They hit you with the slots first thing at McCarran. We crossed all-weather carpeting, of the bright pastels popular in the late 60s or contemporary KayBee Toys, until we hit the line for ground pickup. McCarran Airport’s right off the strip, closer to downtown Vegas than Logan is to downtown Boston; you could see the green ziggurat of the MGM Grand from the front door. But it’s still a $12 cab ride. The cabbie made an unconvincing pitch for Lance Burton (“if you guys are lookin’ fer something to see while you’re in town …”). The patter seemed a little too rehearsed, but I couldn’t swear he was lying to us; he didn’t offer to hook us up. Vegas makes me sensitive to the fix.
The desk man at the MGM greeted Dave and I (my friend Dave, first time in Vegas) with corporate politeness. His hands rattled across the keys with an energy I wouldn’t expect of someone at 10:30 PM on a Friday shift. The MGM’s a lovely hotel, sure, but you have to respect it as an efficient machine as well: a team of housekeepers, maintenance and desk staff who turn over five thousand rooms every week. This revelation was just sinking in as the clerk handed us two room keys and directed us to the elevators. Our room had a southward view, showing us the airport we’d just left. Pictures of Jack Lemmon, Lucille Ball and Lou Diamond Phillips (together at last!) hung on the walls. The room, like the city, whiffed of cigarettes.
Dave and I could see Mandalay Bay from our hotel window, so we decided to walk there for dinner. We left by the main exit, putting us on Tropicana Ave. I wouldn’t call this the first mistake of the weekend; rather, the first time we underestimated Vegas. Every building you can see on the strip is thirty stories tall; every sign, taller than the tallest building you’ve ever lived in. Merely getting off the MGM grounds took ten minutes of walking, by which time we ended up outside the Tropicana. Getting from there to Mandalay Bay took another twenty minutes. Walking from the edge of Mandalay Bay through its roaring fountains, lush greenery and three-hundred yard driveway took another ten minutes, mostly uphill. Once inside, we navigated the shops at Mandalay Bay, flagging down a native guide and sniffing for trail sign, until we found the Burger Bar, recommended to us by our friend Joanna. She had not steered us astray: my Kobe beef burger oozed flavor. The beer selection would have honored a brew pub in any American city; in a tourist trap bar in a tourist mall in a resort hotel in America’s adult playground, it seemed excessive. But catering to every taste means catering to good taste, too.