WHAT happens in Vegas mostly doesn't happen in Vegas.
Only half of the 41 million annual visitors to Sin City ever set foot inside the Las Vegas city limits and fewer than 10% ever rent a hotel room in the incorporated city of Las Vegas, which extends from the gritty downtown south to Sahara Boulevard. Every major Strip casino-resort resides outside the city limits -- most of them in the unincorporated township known as, yes, Paradise.
Downtown, the official Las Vegas, looms in the minds of most tourists as a run-down, honky-tonk of a city. Yet, the more I see of it, the more I like it. Doing downtown Vegas is the best way to avoid the Manhattan-scaled traffic jams, the velvet-rope apartheid, the hyper-corporate hustle, the human and economic crush that a visit to the Strip has come to include. The New Vegas, dominated by just two or three conglomerates, has converted the old Rat Pack hangouts into behemoths that now wring more of their profits from room, restaurant and club rates than from the slot machines and tables.
What a deal, then, to check in to a room at the venerable downtown Binion's, where the walk from the parking valet to the registration desk was about 10 yards -- with no waiting in line when I got there. I had splurged by reserving an $83 mini-suite, but when I mentioned that I intended to play some low-stakes poker, the desk clerk knocked the tariff down to the "casino rate" of $39 -- about a fourth of weekday room rates on the Strip.
And this is what makes downtown so tourist-friendly. With its traditional customer base siphoned off by the gargantuan resorts on the Strip and by burgeoning Indian casinos in neighboring states, downtown Vegas properties can remain competitive only by offering more for less. The rooms are cheaper, the shows are inexpensive or free, the slots are looser, the table odds are more liberal, the food is abundant and the 99-cent shrimp cocktail boldly lives on.
I threw my bag on the extra-wide king bed and headed out into the throb of Fremont Street. Neon-streaked Fremont, the main artery of vintage Vegas, was the original Glitter Gulch, pulsing with vice long before anyone imagined the Strip.
The iconic, electrified and once-towering image of cowboy Vegas Vic, first erected in 1947, still presides over the street. But now he's dwarfed by a dramatic 90-foot-high space-age canopy studded with more than 12 million lights and 220 speakers powered by a half-million watts of audio power.
The four-block stretch of canopy creates a unique 24/7 pedestrian mall, lined with casinos, saloons and souvenir shops, its pathway crowded with kiosks, street artists, performance stages, musicians and crowds of revelers bedecked with giveaway bead necklaces, many of them grasping clear plastic footballs full of brew.
"Why bother slogging five miles up and down the Strip when you could do the same thing here in only five blocks?" says my friend Andrea Hackett, a local club dancer-turned-writer.
Lights, camera, lots of action
THE Fremont Street Experience, built in 1995 for $70 million, recently went through a $17-million upgrade and now bills itself with the usual Vegas superlatives as "the biggest big screen on the planet."
And its half-hourly light-and-sound show is probably still the best -- and most under-appreciated -- public spectacle in Vegas. Would you rather blankly stare at a placid waterfall at the Wynn, or shake and shudder to the rumble of the roaring sound-and-light show under the canopy, as Andrea and I did?
The streetlights suddenly dimmed, and a flaming pink and then an aqua blue flashed above us, dousing all of Fremont in the same pastel hues. A faux news report on the galaxy-sized roof above told of an alien invasion. The Good Guys, in screeching Earth-launched fighter jets, streaked across the canopy in gusts of purple and green.
Against a thunderous digital soundtrack, a cascade of reddish-orange fireballs exploded as the Martians got their earthly comeuppance. The crowd broke into applause and then hearty laughter as the defeat of the aliens was celebrated on the canopy-screen by casino players grateful that the world has been made safe -- for more gambling.
Andrea and I celebrated the victory with a drink on the patio of the new hipster Vue bar at the very old Fitzgerald's hotel overlooking Fremont. It's not quite the view you get from the 52-story-high Ghost Bar at the trendy Palms just off the Strip. But neither is there a cover charge, a mysterious "list," an unbearable mass of strutting beautiful people, nor the usual bouncers in black.
