5 – . . . And Perpetual Poverty
I neglected to tell you that one of my informants – name withheld to protect the insurgency – had mentioned she once worked in a mall where there was a book shoppe.
Where was it? I asked. Beyond Treasure Island, she said. Of course. Just walk fifty paces from the nearest palm tree and dig, I thought.
Treasure Island, as it happens, is a resort at the top end of The Strip. It had taken less than half a day to walk there. Beyond it I found the Fashion Show Mall. In my squelching shoes, I dragged myself up to the directory plaque. There was every shoppe under the sun. None of them, apparently, sold books. If they did, they weren’t telling anyone.
I retreated to Planet Hollywood, our own little asteroid, where no one looked at you askance unless you asked revolutionary questions.
On our last day in Vegas I made one more attempt to find literature. We all three headed for the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian. No, no, we were not leaving the country — just visiting another asteroid on The Strip.
True, The Venetian did transport us to Italy. Sort of. Gondalas full of tourists plied the blue waters of a canal fronting the boulevard, and watery caverns led back into the resort. We took the moving sidewalk up to the shoppes.
You see, the proprietor of Urban Outfitters (I know I shouldn’t be saying this) had whispered in my ear: If you are into genuine literature, he had said, there’s a shoppe in The Venetion that carries first editions. Don’t say I sent you. (And I haven’t. His secret is safe with me.)
Olga was so thrilled. No, no, not about the first editions. She had heard of a wonderful shoppe there selling shoes. And she found her shoes. Well, sandals really. Eighty per cent of the shoes had been cut away, so they were really cheap. Only eighty bucks.
So. After the transaction, I asked the shoe salesman. Do you know where the shoppe is that sells rare books? The usual response . . . followed by, No, no, never heard of such a place. Not in this mall. Not in this city. Not in this state. No, no. Go away. Come again soon. (Some of this was left unsaid.)
Okay. I had had enough of this conspiracy. I tracked down a security guard and wrestled her to the ground. Where is it? I said. Where is it? Tell me, where is it? And she gave it up. She gave me a map of the mall. Okay. It wasn’t as dramatic as that, but you get the point — I had had enough.
Bauman Rare Books was at the far end of the mall. The shoe shoppe, however, had been practically blocking the entrance to the mall. Well, that figures. But now I knew where to go in the Grand Canal Shoppes.
The Grand Canal Shoppes. A little taste of Italy. Well, several 32-course meals, actually. And the pièce de résistance, as they say in Venice, a grand canal coursing through the corridors. Well, a dry ditch, actually. The canal had been closed for repairs. But still, the facade of every shoppe spoke of elegance, and art, and extravagance beyond the dreams of even Wall Street brokers. And overhead, an artificial sky, filled with artificially blue air and phony white clouds and fake sunshine. Oh good. Something you’d never see in the Mojave desert.
And other marvels: powdery white statues with eyes that moved, and live performers in the Palazzo, frolicking in their pumps and their robes and their wigs (and the women looked good too), and barrels of gelato (Okay, sometimes you just have to be there), and did I mention the fake living statues?
And lo and behold, after walking for less than half a day, Bauman Rare Books shoppe. You cannot, cannot, cannot imagine how thrilled I was. Finally, finally, finally. I had found literature in Las Vegas. Hundreds of volumes of first edition copies, all in pristine condition, books that had probably never been cracked, never ever been read, they were so precious. Each one with a precious price. Prices to make even a Wall Street broker gag.
Olga went off to chat with a lady in a beauty shoppe. As if she needed to. Silly woman. She’s a beautiful person. Doesn’t need artificial aids. Daughter Laura followed me into Bauman Rare Books. Very smart gal. Mindful of my budget, I tried to find the cheapest copy.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. First edition, 1971. $8.250. Okay. Not bad. If Olga could spend $80. on a pair of cutaway shoes, surely we could afford ten times that. Or is that a hundred times that? Okay. Maybe not.
Tom Clancy. An original Tom Clancy! The Hunt for Red October. First edition, 1984. A measly $1,500. Okay. That was getting close. Except . . . I could pick up a paperback copy for $7.95. Probably has the same content anyway.
Let me see, what else was there? There was a Lewis Carroll volume, The Hunting of the Snark. First edition, 1876. $22,000. Ha. That was nonsense. Here I had been hunting for the snark in Las Vegas for days, and writing about it, and nobody was going to pay me $22,000. Even for a first edition. Where’s the justice? Where. Is. The. Justice?
I continued searching. A Jack London novel . . . Okay. Jack London. An American writer with a British name who cemented his literary reputation by writing a Canadian novel: The Call of the Wild. First edition, 1903. $125,000. That was more like it. I could justify buying that book. I could pledge my monthly pension cheques until I was age ninety-seven. I could find a Brinks armoured truck with a dodgy door lock. I could . . . I could . . . I could forget about it.
Still, it was a thrilling experience. To be engrossed in hundreds of pricey books. To believe that if you could find a cover depicting three crazed beavers lining up with two jokers that that book could possibly be yours. And Laura . . . Laura was engrossed in the antique maps. Maps that might possibly help us find our way out of the Grand Canal Shoppes. Maps drawn three and four centuries ago, that showed North America as a raggedy grapefruit with no Canada and no U.S. of A. No Nevada and no Las Vegas. We’d never get out of the Grand Canal Shoppes. We’d never get back to our little asteroid. We’d never see home again. I was going crazy, man. Crazy, man.
I had had enough. I grabbed Laura by the collar and dragged her kicking and screaming from Bauman Rare Books shoppe. Okay. Maybe I exaggerate a little. Maybe she wept tears of relief. During that whole time, we had been the only customers. Well, not customers, really. Gawkers.
We dragged Olga kicking and screaming from the beauty shoppe. Okay, maybe . . . you know what I’m going to say.
We found a secret exit from the far end of the mall and found ourselves facing Las Vegas Boulevard. The moving sidewalk whisked us down to street level. We returned to our little planet.
I sense you have a question: What was that earlier reference to the unfolding story of the F Street Wall? Well, friends, I stumbled across that story when I was channel surfing. It is a story of hope and joy. It is, and always will be, the breaking-down-the-Berlin-Wall moment for the people who call Las Vegas home. It is the story of how they brought down a monumental concrete barrier in downtown Vegas. They were prepared to attack it with steel-toed sandals, with fingernail clippers, with bare hands, if necessary. Instead, city officials handed out sledgehammers and let anyone have a go. It was a magic time.
If you missed it, you might have been watching CNN. And expecting CNN to keep you abreast of history-making events unfolding around the planet. Perish the thought. At this event, no blood flowed. No major properties at risk. No reputations at stake. It was, simply, a good-news story. And you know about it now because Las Vegas had the good sense to admit at least one tourist who could read, who had a craving for real news, and who had the temerity to poke fun at its culture.
Good on Las Vegas.
A word in closing: We had a great time in Vegas. Eating and drinking and shopping and spectacle-watching and gawking and yes, gambling. We know we had a good time because we left Vegas broke. Just as the Vegas gods had planned.
And we met fabulous people. Some worked for the gods, some were being stripped of their earthly possessions, like us, by the employees of those gods, and others just lived in Las Vegas, making ends meet the way most of us do. We met tons of friendly, helpful, gracious people. Thank you. Thank you, Las Vegas.
How can we not go back?
And next time . . .
Maybe next time . . .
I will find some genuine books in my price range.