Monday, November 22, 2010

The Land of the Lost Wages

Once upon a time there was a desert. An intelligent and thirsty traveler traversing the dunes thought to himself, "I am parched man! Wouldn't it be awesome if there was a mind-befuddling dazzling blazing and completely unnecessary display of opulence right in the middle of nowhere?" His fellow travelers listened enraptured. None of them had come up with an idea for a long time, owing to the perpetual drying of brain cells in the desert.
One person inaudibly yelled with his desiccated voice, "Dude shut up!" But the idea remained. The thought persevered. Even after the sands shifted over the footsteps of the long-gone travelers, the notion floated about.

A mind-boggling show where humanity and botany scantly existed. Imagine the thought! The thought attracted traction. The idea gained gigantic momentum. The lure of opulence and the free-reign it allowed architects soon became impossible to resist.

Imaginary imitations of famous landmarks started sprouting. Julius Caesar's home was created- perhaps a tad grander, with more air conditioned rooms and slot machines. New York City, and Paris came together separated just by a block. Neon lights went up - brighter than most populated cities. A grandeur was born surrounded and within the dry desert.

I am sure the first few travelers atop camels would have discarded the spectacle as a highly misleading mirage.It must have been after they moved through the blazing neon's and beheld the scantily clad women with drinks, did their mirage become an oasis.

The above is a figment of my fertile imagination. The place I am referring to is Las Vegas, Nevada. I visited it recently (for the third time).

Before disembarking from my flight, the attendant asked the passengers to fill up a bag with their wages - to prevent them from losing it in Vegas. She laughed over the Public Address system in self-amusement and said, " Give it to me now before its gone in the Land of Lost Wages!" I didn't find it exactly funny.

Being a Bengali has certain advantages. Primary among them is the aversion to risk-taking. A bong won't be found near a slot machine for very long. One because he wouldn't have the heart to part with his hard earned money and two because he doesn't believe he could ever win. Bengalis are a pessimistic clan.

Bengalis are seldom lucky because they hardly participate in lotteries. For some reason this lack of luck has been rubbed on to me as well. The last time I "won" anything was when I was eight years old. My mother took both of us to see this Standing Talking Robot called "Khagenbabu". (The name is very stereotypical if you are in West Bengal). This robot's claim to fame was that it could talk and predict your age in 10 iterations! A gigantic achievement considering that robots in itself were never sighted in Kolkata.

Me and my sister along with fifty other visitors vied for the spot of "Face2Face with Khagenbabu". Owing to the popularity of Khagenbabu, the management decided to resort to lottery. Numbered pieces of paper were distributed to the onlookers and glass bowl was settled on a table. The number that came up would entitle the person with the same number to speak. After several juggling of the bowl, an aged Bengali picked up a single paper. Despite the prevailing lack of trust in lotteries, when it came to moments like this, all Bengalis joined the rest of the country. The held their breaths to listen, with feeble expectation and trembling hands clasped tightly around their papers. Me and my sister waited to. The enchanted number was announced, "17"! I was shocked! I had that number!

Like the Red Sea parted when Moses stood in front of it, the babbling bunch of Bengalis moved aside to have a better look at the winner. Khagenbabu was switched ON. He stared at me as well after the aged Bengali adjusted Khagenbabu's posture.

Needless to say he took 15 iterations to guess my age. Most of it owing to my nervousness and giving him misleading answers to his binary search questions. When he asked me if I was older than 34 years, I said Yes! I didn't realize what I had done until everyone around me started laughing. Obviously Khagenbabu with his infinite intelligence found it hard to find a number that was greater than 34 but less that 10!
That was the last time I won a numbered lottery.

Las Vegas was different. The first time I reached the blazing lights almost blinded me. The smoky rooms and the smell of alcohol wherever I went shocked me. It was truly a Sin City.

I played Black Jack, I played slot machines and I played "War". War is the most idiotic game ever invented. It requires absolutely no intelligence. The dealer gets a card and you get one. If the numerical value of yours is greater than that of the dealer's , you win. Simple. I sat down cautiously, egged by my friends who accompanied me. Twenty hard earned dollars were submitted to the Chinese dealer who said a friendly, "Ni hao ma?" to me. I smiled back. The first card was dealt. I was "2" and he was "9". The female beside me was a "10". The second card went the same way. After five cards of consistent losing, the dealer scrunched his eyebrows together. My woebegone face begged his mercy. He looked at me intently and said, "You not so lucky in this spot. Why don't you sit in the chair next to you? Big winner in that chair just two hours ago." I moved my rear end to the next one, trusting the dealer's insider information. My friends tendered their friendlier advice.
"Why don't you put twenty more dollars? New money would be luckier!"
I listened to them. Maybe Lady Fortune wasn't paying attention the first time.

