A fellow bus rider wearing three pairs of eyeglasses reached across the aisle and asked me to touch his phone. “It’s so hot,” he said. “Please. Why is the phone so hot?” I apologized and returned to my reverie of capitalism’s detritus floating against the pale Mojave sky.
Over the past two years, I’ve taken around twelve of these rides from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, so this must have been around the thirteenth. I was heading to town for the biannual Affordable Shopping Destination expo of March 2018, a four-day wholesale-merchandise trade show held across all two million square feet of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s exhibit space.
I’d heard there would be a lot of stuff at this expo. You know, products. Of the type sold at our nation’s truck stops, car-wash gift shops, airport kiosks, and dollar stores. An estimated forty-five thousand attendees from pretty much every retail and distribution channel would come to interact and strike deals with the twenty-six-hundred-plus importers, vendors, and suppliers—and I, a stranger with a slow-growing penchant for conventions, would join them.
After I checked in and retrieved my credentials in the lobby, I set off down a narrow avenue of animatronic fortune-telling machines, sun visors, and knapsack displays. A billboard for hot sauce said HAVE AN ASS KICKIN’ DAY; I gave thanks, spun a corner, and nearly crashed into a giant inflated President Trump holding up his middle finger.
Across the way, a row of religious statues (Santa Muerte, Jesus Christ, Yemaya) eyed the chief executive while a thin plastic jukebox croaked a rocking dirge, “Cathy’s Clown” by the Everly Brothers: “Don’t want your love anymore.”
I passed through a jungle of bogus cacti and satin roses and emerged in a booth full of pink Himalayan salt lamps. An agitated gentleman inquiring after my favorite scent broke the calm. I had no idea, so I uttered the first thing that came to mind: “Lavender.”
“Take these,” he said, handing me a tiny Ziplock packed with purple wax chips. “Aroma buttons. You light them and they fill the room.” I stuffed the baggie into a pocket of my windbreaker and entered an ultrabright realm of preowned designer handbags and refurbished Rolex watches.
I didn’t have any business there (or anywhere for that matter), and crossed through the lobby into another grand hall, where a man in several layers of Hawaiian shirts rushed over and presented me with a brown leather vest. A tag highlighted the conceal-and-carry handgun pocket of the garment.
I brushed the vest away, opening the curtain onto a great wall of neckties. Behind that wall lurked another wall, this one made of tube socks. I tried to walk through it, but the synthetic fibers proved impermeable. A lady slapped some antiaging, pore-revitalizing crème onto my face. It smelled like caviar.
Vaguely disturbed and stinking, I rode an escalator into a corridor of deodorant sticks and Vaseline jars, which culminated in a surplus of aerosol tick spray canisters. I stood on my toes to get a better lay of this land. It was all a blurry tundra of school supplies and Halloween decorations out there; toothpaste tubes and pillow cases; mirrors and placemats. I stomped forth.
Here was a fish-shaped trivet made in China for Great American Opportunities Inc.; there was some pet food and garbage bags and rakes and brooms and duct tape. Next to a row of walking sticks, a towering thicket of ten-foot USB cords. I asked an air-compressor salesman what he thought of the new trade tariffs. “Well, Trump is giving these other countries a taste of their own medicine,” he said.
I went over to a cage full of knives, swords, and tomahawks. “We’ll also be here next week at the gun show,” yelled a guy next to a Swamp Thing mannequin. A red, white, and blue stall promoting GOOD TIME DISPOSABLE FOAM PLATES, FOAM BOWLS, AND FOAM TRAYS shone like an eternal torch of deluded liberty. Past tables full of cutting boards, ice trays, beef jerky, greeting cards, and bathrobes, I caught an escalator down to another tremendous room.
First, more weapons: pocket knives, brass knuckles, and all types of tactical gear. I went a little deeper and things got a little different: pepper spray, pregnancy tests, Visine, Krazy Glue. Here are the bongs, hookahs, flasks, ashtrays, lighters, and vape oils of today, tomorrow, and yesterday. (Plus the slinky pink dildos of time immemorial, affixed to jock straps.) What about the sexual stamina supplements, the herbal relaxation aids, the twenty-four-hour concentration boosters? Try Sleepwalker, which promises “energy, while helping with MOOD and FOCUS. Your day is now a dream come true.” Maybe later.
My journey ended in the Source Direct section of the show, the only zone to feature non-American companies—manufacturers from factories around the world, mostly China. A black-gowned official showed off her stun guns. “We make these an hour-and-a-half away from Shanghai,” she said. “They are for self-defense. Not for killing.”
I strolled by diapers and wigs, and stopped to admire some police badges and lapel pins produced in the city of Dongguan. As one of the manufacturer’s representatives handed me a heart-shaped metal bookmark as a parting gift, I asked her what she thought of Trump.
“He’s hurting us,” she laughed. “But we will survive.”
Joshua Baldwin’s dispatches from Las Vegas have appeared at The Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times.