Day Two: The Sahara Hotel ($51 a night)
"Wash it with bleach to make sure your puppy stays safe." - Car radio -- 88.5 -- Barstow
February 2008. The ballroom of the Mandalay Bay hotel, Las Vegas. My friend Michael and I were surrounded by five -- maybe six -- hundred girls, all in their early twenties, all with perfect hair, and all wearing nothing but hotel bedsheets and strappy shoes. We'd only been in town a few hours but had already talked our way in to a toga party organized by the Paul Mitchell Hair Schools of America, posing as the owners of a London salon called 'British Hairways'.
This is how my life used to be. What became known as the "Toga Party Incident" marked the start of my short but tumultuous love affair with Las Vegas: a string of visits to the city, each with its own drunken stories. There was the "Almost Drowned Incident" when, at the end of a two-day Champagne bender, I was forcibly ejected from the pool terrace of the MGM Grand after starting a fight at my best friend Sarah's book launch party. The "Lost Ticket Incident" when I came within seconds of flying to Atlanta with a chiropodist's assistant I'd met at the Hard Rock. Then there was the "Hooker With Braces" incident and the "Tequila Suicide" incident and... those are just the ones I remember -- countless others have been lost to the ether, coinciding as they did with the peak of the alcohol addiction that almost killed me.
Since I finally hauled myself on to the wagon almost a year ago, Las Vegas has come to represent everything I've left behind: the boozing, the one-night stands, the easy bullshit and the reckless overspending, a lifestyle encapsulated by the city's motto: "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas".
Since quitting drinking, I've lost more than 42 pounds in booze weight; I've rebuilt most of the friendships I destroyed while during the troughs of my alcoholic selfishness; I've just finished writing a book. I'm doing ok. What better time, then, to return to Vegas and spend an entire month on the Strip, surrounded by all the things I've worked so hard to escape from?
This morning, I checked out of my suite at the London Hotel in LA and threw my bag in the back of my friend Ruth's Ford Thunderbird, ready for our five hour drive across the desert.
Like me, Ruth is an ex-drinker. Unlike me, Ruth is also an ex-stripper. If Vegas will be strange for me, I can only imagine what a head-fuck it will be for her. And that's precisely why I invited her along for the start of the trip: head-fuckery is a dish best served with two spoons.
This is actually the second time I've been to Vegas sober. The first was late last year, while on assignment for the Guardian newspaper in London. Like the swaggering ass that I am, I decided it would be a lark to spend two days on my own revisiting all my old Vegas haunts and facing down my demons. Just remembering the trip now has made my palms sweat and the back of my neck itch...
It started well enough. As the cab pulled up outside the Palms hotel, the giant Playboy bunny on the side of the main building assured me I'd chosen my accommodation wisely, at least from a demon-facing standpoint. Hauling my bag into my $70-a-night room -- the Palms Tower doesn't have bellhop service -- I was pleasantly surprised. My king bed had been downgraded to two doubles but there was a pool view, a gigantic bathroom, two lamps -- one of which worked -- and a locked minibar, for which (mercifully) I wasn't given a key. Even with the $16 daily surcharge for wifi, it was a good deal.
"Oh no, no, no."
Larry Fink, the Palms' PR director, didn't share my enthusiasm for the room. On hearing that a journalist from the "London Guardian" was staying in the Palms Tower, he didn't even try to hide his alarm. "Let me fix this," he said marching off to the front desk. "But the room's fine," I half-protested. He returned holding a new swipe key, on which was printed a photograph of a stripper. "I've upgraded you to a suite in the Fantasy Tower. There's no need to write about the other room."
"No, thank you Larry." That's what I should have said. I am, after all a professional. But come on -- the Fantasy Tower? Home to the famous Playboy nightclub? I snatched the key from his hand.
Larry also gave me a tour of the Fantasy Tower, beginning with the $25,000-a-night Hardwood Suite, so-called because it contains a half-size basketball court -- with cheerleaders available for an additional $1000 an hour. He pointed to some graffiti on the wall, left by George Clooney: "Guys, if you can't get laid in this room...".
A mere condom's throw from the Hardwood Suite was its female equivalent: the Barbie Suite -- a garish pink boudoir with tributes to the eponymous dolls covering every surface. "We designed this in partnership with Mattel," explained Larry. I looked at the centuria of Barbies fastened in a giant frame next to the bed. "Yes you did," I said.
