I don't know when I began to use the one-word phrase "really?" to connote not disbelief, but surprise. Lately, it has become full-blown habit, one I am self-annoyed by. Self-annoyance is peculiarly troublesome, as I am slow to forgive myself for such base weakness. Fortunately, I have many other things which annoy me to take my mind off my linguistic eccentricity.
I am in Sin City. I cannot think of this town by any other name anymore. The Las Vegas of my youth, the place I visited at least yearly to see my grandparents, no longer exists. My inquiries and explorations over the last three days has convinced me that there is nothing of any value left here - nothing that isn't just passing through, at least. This watering-hole of old is now a water-vacuum, sucking moisture out of my body even in this temperature and moist time of year. The jackals that have gathered in this pit between mountain ranges long ago sank their water-table beneath reachable levels and are now draining the very Colorado River dry. Literally. On the flight in, we flew over Lake Meade. I noted a remarkably sharp high-water mark and figured that must mark an historical flood-stage. Just minutes before landing, though, I spied a boat-ramp - high and dry with its wet end at least 50 feet from the nearest water. Lake Meade is down fifteen feet due to the amount of water taken out of the Colorado River before it reaches this area. I found this last part out from a native who was eating in the same place I was last night. He was quite gregarious and we enjoyed a good hour of chatting while we ate. Ed was his name. I mentioned what I'd seen and Ed explained the cause. "Really??" I heard myself say. Ed has lived here a while, so I guess Ed would know.
And yet, this festering pile of humanity continues to grow, like cancer, unchecked and without reason or rhyme. The local news just mentioned that six people move to Sin City per hour. Nothing is historic here, nothing respected or revered, save the latest-and-greatest, the shiniest-and-glitteriest, the prettiest-and-wealthiest. This growth is not sustainable; this town must soon reach a point of self-collapse, like a dying red giant: once a life-giving center, it becomes a black hole. I used to love this town, despite its obvious flaws. But any redeeming qualities I used to perceive are gone or negated. I hate this place. I can't wait to go home tomorrow.
So what, specifically, is bothering me? Is it the gambling? No. I don't gamble; I have no use for casinos; but I don't hate them. I'm not going to turn vigilante and start blowing up the palaces of light. For one thing, the owners of these places are just good capitalists, I can't blame them. Places like these will always exist. And for another, they spend a lot of the money they earn on truly fantastic, envelope-pushing displays of light. I am duly and truly impressed by the golden carpet of the city at night and the highlighted nipple-piercings the casinos represent. But that's just aesthetics.
I pity the architects. There is nothing like a native architecture here. The houses and businesses are in buildings that are ubiquitous across the American Southwest. The only special constructions are the casinos - and Atlantic City arguably set the trend, though Sin City has run away with it. A handful of stunning one-off designs like New York, New York or the MGM Grand does not an architectural vernacular make. But this may be changing. Lately, the impressarios are throwing up hotels in a certain Ceasars Palace/Belagio mode, with the new Wynn being a beautiful example of what may eventually become a uniquely Sin City architecture. My point: outside of the Strip, this is not a sight-seeing town. I was stunned to find out that there are currently at least seven major towers under construction with no less than 17 heavy-lift site cranes in place. Really? Are that many people coming here? And half of those towers are condos, not hotels!
Perhaps it is the air and water quality. Poor, poor, very poor. The air can be seen by the end of the day; it palpably reduces in air quality in ten hours. The water just stinks. It always has. Even when a hotel treats it, it stinks. It is hard, flat, bad-tasting water; unpleasant to shower in, and terrible to brush one's teeth with. I have been using bottled water. I have encountered worse water only on the Outer Banks.
It could be the casinos. The casinos not only fail to lure me to gamble, they actively repel me. I have had the unfortunate experience of having the closest decent place to eat (a lunch-counter-like spot) being housed in the heart of the casino. The food is outstanding (especially their navy bean soup, the like of which I have never tasted in my life), but the physical location makes me grumpy. Casinos are filthy places, in so many ways. Though the majority of the machines no longer use coins (!), they are no less filthy than before. They are teaming with germs (I watched a woman pick her nose and then punch the "spin reels" button), the air is filthy with cigar and cigarette smoke, the garish carpets hide the filth of a million pairs of unwiped feet.
