Towards the end of last week I spent three days in Las Vegas for the first time for a conference and stayed at one of the hotels on the infamous strip, the mile or so of road that has all the big hotels and gambling casinos. Since I do not gamble, such locations for conferences do not provide any special attraction for me. A monastery that has internet access would attract me more because I prefer peace and quiet and those two things are in very short supply on the Las Vegas strip.
I did spend an hour or so one evening wandering through the hotel casino watching people gamble. What struck me was how little fun people seemed to be having. They would sit staring intently at their slot machines or at the blackjack tables or at the roulette wheels. The casinos are deliberately designed to have few windows and no clocks so that the gamblers have little sense of the passage of time and can get into an almost trance-like state.
The gamblers I saw did not seem to be particularly well-to-do, just ordinary people, perhaps on their annual vacation from working ordinary jobs. There were some special closed-off rooms where I assume the high rollers gamble, away from the hoi polloi.
I spent the most time watching people play craps, a game I do not understand at all. It has this table that is covered with green baize cloth with patterns and markings and numbers. People would place chips of various colors and patterns at various places on the table, someone would throw a pair of dice, and based on the result the workers would move chips around or take them away or give some to the players. All of this was done solemnly and largely in silence and strongly reminded me of religious rituals, where everyone knows exactly what needs to be done and when, with the croupier as a kind of ersatz priest.
I felt really sorry for the workers in the casinos. They looked bored out of their minds. The constant bright flashing lights, the loud dinging noises from the slot machines, the cigarette smoke were all so aggravating that it drove me out of the room after an hour because I could not stand it any more. I cannot imagine how the workers tolerate it night after night.
It is also physically demanding work. I noticed that the workers at the various gambling tables had to stand all the time though they could easily have been given high stools to sit on and still do their jobs. Presumably the owners and management think that fatiguing their workers this way squeezes out a little more profit. I see this same thing happening with grocery and department store cashiers.
When I was eating at a restaurant in the hotel, a young woman would circle the rooms calling out ‘Keno’, another gambling game that seems to be some kind of scratch-card gamble that one can play while eating or doing something else. In the forty-five minutes that I was there she must have circled the room about twenty times and was always on the go. At one point, I stopped her and asked whether she had ever used one of those pedometers that would measure how far she walks during work. She said she hadn’t but thought it a good idea. She must walk many, miles in the course of each shift and I suspect that she gets paid close to the minimum wage.
I also spent a couple of hours driving around the city with a friend looking at the sights. It is unbelievably tacky, with huge hotels based on various architectural styles, faux classical Roman and Greek and Egyptian being the most popular, all clashing with each other. The parts of the town that were away from the center had some of the traditional charm of the American southwest but the ubiquity of slot machines and other garish gambling venues invariably spoiled it.
It was a relief to leave Las Vegas. I will not be going back if I can help it.
POST SCRIPT: Living in two different worlds
One can understand why John McCain, despite his new-found admiration for Joe the Plumber, might find it hard to appreciate the life of a regular working person. The median household income in the US is $48,000 per year, ‘median’ meaning half the households make less than that, and half more. But John McCain spends over five times that amount ($273,000) on paying for his household staff alone!
That may explain why he thinks cutting taxes even further for the very wealthy is good policy because then the rich can create more jobs by hiring even more domestic help, in his case maybe someone to keep track of how many cars and homes he owns, so that he is not embarrassed by not knowing. It might also explain why he keeps talking about a capital gains tax cut as being good for the middle class. People like him have little idea of the kinds of concerns that everyday people have.