Vegas, Baby, Vegas
When you think about going to Las Vegas, you think about roulette, about partying with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr, about going to overpriced shows where men in tight, shiny costumes tame lions or dance behind Celine Dion. What you probably don't think about is running around, tethered to a camera, trying to cram three interviews and a parade into a day's work.
Well, that's how I spent my week in Vegas, working on The Doc That Shall Not Be Named. This time, there were three of us, since our producing partner, Jen, decided to come along. Little did she know what she was in for when she told us, "I'm bringing along two nice outfits, and you two should let me know if you want me to get tickets to any shows!" I didn't have the heart to tell her about how we generally work: land, drive, roll camera, repeat ad infinitum until the plane takes off -- perhaps occasionally stopping to eat and sleep, time permitting. Needless to say, the only casino we saw the inside of was the one that let us interview one of their employees in its restaurant. Our view of the Strip? B-roll, shot from the passenger side of our rented gold SUV some time after midnight on our last night there.
Now I knew when I wrote the words "gold SUV" that it would become as apparent to you as it did to us: Dorothy was not in Kansas -- or Minnesota, North Dakota, Colorado, or anywhere else that she could at this point relate to -- any more. If the slot machines at the Vegas airport don't make you aware that you've landed somewhere quite unlike any place else, then the fact that SUVs are really the only mid-size cars they have on offer, most of them gold, starts to clue you in. But why fight it? Especially because the lady who rented us our car was so nice. Mind you I'm not talking Minnesota Nice here, or any of the other nices we discovered in Ohio, Maine, or even Connecticut. We're talking a completely different species of nice.
"It'll cost you 25 bucks a day for the extra driver," she told us, somehow tapping away at the computer despite her three-inch fingernails.
"Wow." Jen and I looked at each other. This film is on a budget where every $25 counts. A lot. "Maybe we don't all need to drive."
The lady stopped tapping momentarily. "Well, is the renter always going to be in the car?"
"Yeah," said Jen. "Pretty much."
"Well then, say you got pulled over and she was drivin'," the lady continued, pointing at me with one of her talons, no less frightening for being decorated in bright and swirly patterns. "You could just say you got sick and she had to take over. Now, I'm not sayin' you should do that." She looked each of us in the eye before turning her gaze back to the computer screen. "In fact, I didn't say anythin'. I'm just sayin'. That's what some people do."
"We'll add the extra driver," said Jen. Jen's a straight arrow, which is good, because who knows what I would have done given my dubious moral code and general predisposition to both want to be cheap-ass and stick it to The Man. "But thank you," she continued. "We appreciate it."
"Hey, just trying to help out. Used to be you didn't have to pay for the extra driver at all, now they got these new rules. Just don't seem right." She went back to tapping. "Where y'all from?"
This was our first brush with what I would describe as a surprisingly potent Wild West spirit. Aka, "Them rules just don't seem right." Yes, Nevada, or at least the Vegas part of it, is the land where not being about to gamble, or smoke anywhere but a restaurant (another new rule), or drink out of an open container pretty much every place but your car, or do anything else in your own car, or anybody's, is considered a violation of your constitutional right to do whatever the hell you want.
This became more evident when we were on our way to film our first air show. We were already a bit paranoid about going on an Air Force base given the extensive background checks we'd had to go through, all of us wondering what skeletons from our dubious filmmaking or liberal hellraising pasts would leap out to "Boo!" us into trouble. Lauren, for instance, knows that when you Google her, one of the top listings is for a film she worked on called Terrorist!
Then, someone told us, "You know when you're on the base, you can't talk on your phone."
"Oh, wow." As freelancers, we are all extremely cell phone-driven -- not to mention that at that point half of Vegas had my cell phone number (because we were interviewing them, okay? Get your minds out of the gutter).
"Is that considered some kind of security breach?
"No, no, I mean don't talk on the phone while you're driving there. If they catch you they'll give you a ticket."
In other words, things that are normally off-limits to those of us from uptight, law-beridden NYC are strangely up-for-grabs in Vegas.
Once we realized this, and that perhaps it was everywhere other than the base that we ought to be worried about, we had fun at the air show. It's sort of strange, when you think about it, that hundreds of thousands of people gather in one place to watch planes designed to shoot other planes out of the sky perform tricks for their amusement (and reduce their hearing by 5%), but if you're forced to go to one, it's actually pretty entertaining. Although getting a tight shot of a fast-moving Thunderbird swooping by in formation can be kind of a challenge.
"They're coming in!" Jen would shout.
"Where?" Lauren would shout.
"At eleven o'clock!" Jen would shout back.
"Where?" Lauren would shout.
