Taking on the haters who knock Las Vegas
Wed, Jan 30, 2013 (10:28 p.m.)
Illustration: Ana Benaroya
The Google yield for “I hate Las Vegas” is stunning. Like Kim Kardashian and mullets, the city is an easy target because it’s so unapologetically out there, because some of the prevailing mythology is true and because the mob mentality dissolves any guilt about noisily wishing it would just get nuked already.
I’m fascinated by the “Haterade,” which Urban Dictionary defines as “a figurative drink representing a modality of thought; those who consume it are themselves consumed by the negativity with which they speak.” Vegas isn’t just hot—it’s “Satan’s anus.” Locals aren’t merely standoffish—we’re “dumb, sleazy, rude, selfish, hustling jerks.” And our hospitality powerhouse? It’s a mushroom cloud of gluttons, hookers and drunks.
Or so the haters would have us believe. Sure, some critiques are richly deserved. But some are rants. Some are personal vendettas. Some are satirical gems launched with the lazy aim of dogs marking territory. Together, they paint a picture of a place I don’t quite recognize.
So, on behalf of my imperfect city, I grabbed a cape and went hater hunting online. I searched for strong voices with diverse gripes that had time to marinate, hoping they’d be game to defend their theories on computer-generated brunch, racist astronauts and Hollywood lies about the Strip being fun.
THE TRAVEL EDITOR
Title: “I hate Las Vegas”
Date: April 2, 2008
Author: Erik Torkells
When Erik Torkells wrote this blog, he was editor in chief of Budget Travel magazine—the last guy a city that depends on tourism wants to piss off. He wasn’t pissed off so much as turned off by an ad, to the extent of breaking his own rule that a travel editor is “not supposed to hate any place.” Here’s a fragment:
“I came across an ad for Wynn, the newish hotel from Steve Wynn. And every restaurant in the ad just seemed so awful. At this point, it’s old hat to complain about Vegas being fake, but I looked at the photos in the ad, and I just thought, They look like they’re from a computer game—maybe Grand Theft Auto: Country Club. I don’t want to be anywhere near these places. And I realized that if I never went to Vegas again, I’d be just fine.”
Torkells lamented his own sentiment, as he has fond memories of driving up from California in the family RV and marveling at the Vegas glow. “The Wynn, however, looked as far from glamorous as you can get,” he wrote. “I mean, I like tacky, but this was tacky in all the wrong ways. And it sure as hell didn’t look fun.” He implored readers to share what he was missing about Las Vegas, but the comments are largely rants, from “everything is fake” to “obvious DNA stains on a throw pillow.”
Not long after his Vegas post, Torkells left Budget Travel to found the indie website Tribeca Citizen, a smart, lively take on his New York neighborhood. I sent a note asking if he’d riff on his back-then attitude, and I also called bullsh*t on the Wynn being tacky: “I mean, it’s a Las Vegas casino, so you have to expect a certain aesthetic (and a buffet), but Wynn is known for high standards and has some killer restaurants. When I read your take, that it ‘looked as far from glamorous as you can get,’ I laughed. You should check out Slots-A-Fun and its vat of margaritas.” Torkells replied almost immediately:
“I haven’t been to Las Vegas in years, and who knows? Maybe what I didn’t like about it then has changed. And as much as I believed what I wrote then, that post violated one of my tenets, which is not to bring other people down—if they love Vegas, then good for them.”
THE MOVIE CRITIC
Title: “Release all the photos you want, Last Vegas still looks ridiculous”
Date: November 5, 2012
Author: Ashley Burns
Ashley Burns is features editor for pop-culture site Uproxx and a contributor to its FilmDrunk movie blog. His brutal preview of Last Vegas, a film about an old-guy bachelor party, turned into a brutal review of the city. A taste:
“I finally went to Las Vegas for the first time in my life, just a few months ago. It was horrible. I will probably never go back. If I want to get hammered and piss away my money at a casino, I’ll do it in New Orleans. But I say this not to poop on the city. No, I bring this up because Hollywood is full of lies, and every TV show and movie that is based around the idea that Vegas is a fun place is just wrong. It’s full of nasty, miserable people, who would shoot their own parents for one more chip. But at least my toilet at the Aria had a heated seat.”
