Iíll never forget the first time I walked into the Sahara. It was in my second week of living in Vegas, January 2010. I was planning on visiting the casinos methodically, from Mandalay Bay upwards, but I was intrigued by a place that had so much history but, according to reports, had sunk so low.
I went out of intrigue more than anything. I parked in the rank carpark, took my life into my hands in the elevator to the casino, and decided that what everyone said was true.
Then I walked out around to the porte cochere and thought, wow, this may not be as snazzy as a sphinx or an Eiffel Tower, but itís pretty impressive. Then I walked inside and had my Howard-Carter-discovers-the-tomb-of-Tutankhamen moment. Soaring, glittering arches in the entranceway. Stout, stuccoed columns. Delicate Islamic motifs around the bar. It was the most beautiful casino Iíd seen so far.
Then, obviously, I caught the whiff of ingrained vomit in the air, looked around at the other clientele and realized that maybe my contact lenses were rose-tinted, but it didnít matter. I was sold.
I returned many times to the Sahara, almost always on my own, partly because skulking around there was my guilty secret, like entertaining an inappropriate crush, partly because I loved being on my own there. The way the aged barmen would start off all gruff and monosyllabic (none of those fake Strip smiles) and make you earn their affection. The way people at the bar would size each other up in a curious, yet not meatmarkety way. At the Sahara, I drank dollar beers even though I donít drink beer. I even grew to love those revolting dollar hotdogs.
I was almost too nervous to stay at the Sahara because I worried that a grim experience would kill my love for the place, but when I scored a $1 room, I decided to take the plunge. It was a hugely pleasant surprise. After that, it became my go-to place for cheap crashpads. $20 weekdays, $60 weekends. It was unbeatable.
Iíd always sworn Iíd get a tattoo to remind me of Vegas before I moved back to London, and Iíd spent my 18 months here planning it, but nothing ever seemed quite right. A few months back, I decided on a pair of dice, and made it as far as a tattoo parlor on a couple of occasions, but each time I backed out. It didnít feel quite right.
Then when I was in Palm Springs two weeks ago, telling a friend about the plan, and how the dice felt a little tramp stampy, I mentioned in passing that Iíd always liked those latitude-longitude tattoos, and he said ďso get one of something VegassyĒ. Done! It had to be the Sahara. Not only was it the hotel I felt the fondest of, but with its closure, it became a reminder of what I love best about Vegas: old Vegas, crumbling Vegas, proudly un-trendy Vegas. I got the coordinates, drew them on my wrist for two days to make sure, and had it done on the third.
Weirdly, it was the week after I had it done that I realized just how much the tattoo meant to me when, before I left Vegas, I went up the Stratosphere tower. The last time Iíd been there, two years ago, Iíd been in a bad way after the death of a friend. Things were very bleak when I arrived in Vegas, and they stayed bleak, until day four when I climbed the tower, took one look at the desert and realized Ė wanky as it sounds Ė just how huge/old/infinite/beautiful and resilient the world is. Then I looked downwards, saw pin-sized people scurrying across the road to the nearest casino and realized Ė though it sounds even wankier Ė how infinitesimal our problems are in the grand scheme of things. Thatís the day I began to heal after my friendís death, and itís also the first day on my path to coming to live here.
And last week, looking out from the Stratosphere for old timeís sake, I remembered that day, remembered those thoughts, and realized it was the Sahara that had been at the forefront of that whole episode. So I donít really give a monkeyís if you laugh at my tattoo (one friend) or say it looks like a barcode (another friend) or ask whether I couldnít have found a classier place to replicate (yes, another friend - I have the best). I think itís perfect.
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