Tuesday, September 10, 2019

NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION DAY



Moonrise Over Vegas
Thomas Van Stein


Excerpted from Surreal Bounce (2009), privately printed in a limited edition of 150 copies.



Remember the days when despondent people ended their lives by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge?  

Now, according to the American Association of Suicidology, suicides are cashing their final chips in Las Vegas, the new do-yourself-in capital of the United States.

The artist and I trek to Vegas with this mission:  Find out why people are choosing a desert oasis known as sin city as their last stop of choice.  

I dont gamble and Im wholly indifferent to casinos, so this is not about rationalizing a gambling addiction, nor a way to visit Vegas as a tax write-off.  

When your plane lands at McCarran International Airport, you think you can reach out and touch a view of the Southern Strip:  a black pyramid, a sphinx, a Manhattan skyline, throw in the Eiffel Tower to evoke a sense of misplacement.

“It just looks like its near,” says our cab driver, flipping his meter.  “An optical illusion.  Thats what Vegas is mostly about.  I should know, been here forty years, the concrete business, helped build the place.  Its all a mirage.”

He drops me at Mandalay Bay Resort, named for its concrete compound of swimming pools and beach mirage with simulated waves.  Judging by the hordes that queue for an hour each morning to claim a lounge, youd think this is Waikiki Beach.  Its a cool zone for kids.  If they were allowed in.  But Vegas has done away with the animal exhibits and medieval jousting it once featured for attracting whole families.

My room on the 28th floor features floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking The Strip.  

But the windows dont open, so you cannot free-fall into the view but must continue breathing air vented from the buildings bowels (a slow asphyxiation).  

There is nothing about this room that suggests you should feel at home.  This is no accident; it was designed that way.  

This is because the resort owners want you out of your room, in th casino downstairs, giving your money to them.

Indeed. The Mandalays hub is a sprawling casino whose slot machines and gaming tables are positioned so that you cannot avoid them, whatever your pleasure, whichever your direction.  

Trekking a quarter-mile through the casino from Point A (the elevator) to Point B (a bar), I become disoriented, and end up back at Point A.

Can misplacement, optical illusion, simulation and disorientation, individually or in any combination, lead to suicidal thoughts?

I need a cocktail, quick, to sort this through.  

At the outer-reaches of Mandalay, the décor of Rumjungle includes a wall of tortoise shells.  Alas, they are not relics of an endangered species, but just another simulated mirage. 

The artist is waiting at the bar.  Hed flown in the day before. 

“Sorry,” I say, “I got lost.”

“Happened to me twice yesterday.  What Ive discovered so far is everyone here is lost.”

Early Vegas operators baited visitors by offering cheap food and accommodation to pack them into casinos.  

Now almost every high-class restaurant in the United States has staked a presence in the USAs Number One tourist trap, along with high-class prices to match.  

Plus an attitude that says, There are more people than restaurant seats in this town, bub, so book early, like, six months ago, or duke the maitre d.

Youve already tipped the valet, the bellhop and the concierge, the latter to squeeze you into a magic show at a "brokered" price.

The artist is too broke to tip anyone, and thats why he sits with an empty beer bottle at the bar, where even the bartender ignores him.  

I order him a beer, a martini for myself.  

“So what are we doing here?” he asks.

“Suicide.”  I chew an olive at the end of my toothpick.

He looks alarmed.  “Both of us?” 

I nod.  “Its the eleventh leading cause of death in the United States.  What we need to find out is, why this place?”

“Drink up, Ill show you why.”  He had already reconnoitered the town in my absence.  “Im already on the verge myself.  I think you have to gamble to keep your sanity.”

We walk a quarter-mile through slots and gaming tables and hundreds of people gambling their lives away, to the Mandalays taxi stand, wait our turn in line.  

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“Venice, Paris, New York.”  The artist rolls his eyes.  
“Youll see.”

Nine of the ten largest hotels in the world are in Las Vegas.  Four of them share an intersection; 12,953 rooms on one corner; on most days, fully occupied.

We whip around the themed resorts.  

