Hell is expensive. This is my first thought as my plane lands in Las Vegas. The
Luxor hotel's glass pyramid seems dangerously close to the runway's edge, as do
its chocolate-and-gold sphinx and rows of shaved palms. I wonder if these rooms
tremble when jets land. Behind the Luxor are mountains kissed by dust the hue of
bone; to its left lies the Strip, where color is so bright it looks like it has
died, rotted, and come back as a poisonous flower.
I have been forewarned. First, I am told flying in at noon is "not the way to
enter Vegas." Correct entry is at night. This way I would have the full
treatment of neon and glowing sky. As a child, I was taught not to buy into
anything at night. The spoiled, chipped, or dangerous could be easily disguised.
Yet here, in one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, nighttime
is the appropriate time "to enter."
Exiting is another matter. According to a recent cover story in Time, Las Vegas
has the highest per-capita suicide rate in the country. This coincides with its
enormous expansion, yet the most talked-about suicides -- those of tourists
leaping from hotel balconies after losing everything they had -- are dangerous
myths for a city poised to become America's newest economic icon. In fact,
tourists taking their own lives surrounded by the glamour of the Strip comprise
only a small percentage of the fatalities. The bulk are those who moved here for
jobs, who live just beyond the lights. Eight times as many residents kill
themselves here as do visitors.
Second, I am told that in Las Vegas I will feel more alive. Anything can be had
here; this is the last place before the millennium where real money can be made.
An open season: anything goes; like America used to be. My friends in Los
Angeles, who seem to know such things, say forget about winning. This is the
town where you get to stub your cigarettes out in an egg, sunny side up, at four
o'clock in the morning -- if you can remember what time it is, and you won't --
and then get in your car and drive.
This will happen before I leave. But I will be driving just to clear my head of
the suicides and failures. On Paradise Road, near a white asphalt lot filled
with empty Boeing 707s, I will sit in my car watching early-morning business
flights descend into the starch of a Nevada dawn and I will suddenly see how Las
Vegas is our new mirror. Reflecting how things are going to be done. And who
will win or lose.
"There's a small but steady amount of suicides we call 'jumpers,'" states Sgt.
Bill Keeton of Metro Police. "They're generally tourists. Some jump off an
overpass, even Hoover Dam, but casinos are first choice. Balconies. The hotels
wised up. Roofs stay locked."
Las Vegas has other names for its fatalities. "Snowbirds" are retirees from the
Northwest who settle here or come to gamble their pension funds. "Downwinders"
are former Utah residents fighting cancer who lived downwind of radioactive
breezes in the fifties and sixties. Nuclear testing was only one desert valley
away; like the airport now, it was so close hotel rooms shook.
"It's not necessarily gamblers," Keeton goes on. "Just people who've planned one
last fling. We used to get a lot from Los Angeles. Now it's people from all over
the world. We had a young man fly in from Ireland. On his immigration card, it
said he seemed either on drugs or depressed. He came here and went to a pistol
range, shot targets for a while, then took his gun into a bathroom and killed
himself. His family in Ireland kept asking, why Las Vegas? At that same pistol
range, a man from Japan shot himself in his shooting stall. It's strange."
I hear other stories. Of a wealthy man from Malibu, in the computer business,
who committed suicide with sleeping pills and a plastic bag, in a luxury suite
at the Mirage. His body was found next to the room's baby grand piano. He had
bad relations with his ex-wife. There was a suicide note, resulting in a family
court battle. In Nevada, suicide notes can be interpreted as legal wills. As I
listen to the story, I realize it will be told again, and often, into the next
century. It is part of the city now, part of its dazzle.
"You have to remember, these are the visitors," Keeton says. "Lots of people
move here and lose everything. They have to work their way out of town."
Las Vegas considers itself a destination, an extremely lucrative word. It is a
destination summing up our desires for this decade. Like 1930s Hollywood and San
Francisco in the sixties, Las Vegas is building palaces that will not age well.
But the scar under the makeup is that people are moving here not for fame, or
even a communal sense of idealized youth, but only to survive.
