Though I live only a few hours by plane from Las Vegas, until the weekend before Election Day 2008, I’d never bothered to go. If it is the spectacle of hyperventilating capitalist excess one craves, I suppose there are places closer to home that can approximate the experience, and as far as gambling, I don’t really have the stomach for it. Once, in the midst of a difficult breakup, a friend drove me to The Desert Diamond, a casino on an Indian reservation about an hour south of Tucson, Arizona, where I was stranded at the time. We lost a hundred dollars each before we’d even finished our first complimentary drink – a swift, cold transaction that left us both feeling utterly ruined.
But a few days before this last election, I finally decided to visit. Like many residents of California, I was feeling left out of the historic campaign. The real electoral fight is waged in the battleground states, leaving to the rest of us the unglamorous work of writing cheques or making phone calls, neither of which (let’s be honest) is as emotionally satisfying as having a door slammed in your face by a Republican. The flight from Oakland to Vegas was essentially a shuttle for Bay Area Obama volunteers, a disparate and multiracial grouping of young and old, easily identifiable by their HOPE paraphernalia and an air of confidence I’d never seen among Democrats so late in an election season.
I met a middle-aged Berkeley woman at the airport completing her fourth weekend-canvassing getaway to Sin City. She struck me as the type who might have Tibetan prayer flags hanging from the rearview mirror of her Volvo station wagon, belongs to an interfaith book club, and collects the folk art of people with whom she has no cultural connection – and yet she spoke with none of the wistful, naive softness I associate with her kind. This had ceased to be a campaign of idealism; it was a numbers game – turnout was the word she used over and over again in the few minutes we spoke – and she was thoroughly enjoying the rough-and-tumble work of political canvassing, enjoying it all the more, I suspect, because we were winning. She seemed to have a good command of the electoral topography of Clark County, and how this all fit into the state and national picture. She confessed with equal parts shame and pride that after all this time she was beginning to like Vegas.
I was part of a team of volunteers working on behalf of the Obama campaign (though not directly with it) in Henderson, a suburb of the city, far enough from the world-famous Strip to seem disappointingly normal to a first-time visitor like me. I don’t know quite what I expected to find, but what I saw were the fresh remains of a collapsing illusion: Las Vegas, until recently America’s fastest growing city (and the largest city in what was once America’s fastest growing state), is among the places most affected by the ongoing economic catastrophe. The real estate bubble burst here to devastating effect. We drove past one unfinished construction site at least a dozen times, and each time it seemed sadder: a long rectangle of open concrete perched on a desolate ridge, advertised optimistically as luxury lofts. The story is easy enough to guess: the creditors got spooked, the developer too, and the money simply vanished. Now the abandoned building had no owner, no future, and sat half-draped in fading blue plastic tarps. There were many others like it. For two days we got lost in Henderson’s many suburban developments, each a picture-book vision of that quintessentially American prosperity: oversize houses on small lots, two steroidal SUVs parked out front, a child’s pink bicycle resting on a bed of luxuriant green grass growing in a desert where it had no business growing. And here, even here, you’d see it again and again: boarded-up houses with broken windows, houses which, in spite of the recent neglect, still managed to look new. They probably were new, I suppose: built quickly with immigrant labour, purchased on easy credit, inhabited briefly but barely lived in before their unfortunate owners had been waylaid by an adjustable interest rate. Sometimes there were two or three on a single block, homes vacated as if in the dead of night. Where had the people gone?
There were about thirty of us, mostly college students who had caravanned up from Los Angeles, and our goal for the last two days before the election was to target ‘unlikely voters’, specifically defined in our case as ‘Latinos under twenty-five or over sixty’. By that definition, many of my peers were unlikely voters too, and the night we arrived, when we were making introductions, more than one member of our group admitted that they felt compelled to volunteer because they were not yet citizens and didn’t have the right to vote.
