48 Hours on the Dark Side of Las Vegas
Penthouse orgies fueled by pill-pushing hotel employees. A drug house stocked with sex slaves. Hidden homeless encampments underneath the casinos. A shockingly personal investigation shows the real Sin City is even seedier than you imagined.
* * *
There is a tension in the crowd, a sizzling silence as words and cheers cut short and all eyes focus on the same point, everyone holding their breath, every jaw and fist clenched like in the final moments before a fight, as if everyone is about to explode at once. More people are huddling around the table now, closer to the action, pushing against one another until there are no distinct bodies anymore but rather a single compacted entity made of suits and cleavages and spilled glasses, a wordless human volcano ready to erupt under the wary watch of the floor muscle, the entire casino going silent as the wheel spins and spins and spins.
“Black eleven,” the croupier announces as the ball stops in a jolt.
And the volcano goes off.
A deafening cry of victory immediately surges from the crowd’s collective throat. Strangers shout at the top of their lungs until their lungs are shut out of air. You can feel the heat being released like lava and undulating over the cheering people. You can feel it in the timeless night – or is it day? – and in the vodka-infused breaths, as heads go lighter when the chips totaling more than $250,000 get counted and pushed toward the winner.
“Vegas, baby!” someone yells.
Welcome to the world of high rollers.
The winner is Hari Keng Joo, a stubby Malaysian entrepreneur in his thirties. Keng Joo spends a week in the gambling capital of the world every year. He was taught early that money was to be spent. His partnerships in several venture capital firms never contradicted his habits so far. “I’m just living the life, man,” he says, smiling and sipping on a glass of Macallan 1950 single malt whisky ordered from the MGM Grand’s reserve.
“I love to be here,” he adds. “It’s a special place. Dubai is nice, but Vegas is the real deal, you know? It’s like a playground for me!”
Like most of the forty million visitors who come to Las Vegas every year, Keng Joo is here to unwind and gamble. The resort he stays at is a cluster of curved glass buildings rising from the Strip in a silvery flare. The personnel from this 4,000-room hotel know him well. He has a reputation for being an extremely generous tipper and for throwing legendary multi-day events. “He parties hard,” explains his personal concierge host, who wished to remain anonymous in order to protect his job. “One time we had to hire a whole team to clean his suite. The place was trashed to oblivion. Like, overturned mattresses, upside-down chairs, and glitter, glitter everywhere. God, the glitter.”
Keng Joo always books the same 2,000-square-foot, $5,000-a-night penthouse on the top floor. The management is happy to oblige, regularly comping him free services like a private airport hangar for his Gulfstream G450, or a Bentley Mulsanne every time he needs to go out. This morning, Keng Joo was treated to an assortment of Hermès shaving creams and foams in his private barber room. He relaxed in his sauna for an hour before putting on a grey Armani suit from the Winter 2015 collection, purchased directly from Giorgio Armani himself in Milan.
But for now, Keng Joo is celebrating his big win and doing awkward dance moves on the gaming floor. I gave up counting his losses after the first million, but his luck at roulette probably has him slightly ahead at last. “I don’t care if I win. It’s all about the thrill,” he says joyfully. “Stay close, I’ll show you around.”
I follow him to another high limit room, where a member of his entourage is playing blackjack. Impervious to the dealer’s cues to stand on a hard 17, his friend forfeits about four grand in the span of a minute.
Keng Joo suggests we go to the nearby Planet Hollywood for a drink, which everyone agrees is a great idea.
He doesn’t even think about cashing out.
* * *
The sky is bright orange from the setting sun. I cannot say how long I was inside the casino. Sewer stench has replaced the scent of cold tobacco. Older people amble leisurely on the shiny sidewalks, catching strip-club flyers given out by canvassers.
“Let’s do shots!” Keng Joo declares at Planet Hollywood’s bar, brandishing $100 bills to get the bartender’s attention.
Bruce Willis is in the lounge behind us, gently explaining to a college girl how to play craps. The girl’s eyes are locked onto him and she laughs nervously every time he shows her something new.
On the seat near mine, Ralph Molina, a hedge fund manager and an investor in some of Keng Joo’s ventures, is debating another guest on the value of entertainment.
“Our entire culture relies on it,” he concludes. “We’re a nation whose success is based on how hard we party. You thought it was freedom and family values? No, man. All we want is more parties. We gobble on self-gratification like dogs on their own shit.”
