It’s shortly after 9 p.m. Monday when we pull into the Circus Circus parking garage. I’m three beers in and four shots to the wind, glad not to be driving. My girlfriend and I watched the football game at our bar a few blocks away and indulged in a goodly number of adult libations. I figured that for a school assignment, it would likely be deemed inappropriate were I to get into a Raoul Duke state of mind, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to walk in Thompson’s footsteps sober.
We parked on the bottom floor of the abandoned lot, only steps from the door. “This place is dead as disco,” Chrystal said skeptically as she flicked the totally legal, doctor prescribed marijuana cigarette away from the car. “I mean, I know it’s a Monday, but really? This is depressing.”
She was right, there were few people to be seen as we walked through the glass doors into the lobby. “Don’t worry,” I assured her confidently as I held the door like a damn gentleman. “It’ll be great, I just have to find the Carousel bar real fast, that and the American Dream.”
There was my true purpose, on the hunt for the American Dream, on the very spot Hunter S. Thompson got a glimpse of it in the wild, over 40 years ago. I was supposed to meet my research partners here on Friday, but things did not go as I would have liked. I was far too adventurous in my house in the early afternoon, and spent the late afternoon in an urgent care having my toe glued back together. Now I was left to limp around the Circus Circus with my girlfriend, retracing Hunter’s steps.
I walked through the door, Chrystal walked directly to the bathroom, leaving me alone in the lobby. I’ve had to find my way in a hotel many times before and as I hadn’t been to the big top themed casino since my early teens, I knew my first course of action was to speak with concierge.
I walked up casually, soberly, and was extremely charming to the large woman behind the desk. “Hello ma’am, could you lead me to the ruins of the ‘Carousel Bar’,” I enquired with finger quotes. “The famous one, with Hunter S. Thompson and all, from the movie?” Sheila looked at me like I was an alien. “The circular bar, the one that spins,” I extrapolated inquisitively. She must have known what I was talking about, but for some reason she responded with all the quickness of a furious sloth.
She chewed loudly on a piece of red gum as she pulled a map off her desk and handed it to me, assuring me the spot on which the bar used to sit was on the ground floor adjacent to the security desk. I escorted my girlfriend around the ground floor, past the famous steak house to the main casino floor. But much to my chagrin, waiting for me across from the cage was merely a circular enclave full of slot machines, on a slightly raised platform, next to a sign warning any who may approach that the floor spins. The sign lied.
There was nothing moving, not a raised platform and not a human being, there were barely any of those to be found anywhere at all on the ground floor. There were dealers at nearly empty tables, cocktail waitress circling slightly less than deserted rows of slot machines like famished buzzards, and bartenders patiently awaiting the chance to practice their refined mixology. I knew that I would not disappoint them. I suspected it would be slow, but I was not ready for the ghost town into which I walked; I hoped my partners had fared better over the weekend.
The American Dream was not where Hunter left it, and without the spinning bar, the hallucinogens or the customer base, recreating any semblance of his adventure was proving a more elusive endeavor than I had anticipated.
I feel strange saying his name, my own name so often, Hunter this, Hunter there, Hunter that; it is the most I have ever said or typed my moniker before in my life, as I tend not to speak of myself in the third person.
I looked up at the Midway and decided it would be a shame to leave without having some fun, so I promptly led my girlfriend over to “Vince Neil’s something, something” bar. A few drinks later we marched up the stairs and right up to a stage where a blonde man and woman in leotards flipped around and struck flexible poses. I thought about Hunter and his acrobats and their wolverine and a smile crept across my face, briefly; the two performers were athletic specimens to be sure, but they no longer flew so high off the ground.
I turned away from the performers, determined to win Chrystal the “Minion” doll with which she was so enamored, when I nearly walked directly into a circular lemonade stand. I had been told that such a lemonade stand might have been all that was left of the carousel bar I was in search of, but, “this can’t be it,” I thought to myself. “This is too small a space to fit much of a bar in, let alone obscenely inebriated customers struggling to get by without attracting the police. And besides, it’s pretty damn close to all these children playing carnival games.”