First, he’s not the only hater to love that toilet seat ... Second, I get that he’s hyperbolizing. It’s funny, and I do it all the time. But saying that Vegas isn’t fun crosses the line. And a later assertion, that anyone over 50 in a casino is “trying desperately to escape a terrible life,” needed challenging.
I couldn’t find Burns’ email, so I tweeted: “@MayorBurnsy, was that toilet seat really the only thing about Vegas you didn’t hate?” His response assured me that he enjoyed the city more than he expected and that his jabs were “mostly in jest.” But his first Vegas experience was a bachelor party spent “babysitting my drunken Peter Pan friends and dealing with the overaged bro types who felt like we’d be interested in fighting.”
“Oh, the bro types ... almost as hated as the yard-long daiquiri is loved,” I replied, because I understand hating on the douche contingency (surprise—I’m a hypocrite). But I took issue with Burns’ assertion that Hollywood lies about the fun factor (back me up, Prince Harry). And older gamblers quelling their misery? “Again, this could be true of some,” I wrote. “But the 50-and-up visitors are the ones with actual money. My guess is they’re playing baccarat, eating $4 shrimp and giving each other mad high fives.”
Burns acknowledged that Vegas is “cleaner, safer and more organized” than his beloved New Orleans, and that he undervalued such qualities in his “hasty rant,” but he stands by the notion that Hollywood glorifies the Vegas experience, even if the fantasy is possible. He prefers less Zach Galifianakis and more “vintage, local charm,” plus cheap gaming and zany crowds off-Strip. And while he says he’s not really a strip-club guy, he had a blast with a couple Spearmint Rhino dancers dishing on old punk music and movies.
“Basically, I had to cater to what my friends wanted, and that’s certainly not the city’s fault. I was just exposed to awful people in the casinos and pools, from a group of bros who wanted to fight us (for no reason other than they had a group and we had a group) at the MGM and the plastic girls who tried to steal our chicken fingers at the pool. I stand by my old people comment, because I played at the cheap tables and didn’t meet the ballers. I regret the context in implying that Vegas is flat out not fun. I’d give it another shot, just with me behind the wheel this time.”
THE SURLY BLOGGER
Title: “Why Las Vegas Sucks”
Date: August 18, 2010
Source: Essays on Sucking
Author: Harry Cheadle
Although Harry Cheadle’s diary of existential despair hasn’t been updated for years, the blog remains a database of wry commentary on everything that sucks (Tron: Legacy, I’m looking at you). Browsing the archives I found Las Vegas, sandwiched unceremoniously between A-Rod and the “9/11 Mosque” controversy. The post spun off of a New Yorker story about Strip dining that connected the dots between chef Paul Bartolotta, the texted photo of a just-caught fish in the Adriatic, and 30 golfers who paid nearly $5,000 for their delicious fish dinner 48 hours later. Bartolotta’s key quote: “Las Vegas is a pilot project to see if man can live on the moon.” Some highlights from Cheadle’s take:
“To recap: Modern technology allows people across the world to communicate to one another instantaneously, and transport pretty much any object from any place to any other place in less time than it takes to watch all of the episodes of The Wire back-to-back, and we use this technology to provide a bunch of wealthy, drunken golfers with fresh fish. … Why do we have this giant luxurious mecca of sin in the desert anyway? Living on the moon would be a gigantic waste of resources, which is why we never tried to do it. Las Vegas seems like a waste of resources, too. Can’t we move all of those casinos somewhere a little easier to transport food and water to?”