We soon head back to Keng Joo’s exclusive pool party where he talks in Malay with a short man in a tuxedo who I understand is his younger brother. The two of them are eating Wagyu sirloins the casino’s chef imports from the Liverpool Plains in Australia. A magnum of Champagne is opened at their side.
By the pool, an attractive UCLA biomedical physics student tries explaining circular dichroism and angular momentum to a perplexed man in swim shorts. An older woman in a flashy bikini complains that a local lady kicked her out of a blackjack game because she thought she was ruining the flow of cards. A man in swim shorts brags about the costly signature cocktails he had at the XS club.
“I drove a Lamborghini Gallardo today,” says a fraternity guy.
“I went for a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon,” says another.
“I killed it at poker and lost everything at baccarat,” replies a third.
The water smells like diluted alcohol.
The night is young.
When the music gets too loud, I walk to the front desk to see Paul, a hotel employee I’ve been talking to for a few weeks. From waiter to group manager to special events assistant, Paul has worked almost every entry-level job at the resort. He knows a lot about the casino’s inner workings and asked that his full name not appear in this story for fear of reprisal from his employer.
This last day has been a handful for Paul. A couple was caught half-naked in an elevator. An elderly gambler soiled himself while playing slots and flung feces at a group of bachelorettes. A guest wouldn’t believe snorting cocaine in the reception area was illegal. A little-person prostitute was taken out by the police after performing oral sex on a client in a public bathroom.
“When it goes wrong, it goes really wrong,” he says. “I can have entire weeks going without a hitch, and then boom, shit happens all at once. At least it makes for good stories!”
Paul recounts an event from a month before, when a visitor from Sacramento was found dead in his room after losing his entire 401k, one end of his tie strung around his neck and the other attached to his bathroom’s door knob.
“Management obviously wants us to handle this kind of situation really carefully, but sometimes it’s hard to keep it under the radar. You can’t pretend the dead grandma sitting at the buffet with crab legs coming out of her mouth doesn’t exist. We actually have to deal with death pretty often. It’s like…anywhere else, I guess, just crazier.”
He describes how specialized cleaners are sometimes called to sanitize a room from blood and other bodily fluids, at times completely repainting or refurnishing it before the next three p.m. check-in. He mentions the thefts and the cheating that casinos have to deal with on a regular basis – up to 34 percent of gambling-related crimes being committed by staff. He tells me about the fragrances pumped through the air conditioning systems to cover the smoke odor. He depicts the “dildo bins” discarded every year during spring break when customers leave personal items behind after a few nights of kinky adventures. He brings up the sixty thousand pounds of shrimp eaten every day in the city. “It’s a shit show, but it’s a fun shit show,” he jokes.
After a few moments, a man from Keng Joo’s party comes up and slips a folded $50 bill on the counter. “Can you hook me up?” he asks nonchalantly.
Paul nods, swiftly puts the bill in his pocket and writes down the man’s room number. “Twenty minutes,” he replies.
The man nods and walks back to the elevators as if nothing happened. Paul informs a colleague he’ll take a smoke break, then heads to the garage where his car is parked with a small amount of illegal substances inside.
“Vegas, baby,” he winks at me when he comes back, carrying a CVS plastic bag filled with what I imagine to be MDMA and other club drugs.
Keng Joo texts me to say that the party will continue in his penthouse. “U dont want to miss this.”
* * *
There is something about marble bathrooms and haute couture silk cushions that insulates you from the rest of the world. From carefully selected flower bouquets to timeless Haviland Limoges porcelain tableware, everything in a luxury suite suggests instant fulfillment and blindness to the common struggles happening fifty stories below.
No broken cars here, no late phone calls from abusive boyfriends, no expensive power bills to worry about. Only the lush quietness of opulence.
“Let’s get this started!” Keng Joo exclaims, Taylor Swift’s “New Romantics” playing loudly on the Harman Kardon sound system. People dance and clap, with the city glowing through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind them.
I notice the man who spoke to Paul in the lobby, holding a CVS plastic bag and talking to a busty blonde in a black dress.
A bedroom door opens, displaying a mass of tangled figures lumped together in the half-light. I see a big woman on all fours, surrounded by men. I see faces buried in slits and crevices, twisted in lustful rictuses, with tongues licking and fingers exploring wide-open bodies.
Keng Joo has downed an ecstasy pill and is now French-kissing a random girl on a couch while taking a selfie. Hors d’oeuvres are scattered on the floor.
The party is in full swing.