First, Caesars Palace (ancient Rome).  In Roman society, suicide was utilized to preserve honor and prevent confiscation of your familys property if you’d seriously misbehaved.  The slashing of wrists in a warm bath was invented here.

Luxor.  Drowning was the preferred method in ancient Egypt.

The Venetian (gondoliers on faux canals).  Venice is where you romance the person who eventually drives you to despair and suicide.

After that, Paris (fresh baguettes), a scaled-down Eiffel Tower, from which French suicides jump.

Finally, The Lost Village of Aladdin, where we got lost, until discovering the only way out is (surprise, surprise) through their casino.  This place is a composite of all countries Arabic, as if cultures in the Middle East are homogenous.  Need I say… suicide bombers?

All ceilings (except Luxor) are the same Blue Sky with Clouds, presumably painted by the same bored Zoloft addict.  Every so often, the ceiling flashes and thunder roars to simulate an approaching rainstorm.  

Looking up at Blue Sky with Clouds, the artist shakes his head in dismay.  “See what Im talking about?”

I do.  

Las Vegas is a dead-end street with a low guard rail facing the abyss.

Odd thing is, the self-homicidal of Vegas are not sticking to theme.  They shoot themselves in the head or jump from multi-story car parks.  No grand statement.  No aesthetic exit ramp.  

No one has even thought to jump into the Volcano that erupts every hour outside the Mirage Hotel.

Within the obligatory shopping mall of each resort hotel is a clothing boutique called Bernini and another called Bardelli (same merchandise in both).  

You think, are these two a pair of shi-shi Milanese designers who are on the cusp of discovery by GQ magazine?  

Closer inspection reveals they are just another simulation/con.  What youre really looking at is low fashion for the masses.  (You can just see a middle-aged doofus back home in Toledo showing off his machine-made, unlined loafers:  Got em in Vegas.  These babies are real Berninis!)

The kitsch, up and down this five-mile strip, is as unrelenting as the hot desert sun.  Given time, both tempt you to either OD on something or pray to Pelagia, the patron saint of suicides.

(American Encyclopaedia: "Suicide levels are highest among the unemployed, divorced, the childless, urbanites, and those living alone."  Also:  "More men than women commit suicide, a ratio of four-to-one; 73 percent of suicides are white males, and 55 percent shoot themselves.") 

Hence, if you are a white male, live alone in a city, youre divorced without children, you recently lost your job... steer clear of Vegas. 

And more optical/audio illusions:  Interactive movies that fool your mind and senses into believing youre moving forward or backward, but never really going anywhere—except, eventually, through another casino. 

“Ive seen enough,” I say.

“There’s more,” says the artist.  “A lovely hotel called The Palms.”

We taxi there.  

I enter The Palms and look around at yet another vast casino.  

“Whats lovely about this?” I ask.  “It doesnt even have a theme.”

“Exactly.”

The trendiest watering hole in Vegas, Ghost Bar, is on the top floor.  But entry is reserved only to those who can prove theyve spent at least fifteen grand on rhinoplasty, face-lifts, tummy-tucks, breast implants or liposuction.

“You hungry?” I say.

Onto the Hard Rock Hotel, a snooty reflection of its (ex) owner, Hard Rock Café co-founder Peter Morton, who forsook his burger-mongering roots to mint money as a casino operator.  

We cocoon in red vinyl at Mr. Lucky and order from their twenty-four-hour menu.  

Even the artist, who survives on Surf dogs and Fat burgers, cant stomach this grub.  The Buffalo wings and onion rings are indistinguishable from each other; lethal, ingested or tossed (the likely outcome of ingestion).  Their club sandwich would likely be refused by a convention of starving hoboes.

“Your customers must smoke a lot of dope,” the artist says to our Bulgarian waitress.

“I not understand.”

“Only someone with serious munchies could eat this free-radical rot.  What do you serve for dessert, Mylanta pudding?”

“We no have.”

“Too bad.”

She departs.

“If food and service was this bad everywhere,” I say, “reason enough to end it all.”

“It could have been worse,” says the artist.

“I dont see how.”