And the people! Oh, you knew I was getting around to them, didn't you? The people are the filthiest - their minds are filthy, their thoughts are filthy; their actions are filthy, their habits are filthy; their souls are filthy, and their bodies are filthy. They sit there on stools, sad sacks of lumpy biological waste, steadily feeding their fortunes to the casino owners. They don't even look like they're enjoying it. Bloated and blindingly self-deceiving, they sit there sucking on cigarettes, their guts touching their knees, a drink in one hand (at 7 a.m.!) and a casino card in the other. I simply cannot imagine that their existence can be called "life."
To be sure, the problem is evident outside the casinos, too. I am most stunned by the realization that Sin City is probably the fattest town I have come across. (Sin City is listed as the ninth fattest city in the U.S.) I struggle mightily against what I am realizing is a definite and choice prejudice against fat people; indeed, some of my best friends are overweight and I wouldn't change a thing about them. But you must agree that there is a vast gulf in perception between one's friends and the nameless teeming mass of humanity one doesn't know. And so I dare to sit in judgement of the crowd. The overweight, flabby, gasping, drunken, leering, miseducated, trash-talking crowd. (Yep, yep, I know...just a wee shade of hypocrite going on here...)
Are you going to sit there and tell me that this is normal? That Sin City in reality represents a proportionate slice of America? Really? I went to the hotel's buffet for dinner tonight - a reasonable value and the food was good. But of the main areas of the buffet, where there was delicious rotisserie chicken, moist and succulent lean pork loin, and terriyaki glazed wild Pacific Salmon, guess where the heavies were lined up? At the hamburger grill. You'd rather "go out" to eat at this nice buffet and eat a got dam hamburger?? Really?. Why didn't you save five bucks and just go get your daily Whopper? Or is it that the flames of this grill somehow add more flavor than the flames at Burger King (which, actually, has a franchise inside the hotel)?
I just can't get over the disproportionate (to me) mass of flesh per-capita. Is New York really that "fit" by comparison? Because believe me, New York ain't! But here... Let's just say I could take one average Sin City resident, render their fat, and have oil changes for my motorcycle for a year, with enough lard left over to repack my swingarm and neck bearings. Cruel judgement, or frank assessment? You be the judge; but I tell you this in all earnestness, with no hyperbole: the only fit people I've seen in my three days here are the strippers (male and female) and the trophy wives (also male and female)! I have been out running twice and the only runner I saw was the one reflected in various windows! Are you going to tell me nobody in this town runs? Really?? Doesn't Sin City have a marathon? Oh, don't tell me that's just a means of drawing in even more tourists. It is? Really?
I can't be the only runner, I realize, but maybe I am the only one stupid enough to run after dark. I remember when Palace Station was kind of on the edge of town, but... hey, nope, we're smack in the middle of an area that, after a mere twenty years of existence, is already a got dam ghetto. Across the street from this huge hotel and casino is low-rent housing of a quality even homeless New Orleans residents would pass up. I have seen more homeless here in three days than I do in three weeks in New York (or have I just stopped seeing them?).
But I had to run. I had to clear my lungs out. The air is hard here. On Monday, after work, I ran just under four miles, mapping out the distance-by-foot from my hotel to the place I'm teaching and back. Some rather poorly-lit stretches of sidewalk - and even a couple places without sidewalk - made for a run that would have spurred me to a trot even had I been walking. Not that I felt unsafe, but I wouldn't tarry. Interestingly, there is actually a hill in this town and I ran UP it on my route out and down it coming back. I clocked some pretty impressive pace both ways. I was pushing a moderate stress level on the run and I felt strong and steady, with only a couple of very short walk breaks during bad coughing fits.
Same kind of run tonight, though I headed toward the strip instead of away from it. Never made it to the strip - turns out that where Sahara crosses I-15 there's no pedestrian way to continue on Sahara. Hey, the sidewalks say, though we are wide and in good repair, we really aren't a pedestrian city. Really? I mean... what? Really? How could you not walk to work, given the beautiful weather? You'd rather deal with the shitty rush-hour congestion and blockages in traffic? Really? R-tards. Yes, Sin City is populated with r-tards.