I look for a familiar face and see Hazel, a 25-year-old escort who Paul introduced me to earlier in the week. Hazel doesn’t look different than any other woman around. No suggestive miniskirt, no overloaded makeup. Just a girl next door with a friendly smile and lovely brown eyes.
The personal entertainer agency she works for executes thorough background checks of her clients to ensure her transactions are secure. Hazel says it’s well worth the cut the agency takes. Safety and anonymity are extremely important to her, which is why she uses her escort alias instead of her birth name. Her company can cost upwards of $2,000 a night, although parties and special requests are more expensive. She says most clients simply want good-looking company and don’t ask for more than flirting.
“My clients are like boyfriends,” she explains. “There has to be some chemistry, otherwise nothing happens. I only have sex when I want to anyways. Most of the time it’s just a matter of doing conversation and being a nice person. I actually enjoy it.”
I ask her about how she came to do this for a living.
“I was broke and figured why not? I worked as a stripper for a while, and I quickly discovered I could make a whole lot more cash by myself. I get to meet interesting people from all over the world. I get to do stuff I wouldn’t have dreamed of. We all need dreams. The thing is, hustling is still illegal in Clark County so I have to be cautious. Street hookers have it worse, though… It’s easier for me. I don’t have to work in the open and risk getting busted by undercover cops.”
Tonight, Hazel has agreed to participate in group sex with some of the party’s guests. She offers me to follow her to the bedroom I caught a glimpse of earlier. “It’ll be interesting,” she assures me, merely requesting I keep a low profile when I’m with her.
In the bedroom, a gray-haired man approaches Hazel as she gets naked. The man calls himself John and is a regular customer.
“He’s a sweetheart on the surface but a real creep in bed,” Hazel will later say. John is married with two children and lives in California where he works as a sales VP. He’s confident enough to talk about ecological roof gardens and solar energy in the midst of an orgy, giving appreciative looks toward a couple playing with a translucent vibrator.
“Me and my wife are trying this open marriage thing,” John explains. “I know what this means. I just don’t have the time for a divorce. It’s not only about pleasure. It’s about control. About revenge. About getting what you want when you want. This is what they don’t tell you about cheating, or partying, or gambling. They tell you about the guilt, but the truth is that sinning feels good. I wasn’t tricked or forced to cheat on my wife. I just went from ‘this feels great’ to ‘why don’t I feel bad?’ to ‘why can’t I feel bad?’”
John and Hazel soon begin kissing and fumbling with each other. I stay in a corner, wishing my tequila glass was still full, my stomach twisted in discomfort.
Legs are knotting and hands are grabbing. Knees are scraping on the carpet.
“I like a girl who knows how to handle pain,” John says as he pulls Hazel’s hair down to make her squat in front of him.
I watch when she unzips him and puts him in her mouth. I watch when he rams into her, making her leap forward at each thrust of his hips. I listen to the wet noises and to the sound of the flesh bouncing and shaking.
And she never quits smiling.
There is something sad and sick about him that Hazel sure knows how to handle better than I do, because I have to close my eyes when his teeth leave a collar of bite marks on her neck, pushing deeper and deeper and making her red and sore.
“Suck your thumb,” he orders.
It’s about control.
I watch her close her lips around her thumb, letting out a long, grateful moan as John finishes on her face and down her chin.
She never quits smiling.
“What happens in Vegas…” she says.
* * *
“You look like shit,” Paul says when I arrive at the front desk a little past two a.m. There are still lots of people in the lobby. I couldn’t sleep for the world.
Paul needs to get a fresh stockpile of drugs. He sold almost everything he had in the last three hours. “I’m always too short when this guy’s in town,” he says about Keng Joo. “Whatever I have, it’s never enough.”
His supplier is already en route to pick him up and bring him to a North Las Vegas stash house where he will fill up with new stock.
We head to the self-parking garage where we promptly hop into an old white Pontiac sedan waiting in a dark corner I assume is not monitored by surveillance teams. The man behind the wheel looks upset upon seeing me.
“He’s cool,” Paul reassures him.
“Skittles and water, huh?” the man chuckles after a moment of silence, alluding to the MDMA and GHB Paul asked him an hour earlier.
The man, a hairless heavyset guy named Angelo, says he is part of a local Norteño faction run by one of his cousins. The gang belongs to the Mexican cartel Nuestra Familia and specializes in drug distribution, prostitution and car theft, supplying a wide range of small-time dealers like Paul.
