Finding a Las Vegas native in the Venetian resort-hotel-casino is like the old line about Floridians at Disney World: go find an employee. Everyone else is not from here, which is just as well, because this isn’t a here. Tessellated floors and mock Italian Renaissance halls – arched doorways and frescoed ceilings like Vasari by way of Pier One Imports – usher you to and from rooms divorcing you as fully from the passage of time, forces of nature and the discomfort of reality as possible.
Of course the fifth Republican primary debate is here.
When reality intrudes, it is sudden and short. Carole Myers, a short woman nearing retirement age, with black pants and long-sleeved shirt and dyed red hair, tells me she pulled up to the Venetian and “forgot all about [her van] until suddenly the Secret Service were everywhere”. Myers drives a shuttle for Machine Gun Vegas (MGV), a black cargo van with black mock-ups of M249 SAWs on the roof.
The officers panic and stop her van in the driveway. “They [don’t] draw on me,” she says, just open the door and inspect the van. “Then they let me go, and I pull forward, and it happens all over again.”
Myers tells me this on the circuit she drives to and from MGV, where I’ve gone to try to enter the Republican base voter mindset and martially prepare for the coming clash of civilizations promised by this national-security-heavy debate.
After only a few miles of real road, I enter the black MGV building, which offers two different Lady Gaga songs on the in-house radio within 10 minutes, while customers browse iPad menus of real target shooting and combat simulacra.
Two young receptionists – clad in the tactical chic of black boots, black yoga pants, black tops and black leather jackets – explain the differences in menu options: “The AK really kicks, but everyone loves it,” Shayla Pelham tells me.
Out of morbid curiosity, I choose the Urban Assault Experience, which offers simulations of police clearing a dangerous house and intervening in a place called “Skid Row”. Mercifully, the racial makeup of the police and the perps betrays no assumptions about what type of people fall on either side of the legal fence.
Jacqueline Carrizosa, a 26-year-old shooting coach, cheerfully shouts “Great job!” at me every time I correctly choose not to shoot civilians. In addition to being a proud concealed-carry owner, she helps customers get concealed-carry certification and also runs simulations for cops and average citizens preparing for the nightmare scenarios so familiar from the news.
“We have one for a robbery in a building after hours,” she tells me. “You’re supposed to shout ‘Stop! Put your weapon down’ at the perpetrator before you open fire. If they don’t, I can stop the simulator right there, or I can have the perpetrator open fire without warning.”
Other scenarios are particularly grim; one has a name like “Active Shooter: School”. The filmed mockup is unsettlingly authentic: bodies lying on flat institutional carpeting, frantic yelling, white cinder-block walls.
Despite once striking center mass in roughly 0.4 seconds with my Glock or my Colt Commando, other times I need the full three-second window to good-guy-with-a-gun the bad guy with the gun. We have no way of knowing if he would have beaten me to the pull, because none of this is real.
For that, you only have to drive 1.5 miles west of the Venetian. Real people’s permanent dwellings start to appear on the sides of the roads. Houses and apartments sport the same dry-climate architectural aesthetic you find from Texas to southern California, and as far north as Colorado: tile roofs atop a muddy stucco meant to look like adobe and looking more like someone with a lot of influence had six states’ worth of stucco surplus.
I go west at the suggestion of Jessica G Banks, a former stripper and online dominatrix who’s made her home in Las Vegas several times over the last decade and a half. She meets me at D’Coffee Shop, a surprisingly expansive cafe with a large European-style menu, a black and Arab staff and an interior that smells like incense..
D’Coffee Shop had advertised a showing of the debate – as operator Lakisha “Queen Sheba” Swift puts it, “to welcome all viewpoints”. Banks starts heckling the screen immediately.
“I don’t think the people that follow Donald Trump know what’s going on in the world. How could they?” she says. A graphic appears at the bottom of the CNN broadcast, reading, How would you find a radicalized person? Banks reads it aloud and snorts: “Look at frickin’ Fox News.” One of the candidates mentions that there are already thirteen Syrian refugees in Las Vegas at this very moment. “Yeah,” she says, “I’m shakin’ in my boots.”
The shop is surprisingly empty, apart from Swift, some of her friends and a PR person. The only exception is a white dad who, unprompted, stands and says, “You know who’s great? Ben Carson.” He doesn’t wait for a reply and instead sits and resumes an intense conversation his preteen son has already spent minutes not enjoying.
Banks’ friend and fellow online artist and Vegas resident Empress Delfina joins us. She is dressed and shaped like a dead ringer for Lana from the television show Archer, which briefly freezes our Arab waiter in his tracks. After conferring over the fact that neither would vote for “these idiots”, Banks and Delfina start in on Trump.
Delfina leans forward. “A friend of mine who runs a club got a signed hat from Trump last night. It reminded me of something from my college psychology classes in New York. Analyzing signatures. It’s this jagged up-and-down signature, like he’s trying to cross himself out. I looked it up. It’s the signature of a sociopath.”
After two hours, neither has heard anything germane to their lives in Las Vegas. Not even anything about climate change, which the Pentagon considers an issue of national security, and which a desert oasis like Vegas is particularly vulnerable to.
“There are more important things to be afraid of than letting in a few refugees,” Banks says. “Like cuts to education or maintaining our infrastructure or people graduating college loaded with debt, who can’t get healthcare and are working full time jobs and living in poverty.”
It feels like the realest moment all day. I thank Swift for showing the debate and ask how long D’Coffee Shop has been here.
“Twenty-four hours,” she says. “We have a TV show as well. It’s called D’Coffee Shop Closes At 9 PM, and it’s starring Adrian Zmed, Antonio Fargas and myself. It’s sort of like Twilight Zone-ish and Love Boat, where people come in, they have some sort of problem, and they wander into the coffee shop after 9 PM, and we go to work on you and we heal you.”
The show isn’t shot at the coffee shop itself. “We don’t shoot here; we have a whole other set somewhere else.” It looks just like it.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015