The next morning, we were given address lists and door hangers and fliers and cell phones and sent off into the meandering streets of Henderson to find these unlikely voters who looked like us, and bring them to the polls. We worked very hard, to the point of exhaustion, but it seems unlikely that we had any impact. We had a hard time finding people. Like most American cities, Las Vegas and its satellites like Henderson have little public space and seem designed to minimize unscripted, casual human contact. We drove in circles, reliant on outdated maps that hadn’t kept up with the unchecked expansion of the city. We snuck into gated communities only to find the houses empty. We were tossed from the Walmart parking lot in a matter of minutes and, desperate to meet actual voters, began ambushing people at bus stops, handing out campaign materials and voter guides and anything else we still had in the trunk of the car. Here we met a middle-aged black woman, who announced she had voted for Kennedy when she was young, but ever since she’d voted only for Jesus.
‘Can your candidate raise the dead?’ she asked.
The Obama team was organized and efficient, and it seemed that everyone I spoke to had already been contacted by the official campaign or one of its surrogates, not once or twice, but many, many times. It was complete saturation, a carpet-bombing: undecided voters were getting five calls a night. Every commercial on television and radio was a political advertisement, most venomously negative, and every major road was lined with cardboard campaign signs, spiked into the brittle ground. The voters I spoke with seemed fatigued. On Monday, the day before the election, we pulled into a fast-food restaurant to grab a bite to eat. One of the volunteers I was with, a woman named Juliet from Los Angeles, was wearing an Obama pin. The young man behind the counter perked up at the sight of it.
‘Oh, cool,’ he said, pointing to her pin. ‘Who won?’
Unbelievable. How could he not know the election was tomorrow? We broke the news to him, and even felt encouraged: you can still vote!
He nodded and smiled good-naturedly. ‘Oh no, I voted early,’ he said. ‘Then I sort of stopped paying attention.’
I had a flight back to Oakland on the night of election day, at around nine p.m., which left just enough time to see the Strip. I rode with an organizer named Susan from San Francisco, a woman who seemed to have an endless store of energy despite having slept only a handful of hours in the previous four days, and two other volunteers, college friends who spoke little and giggled while conducting a long text message conversation with a third friend working for the campaign in Philadelphia. Susan was planning to stay in Vegas that night for the official Democratic Party celebration, and generously offered to drive me to the airport, with a sightseeing detour along the Strip. We listened to the returns as we inched through traffic, the gaudy casino lights reminiscent not of the world landmarks they are meant to evoke (the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty) but of the many movies and music videos in which they have appeared. They are well-executed facsimilies, and in a world where copies of copies of copies can still charm us, these have become totems. As we drove, the landmarks blurred together as one endless billboard, advertising nothing in particular and everything all at once. If you are in a giddy, optimistic mood, as we were, it’s not an unpleasant spectacle. There were no campaign signs here, no fliers or T-shirts in blue or red, nothing at all to hint at the sea change underway. Each time a state was called for Obama, we cheered and banged on the sides of the rental car, and the many tourists wandering the Strip, some wearing sunglasses even though it was nighttime, palming plastic cocktail glasses, gave us baffled looks but occasionally cheered back. Pennsylvania for Obama, Florida too; things were looking good. We parked at a casino (which one I forget) and stepped into the air-conditioned bubble, soaking in the noisy hum and whiz and whirl of computerized slot machines, and headed directly for the bar. We took a few cautiously celebratory tequila shots, watching the muted television and reading the scrolling text anxiously for any news.
And then it all happened very fast. An hour later, I had passed airport security and was seated at the packed bar across from my departure gate, surrounded by the same people I had flown in with: volunteers from California, their work now complete, eager to get home, to get drunk, to begin the celebration in earnest. I was still nervous, drinking more than I should have been, but it wasn’t just me: everyone was. When Virginia was called for Obama, the place went crazy. It was a few minutes before eight p.m. in Nevada, and that was it – the national television announcers couldn’t call it until the polls closed officially on the West Coast, but anyone could do the math on their fingers and know that the election was over. Barack Obama would be the next president of the United States.
