LAS VEGAS — It is fitting that the most bizarre, dispiriting presidential election in modern American history is reaching a climax in America's most strange and tacky town. A campaign that has exhibited all the worst qualities of a gauche reality show was destined to conclude with a bitter, sordid, melodramatic debate between its two surviving stars, staged within walking distance of mega casinos, high-end magic shows, low-end topless joints and 24-hour wedding chapels.
I flew to Vegas on Tuesday and climbed into a cab driven by a guy named Corona whose life encapsulates one of the driving controversies of this political year. When he asked what I was doing in town and I told him I'd come for the debate, he made clear he thinks Donald Trump is a crazy person. He told me he had come to the U.S. from Mexico 32 years ago and spent many of those years laboring from dawn to dusk in the fields where, he said, the only white people he ever saw working were the owner of the farm, his family and a few non-Mexicans who smoked a lot of weed.
Corona also said he'd been caught by immigration authorities numerous times and shipped off to Mexico. And he always turned around and came back. Depending on your point of view, you could admire his work ethic and thank him for picking the food you eat, or be alarmed that the border is so porous.
Corona dropped me off at the Hard Rock Hotel, the home-away-from-home I picked because of the cool guitars on the walls and the proximity to the debate site at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I wanted to save my newspaper the cost of a rental car, but I quickly regretted it. Credentials for the debate, I learned, were being passed out, not at UNLV, but at the convention center a mile-and-a-half away.
I walked the distance to the convention center along Paradise Road and was reminded that Vegas, even more than LA, is a hard place to get around without a car. Blocks are long, traffic is heavy and strip malls and motels are the chief architecture. The credentials desk was way in the back of the cavernous convention hall. To get there, I passed through an expansive trade show for purveyors of baby paraphernalia. I was not surprised to see a huge photograph of Ivanka Trump amid the strollers and bibs and breast pumps. She has a fashion line for infants, of course.
Credentials in hand, I caught the monorail that runs more or less parallel to the Las Vegas Strip and disembarked at the Paris casino. All the major casino hotels in this town are gargantuan. They are not designed to let you pass through easily; they are designed to beat you down, tire you out, trick you with illusions that you are in Paris or New York or Venice or the inside of a pyramid and push you toward a seat at a card table or a flashing machine where your money will effortlessly disappear. The casinos offer a manipulated, alternative version of reality — sort of like the Trump campaign.
I finally escaped the casino and got to the Strip. Right away, I passed a scruffy young man with a bullhorn and a big sign preaching hell and damnation and the end of the world. Ten steps later, I crossed paths with a guy handing out cards offering moral compromise and mortal sin. The cards pictured very attractive, naked young women, a phone number and the false promise that that particular female could be in your hotel room in just 20 minutes.
Farther on, a couple of gray-haired men who were dressed like golfers (and looked like Trump voters) posed as their wives took their photos. The backdrop was a large panorama featuring the backsides of a troop of showgirls wearing nothing but tiny thongs. The wives seemed not to be amused when their husbands pretended to pinch and slap the exposed derrieres. Trump would have understood that boys will be boys — even old boys.
As I trudged back to the Hard Rock, I struck up a conversation with a woman at a stoplight. She was not a dancer or a dream girl on a card. She was a short, plus-sized gal in her late 30s, walking home from her job to a rundown apartment building that is the kind of place the working people of Las Vegas live. As soon as she learned why I was in town, she launched into a nonstop tirade about the depressing presidential campaign. She had been a Bernie Sanders fan, but was now resigned to voting for Hillary Clinton to avoid the insanity of a country run by the "orange oompa loompa" who had won the Republican nomination.
The woman split off at her apartment and I pressed on until I saw the gigantic neon guitar jutting into the evening sky that marked my destination. In the weirdest of all election years, a monumental neon guitar is not even close to the most unusual thing I have seen.