Since I have been in Las Vegas I have not seen clouds. I am beginning to doubt
their existence. Driving east on Las Vegas Boulevard toward Nellis Air Force
Base, the sky gets bigger the poorer the road gets. I look up. It is a radiant,
Trailer parks are haphazardly formed on desert lots without paved roads or
streetlights. Here, the desert nights must shimmer. Cement-block houses without
floors or windows have children running past Harley-Davidsons. I see dented
Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals from the early seventies parked in front of
tents. These cars were our grandparents' idea of elegance. Now they transport
families, sleep children in the backseat, with pots and pans in the trunk, and
if you can keep gas in the tank, they'll get you across the country. I also
notice none of these cars have Nevada plates.
On the other side of town, Flamingo and Sahara roads splay out from the Strip
into the suburbs of Desert Shores, the Lakes, and Spring Valley. Here "family
lifestyle" communities are walled and gated and built on a massive scale. They
differ slightly in both size and price from "country club lifestyle" communities
like Los Prados and the Legacy, which have golf courses and ponds with bought,
recirculated water. Real estate in 1994 is no longer a bargain. It is now
comparable to Orange County or Scottsdale, Arizona. I reason the most original
thing Nevada has ever had is Las Vegas Boulevard. Respectability could mean a
small death to Las Vegas.
"Not so," argues Mark Moreno, a lawyer and longtime Las Vegas resident. "The
position of Las Vegas as a family-entertainment destination is best for gaming
right now. There are three men responsible for the new Las Vegas. Bill Bennett
from Circus Circus, Kirk Kerkorian with the mgm Grand, and Steve Wynn with the
I imagine asking these three wise kings about the suicides in their hotels. The
suicides of their employees in tract apartments and trailer parks facing desert
mountains. The mgm Grand employs over eight thousand people on any given day.
Circus Circus owns the Luxor. Circus Circus is where I try my first slot machine.
The casino is a silvery pink outside, like foil wrapping for cheap candy. It is
a color children will remember, and they run through its gardens and circus
exhibits and play centers. Their parents gamble in the main casino. And I
wonder: who is responsible for the flip side of myth?
"Something's missing here. I don't know how to describe it. But something's
In a Chinese restaurant on Flamingo, Allison, a stout young woman wearing
eyeliner to make her eyes look oriental, shuffles her weight from one leg to
another in front of my table. We are discussing Las Vegas. Why she came here.
"What's missing?" I ask.
"I don't know. I have two boys, one girl. We moved here for a fresh start, me
and the kids. No man at all. Everything's cool. We got a nice condo we rent at
Rock Springs Vista. I tried for the Grand but it was already filled up, so I
work here. We like Lake Mead. And snow in the mountains. But the kids want to
move on. So do I."
"Why?" My voice is low. Confiding. Allison walks over to an air-conditioning
unit hidden behind a carved gold panel and turns it up higher so we can both
hear only air. She begins to whisper.
"I just want to get the hell out of Las Vegas. Anywhere." She pauses to pour my
lukewarm jasmine tea. "Here you hate the word money. I can't save any money. The
city eats it up. Somehow, every quarter and nickel. I work steady, and where
does it go?"
It is over eighty-five degrees on the third day of March. The coroner's office
is located in a dusty white cement-block building with candy-apple-red trim.
Inside, the friendly staff files everything there is to know about murder,
suicide, and death in Clark County, Nevada. Coroner Ron Flud's office is filled
with trophies, plants, and photographs, not unlike a career counselor's at a
small-town college. Flud clasps his hands, studying me, and begins.
"First, gambling suicides in Las Vegas are minimal. It's one or two every ten
years. Residents form the highest core group. And it's almost always from
alienation in a relationship. Or career. Las Vegas is not always what they
I think of Allison, working her way out of town. She is not alone. As a young
man, serial killer John Wayne Gacy worked his way out of Las Vegas by being a
pallbearer at over seventy-five funerals at a local mortuary. In his last
interview, Gacy remarked that being in prison was like "being in Las Vegas,
where you're gambling and you don't know what's going on outside."
I realize everyone even remotely connected to suicide here takes great pains to
assure me it does not happen from gambling. One does not kill the golden calf in
It is axiomatic that relationships disintegrate due to money problems. In Las
Vegas and its suburbs, a primary cause for personal financial stress is gambling.
Its influence is a perennial one, a perfume in full bloom. There are slot
machines in supermarkets in Green Valley and Hendersen, in gas stations right
off the freeway. It is easy to cash a paycheck at a "locals" casino like the
Silver Nugget, and get free drink tickets. This does not happen in a bank.
Even the language here, somewhere between cowboy and ...