Well, I don't run two days in a row usually, and as my runner's knee is coming back, I didn't want to push it - so on Tuesday, I went to see the Bodies exhibition. OUTSTANDING. Four stars. Grade A. Two plastinated, detached thumbs up. After observing the large-ness (not to say large-esse) of this town for two days, it was a pleasure to actually see some thin people of healthy BMI. Of course, they were dead, preserved, dissected, and put on display, but still. Nice to know that the entire world hasn't become a sodden lump.
Unfortunately, after some close inspection, it became apparent that these people kept their trim figures through smoking. The lungs on display were - with only one exception - black. The exception was specifically set out to help one compare a healthy lung with a smoker's lung. (Interestingly, a large acrylic drop-box was beside that display - and people have two-thirds filled it with cigarette packs. I do hope most of them have quit permanently.) But I'm not judging the dead. It is my understanding these bodies came from a poor area of industrialized China. Smoking was probably their only pleasure.
The exhibit.... oh, my god. OH, my god. It would take a book to describe it and any attempt to do so would only be a poor capture of the experience. I have seen plastic models of various organs before and even a few plastinated parts in a teaching hospital - but this was full-blown exposure. Over the course of two and a half hours, I took in this exhibit of the finest anatomical specimens modern preservation science can put together - or rather, refrain from taking apart, dissecting only certain sections or areas in a most precise, sculptural, and artistic way. Time and time again, as I went through the exhibit, I was struck by just how brilliant the design of the human machine is and how stunningly beautiful it is. I grant that part of the beauty was in the artistic and sensitive manner of display - but you can't shine shit, and the art of the exhibit is standing on the foundation of the art of the subject matter.
One of my favorite rooms dealt with the circulatory and pulmonary systems and held more than a dozen corrosion castings - a process wherein a latex or epoxy is injected into the various fluid transport systems (red for arteries, blue for veins, yellow for urine, green for bile, and white for air) and allowed to harden. Then the organ or body part in question is immersed in acid and the biological mass is dissolved out, leaving only a sort of lost-wax casting of the circulatory, renal, lymphatic, and pulmonary passageways. They were stunning.
No no no. That doesn't convey it... They. Were. Stunning. I was fascinated by the corral-like structures, the total infibrilation of the blood vessels throughout every single body tissue... just - just all of it. Who'd have guessed that our parchment-pale outer wrappers envelope and screen from view such art?
The only other room that had such a deep impact on me was a room that a sign specifically warns visitors about and invites you to skip by going through a different door: fetal development. The specimens there all became available by natural causes and god bless their little souls. I will not describe the displays here.
Listen, if you have the opportunity to see this exhibit, GO. Do Not Fail. It will change the way you see yourself, other people, and life processes in general. I have left that hall with a more complete understanding (even if superficial) of how the body works than I ever got in twenty-five years of schooling. I appreciate the cycles of life more and have an admiration for that peculiar immortality these few men and women have achieved in becoming the subjects of the livings' gaze. And take your children. If you think they're "too young for that kind of thing", don't fool yourself. There were kids there of all ages, with parents doing a fine job of...uh, parenting, I guess. Kids who were interested were fascinated (and the sports poses didn't hurt) and small kids who were too young to know what they were looking at were...well, just bored small kids who are too young to remember any of this anyway. Still, THIS is the education sorely lacking in the current system. It is tactfully and pleasantly presented and the text is all simply put.
At the end of the exhibit, there's a sort of low-key, easy-specimens, brighter-lit decompression room, with RNs and doctors on hand to answer questions. There's even a section of plastinized brain one can handle, to satisfy the almost overwhelming urge to TOUCH what you've been seeing. (The biggest specimens - shown on posters all over the place - are just right out there - you can go nose to nose with them. Smaller specimens and delicate specimens are protected under glass, of course.)
It may sound gross, but early on, while viewing the musculature-oriented room, I became hungry. Hey, can I help that underneath our skin, we all look like a walking rack of flank steaks? (Maybe I shouldn't be so down on fat people - think "nicely marbled".) So I eventually tore myself away and went to dinner. On the way out, I did pick up a souvenir, something I've wanted for a long time: a skull. Not a real one, of course, but a life-size plastic model. I have named him B'o'b. He will sit beside my bust of Shakespeare at home and become my travelling companion on these soulless seminar trips. I've got to have somebody to talk to, at any rate.
I have been taking pictures of the city (no pics allowed of Bodies), and will post them once I get back to New York and can download them from the camera.