Beyond the blinking arcade lights, a blackjack dealer stood over a deserted table counting chips by flashlight. Every movement was precise, from the sorting to the notebook-jotting. Even the flashlight’s oval gleam was meticulous, which was a marvel: the dealer was holding the battery-end in her mouth.
“—gonna to get unbearably hot in here within about an hour or so,” the hostess was telling Andrew. “We’ve got the generators, but they’re just to keep the arcades running.” She gestured across the room, where the gaming machines were chirruping gleefully and lighting the room with a churning mishmash of animated dragons, mermaids, pirates, race cars, sharks, and leprechauns. Colors swam across the dark ceiling, dramatizing the cigarette haze.
“No karaoke, then?” Andrew asked.
“Not unless the power comes back on. This happens a couple times a year. It might be three minutes, three hours, three days—you never know.” The hostess shrugged, smiling. “Bar’s still open, anyway. Act fast if you want something cold.”
She turned away, taking a question from a floor worker. Andrew came to stand beside me.
“This is so weird,” I said, looking from the jangling arcade section to the darkened card tables, where flashlights darted from hand to hand, smiling players waiting their turns in the technicolor gloom. Already the mid-August Mojave heat was creeping through the casino, overtaking the cooled air. Night had fallen, but the high that day’d been 110 Fahrenheit. The stormy air outside was sweltering. “So—no karaoke,” I acknowledged.
“Nope,” Andrew said.
“Bummer. Heard from your friend?”
“Caught in traffic. I think they’re already on the Strip.”
Andrew and I had been driving down the Las Vegas Strip just ten minutes before, and what with the torrential rain, the clamorous wind, the swamped roads, and the blacked-out traffic lights at each intersection, we were disinclined to press our driving-luck now that the night’s plans were spoiled. We stood for a moment in the eerie cacophony.
Other groups across the casino were also weighing their options. Three women seated at the bar glanced up from their phones to trade information about where their friends were, and which nearby venues were also experiencing power outages. A man seated near the back wall stared blankly at a slot machine’s blackened face.
According to the hostess, the power had only been off about five minutes before we’d arrived. We would learn later that this outage was serious enough to make national headlines—over 62,000 Nevadans without power, some of them for two or three blistering days. But here on the smoky, scintillating casino floor, soaked in the uneven light of thirty towering arcade machines glittering with animated sharknados and showers of gold doubloons, anything seemed possible. Any moment might see the electricity restored. The question was whether to gamble the evening on that plausibility.
I’d already hit the jackpot. Sure, no dice on the karaoke plans, and all dinner-bets were off—the casino’s kitchen didn’t merit generator power—but what were the odds of seeing a Las Vegas casino being dealt such a bad hand? What I mean is: the die was cast.
“Well—let’s wait for them to get here before deciding what to do next,” I finally said, thinking it might be funny later to get onstage and bellow “Bohemian Rhapsody” a cappella, power or no power.
Andrew smiled, and we set off to examine the radiant arcade machines.
I will admit that I’ve harbored a fair bit of cynicism towards the Las Vegas Strip. It’s an issue with the hyperreal, which gets into semiotics and philosophical ideas about the nature of reality—all of which means I sometimes allow myself to think I’m getting closer to reality than everyone else, when I’m really marveling at my own navel. (But seriously—does my navel even really exist? And how do you know?)
What all that means about the Strip, though, is that I’m uncomfortably aware that the world-class entertainment experiences offered up here are curated with consumers in mind. All the glitz and glitter are research-driven, and aimed at extracting the most money possible from patrons. Everything from the architecture to the lighting to the soundscape to the strobing flash of each individual machine is painstakingly calibrated to discourage critical thinking, and to keep visitors mesmerized and eager to spend. This knowledge unsettles me, so I have been cynical.
But on this dark and stormy night, the Strip’s glamorous mask slipped. And so, like a little casino-grinch, I expected, without AC, without music, without meticulous lighting, to see the hypnotist’s spell broken.
Instead, I saw blackjack dealers and players laughing together in the kaleidoscopic semi-darkness, flashlights adding suspense and depth. Floor managers taped a few signs up about how transactions would proceed without electronics. Bartenders went about business as usual, albeit with a tongue-in-cheek care in identifying bottles.
And once the initial disbelief wore off, patrons played along as though nothing had happened.
I stood grinning in the center of the whirring arcade machines, the desert heat beginning to press upon me. Perhaps in all my cynicism, there was room for a bit of wonder, too. Perhaps beneath the glamor there was also grace.
Perhaps visitors to Las Vegas realize that it’s all pretend, and love Las Vegas not for being real, but for making it so easy to pretend. And perhaps, when the illusion flickers, those remaining bear the burden of imagination, and the burden is beautiful. Perhaps the world cooperates in creating fun and pleasure and levity, and yes, perhaps there is danger in advantage being taken, but there is also danger in unchecked cynicism and self-satisfaction. The world is complicated. Wonders live between the complications.
The rising heat eventually drove Andrew and I away, long before the electricity returned, and before we found his friends. Sometimes your best bet is to fold.
Have you ever experienced a pleasantly-memorable power outage? What were the circumstances? What made it memorable? Share in the comments below!