Beneath all the glitter


I am writing this journal entry and breaking every code against the number one rule, "What happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas", to share a misadventure in one the best and worst places of Vegas.

Las Vegas reminds me of a one night stand that you rarely talk about for the next few days. It's a city of heat and passion, but mostly it's filled with half naked people that you wish you hadn't seen. Tonight is about to be one of those kinds of nights.

You can never really plan for a night out in Vegas, even if you're someone as meticulous as my dearest Pete. I wish I were the type to plan things, but I love spontaneity far too much. He tries so hard to be that little angel on my shoulder, keeping me from doing silly things. Admittedly, he does manage to prevent me from waking up to a blur of embarrassing antics and a crippling hangover. 

He is impossibly sensible, but I think we balance each other just perfectly enough, even with our inconspicuous age gap.  He brings me back down to earth when I need it most, and I remind him that being young doesn't have an age. Though to be honest, his conscious effort to play it safe makes it even more fun when I am feeling defiant of all the rules. We are in Sin City, after all. Rules are made to be broken here. 

Tonight I'm feeling particularly spontaneous. I throw our tour guide in the bin and tell Pete I want to explore more of the 'strip'. Technically I'm not dressed practically, but I'm glammed up enough to get into the nightclubs here. I am wearing my favourite little white dress, and I've stashed my wad of cash that I won into my tiny purse, ready to party until the wee hours of the morning. 

Pete takes the tour guide out of the bin to uncrumple it, and gives me his usual disapproving look, "Honey, now just wait a minute, it's too dangerous to do that. There's a nightclub in downtown Vegas, let's go there. We'll have a few drinks and then come back to the hotel." Naturally, Pete has already planned our trip, as he points to a place called 'Fremont St' on the map.

I don't argue about where we're going to tonight, instead I say "Yes, honey." (But he doesn't notice the cheeky look on my face, either). 

Death wish

Outside our hotel, we hail a cab and climb inside. It smells like old liquor and mouldy food. "Where ya' headin'?" The cab driver looks into the rear-view mirror and I notice he is missing a few teeth. I feel bad for him but I can't talk because I'm holding my breath. I try open a window desperately, but it doesn't budge. 

"Freemont Street, please." Pete says, holding his composure.  The cab driver knows the streets of Vegas well, so well infact, that he speeds down the interstate, weaving in and out of traffic. It feels like we're inches away from hitting a car. A truck beeps loudly and my heart is pumping through my chest.

I give Pete 'the look', you know the one where you really want to escape, but for whatever reason you can't. As morbid as it sounds, I feel like this cabbie has a death wish and doesn't mind who he takes with him. I tell him to slow down but he either doesn't hear or he's ignoring me. 

It feels like an hour has passed by the time we exit the highway, but it's only been 12 minutes. The longest twelve minutes I've ever experienced. I'm still clenching the car handle on the ceiling when we finally arrive. 

I look out of the dirty window and I can just make out the words 'Freemont', lit brightly above an old casino. I'm beyond relieved.  That's my ticket to get the hell out of here. While Pete pulls out some cash to pay the cabbie, I don't wait another second to jump out of the car to breathe fresh air.

Soon, Pete appears from the shadows and grabs my hand. He turns to me and says, "We're never taking another taxi here again."

Misadventure in Fremont Street

Together we walk hand in hand towards the street crossing, careful to walk under the street lights. This side of the city you would definitely be locking your doors. It reminds me of some underworld version of Las Vegas. I notice that the roads are shabby and cracked. Some of the old casinos are boarded up yet I can see the shape of dark figures walking inside. I wonder if they're homeless? Pete puts his arm around my waist, pacing quickly, and tells me to keep looking ahead.

As we hurry along Fremont Street, the lights become brighter, and I feel more at ease. We are no where near the nightclubs that Pete had in mind, and I'm secretly hoping he's forgotten about it. I watch crowds of people walking towards a big neon sign that says, "Welcome to Fabulous Downtown Las Vegas, Nevada", and I know where I want to go next.

And it certainly is something else. The word fabulous isn't the only word that I would use to describe what is in front of us. 

If vintage met future Vegas, then this would be it. I am distracted and overwhelmed by the lights here; even the overhead roof is changing colours. It's bizarre and wonderful all at once. As we walk though, it takes me a few minutes to process all the colours and flashing lights. I've always been unusually sensitive to bright lights (7 Eleven of course being my worst nightmare). And ironically enough, I've travelled to one of the brightest places in the world.

On top of it all, I'm not only distracted by all the lights, but the entertainers here. I try to wipe the look of shock off my face. There are grown men in diapers, a half naked Elvis impersonator, and even women dressed as nuns with their breasts in plain view. I know that they're entertainers, but the way people circle around them and stare, it's as though they think of them as freak shows. And yet all the entertainers are comfortably themselves, completely unfazed by the amount of attention they receive.

