Vegas for Nerdy Professors

I am not normal. I do not find it easy to enjoy Las Vegas. I look at the wondrous fountains and think, “Stop sucking the water out of this desert!” I look at gamblers and think, “Get outside, you pale-faced unhealthy-looking people, you frighten me, stop giving away your money, how can you think with all those lights & bells & smells, how can I flee this depressing space…”


But I went to Las Vegas anyway, for the Urban History Association conference, and I actually enjoyed it. In a bleak minimall three miles from the strip, I visited America’s best Thai restaurant. Around the campus of UNLV, I walked all over the back-roads of Las Vegas, marveling at small mid-century apartment courts and getting too many blisters. On the Strip, I enjoyed the not-yet-tacky still-just-thrilling beauty of City Center, where I developed both a favorite bartender and a favorite drink (oh, Milanesa Sour, why are you not famous?), and perhaps that helps explain why I got to have far more interesting conversations than I typically have at academic conferences.  I now know a little too much about my colleagues’ marriages, now. And I didn’t even have time to visit the neon graveyard museum.

I kept on feeling as if I were back in Hong Kong, with all those pedestrian bridges on the Strip, passing in & out of maze-like emporiums arranged non-linearly. I swear that the penthouse bar at Mandarin Oriental is modeled, down to its bathrooms, on the penthouse bar at a central Kowloon Hotel I used to go to 15 years ago, except the one in Vegas is less adventurous.

More than Hong Kong, though, Vegas simply reminded me of a public downtown: something that Southern California lacks. I am beginning to suspect that this is why my students love Vegas. It isn’t the smoky gambling or the ballyhooed sin, but actually simply the chance to be out in public with strangers in a pedestrian city. They might be able to get that in parts of L.A. or even San Diego, too, but those cities are less walkable and somehow feel less safe than Las Vegas’s packaged-for-tourists conviviality. That is what I chose to enjoy about Las Vegas. I got to see a midget dressed as Elvis, next to someone in a Hello Kitty costume picking her nose, next to some sublime fountains and fabulous conversations. I could, almost, forget that this requires sucking the water out of the desert.

And I got three nights away from Sophie, which made me feel both excited & guilty. She left me phone messages: “Hello, I love you, bye-bye,” a message whose sweetness was balanced by her previous message: “Hello poo-poo.” She also got time alone with Ben, which is good for both of them. Strangely, I think my current academic schedule is actually a nice parenting schedule right now. Soph can be so clingy, it’s good for her & me to be away from each other for one or two conferences a year. And it was good for me to get to be at a conference, talking only to adults for 3 days straight. Someone even blogged about my conference talk, explaining my own research, something which I rarely do here.


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