In the center of the Barbie Suite is the "show shower": a glass-enclosed water-feature complete with stripper pole. I considered for a moment the combination of pole, glass, tiles and water. "People must get seriously hurt in there," I said. Larry laughed for just slightly too long before catching himself. "It's very safe."
Safe was all well and good, but what I wanted was dangerous: to stare my former foe in the eye and declare him vanquished. Thanking Larry again for the upgrade -- and promising him that I wouldn't write about my other crappier room in the Guardian (I'm a man of my word), I headed for the Strip.
Courtesy of Hollywood, first-time visitors to the Las Vegas Strip expect either a boulevard of sharp-suited high-rollers (Ocean's 11), or a psychedelic carnival of drugs and madness (Fear and Loathing). What they get instead is a 4.6 mile long shopping mall. Each hotel-casino has its trademark -- musical fountains, a half-scale Eiffel Tower, a roller coaster -- but inside they're almost identical: a fetid swamp of beeping, blooping, flashing slot machines, swarming with millions of elderly addicts on three-wheeler scooters. In 2009, these gamblers pumped $119 billion into slots in the state of Nevada. Compare that to just $28.6 billion wagered on the gaming tables and you quickly realize this isn't a town built on the reckless daring of high rollers, but on the empty dreams of desperate dollar-a-hit junkies.
I walked the Strip for three hours as the flashbacks exploded like strobe lights, starting at the Bellagio (Georgia chiropodists), across to Bally's and Paris and Planet Hollywood (hooker with braces), then the Luxor (tequila suicides) and New York, New York where I vaguely recall once paying a bride $500 for her veil. At the MGM grand (almost drowned) I followed signs to the pool, which I remembered as a cabana-lined oasis, packed with beautiful women in straining bikinis, and waiters serving bottles of Champagne at $200 a pop. I also remember two bouncers lifting me off my feet and propelling me headlong onto the street.
The sober reality was, uh, different. The entrance was blocked by a turnstile, behind which lay row upon row of elderly Americans, flopping over the edge of straining loungers while waitresses served lurid pink drinks in plastic beakers. From behind the gate came an unmistakably collegiate voice, announcing to all and sundry that there were "no freaking hot girls here".
Duly advised, I headed to the Mandalay Bay. This time there were no togas in the hotel ballroom, just a group of managers from Deloitte, attending a conference on "Bold Leadership". I scooped up a discarded name badge from the floor, slipped it around my neck and walked -- boldly -- inside. And that's when it happened. Although even now, six months later as I write this, I still don't know what 'it' was. All I know is I walked into the ballroom, a waiter offered me a glass of wine from a giant tray, and the demons arrived in full force.
"Take the wine," they urged, "and then go back to the MGM for one of those pink things. And then order a bottle of Champagne -- and another, until the Deloitte managers turn back into beautiful girls in bedsheets, the slot machines blur into a hypnotic lightshow and the stench of cigarettes and sweat are replaced by the taste of rum and the standard of your hotel room doesn't matter because neither you nor the anonymous college girl you bring back will remember it anyway. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." The ballroom's air conditioning was turned up high but my shirt was soon soaked through. I had to get out.
The cab dropped me off at the Palms. I headed straight to my upgraded room and ordered room service: two club sandwiches, a pasta salad, two thermos jugs of English breakfast tea two litres of diet Coke and a bucket of ice -- enough to last me until 4 o'clock the next afternoon when my flight back to San Francisco was due to leave. As the operator confirmed my order, I stared out through the window, still shaking. I'm never coming back to this town, I thought: life's too short.
But indeed life is too short, and indeed I am heading back to that town - for reasons I described at length yesterday.
This time though, I've learned my lesson: Ruth is just the first of maybe half a dozen friends I've invited to visit during my Vegas adventure, each with his or her own unique skills to oil the wheels of journalism. (Ruth, for example, has suggested a tour of Adult Vegas with her friend Daisy Delfina, whose name you shouldn't click on if you're reading this at work.) I've spread my friends' visits across the month to ensure that, while I still have plenty of time to explore the town on my own, I'm never more than a few days away from a reality check.
But first, as Ruth guns the car along I-15 -- I've just glanced up from the passenger seat and, I kid you not, we're somewhere outside Barstow on the edge of the desert -- it falls to me to make our hotel booking.
The Sahara's published rate tonight is $31 for a standard room, or just $75 for a suite. Both include a free rollercoaster ride, and the chance to say we stayed in one the classic hotels of the Vegas strip, less than a month before it's due to close forever.
Click, click: booked.
191 miles to go. Let the descent into madness begin.