I was in Las Vegas last Saturday, walking down the street at 7 a.m., looking for a breakfast joint, a bitter cold wind blowing past the neon avenues of casinos, and finally, feeling I was on the road to perdition, I walked into the Golden Nugget and was directed by a security guy past several acres of flashing dinging slot machines to a café back in the corner and there, among flashing lights and dinging, I ordered a garden omelet with a side of hash browns and coffee, and struck up a conversation with my neighbor, a guy from Long Beach who said he’d been to a burlesque show the night before and found it rather ho-hum. The women were big and manly and the comedian was “very gay” and mostly made jokes about his mother and the whole thing was less bawdy than your average post office mural. I looked over his shoulder at the few men playing the slots, a pitiful lot, men who looked like they’d been ditched by girlfriends and couldn’t remember where their car was parked, and it struck me as sad that a city designed for escapism should be so forlorn.
I was in Las Vegas to give a talk about growing up in the Fifties in a small town in Minnesota, the culture my generation strove mightily to escape, the righteous, abstemious, suspicious culture of our hardworking Depression-era parents. We took up the Beach Boys and Beat poetry and long hair and the Grateful Dead to get ourselves out of that Midwestern framework. We were named Gary and Bob and Sharon and Karen and we gave our children literary names like Emma and Annabella and Oliver and Noah and now, in old age, we find ourselves oppressed by our progressive offspring who hold us responsible for racism, poverty, the theft of Indian lands, and who police our language and expect us to honor them as survivors of our abusive parenting. Nuts to that. We’re out of here, kids. Bye. See you around.
The Las Vegas we need isn’t about gambling, it’s a town where we can feel hip. Wear bell-bottoms and tie-dye and sandals and listen to tribute bands do the Doors, the Stones, the Dead, and maybe comics doing scatological jokes and skinny people doing nude scenes from “Hair” and we’ll maybe play Scrabble for money and feast on food that’s bad for us and — here’s the big draw — an open stage where we can read our writing to an audience of other writers waiting to read theirs.
This is true escapism, to feel you’re an artist, like me in Vegas talking about my hometown. At home, I’m forever reminded of my limitations. I don’t know about plumbing or electricity or even replacing the ink cartridge in the printer. My wife loves me dearly but after I load the dishwasher, she rearranges things. She makes the coffee because I make it too strong. I once made our bed and she had to remake it because the corners weren’t tight. But in Las Vegas, I walked out on a stage and people applauded and I was the center of attention for ninety minutes. It was beautiful. This is the ultimate escapism.
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The new Las Vegas should be in Minnesota, a state of polite people who take each other seriously and avoid harsh judgments. The Strip will be Lake Street, and instead of casinos, coffeehouses where you can sing your songs, read poetry, or display your photography, and people will admire it. You’re a retired English teacher, and now you can walk out on stage, nod to the piano player and sing “Ripple” and “Wild Horses” and be appreciated. Your children scorn you, but here you are in the spotlight, smiling faces turned up toward you, and you pull out a Lucky and light it just like Frank used to do, and you sing “My Way” and it’s beautiful.
Lake Street extends for a couple miles. Dozens of empty storefronts wait for redevelopment. In five years, this could be a cultural mecca for elderly persons like me who are looking for self-vindication. You go back to New York or L.A., people ask where you went, you say, “I had an exhibit of my water colors and I did a reading of my poems and sang three nights in a club.” They say, “I didn’t know you were a performer.” Well, now they do. In L.A., you’re just an old CPA, but you were very big in Minneapolis. Very big.
Prairie Home Productions