I again thought of Hunter’s time spent beneath the acrobats, specifically, that he looked up at them, not over from a similar vantage point. That puts my money on the empty ring of casinos on the supposedly spin capable platform. Not much better.
Chrystal grabbed my hand and pulled me over to the carnival games and we began to test our skill. She made a basket, when I could not, and won me a little pepper-man, completely emasculating me in the process with her amazing talent. Then I redeemed myself at the dart board, where I popped a pair of the meanest balloons you’ve ever seen. And so we went on, spending far too much money, winning prizes that no one would want to buy for far less money, until we circled half of the upstairs midway that is.
At a horseracing game there waited for us a giant pillow, shaped like one of the gibberish sputtering sidekicks from the “Despicable Me” films. She thought it was cute, and I was there to make her happy, but it was what is known as a level four prize, meaning to win it took a pair of prizes from each previous level, each of which required a pair of the level below that, and so on. My algebra skills came in handy as I did the math and figured out that to win this pillow, I would need to win only 32 games. At the cheap rate of $2 per a player that would only cost about $741.
But to my rescue came a lovely Asian family, also taken with the game or the, apparently awesome, movie memorabilia prize. The family was right out of a Norman Rockwell painting; a pair of grandparents, a few adults and a smattering of children, all holding hands and laughing. With the eight of them and the middle class mid-westerny looking couple to my left we had enough players to win the coveted prize in a single game. And so, it was on.
We sat at our seats, we threw our balls and raced our plastic horses and there was a fair bit of yelling. And we both lost; I lost badly.
I was annoyed that I had been so unceremoniously defeated and was not looking forward to paying the same price each time for a series of smaller challenges that might one day add up to the grand pillow. But only one person dropped, everyone else vowed to give it one more try before swearing off the devil. That made the game pretty simple: one chance to win, or else go home empty-handed and proven less of a man.
As I sat there, preparing to hand these tourists their butts, practicing my new technique as the corporate carny set up the game for another round, collecting the money from the collection of suckers lined up before her, I realized I was surrounded by the American Dream, it was being lived all around me.
The family felt like tourists, on vacation in the tourist capital of America, wandering around playing games, paying too much for drinks and hanging out with their loved ones. I was there with my girlfriend; we were both off work, and spending time with the people we care most about, spending too much money on stupid things because it was fun.
The American Dream isn’t necessarily a cool car or a beautiful house. It’s not corporate greed or winning the lottery; the American Dream is about the chance to raise oneself to a comfortable level of society, to have the chance to better ones position in life by acquiring an education and working hard. We can all have a chance to be in love, raise a family and spend time with people we care about.
Horacio Alger purveyed some shiny propaganda in his myths, oversimplifying the plight of millions of families who struggled with all their might and never achieved the quality of life they deserved, the same as many Americans today. But the essence of his ideas follow the tradition of Jefferson and the country’s inception, a fair shot at a good life. The Pursuit of Happiness and all that jazz.
The people running the game didn’t speak amazing English and could easily have been working the jobs as an early rung on a quest to make a better life in the U.S. I was in the midst of trying to live my own American dream; I was only in the big top themed casino because I am in school trying to better myself, find a real career outside of the bar industry. I work in the city, paying my way through, and on my day off I was there on a date with the woman I love, drinking, throwing away money and racing plastic horses.
As I sat there, living the American Dream, the game attendant called out the start of the next game and I got to work. Man, was I ever in a groove. I was rolling these balls with the deft touch of a shuffleboard savant. Ball after ball sank right into the hole that drew my aim, racking up the points and pushing my horse along at an ass-kicking pace. In the end I stood redeemed and victorious, holding my fluffy yellow trophy over my head, presenting the gift to my proud girlfriend, who was surely counting her stars she was so lucky as to be with such an amazing competitor. Living the Dream.