On luck, love, and desire in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas in the nineties was a terrific place to be young. In few other places was this true. Steve Wynn and other developers had used their mountains of money to nearly, but not yet fully, transform the city from a seedy backwater into a sunny haven for the middle class. In the early nineties, downtown Las Vegas was still dirty and strange, not quite a mobster’s paradise but not for families, either. Fremont Street lay open to the sky above and to heavy traffic, which meant sidewalk hawkers and hookers and mean-looking hatted men smoking in doorways. A common sight: prostitutes on big cruiser bicycles, tall curving handlebars like Harleys, riding up and down the street while at each corner stood teenagers snapping thick cards against their palms and handing one to every passerby. Each card was printed with a photo of one of those very cyclists or some other beautiful woman, not cycling but posed in another kind of readiness, along with a phone number and an apothegm about companionship or temerity. Prostitution was not legal in Las Vegas and had not been for nearly fifty years, but no one seemed to care. Presumably, the hookers did, when a raid scattered them, or when they needed help, or when they were arrested or hurt or sometimes killed.
But I did not think about any of that when I was fourteen and fifteen, out on Fremont Street alone while my mother and my grandmother gambled. I thought about what it would be like to touch a woman the way the pretty women on the cards invited me to touch them. Whenever a teenager snapped a card and held it out to me, I took it. I assembled a collection of hookers until I had a stack as thick as a poker deck, and with this I made my own game, matching the cards to the women on the street, and imaginatively to other women in other parts of the city, the showgirls outside the Glitter Gulch, cocktail waitresses in dark hose, young wives in the elevators, and sometimes to the girls at my high school, brunette farm girls with big white teeth. The cards were, like the decks at the blackjack tables, representative of value and possibility. Some afternoons, while my mother napped and my grandmother played video poker at the Fitzgerald’s bar, I picked up the phone and traced the numbers. Sometimes I had money in my pocket from sneaking the slots, or because Grandma hit a royal the night before. I could pay, and that meant it did not matter that I was a girl, or only fourteen. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to touch women whose job it was to be touched. I wanted real affection. But the price of real affection was set so high, in my other, daily economy. Read More