The waitress shuffled through the gathering crowd, a lone dour face amid the general euphoria, taking orders and bringing drinks, barking at people to stay clear of the aisle in a manner that could be called rude, if not abusive. Granted, she was working, and everyone else was not, but her bitterness seemed out of place, and a few moments after the hour, after CNN had called the election, after another round of cheers had echoed through the bar and the airport, and indeed through the country and even the world, after a series of heartfelt embraces with complete strangers, after the shock of it had been replaced with joy, after tears had begun to stream down many people’s faces, and just when McCain was set to concede – was it over? was it really over so soon? – the waitress could no longer hide her partisanship. ‘Everybody out!’ she yelled, but of course no one paid her any attention because no one was going to miss this. It was history, which sounds clichéd, but which has never felt truer, even here in an anonymous airport bar in Las Vegas, a city inflicted upon the desert, a place built with a cavalier disregard for the very concept of posterity – here, too, it felt momentous. Someone (okay, it was me) had turned up the volume on the television set – it just didn’t seem right to live this particular moment without sound – but the waitress muted it with a few clicks of her remote control. She would not give in to the mood of the place, would not give in to us, the interlopers from California. She threatened to call security if we didn’t clear out, a hollow-sounding attempt at intimidation that would not work on this night. I was a little drunk by then, but more importantly, I was thrilled and proud of my country and feeling a bit invincible. These are the sorts of emotions that fade, but I remember very keenly being overwhelmed by them, and noticing that almost everyone around me was as well. Someone – this time it wasn’t me – stood on a bar stool and turned the television’s volume up again. Now the waitress lost her mind. She unplugged the cable box, a groan went up, and instead of watching history, we cast our eyes toward a silent, snowy television set, broadcasting only static.
A few things happened at this point: first, people began yelling all the predictable obscenities the moment required, and second, after a few minutes of this standoff, I got fed up and kicked over two bar stools. The petulant, impulsive act of a drunk, of course, but as Donald Rumsfeld once said: ‘stuff happens’. Almost immediately, the Obama supporters, my fellow Californians, disappeared, as if suddenly everyone remembered that they didn’t actually know me, and didn’t want to. The waitress was on the telephone now, grinning diabolically. What could I do but walk glumly over to my gate, which was, to my misfortune, only a few steps from the door of the bar. Moments later, the angry, overworked waitress was pointing me out to a Transportation Security Administration agent, a big, burly short-haired guy, who walked over and politely asked me for a word.
It seems clear to me now that on any other night I would have been arrested, which would be a story all its own, useful in its way, and certainly memorable. But something else happened: the security agent and I had a conversation. ‘What happened in there?’ he asked. I shrugged, and began my defence.
‘Can I be honest?’ I said, and without waiting for him to answer, invoked the Founding Fathers, the history of American democracy and the long-delayed redemption of its early promise: we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… We were about the same age, he and I, so I mentioned our grandchildren, who would one day learn about this day in elementary school, who would ask us where we were when Barack Obama was elected president. It doesn’t matter how you voted, I said: what would we tell them? It was a momentous occasion we were witnessing, or rather, being kept from witnessing by my accuser. She stood a few steps back, red-faced and livid, scowling as I confided in the TSA agent. I tried not to look at her. As far as the stools that were on the ground, I said I didn’t know anything about that, but if they somehow got knocked over, I wasn’t sorry they did.
He thought for what seemed like a very long moment. All around the airport moved, more beaming Obama supporters rushing to catch their flights home.
‘I don’t disagree with you,’ he said.
I felt we had become friends just then. I thanked him, and he became a cop again: ‘Are you too drunk to fly?’
It was a perplexing question. Was I too drunk to board a plane and eat the peanuts the stewardess might give me and stare out the window at the moonlit teeth of the Sierra Nevadas? How drunk would one have to be? For a moment I thought he had misread my role in all this: was he expecting me to pilot the aircraft back to Oakland?
‘Not at all,’ I said.
‘Then have a good night.’
Photograph by Bob Dass