Why did I enjoy the Bellagio fountains so much this week, in a fake plastic city where everything’s for sale?
I’ve never liked Vegas. The id city. The adult Disneyland. But here I am at the Bellagio for a conference. In short: I gotta be here, as ill-advised as it may be. Masked AF.
Every night after dinner I stroll the long block in front of the fake lake where people gather to snuggle, snog, smoke, hustle, take selfies with the fake Eiffel Tower in the background, and wait for the ridiculous spectacle of the fountain. I wait for it, too. While I wait, I watch the hustlers and the selfie-takers mingle and weave. I smile and shake my head “no thanks” at the fake showgirls and Spideys and Jack Sparrows and the 3’9” dominatrix and the wafting pot smell and the guy hawking balloons with lights in them, and I offer to take the couples’ photos for them, and they smile and say yes in multiple languages. Everyone is from everywhere, resplendent in their best. Their faces matchlit with awe at the plastic splendor of The Strip at dusk. I’ve always hated all this: the naked hustle, the contrived pseudo-delights. The waste. But not last night. Not tonight. Hell, I’m here for the hustle myself. I’m a small entrepreneur exhibiting at a trade show. I’m selling.
Selling is terrible. You rarely get to sell your whole self, or even the best part of yourself; people just want That One Thing (if anything at all), and the rest stays on the shelf. Hell, even if you are living the dream, and you’re the Rolling Stones, and people actually DO want to buy your shit, you still end up playing the same three songs over and over for the rest of your life.
If you’re lucky enough to be above such crassness, it’s possibly because your forebears sold a lot of something and left you the money. Which is fantastic! But please don’t look down on the rest of us. Besides, who knows what seedy or outright harmful bullshit your forebears may have undertaken in order to set you up so nicely. The hustle always looks more respectable a few generations later, when the bootleggers and plantation owners have gotten their family name engraved on some very nice buildings.
Here on the Las Vegas strip tonight, no one is trying for respectability. The hustle is in the open, from the small dominatrix to the lights at MGM Grand and the Wynn and the absurd fountains and the fake Paris, all trying to outshine each other and grab everyone’s attention.
When the fountain starts, it outshines everything for a few minutes of the night. The hustlers and the selfie-takers pause. Two hundred faces turn toward the water dance, synched to “Con Te Partirò,” with its stirring key changes and cymbal crashes that work your emotions like a Telenovela. Glowing faces, enraptured. Together. We are all watching together in silence, a dozen languages halted, while the water surges and the cymbals crash in a twice-hourly festival of contrived drama. And I am, for once, totally down with it. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been craving collective experiences for so long, I’ll take whatever I can get.
But there’s also this: These past 17 months have killed any lingering shame I may have harbored about having to sell something mean and meager to keep the lights on. Most of the people I know have had to make wrenching compromises about how they make a living. A lot of us have postponed or given up on some career-related dream we thought might come to fruition in 2020-21. And you know what? That’s not such a tragedy. When I think about how many people have seen their livelihoods disappear entirely, I’m ill-inclined to complain about having to endure a little tedium to make a buck. I’m not too important to do it.
And actually, nobody is. At market level, minus a few Einsteins and Marie Curies, we can all be replaced.
That’s what’s suddenly clear, here by the fountains tonight. There is no shame in the hustle. In fact, it’s kind of gorgeous — the way, in our labors, we all mingle and weave, the beehive bustle of the world. If you can survive and thrive without poisoning the seas, scamming anyone, or bullying your employees along the way, get out there and sell your thing. That’s actually a tall order, when you think about it: to do no harm. But the quiet hustlers of this earth, the ones who eke by, buck to buck, are more likely to be living by that mandate than the guys with their names on buildings. I’ve come to revere them, these hustling billions who don’t have the luxury of self-importance. Because self-importance is wildly overrated. If 2020-21 bequeathed anything beautiful unto me, it’s the transcendent liberation of Non-Importance.
I’m feeling a strange, exuberant oneness with all the the other Non-Important People of the world tonight. I’m happy to turn over some extra bills to the cab drivers, room cleaners, and servers who somehow find the energy to laugh and chat us up all week while they’re doing their work. Maybe the third glass of wine is driving this reverie, but screw it. I stick around for the fountain’s next cycle. And while I wait, I tip the fake showgirls and take their picture.