 1610 LAKE LAS VEGAS PKWY., HENDERSON; 800/241-3333 OR 702/567-4700;

The Venetian
DOUBLES FROM $259. 3355 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 877/857-1861 OR 702/414-1000;

Vegas is for foodies, with outposts of practically every big-name restaurant in the country—not to mention some of its own superstars.

DINNER FOR TWO $150. BELLAGIO, 3600 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S. 702/693-7223

Watch chef Charlie Palmer's "wine angels" retrieve bottles from a massive tower. DINNER FOR TWO $138. MANDALAY BAY, 3950 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 702/632-7401

Thomas Keller takes his French bistro to Sin City. DINNER FOR TWO $65. THE VENETIAN, 3355 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 702/414-6200

Tom Colicchio of New York's Craft does wonders with beef. DINNER FOR TWO $78. MGM GRAND, 3799 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 702/891-7318

Fiamma Trattoria
Sister to SoHo's red-hot Italian. DINNER FOR TWO $110. MGM GRAND, 3799 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 702/891-7600

N9ne Steak House

The sushi really rocks at the Hard Rock Hotel. DINNER FOR TWO $200. 4455 S. PARADISE RD.; 702/693-5090

Spanish chef Julian Serrano's masterpiece at the Bellagio. DINNER FOR TWO $170. 3600 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 702/693-7223

The hottest reservation in town, from another leading food artist, Alessandro Stratta. DINNER FOR TWO $170. THE MIRAGE, 3400 LAS VEGAS BLVD. S.; 702/791-7353


Rain Las Vegas

—Laura Begley

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