"Las Vegas?" people quizzically responded when I told them where I would be moving.
The question would be asked in a thoroughly Midwestern Nice tone with furrowed eyebrows and a clearly implied, "But why???" -- the irony of a person from Detroit questioning the choice to live in a particular city of ill repute being entirely lost on them, if not on me.
Vegas is not for everyone. It's... special. Idiosyncratic.
I've now lived here for two years and have experienced about every stereotypically Vegas thing a person can experience, from the batshit party scene to the sad, sad dating scene. I’ve explained all the things that have to be explained to tourists, and have personally witnessed the city's oh-so-many problems and every last one of its worst people.
Now, the furrowed-brow question has indelibly become, "What's it like to live in Las Vegas?" And my answer remains consistent, "Everything and nothing like what you would think."
Las Vegans spend a disproportionate amount of time doling out one very obvious statement: yes, people actually live here, and not all of us work in casinos... though, to be fair, an overwhelming percentage do. Roughly 335,000 people in Las Vegas work in hospitality and leisure and this is a city of less than 2 million. When you factor in related fields like media and marketing, and industries that support hospitality employees (someone's gotta clean their teeth, change their tires, ring up their groceries, sell their condos, fix their air conditioning), it wouldn't be a far stretch to say that the majority of working adults in the Las Vegas Valley are in some way dependent on the hospitality industry for their livelihood.
All of these people are here for a reason. Someone has to cook your food, pour your drinks, and clean your vomit-spackled bathrooms. Someone has to drive you home, take your money on the gaming floor, and offer you VIP status at the club so they can charge you preposterous amounts of money for bottle service served from a boat. And someone has to treat your hangover the next day with kindness and hospitality, all to ensure you had the BEST WEEKEND EVER. This is just another day for those of us who live here, all just to keep this great gulping locomotive of human indignity chugging along.
You’re probably curious if there’s a “norm” around here. "Vegas normal" is unlike any other kind of normal. Living here, your personal barometer, by which you judge things as ordinary, shifts dramatically. Stayed out drinking so late on a Tuesday that you had to be carried home at 4am? Hey, we've all been there. And it isn’t without some favorable outcomes, namely the lack of judgment from others.
However, that same lack of judgment from the locals just so happens to be one of the city’s greatest threats. It's one thing to go on a three-day bender when you visit -- this city has built its entire identity by encouraging exactly that -- but it's quite another when it's your LIFE.
Excitement is the marrow that runs through the neon bones of this city.
For the first several months I gushed over how great it was. Bars didn’t close at 2am. I was free to be myself without prudence. Then the honeymoon ended and the familiarity-contempt dyad took hold. I soon found myself on the #VegasSucks train, but not for long. Unintentionally -- or subconsciously -- I felt myself pivoting back to loving it once again. I was finding beauty in a shallow city by working to discover something arresting buried deep underneath the appalling. Even still, the ambivalence pendulum steadily swings back and forth from contempt to tenderness.
The endless parties, the frenetic pulse of the city, the sense of being “in the know” in a place so ostentatious, so out there; the feeling of solidarity with other locals, that us vs. them pride that makes life here not just tolerable -- but even desirable -- as we parade the VIP parties and January palm trees in front of our sad-sack friends facing cruel winters. All of this was so novel and lustrous. Excitement is the marrow that runs through the neon bones of this city; it’s a thrill-junkie mecca...
... and gambling junkie, and sex junkie, and drug junkie... you see, after a few months, the cracks behind the carefully constructed facades of the casinos and the relentless marketing machine of the city begin revealing themselves. You can’t ignore what once were the invisible homeless. You see the soullessness of bottle-service billionaires. You note the absurdity of young women trotting around in 6in, $600 stilettos on the arms of aging rich men in a coffee shop at 2pm. You grimace at every Vegas Girl Walk you see. And you feel disdain towards the men all too eager to take advantage of those girls, the part the video doesn’t show you. You see yourself becoming a person you don’t really want to be. Your Midwestern friends tell you that you’ve “gone Vegas” in a way meant as anything but a compliment (except when looking for hook-ups when they visit).
That said, I have encountered a mix of some of the absolute best and some of the absolute worst people I have ever met in my life. In many cases, a person's social value is directly correlated to their potential VIP status, whether that be through money, hotness, industry connections, or all of the above. In Vegas, status reigns supreme -- real or perceived -- and it doesn’t matter how you get it as long as you have it.
As a woman out here, you will be made excruciatingly aware that you are worth no more than the sum of your parts. Forty-something-year-old women act like 15-year-old mean girls; the pinnacle achievement in their Vegas tenure is to become a trophy wife, one who finds a rich husband with the means and ends to keep them artificially "young" and hot in perpetuity. The men are conditioned to be macho and misogynistic, because that's how this culture works, and America: it's all your fault.
You see, Las Vegas is the ultimate worst of a hegemonic American culture, a funhouse mirror reflecting not just our vices but also our cultural depravity, the repugnant parts of who we are as a people, and as a society. That reflection might be exaggerated, twisted, and distorted, but make no mistake: it's truth.
Vegas isn't trying to be anything other than what it is.
And it’s a truth that makes the city so distinct. Vegas isn't trying to be anything other than what it is. For all of its aggressive artifice, it is painfully, unapologetically honest in its fakeness. It's as red, raw, and sore as a city can get. Vegas is completely fucked up and it knows it. Its self-awareness, for better or worse, is accomplished by the fact that it doesn't try to hide anything, because it doesn't have to. And you're going to celebrate it for exactly that reason. Vegas can be stiflingly superficial, sure. But it can also be surprisingly kind.
I was told by every one of my Vegas friends that these revelations would happen, and they will keep happening until I either leave, or begrudgingly accept lifer status.
But for all of the horrible humans I've encountered, I've also encountered some of the very best: people who welcomed me into their lives, homes, and hearts immediately upon meeting me. People who instantly became my friends, my true family in this godforsaken desert. People who are wonderfully crazy, smart, funny, gracious, generous, understanding, kind, and did I mention crazy? People who have made me feel more loved and appreciated within a matter of months of knowing me than most friends I have known for years. People who have made me want to stay, even when everything else about the place makes me want to leave, because we're all in this together. Beholden to this ugly, beautiful, silly, fucked-up city that we all hate to love and love to hate.
Beyond the gross, garish Strip and endless sea of soulless malls, past the tract housing constructed with cardboard and spit, there are mountain ranges ringing the Valley. My Vegas is climbing to the top of those mountains and viewing the Strip from a few thousand feet up. My Vegas is early-morning coffee watching the sunrise and the service industry workers in my building stumble home from another night of post-shift partying, mind you in a sweet loft that is not an absurd amount of money where strippers occasionally swim naked as if it were the Sapphire Pool & Day Club, because “Vegas normal.” My Vegas is all the wonderful people I have met, who make up for all of the terrible ones. My Vegas is driving north on I-15 parallel to the Strip and seeing the millions of lights twinkling from Mandalay Bay all the way down to the Stratosphere and thinking, "Holy shit, I actually LIVE here." It's hot. It's dumb. It's frustrating. But it's home, and there's no place like it.
And that's life in Vegas, really.
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Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer who lives in Vegas, sort of. She splits her time between there and Detroit and every other city she travels to, but she's always happy to go home to Vegas, except for when she isn't. She also believes "but it's a dry heat" is a really valid thing.