Las Vegas before and during “Clinton-Trump III.”
Debate Wednesday in Las Vegas—or, as the front-page headline of the Las Vegas Review-Journal called it, CLINTON-TRUMP III. I arrived the night before from Los Angeles, determined, simply, to walk around and inhabit the rhythms of the city in the hours leading up to and during the final debate. Would I meet demonstrators in the streets? Would I hear megaphones and anthems? Would a police officer order me to go the other way? Or would this be just another day in Las Vegas, Spanish for “the meadows”—and if that turned out to be the case, what is “just another day” in the meadows like? Well, these meadows are sun bleached and paved, and I set out first thing to stomp about and have a look.
I started the day at the Davis Funeral Home and Memorial Park. It was a cool, clear-blue morning, and the cemetery hummed in peace. Crews trimmed the trees and mowed the lawns. To the north, the Sheep Range Mountains looked chiseled and handsome. Jets came down from the east to land at McCarran Airport, right across the street, one every minute. I saw a grave decorated for Halloween, with foam skulls and signs that said DANGER! and KEEP OUT! A man in a black leather cap unfolded a canvas chair and sat to stare at a tombstone. The three-quarter moon hung out in the west, slowly fading.
I was admiring a huge, thin cloud resembling a leaping horse, high over the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus (host of the debate), when a cemetery worker in a golf cart pulled up to me in the Garden of Peace section of the grounds and asked me if I needed help. I told him I was looking for the grave of the Los Angeles Angels pitcher Robert “Bo” Belinsky—the first Angel to throw a no-hitter, which was also the first no-hitter thrown at Dodger Stadium, on May 5, 1962. As he led me to it, I told him I thought this was a nice place and he said thanks. “Good thing about it is that no body complains. Get it?” Two freight trucks shot past each other on Eastern Avenue and honked hello.
I headed to the Pinball Hall of Fame—a ten-thousand-square-foot nonprofit brutalist bunker over on Tropicana Avenue. With around two hundred machines from the 1950s to the 1990s, it is a fine place to spend a pocket full of quarters. There’s free popcorn, too. In his station at the back of the dim hall, a headlamp-wearing proprietor sat focused on some repairs, CNN audible but out of sight. As late morning turned to noon, the space filled up with middle-aged men and women, and a stray kid or two.
Outside, it was heating up. By one P.M., the westbound lanes of Tropicana Avenue adjacent to the UNLV campus had been closed to car traffic, blocked off with tall cones and a yellow Nevada Department of Transportation “Side Dump” truck. Police officers stood in pairs, facing the university. At the University Plaza strip mall, I walked into the Vons supermarket to consider the goods. Two men sat slumped at the video-slot machines by the front windows. When I reached the back of the store, a woman’s voice called out, “Would you like to try some rice, sir?” At first I declined, but then I came back, accepting a tiny cup of Uncle Ben’s roast-chicken-flavored ninety-second microwavable Ready Rice. Soft and salty. Satisfied, I walked out the door. A man in the parking lot asked, “Spare some change? I’m feeling a little rough today.”
I crossed Thomas and Mack Drive—the road named for the UNLV arena home of the debate, capacity nineteen thousand, but only a thousand would be admitted to the night’s event—and came upon a red, white, and blue sign taped to a utility box that announced DEBATE YARD SALE, with an arrow pointing left. I ventured in that direction a little way and found a fellow sitting in his driveway next to a big metal trailer axle with a FOR SALE sign affixed to the top. I asked him about it and he said, “Huh?”
On the corner of Tropicana and Paradise, I met a young man and woman who had just arrived from Los Angeles for the Rolling Stones concert, which had been scheduled for eight P.M.that night at the T-Mobile Arena. But the show had gotten canceled the night before, the band stating that Mick Jagger had come down with laryngitis. “Yeah, we came anyway,” she said, as her friend played the band’s song “Highwire” from his phone. In September, the Vegas papers issued warnings that with the concert taking place the same night as the debate, severe traffic jams would likely ensue. Well, now that concert-cum-debate traffic jams were no longer a concern, the city was speckled with dazed and disappointed Stones fans.