"Huh?" This was my contribution, since I'd turned the gain all the way down on the mixer in an attempt to record half-way usable sound of fighter jet effluvia, as well as equally-deafening loudspeaker announcements, along the lines of, "AND NONE OF THIS WOULD BE POSSIBLE WITHOUT THE MEN AND WOMEN OF THE THUNDERBIRD GROUND CREW! LET'S GIVE 'EM A HAND!" (And, yes, applause is another sure way to make the mixer over-modulate.)
But one could say this epitomized our Vegas experience: everything roaring by so fast it was hard to keep up. Particularly with the interesting people we were meeting, who were, again, very un-Northeastern/Midwestern/pretty much anything else-ern but Vegas. To grossly generalize, where Minnesota is the land of the wholesome and the corn-fed, Vegas is a town of, how shall I put it…delinquents. We heard again and again how kids got into trouble with drinking and drugs -- and ended up in the military as a way of getting out of it. That's the odd combination that is Vegas: a town full of people who work in casinos and whose kids join the military. As you'd imagine, it attracts an interesting mix, from teenaged beauty queens to Danish pastry chefs, from former New Yorkers born of cops and firemen to Army brats who'd lived all over the world. We were shocked -- but not that shocked, since at that point we pretty much thought we'd heard it all -- to learn that one sweet old grandmother had been married at 13.
"My second husband was a truck driver," she told us, "so I started driving truck to be with him. Then after we split up, I was driving truck to pay the bills. And when my grandson was a kid, his parents were off working the carnival, so I took him on the road with me."
And what did that grandson grow up to be? A Marine.
Perhaps because we spent much less time eating and sleeping, and also spent most of our time in and around one city, we met many fewer interesting waitresses or bartenders, and we only had one set of desk clerks, at the Downtown Vegas Super-8. Of course, we stayed there out of necessity, but let me just say that Downtown Vegas has a much more fascinatingly decrepit ambiance than the Strip. Along with the abundance of neon and older casinos like the Four Queens and the El Cortez, which attract a more crusty, blue-haired and serious gambler crowd, there is an overall seediness, highlighted by pawn shops and quickie wedding chapels, which has it’s own, particular, down-and-dirty appeal.
"Yeah, this is pretty much the edge of where you'd want to go after dark," one desk clerk told us. "Keep going down that way and things get a bit sketchy."
"Really?" We were often privy to drunken shouting in the middle of the night, but this had always seemed to be coming from the Super-8.
"Oh yeah. Prostitutes, muggings, you know. Best not to walk in that direction."
We actually spent a lot of time in similar chats because the motel office/lobby/dining room was the only place we could actually get the free wi-fi (another reason WE LUV U SUPER-8!). So around ten or eleven every night, the three of us would exhaustedly troop across the parking lot and plunk ourselves down in the pleather sofas in front of a television that always seemed to be showing football. Leading to the typical late-night conversation we always wanted to avoid:
"Oh, a documentary, huh? What's it about?"
But for the most part, we liked the pasty white guys who worked the desk. Until one morning when I hurtled in to grab my "free continental breakfast," which we had about five minutes to choke down before running off to shoot. On my way I passed a group of little kids, heading back to their room, bearing paper plates piled high with sticky pastries. When I arrived in the office, there was one lonely-looking glazed donut left on the sneeze-guarded fake silver tray.
"Have you got any more food?" I asked.
"Oh yeah, I was just waiting until they left." He glared after the kids. "Those Mexican kids, they'll eat everything if you let them."
Somehow I don't think he'd have made the same comment about three raggedy and unshowered white girls, no matter how many cups of horrible coffee and lemon poppy mini-muffins we took. And we often took quite a few. They were small.
(And he wasn't the only person we met to make such derogatory comments. If you want to see where Tom Tancredo gets his support, look no further than the Wild West. I know that many of you have made comments pointing out how I tend to highlight the quaint and the avoid ugliness that is also America in these documentary travel blogs, but that's only because I'm trying to escape my own Blue State mentality. Believe me, that, too, is a big part of what we see when we leave New York -- although make no mistake: you can find good ol' xenophobia right here in NYC too.)
Luckily, though, things didn't end on that negative note. I can't tell you a lot more about our trip, which included much strangeness, laughter, tears, and an opportunity for all three of us to try on body armor. But I can tell you that it ended with a bang and not a whimper. After our whiplash-inducing visit to the Strip, we shot some nighttime b-roll of Downtown and then went home and packed and finished the last of the bottle of really awful Elvis wine that Lauren had bought in some cheesy souvenir shop. Then, before we knew it, it was 2:30 am, and you know what time that is in Vegas? Time to blow something up! Well, maybe not every night, but our last night there was the night they decided to implode the Frontier Casino. The Frontier was the place where, apparently, Elvis did his first show; a casino I'd never been to and would now never see up close, or closer than from a block away, where the crowd had assembled to watch the event. First, of course, there were 20 minutes of fireworks. Then, finally, they hit the button and this massive, once-glittering edifice melted gracefully into dust and smoke.
Thanks for the honeymoon, Vegas. We'll be back.