Saturday, March 6 2021

confessions: bad decisions in las vegas

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Dear Journal,

Forgive me readers, for I have sinned. In the fall of 2017 I was lucky enough to get an invitation to AWS reinvent, which is a pretty massive tech conference held by Amazon each year in Las Vegas. That would be my first and only time in the city of sin, and I wouldn't leave without making some bad decisions. What was my indulgence? It wasn't gambling, nor drugs, nor women. My sin was feeling the freedom to look like an idiot in a city that, in all honesty, I never plan to visit again.

Lost in the Parking Lot

I took my first step outside of the Las Vegas international airport, and my first breath of warm desert air stirred something inside me that made me want to take a long walk. Google Maps told me that the my hotel on the Vegas strip was an hour on foot. I only had one back pack, I was on my fourth cup of coffee that day, and I had a skateboard. I decided to walk.

2021 03 06 selfie

Moments after I snapped this selfie, I discovered that I had walked the wrong direction. I was boxed in by a parking lot, a road with no crosswalk, and a high concrete barrier. I turned and walked for another few minutes only to discover another dead end. I spun in a circle, squinting into the empty blacktop. The brakes of a white van squealed. A van pulled up to the curb where I was spinning in a circle.

"What the hell are you doing?" said a hoarse voice from the driver side window. I recognized the Las Vegas Airport security badge on his jacket.

"Hey there," I replied with a dumb wave. "How do you get out of here exactly?"

"Where are you going?" asked the security guard impatiently.

"Uh, the strip," I said stupidly.

The guard leaned out his window and brought his aviator sunglasses to the tip of his nose. "And you're walking?" he said, cracking a chuckle.

"Yeah," I said. "Where do I go exactly?"

"Well you can't walk out of here," he said. "But I can drive you to the first street out of here. Get in." His passenger door popped open. I climbed into the van and we sped off down a narrow road behind the concrete wall that had boxed me in.

"I saw it was an hour walk from the strip. That's doable, right?" I asked.

"Oh yeah," he replied without taking his eyes off the road. "You're young, and I see you got a skateboard. You can make it. In fact, I met a few women in their seventies last week that also wanted to walk to the strip. But they weren't as lost as you."

The van slowed to a stop. Before I left the van, the guard gave me an uncertain smile. "Don't get lost, OK?" he said. "Las Vegas is a desert. Don't die or nothing out there."

A desert. Before I saw any of the flashing lights and bustling crowds of Las Vegas, I walked through a seemingly endless suburban desert. After an hour of walking, the sun wasn't so charming anymore. My backpack melted into my sore shoulder blades. My feet puckered with blisters. But the scenery was beautiful. There was still life drama in every direction. Rusted over mail boxes. Lizards darting by on the sidewalk. Yards filled with these scorched red rocks that looked like they were from mars.

2021 03 06 desert

That day, I set a personal step count record.

2021 03 06 steps

A Dollar for a Story

I'm not a gambler. But somehow I felt like if I wasn't losing at least a little money, I wasn't getting the full Vegas experience. I had the dumb idea to take out a small amount of cash. Stories, I thought. I'd offer the cash to people in exchange for telling me a good Vegas story.

Night fell. There was a group of guys walking past me on my side of the street. I ran up to them to catch up. "Hey, any of you guys got a good Vegas story?" I said. They stopped and huddled around me. I was met with the strong smell of whiskey and pot. I held out a dollar, and before I got another word in, one of the guys snatched it out of my hand and walked away. The group followed.

I decided it probably wasn't a good idea to ask tourists. If they weren't too drunk or too high, they just didn't care or just didn't have anything interesting to say. I could understand that - you're in a different mode on vacation.

I was making my way back to my hotel, following a narrow walk way over a bridge. There was a sketchy looking guy in a hood. Under his breath, he was inconspicuously muttering COCAINE COCAINE COCAINE to people as they passed. I passed him the first time, then stopped on my heels. He gave me a wry smile as I approached.

"What's up, big fella, wanna party?" he asked.

"No drugs for me sir," I said. "But look. I'm looking for stories. If I give you a buck, will you tell me a good Vegas story?"

I'll never forget how big his grin was. The way his gold tooth flashed as he rubbed his hands together, sifting through his mental Rolodex of wild Vegas experiences. "Shiiiiit man," he laughed. "Oh, I GOT stories. There was this one time when these to girls from Canada - you know - bought some cocaine from me. THEN they invited me to hit the strip with them."

"Then what happened?" I said, expecting the story to take a turn.