“It could have been an all-you-can-eat buffet, and we might have been stoned.  In the middle of the night we would beg Thanatos to rescue us.”

“Who?”

“The Greek God of death.”

We venture back to the strip, where pirates are exchanging canon fire with the Royal Navy outside Treasure Island.  It draws a number of tourists clad in their new Bernini or Bardelli togs.

Watching such entertainment (the tourists, not the battle), it becomes clear that Vegas is The Great American Temple, where believing is consuming, and the obese pray for yet bigger all-you-can-eat buffets.  

After two days, youre either hypnotized by the slots, or nothing means anything.  In other words, the hotels are full, but the culture is vacant and people are numb.  

It is the casino carpets that ultimately tip the scale in favor of finito bon soir.  They are all similarly garish.  

Could this be to conceal tracked-in desert dust?  Or cocktail spillage?  

Guess again.  

These disturbing, obnoxious carpets are specially designed by psychologists to repel your eyes so that you cannot look down while you walk without feeling dizzy and disoriented.  (Studies show that disorientation leads to suggestibility.)  

Instead, you are compelled to look ahead at the slots and gaming tables, which are adorned with flashing lights to grab your attention and suck you in.  If you try to beat the system by looking down while you walk, you turn, well, suicidal. 

And a gift for paranoid schizophrenics who believe they are watching:  

Finally, someone really is watching.  

You dont see policemen along the strip, but thats because the strip does not need policemen.  Their sophisticated eye in the sky can track you to Paris and backand record for posterity photos of you picking your nose (though they probably miss Muhammed and Mukhtar from Aladdin casing New York, New York).  

The artist is already looking over his shoulder, hissing at invisible surveillants.

So… you are already feeling low, and the carpets (and everything else) get to you, along with trillions of free-radicals in your bloodstream from too much fried food.   

Here is the solution: 

You know how your whole life is supposed to flash before your eyes when you jump off a building? 

Well, if you leap into the Grand Canyon, theres time (a full fifteen seconds) for all your past lives to flash before you, too!

You can roll into Vegas, take a final look at Paris, Venice, and New York; do memory lane (ancient Egypt and Rome) for your ancestors sake. Then spring two C bills for an Air Vegas flight over Hoover Dam to a tiny airstrip on the Grand Canyons west rim.

Wendy the guide welcomes you and she wants you to board the return flight to Vegas.  But even if you tell her your plan, there isnt much she can do about it because there is no landline telephone service on the west rim and no cellular service either.

Danger lurks everywhere, says Wendy.  

There are rattlesnakes, scorpions and large hairy spiders in addition to the rotor blades of the helicopter that lowers you a mile down to the canyon floor. 

A brutal wind shear claims a handful of sightseers every so often.  

“One of these babies crashed five weeks ago,” the artist whispers, as we climb aboard.  “They lose them all the time.”

(This helicopter service has since ceased.)

A whole book has been written about people who perish at the Grand Canyon, most by accident, not design.

At the bottom, a flat boat cruises you along the Colorado River for twenty minutes.  

Then a helicopter ride back to the rim, where Wendy carts you to the  Hualapai Nation tribe, who host a last supper:  An all-you-can-eat buffet of Bar-B-Q beef, baked beans, corn and a warm tortilla.  

Not only do calories no long matter, you probably want to bulk up for a final descent.

The artist and I stand at the edge, surveying the awesome panorama, along with the drop.

“Ready?” I say.

“Forget suicide,” says the artist, “this is murder.”

“Murder?”

“Those Indians are trying to murder palefaces with that meal.”

“Youre worried about cholesterol?”

“No, flatus.  One tail-shot and it’s over the edge.  Sitting Bull's revenge.”

I step back.

But if I were inclined to check-out, it would be here, at the majestic Grand Canyon, not a multi-story parking lot in sleazy Vegas.  

After all, this is your life youre concluding.  

Why make your last stop in a tacky town built specifically to con everyone out of their money, their mind, their life; why end it there, when, without much further effort, or expense, you can fossilize with a two billion year-old wonder of the world?

Alas, Im still here.  

Everyone considering suicide should stick around, too.  

We all have plenty of time later to be dead.