Ranked in the top ten of the nation’s most dangerous neighborhoods in 2010 with a violent crime rate 112 percent higher than the national average, North Las Vegas is no stranger to such criminal organizations, remaining an important drugs transshipment point in spite of law enforcement’s efforts.
Angelo does the speed limit all the way to the stash house, his car growling in the desert night. Most of the lots are vacant here, with churches and prayer centers every two hundred yards, scattered between cinderblock houses and parted-out cars.
“Tourists usually do uppers,” he explains. “Kids do spice [synthetic cannabis] and bath salts [synthetic cathinone]. Crack is almost only for natives. Black tar [a crude, unrefined opioid] and meth are more in demand now because they’re so cheap. People get fucked up on that shit, man.”
Balzar Avenue is far from the neon lights and the shows. No crowds in the streets, here. No bachelorette parties, no reality-TV celebrities in custom tailored suits, no sparkling wine tastings. Just wide streets with no lights on past dark and no shade after sunrise.
The stash house is nondescript, surrounded by wire fencing like most in the area. Cemetery plastic flowers are scattered in the dirt. There is a minivan bench in the front yard. A dog barks, his chain lashing and clanking.
Angelo invites us to come in. The place is dimly lit and smells like pot smoke. People are crashed on futons, whispering about us. Two guys are playing Halo on an 85-inch flatscreen, emptying Red Bull cans one after another.
Virgin Mary statues are neatly displayed on a shelf and crucifixes are nailed to every wall. A picture of Christ is hanging in the kitchen where microwaved leftovers pile up in a trashcan. There is a gun on a counter.
I give Paul a worried look to which he responds with a shrug.
Angelo pops up from the kitchen with several bags of colorful pills. I recognize Ambien, Hydrocodone and Ritalin, all regularly used in pharm parties – when teens invite friends to ingest whatever they find in their medicine cabinets. “Last shipment got busted,” he says. “I’ll have more next month.”
Angelo lights a joint with Paul and explains why he’s a Norteño. “I do what I do because that’s how family works, you know what I’m saying? You gotta help your kind no matter what. It’s like animals. Don’t have no choice.”
He says the gang protected him when he was sent to the Southern Nevada Correctional Center on charges of battery and robbery, after getting caught on camera attacking a gas station attendant. He says five years behind bars was the price to pay to find a purpose.
Despite his robust sales, Angelo still lives in a standard-size house near the Air Force base, and drives a shitty Pontiac to deliver his produce to his dealers and wholesale purchasers. “I don’t get to keep everything I make,” he explains laughing. “Some part of the money goes to La Eñe [the cartel]. Another goes to my cousin and his associates. It’s like any other business.”
Angelo decides I need to meet one of his cousin’s girls, a thirty-year-old laborer smuggled from the Mexican state of Chiapas whom he keeps inside the house and uses as he pleases in exchange for fake documents and the promise of a better life. He tells me that her food, clothing and medication are all taken care of, and that while she mainly does chores like cleaning and laundry, she’s sometimes asked to provide sexual favors to guests or partners.
Human trafficking through the Mexican-U.S. border is estimated to affect about 18,000 people annually, of which many will be exploited in prostitution rings or as modern-day slaves until they’ve repaid the “coyotes” who help them cross. Often they wind up in Las Vegas.
“Hope you’re ready for this, man. Te llegar a conocer el diablo tonight,” says Angelo, showing me the way to a room in the back of the house before immediately returning to his sofa with Paul. “You get to meet the devil tonight.”
The devil lives in a red, red room in which water from a bubbling fish tank reflects on the walls like the marbled veins of a dead body. A fly is stuck on a tape ribbon dangling from a fan.
The devil appears, and it’s a tall and thin woman with scars on her stomach and high heels that sink into the carpeting at every step.
She disregards me and puts tar heroin into a square piece of tin foil, dull side up, lighting a flame underneath the foil and chasing the heroin until it burns liquid, using a pen tube as a straw to inhale the smoke rising from the oily substance.
She speaks in tongues on the unmade bed, reciting staccato syllables in a soaked trance, half-naked in the half-light, moving rhythmically, with growly sounds coming out of her mouth as she invites invisible men to quench their desires with her body.
She notices my look and smiles, and all I want is to get out of here and never come back. “No estoy aquí,” she tells me. “No estoy aquí,” with a grin widening on her face. “I am not here.”
I swear I can see the lights flicker.
I wait until she is asleep to leave. I try not to look over my shoulder when I go out of her red, red room.
I don’t see Angelo again that night.
