Christmas in Las Vegas - by John Sealander

The parking lots were full. And the airport itself was a cornucopia of Christmas cliches. Everywhere you looked there were people walking briskly toward their plane, wearing festive red and green holiday sweaters, festooned with sequins and reindeer. They carried big, bright red Neiman Marcus sacks, filled with colorfully wrapped gifts. Many were traveling with small children, and most were struggling with far more luggage than they would ever be able to squeeze into the overhead compartment.
I almost thought I had made the wrong decision, until I negotiated my way through a final throng of festive travelers and entered the jetway to my own plane. As the flight attendants greeted me, I looked down the aisle toward my seat and saw that I had entered another world. There were no holiday sweaters on this plane. No children. And not a present in sight. Passengers were dressed in a muted pallet of grays and black, with the occasional metallic gold leather purse as an accent. Two men in the seat behind me were not talking about relatives or stringing Christmas lights. The were talking about where to find a good single deck game and wondering if anyone still offered 10 times odds on craps. I tightened my seat belt as the flight attendant came on the intercom. "Welcome on board." she said, "we will be flying non-stop from Dallas to Las Vegas."
Rich Hall once said that spending Christmas in Las Vegas is a lot like spending Halloween at the Vatican. But that, of course is part of the appeal. As I catch a cab at the airport for the strip, I'm surprised at how crowded the place is. It is not a typical crowd though. Not as many college kids. Not as many children. Not as many tourists, period. The people I see outside the window as we drive down Las Vegas Blvd. are regulars. We have returned like lemmings to the village of the lost souls.
As we pull up to the Mirage, I hear another cabdriver come on the radio. "Hey, is it Christmas Eve tonight?" he says. It is a legitimate question. During our drive I have not seen a single Santa. There are no Christmas trees in front of the casinos. And no holiday lights have been strung across Las Vegas Blvd. The place looks exactly the same as it does the other 364 days of the year. My cab driver starts laughing at the voice on the radio. "What's it to you," he replies through his microphone. "You"re going to be working anyway."
Las Vegas reminds me that nationalism and regional boundaries have become largely irrelevant. Americans are in the minority here. At breakfast you will hear French being spoken at a table to your left, German behind you, and Japanese everywhere else. The new world order is not being worked out behind closed doors at the United Nations, it is evolving one-day-at-a-time in breakfast buffets throughout Las Vegas. You look out over the crowd and realize that wars are fought because the world's wealth is so poorly distributed. There are few natural enemies. With plenty of money in their pockets, Iranians eat breakfast next to Israelis, Germans next to Japanese. Even the French seem to get along. Although some would long for a world without money, the answer seems to lie in finding a world where everybody has money. There are few fights on full bellies.
Having discovered the secret to world peace in the Mirage breakfast buffet, I begin to look for the secret to happiness, and discover that things are not quite so simple. In this village of lost souls, you see a lot of people alone. You quickly realize that money and good looks are no guarantee of happiness. Waiting for a table in the Planet Hollywood bar I notice that I'm seated next to a striking woman in a black Donna Karan dress. She is staring at the ceiling with the saddest look on her face and her hands in front of her face almost as if she is praying. She doesn't move for at least five minutes. I have to look away because I am intruding on someone's privacy.
Las Vegas is an intensely private world. You walk through the casinos and see a thousand faces, all looking inward, mechanically hitting the spin button on the slots with their index finger. Their game of choice has become an analogy for their life. Here you can play out in a few hours a cycle of luck that might take years to visualize in real life. The casino floor becomes a laboratory experiment. And you are the lab rat. Every turn of the wheel, every toss of the dice becomes an opportunity to ask, "Does she love me?" "Will I get that promotion?" "What would happen if I moved to Oregon tomorrow?" You look at your life and realize how much of it is actually outside your control. You could get hit by a truck tomorrow. Or you could just as easily find the soul mate you have always been looking for.
It is interesting to watch people try to manipulate luck. You realize that most people are very uncomfortable with random chance. They have to wrap this randomness in a cloak of order so that their life has meaning. Everybody has their game. Control freaks love blackjack, and try their best to become card counters so they can beat the system. Las Vegas loves blackjack players. Their illusion of being in control has made the city rich. Roulette players seem the most content with the random nature of life. Some of them probably have "Shit Happens" bumper stickers on the pickups, but many seem to approach their fate with grace and style. Craps players are almost universally men, and most of them are the kind of guy that wonders if he's going to "Get lucky" on a date long before he wonders what his dinner companion's dreams and aspirations are. Personally I like roulette. I watch the wheel spin and wonder about the stochastic process. This is my notion of luck: that you can shoot an arrow in a general direction, but you can never be certain exactly where it will land.
In certain parts of town, it is easy to assume that everybody has a more glamorous and exciting life than you do. I'm eating dinner with a friend at Spago. We're out on the patio where we can people watch during our meal. There is this continual parade of glamorous people. Impossibly thin women in little Betsy Johnson knit dresses. Groups of guys dressed in black and looking suspiciously like members of U2. There are older men who look like their Learjet is waiting for them at the airport. And there's always at least one bridal couple, walking in their wedding garb through the Forum Shops as if nothing in the world mattered.
Everyone in the restaurant is speaking a different language, and I start to feel sorry for myself. I don't know any foreign languages. And even though I'm a firm believer in luck, I'm not really much of a gambler. I start to rant to my friend about how my life is not all that exciting, but she cuts me off quickly. She's heard this all before. "Quit complaining about not doing anything creative," she says. "You've spent all your creative energy creating this perfect little world where nothing can touch you." "Nothing good is ever going to happen, unless you're willing to let something bad happen." "You've got to take a few more risks." Janet understands risk intuitively, while I tend to philosophize. She is really the reason we're here.
I ask her to expand on this notion that creativity must come through pain. "You know, the best song that Eric Clapton ever wrote," she said, "Came after his kid fell out of a hundred story building and died." This is a stark analogy, and it leaves me uncomfortable, but she has made her point.

I decide during dessert that one of my New Year's resolutions will be to take a few more risks.

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