Sites, Lights, and Slights
Vegas, a Disneyland for adults. A multiverse made up of parallel dimensions. With everything happening all at once you see whatever it is you want to see. Activities so saturated in availability, right at your very fingertips, it’s easy to get lost in your idea of a good time and never look up to see the rest. One might even think it’s been custom tailored just for them. Gambling, shopping, entertainment, dining, partying, danger, trouble, sex, the list goes on, just take your pick.
Glossy-eyed folks at slot machines, fixated, covered on one side in forgotten about ash, burning cash, begging lady luck at every pull of the lever, thinking…this time. No need to get up. Just keep playing. You can smoke right where you are and a pretty lady will be happy to bring you a drink, a free one at that. Just don’t get up. You’re about to win, you can just feel it. And the hours pass. It’s conveniently impossible to tell what time it is in there. Not that it matters, it never closes.
Shopping malls on top of casinos inside of hotels. Cheesecake Factory at one end and Gucci at the other complete with middle of the mall pyrotechnics, gondola rides for a trip around the world, and kiosks for midday alcohol filled fuel-ups to help loosen the grip on the old wallet, besides you’ll win it all back later.
Party hard, live it up, get wasted. Ladies night is every night. You’re special, that’s why you get all the comped drinks and drink tickets. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas right? So just let loose.
But that’s not what I was in Vegas for. I was in Vegas under slightly different pretenses. Pretty lights and busy nights are perfectly distracting from the grittier activities that Vegas thrives on. A whole world of hookers, pimps, and clients.
They blend right in if you’re not paying attention. Like looking for deer in a forest, when you finally spot one you see the herd.
When we spotted our first one, she was just as expected. She dropped off her old, beat-up, green Ford with the valet and fell out of the SUV a like bambi in towering shoes. An expensive purse draped from her arm. Slightly unsure and a little slowly, she walked into the Bellagio Hotel. She wore a tight black dress that showed skin, but not too much. Her long brown hair perfectly smooth and shiny, nails done and just long enough that it makes her hold her fingers kind of straight, unable to bend at the lowest knuckle making all her movements seem dainty. Her makeup was freshly painted but nice. She paced the lobby checking her phone expectantly. She was everything we were told to look for. Spot on. As we debated who we thought she was waiting for, a blonde middle-aged woman dressed casually in a bright pink sweater, jeans, and tall boots swung by and greeted her happily. They shook hands and exchanged niceties. The young lady followed the woman and so did we. We followed through the casino, past all the people, and pushed through unmarked, heavy doors. On the other side were elevators that led only to the top floor penthouse rooms. We stopped there, where we assumed the young woman’s night was just about to begin.
I came to Vegas with a friend doing research. Earlier in the day she had a meeting with a lieutenant in Vegas who’s focus is in this particular area of crime. The goal was to learn more details of the sex industry specific to Vegas. My friend has pervious experience around prostitutes, pimps, and the Johns that feed the industry. This wasn’t her first time around the block but she needed more in-depth material and since I was her ride to sin city I consequently became her sidekick detective as well. So we collected information, learned some fascinating details about the complicated industry, and set off on our social experiment. It was a unique and eye opening way to spend my first time in Vegas to say the least.
Early afternoon was spent finding and following working girls who were shopping. It was explained to us how pimps lure girls in to work for them and how they keep them around with pregnancy and absurdly expensive shopping sprees. There is a pattern, a time of day, a way they dress and carry themselves that are dead giveaways, but without being told what to look for you would think they were just another girl shopping. We were told exactly where to find them, where the best spots were for watching, and what to look out for. Then you see the young, well dressed, not-at-all flashy man following a short distance behind. The pimps aren’t your made for TV, intimidating looking guys you’d expect. They are unassuming and seem perfectly approachable though they almost exclusively drive Bentleys.
In the evening we hit the jackpot when we bellied up to a bar that seemed promising for watching the ladies stalk prey in their natural habitat. Our bartender became our friend in a bit of a stereotypical role reversal. We played sounding board as he spilled his guts. He shared with us his frustrated feelings about the working girls who pick up guys from his bar. They play the system. They ask for free drinks, take up seats, and never tip. They tease him, prod him, and drive him crazy. As he explained how the casino is cracking down on prostitution, we watched as two girls were approached and escorted out by cops. He told us about the blacklisting of several prostitutes, those ladies must have been on that list. The other seven girls occupying more than half of the seats at the bar watched unfazed but aware. There is a complex unspoken language between them that our new friend pointed out to us. They exchange glances between each other across the bar and across the room that communicates much more than just acknowledgement of one another. Seconds later we watched as two girls found themselves in a turf war while the two girls sharing a single seat next to us acted like best friends giggling and harassing the poor bartender. Never a dull moment.
It’s an extremely layered and complex sub-culture. It’s illegal and yet blatant in Vegas but if you’re not looking for it you’ll glaze right over it. On the surface it looks a good time waiting to happen and harmless, but the underbelly of the industry is competitive, drug-filled, and violent. Girls are tricked and manipulated into the business and abused and trapped once in. The money behind it all is insanely abundant. The players in the game don’t hide. They don’t have to, some even revel in the fame gained as top dogs. Cops can only do so much with without hard proof and no one is willing rat anyone out. That would be too dangerous and besides there would be nothing in it for them. All the law seems to be able to do is clean up at surface level and watch from afar. So they focus on saving girls and helping them get out when they can. A world of extremes, big money, and hard drama. For some, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas because there is no way out.