I wrote Cheadle, now an associate editor at Vice, to say that his points are hard to argue. It is bizarre that so many resources are spent supplying drunken golfers with fancy fish in the middle of the desert. But I can’t help appreciating the nerve of it, of this improbable city in its excessive, politically incorrect and morally dubious glory. It doesn’t give a sh*t if anyone has a problem with it having a good time, all the time, however much it costs or offends. “That’s a hell of a mirror for human nature and a singular specimen of American culture,” I wrote. “As for living on the Moon being about as practical as living in Vegas, I’m pretty sure NASA was working on lunar colonization before the recession.” I asked Cheadle if he’d ever actually been here and where he’d put the casinos, considering that you can’t recreate the soul. He was stoked that someone besides his parents read his blog.
Cheadle agreed that the history wouldn’t translate, and that we’d “lose something there.” Strictly in economic terms, he still believes that building a “crazy neon town” in this location never made sense and suggested that depressed towns along the California coast would be great alternatives (“Vegas on the beach!”).
“I actually do like Vegas—or at least the idea of Vegas, I’ve never been—for all the reasons you describe. I want to head out there and once I find a legitimate excuse, I imagine I will,” he wrote. “It seems like a social experiment—what happens when you legalize gambling and other forms of vice (though not drugs) on a large scale? It also represents the American Dream, which I guess you could define as getting rich via the fastest, most improbable, flashiest way you can. Everyone can be a winner in Vegas—but at the same time, most people are losers.”
THE REALLY F*CKING SURLY BLOGGER
Title: “Raising Cane’s”
Date: May 29, 2010
Source: Vegas Sucks
The primer on this long-dormant blog explains that “VS” moved here in 2010 hoping for opportunity, only to wind up “unemployed, unemployable and homeless in this terrible, distasteful place surrounded by some of the worst people in the world.” So he spent a few months blogging about casino bathrooms and rage. At the height of his indulgent vitriol, he wrote a 2,000-word post about Raising Cane’s (summed up in this 61-word excerpt):
“In short, f*ck this restaurant chain, f*ck their awful chicken, f*ck their awful sauce, f*ck their goddamned mascot and f*ck their piece-of-sh*t owner for parading his dead dog’s corpse around like he was the two male leads on Scrubs. You know a place is godawful terrible sh*t when the only thing it has going for it is the TOAST.”
I’d never tried the popular chain (founded in Baton Rouge, by the way) and couldn’t track down VS, so I dragged Weekly food editor and fried-chicken disciple Brock Radke to the Cane’s on Las Vegas Boulevard. There were no corpses. And the food, as my expert put it, was “the In-N-Out of chicken, in a good way.” The fries were forgettable, but I’m not writing a manifesto about the soul-crushing letdown. Brock pointed out that Cane’s is like Vegas, too obvious for snobs. If we went to some obscure café and got the exact same meal, he said we’d be congratulating each other on finding such a treasure.
VS should know that my cup had an instant-win tag, and my prize is TOAST. (If you’re reading this, grand poobah of Haterade, call me and it’s yours.)
THE HOLY GRAIL
Title: “Las Vegas Sucks Update #3”
Date: July 20, 2004
Author: Josh “Livestock” Boruff
The No. 1 search result for “Vegas sucks” is on Something Awful, an irreverent digital stew concocted by a gang of righteous nerds. They trashed Vegas after a conference on the Strip, none more imaginatively (or offensively) than Josh “Livestock” Boruff. A few choice lines:
“Las Vegas is essentially the combined horror of Hell, the Holocaust and the killing fields of Cambodia ground up and run through a giant neon sausage maker.”
“Las Vegas is not just an affront to all things holy that I don’t really believe in, but an affront to all things sane in general.”
“Las Vegas was obviously designed by a retarded child and bankrolled by a shadowy cabal of Nazis, mafia gangsters, racist astronauts, pedophiles, murderers and Celine Dion.”