I swung down Paradise and stopped into Roberto’s Taco Shop for some lunch. As I studied the menu, a denim-clad man asked me if I was going to the debate. I said no and then asked him the same. “Hell no,” he said, “I can see it from my house.” Perhaps he meant he could see the Thomas and Mack Center from his house; perhaps he meant he could watch the debate on television in his living room; perhaps he meant he could do both. Before I got to ask what he meant, though, he recommended that I order the cheese quesadilla. Then another customer, in canvas coveralls, interjected, “You can’t go wrong with the bean-and-cheese burrito, my man. Easy on the stomach.” I went with the burrito.
After lunch, I crossed the street over to the Hard Rock Cafe and asked the hostess if they’d be showing the debate later. She said no, but that they’d probably be showing it in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino next door. That sounded good. But it was two thirty in the afternoon, and for now, I would just keep walking. I ambled along Harmon Avenue, past the Harbor Island Apartments, a sprawling complex whose wooden sign invited passersby to CHECK US OUT, enticing would-be renters with SPARKLING POOLS and SPACIOUS LAUNDRIES.
The afternoon current carried me all the way to a back entrance of the MGM Grand. I went inside and was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of women pouring out of a theater. They were all here for the weeklong Sweet Adelines International Women’s Barbershop Harmony Singing Convention and Competition. I traveled up and down a thicket of escalators and hallways and eventually emerged outdoors by the MGM’s Wet Republic pool and day club. It was closed, apparently because some news media had set up shop in the vicinity. I’m fairly certain I saw the Fox News host Jesse Watters, of Watters World, eating a plate of chicken and carrots in the sun.
I circled back to the area of the Hard Rock. Once again in the vicinity of UNLV, I stopped into Liquor World to purchase a bottle of water. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blasted from the speakers; “and we don’t know, entertain us.” A guy in a New York Giants cap buying a six-pack of Guinness told the cashier, “I’m for Trump.” The cashier said, “Same here.”
Outside, I followed the sound of a different song, one I couldn’t yet make out, and it led me to a designated “Public Expression Area”—a fenced-in blacktop by a shuttered car wash, in a distant shadow of the Thomas and Mack Center. To enter, you had to pass through a metal detector, and the song I had followed turned out to be “Oops! … I Did It Again,” by Britney Spears, playing from an amplifier to the half-dozen or so people inside the Public Expression Area. A man with a T-shirt that said “I Vape, I Vote” paced around by the entrance, and I went away.
Across the street from the Hard Rock, about twenty police officers hung around in the parking lot of the Paradise Esplanade shopping center. A 1950s pink Cadillac like Elvis Presley’s cruised by as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” played from the hotel-casino’s outdoor speakers. A little group, speaking Italian, wearing Rolling Stones T-shirts, waved for a taxi. Almost six—time for the debate.
I stepped inside the Hard Rock Hotel and crossed through the rows of slot machines to the circular Center Bar, all of the televisions set to ABC for the debate except for one in a corner, which showed (on mute) Game Four of the National League Championship Series, Cubs versus Dodgers. Around fifty people were gathered here. Under the flashing and dripping LED lights, some watched the debate while others kept their focus on the video-poker machines implanted in the black-and-white marble of the bar.
Meanwhile, across the casino, at the Goose Island Pub of the Hard Rock, all of the televisions were tuned to the Dodgers-Cubs game (with sound), except for one tuned to the debate (muted and without subtitles). And if you didn’t want to look at the debate at all, you could go to the sports book and watch preseason basketball or even harness racing. Or you could examine the display cases of musicians’ clothing, such as the outfit Tupac Shakur wore to the Tyson-Seldon heavyweight championship fight at the MGM Grand on September 7, 1996, the night he was shot in this city and died six days later—orange silk shirt, blue jeans, and suede hush puppies.
If you’d stuck by the Center Bar, though, you might have met a group of young Dutch men who, over the last three weeks, traveled through the South (New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville), then to Los Angeles, and now here, Las Vegas, drinking Budweisers labeled AMERICA—and you would have heard one of them call this election “a tragedy.”
And at the base of the three steps leading up to the Center Bar stood a security guard, and when I asked her what she thought about all this as the debate came to a close, she said, “It’s funny. Have a good night.”
Joshua Baldwin’s accounts of the recent implosions of the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas appeared here at The Daily and at the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the author of the novella The Wilshire Sun and an editor and columnist at Eephus, the sports channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books.