The cheap and generous drinks at the Vue gave us just enough fuel to stroll the length of Fremont, and at the canopy's western end we landed at the Plaza Hotel, far enough off the usual tourist track that it adjoins the Greyhound station. We arrived in time to catch the free show at the Omaha Lounge, a collection of a dozen tables around a small, hardwood dance floor.
No cover. No minimum. We listened to the excellent jazz renditions of the Tommy Thompson Project and vocalist Jeannie Snow. Sitting in the front row, sipping $4 beers, listening to Snow croon "Killing Me Softly," we felt like the smartest people in town.
At midnight, Andrea peeled off back to her apartment and I plopped down at a Binion's table to play no-limit poker with $1 and $2 blinds. This is, after all, where the World Series of Poker was invented in 1970, growing from an invitational affair with a few players, to the 2006 version, which drew more than 8,300 participants just to its main event.
I risked a couple of hundred dollars in the $1 to $2 No Limit Texas Hold-Em game and was as amused by the players as by my better hands.
After a few rounds, as the stakes steadily rose and as I tread water furiously to remain even, I said to myself it was actually time to go.
But not to bed.
It was time for one of my truly guilty pleasures: a solo just-before-dawn run to the diner inside the White Cross Pharmacy on the tenebrous southern edge of downtown's no-man's-land (1700 Las Vegas Blvd. S.).
Operating under three or four different names over the last decade, the 60-year-old Tiffany's Cafe -- the first 24-hour food joint in Vegas -- consists of only six red vinyl booths and about a dozen counter seats and might be one of the top greasy spoons in the American West.
The fluorescent lights of the all-night drugstore around it, attract some of the city's most hard-luck cases, usually to be found transfixed in front of one of the 15 video poker machines and carefully eyed, in turn, by the baton-armed security guard.
To each his own
I have my own unbreakable ritual at Tiffany's: I buy the just-delivered morning paper, sit at the counter, order the $6.95 Nevada-sized ham and eggs and gently float in the atmosphere around me.
The limo and taxi drivers, the late-shift dealers, the off-duty lap dancers, and the, um, escorts all know this is the best place in town for quiet, middle-of-the-night eats.
And if you can't get into a good chat with whomever is sitting next to you, Louie the graveyard-shift counter guy will be happy to tell you how he dropped 16 grand the week he moved here from Alaska.
The next day, I headed for downtown's growing Arts District, a 4-year-old initiative babied by former mob lawyer and current Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman.
After a shaky start, the district now thrives and brings big crowds to its once-a-month block-party-cum exhibition known as "First Fridays."
As I walked up to the Arts Factory, 107 E. Charleston, construction crews were bolting together the stage scaffolding for the first-ever Third Saturday festival to take place the next day.
The Arts Factory, holding 12 galleries, a poets lounge and a free public exhibition space, serves as the district's creative command center and is festooned with posters reading: "Whatever Happens in Vegas Has Nothing to Do With Us."
Inside, I found a marvelously eclectic set of collections, including Sam Rodriguez's portraits of agonized everymen lightly brushed onto planks of unfinished plywood and some striking mega-sized still-lifes that artist Rick DiCandilo was readying for exhibition.
"I'm all for downtown, and this is an important part of it," DiCandilo said. "Anything we can do to make it work, I'm for."
Goodman, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with another of his brainchildren aimed at saving downtown. He's persuaded the city to raise $30 million in bonds funding to convert the historic Post Office and Federal Court House into what's commonly being called the "Mob Museum" -- a possible rival to the Liberace Museum and Elvis-a-Rama, both of which prosper closer to the Strip.
Goodman is bickering with critics over how much of the new museum's focus should be, precisely, on mobsters and how much on the broader history. I think I'm with the mayor on this one. Make it about the mob -- something you can't get elsewhere -- and give people one more reason to come downtown and keep this treasured and threatened corner of Americana alive.