“Hell, they could tear it all down and erect a factory that does nothing but shoot human babies into walls at high velocities and that would be a big step in the right direction.”
“There is definitely something wrong with a city when you look forward to leaving it and returning to Indiana, which, as many of you know, is America’s bowel cancer.”
A bit of my query to Livestock: “While innocently Googling ‘giant neon sausage maker,’ I found a link to one of your posts. It’s about Las Vegas. Sucking. More than the Holocaust. But that was 2004, right? Celine Dion may still be around, and aliens would uncover a lot of the same nutty ruins if the city were destroyed, but it’s had more than eight years to redeem itself (to the point where you might not prefer a factory that shoots babies into walls). ... Do you still consider Vegas an affront to holiness/sanity, and is that really a bad thing?”
I had to tweet Livestock about grave robbing to get a response, but it was worth the wait:
“I have been to Las Vegas several times since then, the last visit being in 2008. I have grown to respect it for the awesome monstrosity it is. I fear it as well. I have many pleasant memories of being drunk there with friends, and I cannot imagine a better or more rewarding place to people watch. It’s just a nonstop spectacle of fat, jorted Midwesterners, Arab sheiks, the elderly, gangsta thugs, greasy lotharios with unbuttoned shirts and scantly clad club ladies all commingling inside a giant pinball machine. There’s no way not to smile and marvel at such an absurd thing.”
THE HUMAN METAPHOR
It’s easy to get lost in the negative, even when it’s hilarious and you can relate. Let’s not forget that Vegas is also loved. Hugely. You don’t become a destination of this magnitude without winning a few gazillion hearts. I needed someone to speak for us lovers, someone who’d defend our turf against surly bloggers and the President of the United States.
Oscar Goodman came to Vegas in 1964 with his wife Carolyn and $87. He made a living and a name as a lawyer, but the three terms he served as Las Vegas’ mayor made him a legend. His wife now holds that office, and Hizzoner continues to champion his home as chairman of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority Host Committee.
He’s pretty close to Vegas incarnate, accessorizing with showgirls and gin martinis with almost the same regularity as neckties. He takes his work seriously, not himself, which is why he doesn’t apologize for being audacious—not even for telling a bunch of fourth graders he would bring Bombay Sapphire to a desert island. “I went in there and I just had a good time from Day 1,” Goodman says of his mayoral reign. “So I said whatever I damn well pleased and did whatever I damn well wanted to, and if people didn’t like it, let ’em vote for somebody else.” Goodman was re-elected twice with more than 80 percent of the vote. He says he’s not sure he could have been mayor anywhere else, and I take that both ways: 1. He might not have won the office anywhere else. 2. He might not have wanted to.
The entire time we talk about haters, he’s incredulous. He calls Burns a misanthrope, says VS will be bitter wherever he lives and that Torkells should use the restroom in Pompeii if he’s not happy with the Wynn. “Las Vegas is envied by everybody, even those who are detractors. … We have a unique background, and we did things different than any other city ever did,” he says. Behind his desk sits a plush frog dressed like Elvis, the embodiment of Vegas’ willingness to be the fall guy for humanity’s gratification. I ask what Goodman makes of haters taking our city's unyielding ridiculousness for granted. “What’s ridiculous?” he asks. One man’s corny Elvis frog is another man’s totem. We see what we want to see.
I’ve hated places—Paris, because natives were rude and their cheese gave me the runs; Chicago, because the airports are cursed; New Jersey, because I’m a Las Vegan. The emotion is fleeting, and I don’t really hate the place. I hate what happened there. With Vegas, though, happenings seem inextricable from place. Visitors flock for that only-in-Vegas phenomenon, yet Livestock expressed a “patriotic instinct” to shield them from the notion that the Strip represents America. In defense of our glittering home, I offer the words of my favorite comic-strip character, Calvin: “It’s not denial. I’m just very selective about the reality I accept.”