The cards were dealt again. Ten straight lower numbers later, I left, minus forty dollars. Meanwhile my friends were entertaining other friends with my story of losing the "War"! I have stayed away from simple games ever since.

This time I went, I came across slot machines lined up outside a hotel, on the strip. The announcer was yelling about free slot machine plays once you win "100$" in the machine. I was enraptured. I swung the handle of the slot machine and lo and behold I had won a hundred dollars! Elated I ran to the announcer and asked for my winning money. It was then that she told me the next step. The money I won was "promotional", which means it has absolutely on value anywhere except on their "promotional slot machines". To make use of the "100$" I had to play at their machines. With the heat outside, I lumbered inside in search of this promo. I found it and sat myself down. On the eleventh turn I won big! The value of my winning incremented by a dollar and kept going up. The random dude sitting on my left hand side and my friend sitting on the right hand side, both got equally excited. As three pairs of eyes ogled at the mounting money, the cashier stopped by. He chuckled when he saw the amount stop at 450$. I was miffed at his amusement. I could be a small winner to him, but I was still a winner, I thought indignantly.

I soon found out the reason for his mirth. My winning 450 dollars were "promotional".
It only meant that I had to play longer and lose it all before I left the machine. More machine time and no real value. My left and right hand oglers immediately lost their interest in my game. I left broken-even.

The thing I noted this time was the sameness. The people, their looks, the places and their respective opulence had a monotonicity to itself. The bunch of oldies who flocked the slot machines had the same gleam of hope in their eyes. The hope of becoming the next millionaire. Like the trailer from Inception, they thought to themselves, "This last turn of the handle, that's how I get there!".

The younger crowd crammed the night clubs. Lugging drinks larger than their body weight they walked about on the strip, enjoying themselves despite the hurting heels, the long uncertain queues to enter the super-hallowed clubs manned by discriminatory guards and the constant jabber of at least one of their drunken friends. A casually dressed group of boys stood in line behind us to enter JET. As we exchanged pleasantries, I found out they were undergrads from Utah visiting for a night and two days. After standing an hour in the queue they were all turned away - the reason? They had no sexy woman with them.

Las Vegas night clubs blatantly flaunt their entry criteria. A measure of how "hot" you are can be found out by how quickly you gain admittance into the fanciest of night clubs. More women in a group also ensure easy passage. I have seen four guys trying vainly to tag one girl in the hope of being mistaken to be "together". It doesn't work. The guards at the gates have experience and a keen eye to discern the cool from the frigid.

Once in, you wonder what the hullabaloo was all about.Before you know it, you are bumping everyone around because your vision is impaired by the conservation of electricity. The lights there aren't meant for enlightenment. Most people crowd around the bar trying to vie for the bartender's attention. She couldn't care any lesser. They seldom appear interested in what you want but preoccupied in their world. I observed one bartender lady assiduously wiping the table for a continuous one hour thereby avoiding filling a single order!
Most people on the dance floor seem to be nudging each other than really dancing. Night clubs aren't for dancers, they are for those who don't want to dance at all. Every alternate step begins with them lifting one arm in the air and ends with bringing it down!

Not all clubs leave you suffocated for breath. There was one that I really liked because of the amazing ambiance within. A pool and an waterfall were all inside the night club! It was mesmerizing.It was called Tryst.

The constant walking on the strip gives people their much needed exercise. Of course the die hard gamblers never see day light. Within the gambling zone there is no night and there is no day. Even the ceilings have a false blue sky with cumulus clouds fogging your biological clock!

Vegas is known for its shows, its shopping and its bigheartedness to everything sinfully fantastic. There is a permanent charm of doing that extra fun bachelor party, the extra long drunken revelry , the extra dollars that could be won with the single toss of the elusively lucky die, and the extra special someone you could run into - that brings the older and newer visitors over and over again. Like the first weary traveler from my imagination, the desert in Vegas leaves most parched and thirsting for more.


Dinesh Nagar said...

Its always nice to read your blog, light and funny, the way I like it :)

rootie said...

Great article , Meenakshi .
Love your style that has a mix of command over language , substance and wit :)
Looking forward to many more -cheers

Enakshi said...

Great to read and lovely to relive old memoiries !