Poetic license is an age-old concept. Traditionally poets have been free to invoke place as a territory between invention and creation.
Day one: Santa Barbara to Las Vegas. We get a late start, but we drop into the desert at just the right time, as the light is glowing pinkest, on the edge of the edge of darkness’s swift descent. When we arrive we spend 45 minutes driving circles around the hotel parking garage, the air con giving me goosebumps, the sat nav spluttering. When we finally make it inside there’s a line 20-deep at the check-in desk, mostly men in wrinkled suits and small groups of women plotting the fastest route to drunken oblivion. “What happened,” the receptionist says when we finally make it up to the desk, “late flight?” As if you couldn’t possibly deliberately arrive at this hour: as if we might miss something. (At the time this makes me anxious and hurried – we must get up to our room as soon as possible and dump our things and get back out and see everything we can before it’s too late! – but by the morning this seems absurd, since it is virtually impossible to distinguish morning from night here.)
I put on a dress and we go for a walk down the strip. It turns out Vegas is exactly what you’d expect minus any glamor at all, which maybe is exactly what you’d expect. The Bellagio is in aggressively bad taste, all thick-carpeted casino floors, a fug of desperate smoke, $60 buffet dinners, stone-faced dealers in ill-fitting uniforms. It’s impossible to tell where one thing ends and another begins; even the distinction between outside and inside is not always clear, and we flit along like moths, drawn to the lights. Everything has a mechanical, industrial feel, the slot machines being worked like a production line, the constant procession of tourists like the shuffle of shift-workers at the end of the day.
Underpinning it all, though, is the sense that this is a child’s city, constructed in the imagination of a 10-year-old tycoon. “What would you like your city to look like?”, someone asks him, and the child points apparently at random: “the Eiffel Tower here - the Statue of Liberty there - Venice here - a Disney castle there - a pirate ship here - a giant candy store there…”
A friend tells a story of being in a cab once, heading back to the airport after a weekend in Vegas. His cab driver suddenly says - look - out there! - and points, and there are a couple of guys dragging suitcases along a desert road, in the remnants of their smart suits, sleeves rolled, collars stained, armpits seeping. They’re aimed, loosely, for the airport. Happens all the time, the cab driver says, reeling past. They come out here and they lose everything. All they have left in the world is a plane ticket back to wherever they came from.
I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a good story, which in a way is a metaphor for the city itself.
As we walk down the strip we pass a parade of loiterers with cardboard signs: homeless vet, please help; need money for food; need money for weed. One couple, 18 or 19, in old Doc Martens, sucking on fresh ice cream cones, have set up a sign that reads: “We need money for rent this month!” I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a good story. Maybe they are sitting there laughing at all of us, passing by: their hat is as full as anyone else’s, after all – fuller than the homeless vet’s, even. Maybe in an hour or so they will get up and spend the money on booze and new boots and then go home to their parents. Maybe they really do need the money and maybe if they sit here long enough, over the course of a week, or a month, they will make enough to cover their rent. Maybe that is not as stupid as it sounds, actually: crowdfunding, Vegas style. A child’s dream of the future: a kind of quasi-adulthood. (“The Eiffel Tower here…and a giant candy store there…and when you grow up you can sit outside and eat ice cream at midnight!”)
For some reason I’m reminded of all this 10 days later, in Ojai, the end of the trip. Within an hour of arriving at our motel we meet JJ and Moonblossom (“it’s not my birth name,” she says). For two days we’re neighbors and I never once see him in a shirt; she, meanwhile, wears a heavy black sweatshirt and radiates an unnerving calm with vaguely religious undertones. They sit on the terrace outside their room all day, smoking weed and sipping beer. Their story is that they both have kids with other partners and fucked up pasts but after all that they finally found each other and now they’re drifting around in a van stuffed to the gills with all their possessions, making a documentary, for which an anonymous donor in London has given them funding. They believe in past lives and one night JJ tells us about how his most recent past life was as a polygamous cult leader who died in the 1970s, just before he was born. Some of my wives are still alive, of course, he says. So I looked one up and found her phone number and decided to call her and tell her I was the reincarnation of her husband. She didn’t seem too surprised. She just said look, that may be, but you were a real asshole, so why the hell would I want to hear from you now?
I don’t know if this is true, I hope it is, but either way it sure is a good story.