"I did," he said abruptly. "It was awesome. We did a lot of cocaine."

That would be the last "Vegas story" I purchased that week. Talk about buyer's remorse.

A Message Home

To promote their clubs, companies will send out these really attractive girls or hunky guys to take pictures with people. There were these two dudes outside of the Hard Rock cafe dressed like Chippendales dancers. I thought it would be funny if I tipped one of them to take a snapchat for Marissa. I approached the men.

"Hey, would one of you mind sending a message to my wife? She's stuck at home with our new baby, and I think she would think it was funny," I asked.

"Gotta tip us bro," he said without even looking down. They were both wearing dark sunglasses. They were shirtless, wearing bowties around their necks. Reluctantly, I dipped into the leftover money from my failed "vegas story" experiment. One of the guys took my phone and switched on the charisma.

"Hey Marissa," He said with a wink. "It's so cold out here... want to come keep us warm?"

I could be heard laughing in the background. "That was perfect, dude, thanks," I said. "Hey lets do another. Could you send one like that to my friend? His wife's is named Becca."

The other guy took my phone into his meaty hand. The camera started rolling. The other guy was not short and sweet. In his thick middle eastern accent, he riffed with some very direct X-rated material for a solid forty seconds, then he pressed the "send" button.

"OK," I said trying to hide my regret. "That was... different. OK thanks guys."

As I was walking away, I quickly fired a text to my friend apologize for the obscene message. "I am so sorry," I wrote. "He was just supposed to say something kind of cheeky. I didn't think he would go off script like that."

The Laundromat

I wanted to pack light, so my solution for stretching out my clothes over a work week was to bring only two outfits and find a Laundromat on Wednesday. It turns out there are almost no Laundromats around the Vegas strip. I was running out of clothes and had resorted to wearing a goofy bright colored t-shirt, short shorts, and a pair of MongoDB dress socks that I had picked up for free from a conference booth. I decided to take an Uber a few miles off the strip.

The girl who picked me up had a thick Midwestern accent. As we talked on the ride over, I learned she was a University of Wisconsin student. We had a nice Midwestern chat musing about the cultural differences of Las Vegas and poking fun at my dire laundry situation.

As we drove, I noticed how dark the side streets seemed without the bright Vegas lights. She parked the car and turned to face me from the front seat.

"OK," she said, her voice taking a grave and serious tone. "Dude, I think this is a bad idea. I think you can handle yourself, but this is not a nice part of town."

I sat there silently. She nervously scanned the storefront and then locked eyes with me.

"Listen to me. You do your laundry. Don't talk to or look at anyone. Then get the fuck out."

I nodded and thanked her. Her car peeled away. I started a load of wash and found a seat in the corner of the Laundromat. There were abandoned shopping carts outside on the curb. The lights buzzed and flickered. A few bums shuffled around, staring me down as they passed. There was a guy passed out in a chair next to me with a bagged up bottle of liquor. I heeded the advice of the Uber driver, staring down at my goofy dress socks for what seemed like an eternity. I wanted to capture some kind of memento, but I only had the courage to snap a picture of my left foot from where I sat in the chair.

2021 03 06 laundromat

I called another Uber. I felt physically relieved to see that white car with the Uber sticker park in the front window. I climbed into the car with my bag of clean clothes. We drove silently for a few minutes. The car stopped at a light, and the Uber driver turned to me. "I bet you were glad to get the hell out of there, huh?" I laughed nervously, trying not to think about what had just happened.

I should have just brought a few extra changes of clothes.


It was the end of the week, and after walking up and down the strip to attend conference talks, I had blisters on my feet the size of grapes. Some work friends recommended that I get a massage. Thanks to my thrifty Dutch upbringing, I couldn't bring myself to pay for anything beyond a $20 Chinese foot massage. I was led into a room where I planted my sore feet in a warm salt bath. The elderly masseuse quietly applied lotion to my fingers and shoulders.

This is great! I thought. I thought I was just getting a foot massage, but she's rubbing my hands and shoulders too. This has got to be some kind of travel hack!

The woman wrapped her hand around my arm. She heaved my body up, grunting. "So heavy," she whispered. "Boy, your are fat."

She continued to pinch each of my fingers. Without warning, she brought one of my fingers up to her nose and sniffed. "Stinky", she said aloud.

I actually appreciated the insult. I'm one of those people that have trouble relaxing during a massage, but somehow her direct insults made me feel like I was doing her a favor by not making a big deal out of the affront - and that made it possible for me to just relax.

2021 03 06 massage