Places and Pasts

How Vegas looks from an old Polish town

I am writing this in the garden of my home in Torun, a medieval walled Polish city on the Vistula River. Oaks and willows are above me, bees and butterflies drift among the flowers. I can hear the whine of an electrical saw from a carpenter’s workshop, the sound of my neighbor’s table being laid for lunch, birdsong, speech, radios, laughter, invective, the passing of car tires over the cobbled street. A student up in a garret is playing Jean Michel Jarre. There is a tremendous profusion of color, green above all. I see the worn leather briefcase of a passing elderly man through the slats of our wooden fence. Has he had it since he first got a job? Did it belong to his father? It may, I think, be older than anything in Las Vegas.

I am in Torun thinking about Las Vegas, where I was for 10 months of the past year because of a fellowship at the Black Mountain Institute. There seems to be not a single thing that is similar between the two cities—roads, colors, buildings, diversions, the way people talk, move, laugh, spend, eat, relate. In the late spring, when we arrived, rains in the south had produced a surge up the Vistula, sending water over the banks and nearly into the old center where the great astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus grew up and where there are buildings that are eight centuries old. The streets are cacophonous and dense with walkers. People lean out of their windows and watch the social rituals they know well, everyone a participant in a pageant. Many still drive the tiny Fiats that were all one could get in the communist era. Their engines would power, at most, a golf course lawn mower in Las Vegas. The whole car is the size of a Hummer’s door.

I think of the wide roads of Las Vegas, the tinted glass of the giant vehicles, which makes them look anonymous and predatory, like pilotless drones. I think of the billboards with ads for bail bondsmen and bankruptcy lawyers and comedians with sinister smiles and glittering teeth. I think of all its surface dazzle and electronic color superimposed on the desert beige and leading you deeper and deeper into caverns that are only more surface. You never quite arrive anywhere. I think mostly of its eerie silence, just the soft hum of freeway traffic and air-conditioning. You see almost no one on the streets, just that peculiar Las Vegas subculture of people selling their household goods in empty lots, teenagers coming back from school, joggers with iPods. The sidewalks look unused. Usually all you can see from them are walls.

Las Vegas is the most radically anti-communal place I’ve ever been. Most people like to feel part of something, at least some of the time. In Las Vegas I could not find that feeling. There is no central business district, with people moving among offices, restaurants and bars on real streets, no major league sports team to cheer for. Legislatively, it’s fragmented, with the Strip, its central feature, not even a part of the city. In Polish villages the houses face out toward the cobbled street, the statue of the Virgin, the other houses. Everything, everyone, is proximate. In Las Vegas there is a general turning away. The windows of the houses, like those of the cars, are usually opaque. You can’t tell if anyone is living in them or not. People pass in malls and know nothing of one another. Everyone seems far away from everyone else.

Las Vegas, like other western cities, came into being more or less in an instant. It was built for the comfort of vacationers and for those willing to give up their lives elsewhere for year-round sunshine. It is predicated on transience. Though it has acquired a mythology and an attitude during its century in the sun, Las Vegas hasn’t and never will have the chance to develop the kinds of cultural rituals older, more homogenous societies create over millennia. In the absence of any other visible means of support it has sustained itself through what are elsewhere considered vices. It has to sparkle and bedazzle and find new ways to allure or, like Petra, be returned to the desert. It would be pointless to accuse it of superficiality, for that is what it strives for. As the writer Eric Schlosser said in Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001), Las Vegas’ embrace of the artificial has been so thorough and exuberant that it has created its own kind of authenticity.

The city dazzled me from afar long before I ever visited it. When I was 15 and assigned for a school essay to write about the place I would most like to visit, I chose Las Vegas. It was the danger, the glamour, the suave rakishness I imagined there—the long cars with the high fins, the Sammy Davis Jr. suits, the diamantine eyes of the women around the roulette tables. As I later learned Simone de Beauvoir said of Las Vegas, “No bourgeoisie, no bourgeois morality.” I finally saw Las Vegas firsthand more than 30 years later, when I passed through for a few hours on a long drive around the country. The city rose from the desert floor in a phantasmagoria of turrets, golden lions and Egyptian tombs. It thoroughly demoralized me—all those vast acres of slot machines where thousands gambled industrially and without joy, some with a cancer-ward look, with ringed eyes and a jailhouse pallor. It seemed a place that was earnest and managed rather than amusingly kitsch or louche, more Disneyland than Sin City.

Then, unexpectedly, I came to live there. I can’t say I came to love the city—it would be too difficult to find its heart—but I loved being in it, so much so that I’m going back to teach at UNLV. It was its western ease, its big skies, its sudden outbreaks into wilderness, the fantastical Dali-like dreamworld that extends outward from its borders. Culturally, socially, Europe is so acutely defined, so closely stitched. Here in Torun you have a feeling of a long social evolution over time, of people closely bonded. But after an experience of the American West, it can also feel claustrophobic. When we came back to Poland last Christmas we longed at times for the openness and looseness of Las Vegas, a large canvas on which you can make up your own life. Psychologically, physically, it gives you room.