One elderly man, dressed as the devil pushes his hat forward, "It ain't gonna fill itself people!" I like his sassy attitude, as most of the tourists watching begin to walk away. This seems to be the general rule here. If you stand around long enough to stare, it's time to cough up some cash. I try my best not to stare but it's hard not to.

In return, some people stare at me, and I realise it's because I look like I'm ready for prom night. I feel overdressed and underdressed all at once. It's confusing here with so many half-naked people around, but generally tourists are wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I start to feel as though maybe a nightclub would have been better.

As we approach the open bar, Pete orders us drinks, yelling over the top of the music. "Coke and a beer please!" The bartender gives Pete a ludicrous look and I quickly add, "He means Cola!". The man nods and then laughs. It's easy to forget that 'coke' here means something else entirely. 

While Pete is paying for our drinks, a man with a dark hoodie approaches me and asks me, "How much? Where you wanna go? I'm lookin' for a redhead." I'm not sure if I'm processing this properly, I mean, it is extremely loud here, being in the centre of Fremont.

I yell out, trying to hear him properly.  "Um... What? No where?" He looks down and flashes a wad of cash from his pocket. A few seconds later I realise what he's asking. I want to scream "OH MY GOD" but I don't. I keep a straight face and tell him he's mistaken me for someone else. As quickly as he arrived, he disappears into the crowd, looking for his 'escort'.

Pete hands me my cola. "You okay?" He asks, but I'm hardly paying attention. I'm still staring ahead, feeling angry and offended. "Oh nothing, just getting mistaken for a prostitute." Pete pats me on the back, holding back laughter. "Aw, honey, don't worry about it. Can I get you anything?" I put on my big puffy black jacket and sarcastically answer, "Just a paper bag big enough to cover me, thanks."

Beneath all the glitter

We continue walking down Fremont Street, laughing about my 'mistaken identity', until we notice a large crowd gathering. A group of girls are wearing matching sparkly bra's and g-strings, with ruffles of feathers over their derrieres and above their heads. They look so majestic as they dance to Cher songs. One American lady gawking next to me says, "Look honey, they're men! See!" Pointing at their (now obvious) packages. I ignore the lady. Now would be the perfect chance to ask the question that's been on my mind since I arrived in Vegas.

I walk on over. One of the entertainers notices me approaching and clicks her (or his) fingers and says "Work it girl!" So I do. I swing my hips and strut my way over, laughing with them. I imagine Pete is probably somewhere nearby face-palming, but if there's anywhere that I can truly be myself, it'd be here with these ladies. Our conversation starts with "Mmm girl, I LOVE your dress! Where you get it from?" and before long we're talking about everything from shoes to shows. She tells me to call her 'Queenie'.

I tell her that I write for my blog, amongst other things, and I've been wanting to know something for awhile now. I take the chance to ask her my question. "I really want to know...  how did you fall into entertainment?" I feel a little nervous, maybe because I'm asking a half-naked woman, or maybe because she might not want to tell a complete stranger.

Queenie has long blonde hair, freckles on her nose and a distinct scar just above her right lip. I daren't ask her about it, though.  "Oh girl, I didn't fall into entertainment, I fell onto a man's lap and that's where the money's at." She laughs along with the other girls but her expression quickly changes and I can see a look of sadness in her eyes. 

"You know, I went to college and studied hard, I even finished my degree. But I couldn't keep up with the payments after. Everything I earned went back to my student loan, and for what? So I could work my whole life to pay it? Ah-ah." She waves her finger, and rightfully so - I cannot believe how unfair America's education system is. How backwards it is.  By the depressed look on her face, I feel like maybe I shouldn't have asked. 

"I can't work one day job to pay my debt. So I thought, what can I do to earn money that I really love? That's making people smile. You get a lot of people in bad circumstances. You might not see it, but it's happening. There's a lot of homeless youth on the street. Then there's lonely trucker men who just want to be held by us, and a photo for their dashboard. That kinda' thing. I figure I can't be down on my luck if I'm making other people happy."

The other girls and I fall quiet. I really had no idea how bad it was here. Las Vegas really does give the illusion of all glamor and glitter, but underneath it all, there's still still the same grit as any other city. 

I am genuinely grateful to finally have the answer, and it certainly wasn't what I expected. I feel very moved by her story. I can sense there's a lot more to it, but something tells me that's enough for tonight.

I look at her directly and say, "I wanted to understand Las Vegas a little better, and now I do. Thank you." She smiles, and opens her arms the way you do when you know you're never going to see that person again. I hug Queenie, ignoring the crowds around us, and the judgmental woman watching. We are just two strangers (living 8,000 miles apart), who understand each other, and I think that's pretty cool. 

I think everyone, at one point in their lives, can understand what it feels like to feel stuck. To want the kind of freedom that brings immeasurable joy.  As I'm walking away from the girls, I look back at Queenie dancing to Cher. I think to myself, here is a woman who knows how to live. 

It's times like these that I wish I had brought my camera, but then again, some moments are best left as memories.

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