A “Las Vegas virgin” is what a fellow guest at The Flamingo called me when he learned that this was my first visit to Sin City. I had sidled along the hallway after depositing my bag in my room to avoid photobombing the selfie with his companion. They turned around and saw me and we immediately engaged in friendly banter because that’s what people on vacation do – like a secret handshake to celebrate not being in the office in the middle of the week. Like me, they had just arrived. Unlike me, this was their thousandth time in Las Vegas. They were positively giddy, perhaps even a little drunk. When I confessed I didn’t gamble, the man was beside himself and seemed to believe it was his mission to correct such a failing. “If I give you some money, will you gamble? Please, please?” He was practically evangelical. His companion smiled gamely. I politely declined. We parted ways in the lobby.
At the Bellagio buffet that evening with my sisters and brother-in-law, our drinks server looked to be about a hundred years old, or at least as if she had worked in Vegas since Bugsy Siegel opened The Flamingo with a mere 105 of its current 3,626 rooms. She was tiny and hunched over and walked lopsidedly, maybe from an arthritic hip. Her hair was dyed red with gray splotches blooming at the roots. Her face was heavily rouged, powder clumping in her wrinkles. Her red, outside-the-lines lipstick and turquoise eyelids showed signs of multiple touch-ups. Carrying a tray of drinks was punishing work. I wanted her to win the jackpot so she could retire and rest her weariness for good. I started to see them everywhere in the casinos and bars – little old ladies shuffling under heavy trays of margaritas. I wanted them all to lounge in chairs by the pool while someone brought them margaritas.
A severely bruised foot limited my mobility, so while my sisters and brother-in-law roamed The Strip on our only full day in town, I went in search of a sunny place to sit and read. Casino hotels are designed for sitting at slot machines or blackjack tables, not for sitting in the sun, book or writing tablet in hand. The pool, with its inviting lounge chairs, was a day away from opening for the season. I ended up finding a sunny bench near the valet circle. I watched as middle-aged foursomes waited for their ride to golf in the desert. Golf courses in the desert! Yes, forty-five of them, all of which will inevitably see a sharp decline in duffers as climate change intensifies the desert heat and threatens already scarce water supplies.
Back inside as I was limping along a line of shops, a young woman dangled a little plastic gift bag in my direction. I looked around to see who else she might be gesturing to, but no, it was me she had singled out. I obliged, though I knew better. She scanned my sixty-three-year-old face. “What kind of moisturizer do you use?” she asked. “Burt’s Bees,” I said. She looked puzzled. “Never heard of that,” she said dismissively and thrust the little bag in my hands. “This is an organic moisturizer. It’ll do wonders.” Suddenly her equally young co-worker was on the other side of me, extending his clammy hand and peering past my glasses at the skin beneath my eyes. “How old are you?” I told him, and he said, “Well, then you have nothing to lose, sweetie.” He strode to a chair in the salon, clearly expecting me to follow him there. “Wait,” I said, “did you call me sweetie?” Apparently, my question was rhetorical as it elicited no response from the smiling young man. I waved goodbye and hobbled away.
I had invited myself on this trip. My sisters had planned it because my youngest sister had missed the Donny and Marie Osmond show when it played in San Diego. Why not head to Vegas and catch their act at The Flamingo? Why not indeed? I saw the trip as an opportunity for us to connect with a friend of our parents, a man they had known in their romantic youth when they were barely in their twenties. Cres Miranda’s name appears as a witness on our parents’ marriage certificate. At eighty-eight years old, he drove himself the 300 miles from Las Vegas to San Diego to attend our mother’s funeral last June. The trip is familiar to him. Each February, he drives the five hours to place roses on his wife’s grave. He will be buried there, too, he told us over lunch.
He and my father were in the navy together. He’s from Cavite, Philippines, not far from my father’s hometown of Las Piñas. They were stewards – basically servants to the fleet – because that was the only job open to Filipinos back then. The man who would marry one of my mother’s sisters was also a steward who had worked his way up to the rank of chief. That was my Uncle Tony. He was valet to the admiral. He was older and watched out for younger Filipinos like my father and Cres, helped create a community for them.
Cres recalled how the group of friends often showed up for Sunday dinner at my Mexican grandmother’s house. How they went to dances and clubs together. How they eventually all married and started families and lost touch with one another. How in the 90s, his cardiologist son with a practice in Las Vegas bought a house for him near his own.
All these years later, it’s a sweet happenstance that we can know Cres and hear about his life, his wife, and children, and what took him to last Vegas and what will take him back to San Diego.
As for the Donny and Marie show, we looked around at the audience we were part of – gray, bespectacled, thick in the waist – and we realized, hey, this is our demographic. We are them. They are us. We are all basking in nostalgia as the three big screens positioned in the show room flash images of Donny and Marie as children, then teenagers, young adults, and now on the verge of their sixties, their careers spanning five decades.
Later, courtesy of tickets from Cres, we saw the Legends show in which tribute singers recreate the hits of Janis Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, and Elvis Presley. More nostalgia. It, like the septuagenarian drinks servers, was everywhere.
In my hotel room, there was a photo of The Flamingo the way it looked when it opened in 1946. Even the current building, with its South Beach style architecture, has a garden courtyard featuring flamingos – a bird native to the Americas only in the Caribbean islands, Caribbean Mexico, Belize, and Galapagos islands. It’s nostalgia for something that never existed in the United States.
At night when The Strip is lit, the air pulses with the ionized neon. During the day, the relentless flow of fun seekers on the streets and through the casinos is briefly exhilarating and quickly exhausting. Yet one’s fascination of the place and the curiosity about the people who come here is limitless. The non-celebrity singers and dancers who come to perform. The hotel desk staff whose name tags note their home cities. The aged and aging drinks servers. The two half-naked, cowboy-hat-wearing young studs posing with their hands over their genitals whom I encountered on a limp around the block. What brings them here? Okay, for the cowboys, that’s a gimme. But what keeps them and the others here? What dreams have passed them by. What dreams do they still cling to? How will their stories end?
Even though I was ready to leave Las Vegas when my 42 hours were up, I won’t rule out another trip in the (far) future to discover some answers. Or at least more impressions so I can make up answers of my own.