The shadows are already growing long on the ceiling when Paul decides it’s time for us to go. I chug an energy drink and follow him to the nearest street corner where we wait for an Uber to pick us up. The morning is cool and dry.
The sky is already too bright.
* * *
The nine a.m. sun is burning my bloodshot eyes. I’m with Hazel, who is helping Deliah Brown – the big woman I briefly saw at Keng Joo’s sex party last night – across the valet area behind the hotel. Deliah works the streets for a Norteño branch similar to the one Angelo is part of. Unlike Hazel, she’s not used to participating in private events.
“Men want pretty skinny girls,” she says. “I ain’t none of that,” she declares, pinching a lump of her stomach fat. “Thankfully, everybody got a fetish nowadays!”
Walking visibly hurts her. She doesn’t say a word when Hazel tells her we will accompany her back to her place and make sure she’s okay.
Brown used to live with her ex-boyfriend and his abuela in Naked City, a once-seedy area of low-rent apartments in the shade of the Stratosphere Tower. She says she sneaked away when her ex started abusing her. Soon she had to turn tricks for a gang so she could have money and protection.
Today, she lives in a storm drainage tunnel, by the train tracks near Dean Martin Drive, a stone’s throw from the Rio Casino.
The tunnels, built in the 1970s to control runoff and protect the developing city from flash floods, are home to about five hundred homeless people, making them one of the largest skid rows in the U.S.
“The population down there varies quite a bit,” journalist and advocate for the homeless Matthew O’Brien explained in a 2011 Huffington Post interview. “You have some teenagers living and hanging out, middle-aged men and Vietnam veterans. And people who came out to Vegas looking for the American dream … Instead, they’re living beneath the hotels and casinos that lured them out here in the first place.”
“My house is over there,” Brown says after Hazel parts ways. “It’s very dark but it’s okay,” she continues, leading me to the tunnel’s entrance. “It’s safe, don’t worry.”
The three hundred miles of underground channels stay cool and dry most of the time, proving a relatively sound place to stay until it rains.
“You learn to watch the weather,” explains Neil Whitfield, a forty-year-old recovering alcoholic living down here, near Brown. “Floods are rare, but when there’s a storm coming, you make a run for it. There’s no time to fool around. The water level will rise very fast in a matter of minutes,” he adds, raising his hand to the tunnel’s ceiling. “First year I was here, I waited too long and got out paddling on a mattress. People die every year. They get swept and get carried miles away from here. So you gotta be ready.”
Just like the communities living in New York’s Freedom Tunnel, the residents of the Las Vegas flood drains try to look after each other. Dozens ended up here after losing their properties during the 2008 economic crisis, when the city had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country. They know the municipality won’t help, going as far as sending them across state lines to get rid of them. “It’s not ideal having a poverty problem when you’re the Entertainment Capital of the World,” Whitfield notes.
We crouch in the dark, going further underground. Whitfield warns me about scorpions. The halo of our flashlight illuminates graffiti on the walls. Grocery carts and plastic chairs indicate the remnants of old camps.
“That’s Mike’s place,” Whitfield says, stopping in front of a blue tarp hanging from a clothing line. “Mike!” he calls, a scrawny man in a blue hoodie appearing from behind the tarp, a tablet computer in his hands.
Mike Mullen is a rod buster by trade, responsible for the installation of rebar on construction sites. The 8,400 jobs added by construction companies in 2015 benefitted him for a few months until he was let go because of lack of work.
Both Mullen and Whitfield gamble in local casinos to make ends meet and enjoy free treats. They know which slot machines have the best pay-off and the lowest variances. They know where to look for unused credits, which they call “silver mining.” They know which off-strip blackjack tables are the best.
“Machines at the El Cortez return 92 percent on average,” Mullen explains, showing me a tablet app he uses to write advanced formulas. “I use the standard deviation strategy to calculate which spin will be winning. It’s not that complicated. It’s a lot like counting cards, except it doesn’t get you kicked out of the casino,” he continues, stressing that blackjack, craps and video poker are still statistically the best ways to limit the house’s edge on the game.
The two men reminisce about a common friend who died of an overdose in the tunnels underneath the Mandalay Bay the year before. They poke fun at the brightly colored sweaters he wore and at his constant bickering with his imaginary dog.
Whitfield then brings me to his house, a little deeper down the tunnel. Hoarded items are piled up neatly in what he describes as his living room. All his belongings are ready to be moved in case of a sudden flood. He owns a toaster oven and an electric cooler that he plugs into a portable power pack to cook and refrigerate his food. His floor is covered with rugs. Battery-powered LEDs allow him to read whenever he wants.
