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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Days and Nights of Glitter Gulch*

Fremont Street

The Strip

"Oooh!  Aaah!"
Jaden drinks it all in.

*Somerset, PA Daily American
October 23, 2010
as "The Lights of Las Vegas"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

My wife’s family lives in Hawaii, and in case you ever wondered where people who live in paradise go for vacation, it’s Vegas. Every year around my mother-in-law’s birthday, the family gathers at America’s playground. Most times we go also, when the two elements of vacation time and available cash intersect.

Vegas, as you might expect, has an aura all its own. Even in the current tough economic climate (their unemployment rate hovers around 16%), the city works hard to keep its trademark diamond-studded smile. But behind the bright lights and glitter on the strip are the dark windows of too many empty rooms.

At the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard, the old downtown hotels are doing well. Our hotel, the California, was so busy that even arriving after midnight, we still had to wait two hours before our room was ready.

The downtown crowd is a mix of young folks, seeking the less-expensive rates, and the older folks who still listen to Dean, Sammy, and Frank while remembering the good old days when the brilliant neon on Fremont Street bequeathed its permanent nickname, “Glitter Gulch.”

Once the main drag, Fremont Street has been pedestrianized and roofed over by a conestoga-shaped multi media screen. During the day, the atmosphere is pretty calm. But once the sun settles behind the mountains to the west, the neon lights up and the place is transformed. On the side streets, live music thumps with a passionate beat. Along the walkway, actors wearing elaborate costumes pose for and with tourists for tips. These aren’t dime store get-ups, but authentic outfits accurate in every detail.

In front of the Gold Nugget, two characters from the Saw franchise get a wide berth from children and old ladies. Outside the Four Queens, Elvis and Spiderman exchange points of view while Dale Earnhardt listens. We take pictures of Superman while two members of the Glitter Rock band Kiss walk by, carefully balanced on platform shoes. Under the glittering lights of the Fremont, two Las Vegas showgirls adorned in feathers and not much else attract a retinue of young men. Batman puts in a brief appearance, obviously uncomfortable in that black body suit. Around these islands of notoriety, the crowd strolls in different directions.

Suddenly, the street goes dark; the very air begins to vibrate. Then, in an explosion of color, the artificial sky lights up. Images flash, colors cascade, all in rhythm to the music booming from the huge speakers. For 15 minutes, thousands of faces are angled skyward, transfixed by the spectacle. As quickly as it started, the show ends and the crowd roars its appreciation. The miles of neon come back to life and the signature light show of Glitter Gulch resumes.

At the south end of the Boulevard, massive hotels light up the night. Caesar’s Palace celebrates the glory of Rome; outside the Bellagio are the graceful dancing fountains. Treasure Island is the Caribbean in the romantic heyday of the pirates, complete with a full-size battle three times each night. The enigmatic pyramid of the Luxor broods mysteriously as a spotlight, looking like a Star Trek phaser, lances skyward from its apex. There is the MGM Grand and the Wynn, pure glitz and glamour. Outside Paris, the Eifel Tower reaches into the desert sky. The skyscrapers of New York, New York stand tall, fronted by the great lady herself, the Statue of Liberty. At the Venetian, gondolas drift languidly along a man-made canal. These are the new hotels, part of Las Vegas’ ever-evolving skyscape, built on the ashes and the memories of The Sahara, the Dunes, The Thunderbird, The Desert Inn, and the El Rancho. But downtown is a different world, smaller, closer, more intimate, the crowds more communal. Glitter Gulch lights the way for memories warm and sweet; a simpler time. A life that flows with the soundtrack of Sinatra.
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