The (un)real America

On the weekend that Bear Stearns, one of the largest investment firms in the world, was circling the drain, I was in, of all places, Las Vegas. It was my first visit to this city founded by gangsters, built on gambling and dedicated to the proposition that reality can wait another day, so I was eager to look around.

I mean, what better place to be as America stood on the precipice and looked into the abyss or so I heard it said on CNN.

Back in the days of three martini lunches and tailfins, Las Vegas was a devilish desert town, surrounded by an austere ring of mountains where ancient Indians left their handprints on the sheer faces of unforgiving rocks. As late as 1970, only 270,000 people lived there. They kept the food and lodging cheap, and practically threw in the entertainment. The money was made on gambling, which was Vegas’ main attraction.

Today, gambling is still a big deal, but the city’s business model has expanded considerably. Now gambling is just one dimension of a much larger package, a full-service resort and convention destination the ultimate escape.

There’s nothing cheap about Vegas these days but that’s not to say the place has turned itself into a model of refinement and class. When you see the amount of money that has almost literally been poured into the creation of the temples of make-believe that line the Vegas strip from a fake approximation of the Manhattan skyline to a pint-sized version of the Eiffel Tower one thing becomes clear: Americans have a deep, if very guilty, love for hallucination.

Vegas, of course, is the place where we’re supposed to set that guilt aside. And so you’re encouraged to step into a gondola and glide through a tunnel that leads to a shopping mall, except this mall has a ceiling that looks like it was painted by Raphael, or Michelangelo, or one of those other Ninja Turtles. And then, if you go a little farther, you’ll find yourself in the middle of an outdoor piazza, where people are dining in a sunlight that doesn’t burn. Never mind that you’re not actually outdoors. Or that it’s not daytime.

Just never mind.

We stayed in a motel near the convention center on a street named Paradise Road. Paradise, in this case, had sidewalks so narrow it was difficult for people to walk two abreast without one being bumped into the path of some passing tour bus or truck should another pedestrian show up. On our first morning we set out to find a breakfast place. A tourist map suggested that if we walked a mile or so we would find Vegas’ old downtown, a place called Fremont Street. Surely, we thought, there would be a diner on the way.

It turned out the map’s sense of scale, like everything else in town, was skewed. Fremont was much farther than indicated. Not only that, there was no place to eat en route. We did, however, see a slice of the Vegas that sucks the fumes from all the glitzier attractions the dingy boxes on treeless streets where you can cash an out of state check, pawn your watch, have an “exotic” foot massage or get married.

We found breakfast at a bar that opened early, sitting by a sidewalk in the shadows of iconic old signs rescued from casinos and other businesses that didn’t make the cut from old Vegas to new. These places were torn down, but their bright lights were installed on the street as if they were sculptures. In the end, it seemed, only the lights mattered.

When we got back to our room, I clicked the television. CNN was calling the economy “Issue No. 1.” There was a story about middleclass couples living in trailers because they couldn’t keep up with their house payments. Then a shot from Wall Street, where a big board showed market values falling.

And there was Bear Stearns.

From 2005-2007, Fortune magazine named Bear Stearns America’s “Most Admired” securities firm in its annual “America’s Most Admired Companies” survey, a ranking honoring employee talent, management quality and business innovation. The investment services company was founded in 1923 and known, among other things, for its colorful former chairman, “Ace” Greenberg, who sent his employees memos urging them to re-use paper clips and rubber bands he suggested tying those back together if they were broken.

The news this day was that Bear Stearns, which in February traded at $93 a share, was to be sold to JP Morgan for $2 a share.

Now you see it. Now you don’t.

Suddenly all America seemed a lot like Las Vegas.

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