What Happens in Vegas: Recession Reflections

By Virginia Breen

Jul 20, 2009 1:57pm

  ABC News On Campus reporter Xorje Olivares blogs: Bless me Father for I have sinned in Sin City—but boy, did it feel good. Funny thing is, it was my parents’ idea that we celebrate my 21st birthday in the land of luck. After spending a few months (and a few hundred dollars) planning everything, it came time to board our plane bound for Las Vegas. With my seatbelt on, tray in its upright position, all I could think about were the millions that awaited me. Whether or not they’d come home in my carry-on was a different story. I’ve always been intrigued by gambling. I call it a craft because only the skillful succeed in maintaining that balance between complete and utter debt and jackpot glory. And believe me, I was determined to walk off the strip a winner.  But in a time when people are struggling to make ends meet, in a time when the national unemployment rate has reached a high of 9.5 percent, was it wise to engage in such risky behavior? I decided to investigate, with my paycheck at hand.    Upon landing in Vegas, I discovered the times had obviously not treated her well. Over the course of our four-day stay, we’d walk into casinos greeted by mostly empty seats and a few lonely swirls of cigarette smoke. “This is not the Vegas I remember,” muttered Mom, as she found a penny machine that caught her attention. It was true. My sister and I had been to Vegas with my parents before, and I distinctly remember having to push and shove my way so as to not get lost in the crowd. But now the crowd was gone, the very crowd I expected to greet me on my big day. As I continuously placed a 20 inside dozens of slot machines throughout the week, the lights and sounds of chance reminded me that luck had not fallen victim to the tumultuous times, not yet at least. I saw a number of people cash out hundreds of dollars from their machines, my sister and father among them. Also, a few construction projects along the strip showed some sort of progress for the city suffering from a June unemployment rate of 12.3  percent. During the day, we would do our best to brave the sweltering Nevada heat, as did a number of construction workers out on the job. New buildings reaching heights rivaling those of existing hotels could only be a good sign. It wasn’t until I was inside that I realized what the economy truly meant to Vegas and to those who made a living there. As I was playing a penny machine inside the Luxor, I noticed a couple sitting a few seats down. They both looked young, probably in their early 20s, and both were dressed quite modestly. A cocktail waitress in her early 40s walked by asking if either of us wanted drinks. After I declined, the girl decided to ask for one—she was celebrating her 21st birthday too. She then ended up asking the waitress something else, something that would eventually turn into an intimate conversation. The girl asked about life as a cocktail waitress. She apparently was contemplating moving out to Vegas with her boyfriend with the hopes of becoming one herself. As the waitress looked down at her, her face said it all.  “Honey, don’t come expecting to make $500 a night,” she said. “Not with this economy.” As their conversation continued for about a half hour, the smile on the girl’s face eventually faded. I turned not wanting to bear witness to it all. As we left the casino that night, and Sin City thereafter, I wondered about the idea of a "high life." What exactly did it mean, and were any of us eligible to be a part of it? When all was said and done, I was about $400 in the hole. But I did learn a valuable lesson while I was there: Money may talk, but lack of it resonates even louder.

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