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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Las Vegas--No Fear, No Loathing

November 14, 2001|JOHN BALZAR

LAS VEGAS — What passes for normal life now is so staggeringly strange that the bizarre can seem oddly reassuring. For once, Las Vegas is a place to come to get away from weirdness.

Las Vegas has always beckoned those who are serious about escaping the assault of reality, a redoubt without clocks, a billion-dollar strip where the white noise of money muffles the sound of the world, or so they say, a place where almost everything is distorted by scale. Televisions are 20 times bigger than normal here, but you won't find one of them tuned to CNN. Per capita newsstands are only slightly more abundant than in Kabul. As far as I can tell, nobody has a radio except in the car, which is parked a mile away.

In other words, the world is here at hand but we are blacked out from all its troubles.

On this particular weekend, the computer geeks have come by the tens of thousands. And the "adult entertainment" industry is having a convention too. A hotel that looks like a child's fantasy castle and, in fact, is roiling with children, is adjacent to another that promises "tasteful" topless entertainment, if you're willing to stay up late and pay money to find out what that means. The Guggenheim is exhibiting motorcycles, and the New York skyline never did have the World Trade Center, although now it has a small wall of grief for the dead. The USO show at one of the big hotels is sold out.

Writers and social critics have been coming to Vegas for as long as I can remember to poke fun at America. When the commander in chief ordered the country back to normal, I'm pretty sure the city fathers here understood what he meant.

But maybe it's true that everything in the world works in circles, that tomorrow loops around and becomes yesterday, that the oddest fantasies become touchstones, that Las Vegas becomes not some expression of extremes but a retreat to the simply fanciful.

So what does the adult entertainment industry do at a convention? I assigned myself to find out. Unfortunately, they must keep different hours in that business. Except for a sign, alas, I see no evidence of them, unless they are disguised in clothing and feeding quarters into slot machines, in which case they are a pretty ordinary bunch from what I can tell.

The 150,000 or so luminaries of the Information Age are also strangely incognito. I have read about past Comdex technology exhibitions in Las Vegas. Now to find myself in the midst of one raises the tantalizing possibility of peeking into the future.

What do the world's most "wired" people do when they gather? As best I can tell, they hang out with the adult entertainment workers. In 36 hours of pretty-much nonstop journalism on the sun decks, in the bars, at restaurants and in hotel lobbies, I see not a single laptop in action. Neither do I catch sight of even one of those supposedly vital held-held personal electronic devices; whatever urgent information these machines convey, it is now deferred. And best of all, nobody, at least within earshot of me, has dared to order a virtual martini.

Bill Gates is in town to tell conventioneers about a new electronic tablet "allowing users to interact with their computer in exciting new ways." I wonder if he is strolling around and asking himself, why are these machines that we cannot live without nowhere to be seen? And why are people interacting with each other instead of their tablets?

I pinch myself. This is like being at a rock 'n' roll convention where everyone plays acoustic. Like I say, in the autumn of 2001, Las Vegas can be strangely reassuring.

I pass on the Guggenheim's motorcycles. I find New York too crowded. I put off Venice on grounds that crossing the street is not necessarily worth the bother. I am left to choose between the tropical nightclub in my hotel that sells rum from 20 different countries or the vodka establishment next door, behind a headless statue of Lenin.

I set out to have a little fun with normal. Unexpectedly I found it, in Las Vegas of all places. Not until I'm standing in line to leave does the newly abnormal world beyond Nevada's vast desert intrude. The man in front of me is checking out. But he's making a back-up reservation so he can check back in tonight, just in case. His wife called. New York airports are closed. Something awful has happened again.

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