Lessons From Las Vegas

(Reading time: 8 minutes, 1700 words)

I work in an industry that is, dare I say, regrettable. It is the world of affiliate marketing – the online manifestation of advertising's ability to penetrate every inch of space where human attention is focused. My thoughts on this industry are for another day, but last weekend I was shuttled to Las Vegas for a conference and I unexpectedly learned a lesson in compassion.

I've been to Vegas before, but in another life, when I was well-adjusted to its sickness.

At home my days consist of riding my bike to school or work where I either dreamily explore the world of ideas in my philosophical studies, or sit in a quiet office with a beautiful view of the Wasatch Range. Routinely during the week, I get out for a bike ride along a river or mountain trail. In the evenings I spend time with my wife and daughters, followed by studying and writing. It's not without struggle, but it is a peaceful life, and one that I'm grateful for.

Arriving in Vegas was a shock to the senses. The dark enclosure of the casino hotel forced me outside within an hour, seeking something beautiful. But I was disappointed. The towering hotels blockaded the natural world, letting only tiny pieces of sky peek through. But the night air was refreshing, so I walked the streets.

I began to feel disgusted. I imagined the motives of the men that constructed the towering temples of materialism and gluttony. I considered the human ingenuity that went into the engineering and architecture of these edifices. And I couldn't help feel that such talent and labor was wasted. How better directed those efforts could have been.

I texted my wife: This place is a testament to everything that is despicable about humankind. I saw driving billboards; I was solicited at every turn; and I watched the finely adorned drunken hordes walk by each disheveled vagabond playing a tattered instrument hoping for a buck or two. I was saddened at the immigrants, compelled to hand out discount flyers in hopes of being able to feed their children. I made it back to my room and attempted to read or write, but nothing came. The room was too dark, only lit by lamps, and the window revealed only a sea of other windows and concrete. I stewed and paced in the shadows of capitalism's icons like a caged animal.

And then I gave in. After three hours of feeling burdened and wanting to leave, I thought, This isn't living in the moment. I'm here, so I might as well enjoy myself. Resorting to old ways, I bought a bottle of Hennessy and began drinking. I played some craps. Hours later I went to bed drunk with the TV on.

The following day I schmoozed marketers and advertisers while they schmoozed me. We hatched plans, motivated by one question: how do we get more ads in front of more eyes?

The next night was much like the previous. The conference brings with it a host of private parties—a competition in branding by the bigwigs in the biz. The more extravagant the party, the greater the industry clout. More Hennessy, more gambling, and women—all of it paid for by the higher-ups with wages stolen from the everyman. Girls in heels and carefully-placed pieces of tape wandered the parties and served drinks. They danced in the corners and posed for pictures. Liquor flowed freely. I was having fun.

With enough alcohol in us to fuel a turbine, some friends and I were ready to burn up the night. So we went to the strip club. After all, it is Vegas.

People think strip clubs are about sex, and they are to some degree. But they're really about human connection. The desire to feel loved and wanted has been commodified. The woman becomes object, the patron becomes capital, and both are robbed of a bit of dignity as profiteers stroll to the bank.

Cute girls attempted to get my money. But when I told them I had none, they moved on. I gave a twenty to an attractive, ornery blonde. She danced for three minutes then left, spitefully. A kind girl named Sophie sat with me. I gave her $14 and bought her a glass of wine as we talked for a while. I wanted to know her story, but she wasn't telling it. I couldn't blame her for not trusting me. When she asked for more money, the conversation suddenly felt meaningless, so I left. But not without tossing back a few more drinks first.

At 5 a.m. I staggered into my room, ordered an omelet, and then collapsed onto a cheap but comfortable mattress.

The next day was one of recovery. Lots of healthy foods and lots of fluids. I vowed I could not do it again, but by evening I was beginning to feel pretty good, and the city was calling.

I emptied the last of my Hennessy into a tumbler and went to meet some friends. I took a sip of the cognac, but my body cringed, so I tossed it. A hundred feet outside the casino, a peddler approached, offering discount tickets to a strip club. I wasn't inclined. But after a convincing pitch by the street hustler and my friends, I reluctantly climbed into a limo.

A fifteen minute ride took us away from the gleaming facade of the strip and a dirty city emerged. From my comfortable leather seat I saw people pushing shopping carts down garbage-strewn streets.

As we approached the front doors of the strip club, I stopped. This isn't what I want, I thought. My friends went through the darkened doorway. Alone, I hailed a cab back to the hotel.

On the drive back I stopped at a 7-Eleven to hit the ATM. After getting cash for the cabdriver, I held the door for a poor women on crutches and tried to understand her suffering. Then, as I was about to jump in the cab, a man in a wheelchair called from the corner of the parking lot. Holding a cup out, he asked if I'd buy him a Pepsi. I started back toward the store to do so, then noticed my running cab meter. I reflected on the $200 in my bank account, my family, and the four days before my next paycheck. (Despite the flow of money in marketing, I haven't capitalized on it.) I said, "Sorry, man," and jumped in the cab. But before I could look away, the man looked at me in a way that shook me. He was hurt. His eyes went from desperation and humility to one of pain and shock. A Pepsi, that's all he wanted. Probably $.79. And I told the man no.

My heart ached on the drive back to my comfortable hotel. I thought about asking the cabby to turn back, but didn't. I sat and hoped that maybe someone else would be more compassionate than I had been. But my hope was fruitless, because I hadn't acted. It did nothing to ease my sense of regret. Had I let the meter tick up another twenty cents and bought the man a drink, I would have been out a buck, but I would have gained something immensely more valuable: the belief that maybe an act of kindness could convince a man that there is still some good in the world; that maybe there is reason for hope. Instead, he sat in his wheelchair stunned by my disregard, and I sat in a cab wishing I had done more.

As I approached the shining skyscrapers I thought about the corporate wealth that forms their foundations. I thought about the dimwitted throngs who think they are merely enjoying themselves as they binge on the alluring, false promises of Vegas, myself included. And I thought about how the love of money and pleasure makes one ignorant as to the social consequences of their indulgences. How could millions of dollars exchange hands every hour on a space no bigger than a square mile while people starve and suffer in the midst? I was outraged and saddened.

I returned to my hotel room and began to write. I left only to eat, and to take a sandwich and an apple to a vagrant – a human being. I saw him within a hundred yards of the casino doors, moving slowly with his cane. All around us crowds sipped wine and filled themselves, pedestalled on restaurant patios.

"Are you hungry, man?"

"Yes," he said.

"Here's an apple and a sandwich, just for you."

"God bless you, sir."

"You too, brother," I replied, as I shook his hand.

He wandered on. And I returned to my air-conditioned room for one more night before flying back to the comfort and safety of my home.