Dan Morris: Viva Cake Vegas
When I was a younger bloke, I made something of a pilgrimage to the only place on the planet I thought might satisfy my lust for flashing lights, luscious liquor and hard partying.
I was stateside, with a plethora of destinations at my fingertips. Would it be Chicago that would sate my thirst? It's Frank's kind of town, but no. New York, New York? Sinatra loved it there too (as do I), but for my purposes, another musical muse was required. This time, ladies and gentlemen, I would be letting my compass be guided by a fellow hip-swinging troubadour, and taking my cues from the late, great Elvis Presley. Viva Las Vegas, baby – it was time to head to Sin City... than' you very much.
I'd heard stories. Plenty of them. And all with pretty much the same ending. "The town will steal your soul, boy... this is where Englishmen go to be broken." This sounded good, and being rather encouraged by such pseudo-Shakespearean words of warning from many sides, I promptly planned a visit.
Before my sojourn to Vegas, I'd spent some weeks busking in Manhattan, and was feeling like part of the furniture when it came to the good ol' US of A. Forget the rest of the proverbial 'land of the free' though – Sin City is very much its own beast.
When you think about it, the place is ridiculous – and it should be. Las Vegas was built as a playground in the middle of the desert to allow god-fearing Americans to liberally indulge in pastimes that were prohibited elsewhere. When this is the mission statement, you'd expect the result to be something of an absurdly decadent spectacle, and the big LV delivers in spades.
Looking down Las Vegas Boulevard – or 'The Strip' as it's known to most – the Eiffel Tower can be seen across the road from the Empire State Building, and both are only a few clicks up from one of the Pyramids of Giza. From the fountains of the Bellagio to the sheer scale of Caesar's Palace, Vegas is a temple to opulence and excess, with the most indulgent worship very much encouraged.
Stepping off the plane at McCarran International (as it was then known), the first thing my eyes fell upon was a fruit machine. And I don't mean after having worked my way along various travelators to baggage reclaim and then getting comfy in the bar with a cosmo (well, when in Rome). No, I mean literally as I stepped through the plane door onto the gangway, there was a one-armed bandit right there, and along said gangway there were at least eight more. So there you go – it was possible to gamble in Vegas nine times before you'd even entered an actual building. Damn.
Of course, said actual buildings did not need to be casinos to purvey Sin City's most famous of vices. Gambling was liberal in 7-Elevens (pretty much America's answer to Spar) throughout the city. You could lose your shirt in a convenience store if you so chose (though this would of course be a little less than convenient), and as I recall a wealth of other typically innocent establishments were also offering the chance to drop a dollar or two.
Exploring the major casinos, I was in candyland, with the aforementioned Caesar's being a particular favourite of mine. I did pretty well for myself as far as my flutters went, enjoying success at roulette tables across the city, and even cleaning up reasonably well with a bit of poker.
Yet for me, the joy of Vegas didn't come in the form of winning at cards, enjoying shows or working my way through cocktail menus. It was the sheer scope of possibility and unbridled enjoyment that the town as a whole represented that got me. And this, bizarrely, was perfectly encapsulated with cake.
I remember sitting in the Bellagio at 3am with my sweet tooth particularly aching, and wondered if it would be possible at such an absurd time of day to indulge it. When I made a polite enquiry with a waitress, deploying my finest demure Hugh Grant accent, she looked shocked at the question, and not for the reason I'd anticipated. "This is Vegas, honey. You can have anything you want."
After furnishing me with the finest slice of New York cheesecake I'd ever tasted (incidentally, flown in direct from the Big Apple earlier that day), she departed with a grin at the pleasure such a simple commodity had brought this moonstruck traveller. This really was the land of the free, and I saluted it with delicious early-hours unbaked goodness.
Upon finally making my exit from the Bellagio at 6am (time moves somewhat differently in Sin City), I reflected on those back home who would have enjoyed Vegas as much as me. I'd never known anyone else to pay it a visit, but resolved there and then to one day bring back the person who I knew would have loved it the most.
My mother relished a flutter, and would happily spend hours at a roulette wheel when the occasion called for it. She would have turned 69 this week, had she not departed for that great casino in the sky a little bit too soon.
I never got to visit Vegas with her, which, considering how much trouble her and I were able to get into back home, was probably a good thing. And, in raising a glass to the nigh-on seven decades of strength, wonder, tenderness and spirit that was her life, I'm going to smile and reflect on the million beautiful memories we did make, rather than the one that we didn't. Plus, you were with me in Vegas in a way – the cake went on your credit card.
For this and every incredible thing you ever did and still do for me, I look up, quote The King one final time, and simply say this: Happy birthday, Mama... and than' you very much indeed.