“That’s not much, but I’m kinda proud of it,” he says.
* * *
It’s late when we emerge to the fresh air. We join a group of tunnel residents sharing dinner together in the middle of the spillway where floodwater would later rush through during a historic spring storm. Deliah Brown is here, as is Christine Alvarez, Mullen’s sweetheart, fresh out of rehab, and a couple other people I haven’t met yet. We all sit down in a circle and enjoy Chinese take-out.
“I slept all day,” says a guy with a red baseball cap.
“I hustled a group of college girls for booze,” says another.
“I got punched in the face by a tourist,” says a third, pointing to a bad bruise on the top of his cheek.
We talk about how hard life can be for those in the margins of society.
“I just wish regular people would see we are not second-rate citizens,” explains Alvarez, a spirited woman wearing fake sapphire earrings. “If they saw what we do every day to survive, if they saw how strong we are, they would understand. A lot of us are more than decent folks.”
Someone applauds, nodding in approval.
“I know who I am,” Alvarez adds, looking straight at me. “And I know there’s a place for me somewhere. I know it.”
Whitfield lets out a chuckle.
“Most people only see what they want to see,” he replies. “They don’t wanna be reminded of the world around them. You can say they’re selfish, or greedy, but it’s hard to blame them. I mean…why would they be concerned by us?”
“In life, there’s the stuff you see, and then there’s the stuff you don’t,” he concludes. “And sometimes it’s better not to see everything.”
We both stand up and go walk in the night. A giant billboard illuminates the nearby highway overpass. Clay dust rises in spirals at each step we make.
Whitfield tells me how he found God in the desert three years ago and how it gave his life a new spark. He tells me how different silence in the desert is, how it doesn’t resemble anything else – tight and dense, a constant stream of void charged with a lingering feel of eternity, a purgatory stillness cleaning all and everything to the bone.
He tells me how sometimes, if the wind is right, he can hear the earth breathe. He shows me the crucifix tattooed on his neck.
“As you get older, you learn things, you know,” he says. “You learn to let go. Nothing you can do will change anything anyway. You learn to accept that.”
The wind is warm and comforting in the suburban night.
When we come back from our walk, I see Brown sitting still near her blanket and her rolling suitcase, looking at the sky.
“Can’t see no stars,” she says. “City’s too bright.”
Traffic goes by on the highway, the cars rushing through in a headlights blaze, leaving blurry red trails behind them.
Brown is comatose from the antidepressants she took earlier. Her words are slow and slurred. Her eyes are glassy, her face blank. “This ain’t real,” she says, still looking at the fake daylight radiating in the stricken sky.
* * *
Back on the Strip, a man in a Homer Simpson costume hands me a coupon for a free drink. He flips me the bird when I say I’m already drunk enough.
The shower I take isn’t enough to remove the dirt and the slime I feel covered with. My shampoo smells like wet wood and herbs.
I think of Hazel’s words: “We all need dreams.”
It’s a simple thing, really. And like all simple things, it’s also very complicated.
Las Vegas doesn’t want for fancy things, but its darker and bleaker side is a stark reminder that being human never was a clean business to begin with, and will always involve failing and losing, dealing with mud and blood and spit, and decaying into bones and teeth until we are one with dust.
A mirage built on a dream built on impossible hopes, Vegas is a confession that being human, that being alive, is a messy predicament we’ve grown to dislike. A shameful issue we cannot wait to replace with artificial cleanliness and pretend optimism.
* * *
“Igotcha, baby!” Keng Joo says to a friend, giving him a small handful of rainbow pills as we lie in a cabana by the side of the corded-off hotel pool. “That shit is awesome, trust me. You’ll never try anything else after that!”
I picture Paul soon getting a text message from someone in Keng Joo’s entourage, asking for more drugs. I picture him leaving his front desk for a quick trip to the parking lot. I picture Angelo in his North Las Vegas stash house, stroking the devil’s hair in a red, red room while one of his men is selling an ounce of something somewhere in a seedy part of town, perhaps by the freeway, the same freeway visitors will use to enter and leave the limits of Paradise, without end.
I picture Keng Joo and his guests dancing and splashing in the fluorescent water, sipping on extravagant drinks, the men eyeing bikini girls and the women yielding to chemical sex in lavish suites, gambling for more glitz and more brand names, all these people lusting, craving for more, begging for life to come back and whisper one last time to their ears, “I am not here.”