I had just returned home to Los Angeles from a month-and-a-half-long European trip filled with exhibitions, readings, and parties. Two months earlier, I had proposed to the artist Rachel LaBine, my girlfriend of four years. I hadn’t written an essay or short story in what seemed to me a long time. A few months before that, Robin Peckham had asked me to write something for the upcoming issue of LEAP. He said I could do whatever I wanted. I said I needed more time. He told me that would be no problem. A few weeks later, I told him I wanted to go to Las Vegas for the fourth of July with my friend, British artist Ed Fornieles. I told him I’d report back in a few weeks.
I met with Ed at his Koreatown apartment on Friday, June 26. He seemed quite eager and excited about my proposed trip. Ironically, the foreigner had been to Vegas multiple times already since arriving in the States and I had yet to visit throughout my 12 years of adulthood. Immediately upon sitting down at his kitchen table, he offered me tea and showed me a webcam he rigged up in an aquarium tucked away in the corner of his living room. This surveillance scheme is part of a new self-directed, self-mediated project in which he is documenting much of his life. His documented days heavily involve staged and natural interactions with his best friend, writer Dean Kissick (also British, sort of) and his girlfriend, artist Amalia Ulman (not British, but studied in the United Kingdom). In this new series, all three are depicted as animated avatars. Ed and I began catching up. I looked around while chatting. Dean was fastidiously typing at his laptop with headphones on. Amalia was anxiously sitting across the table, attempting to casually mention apartment-hunting while simultaneously noting her avoidance of parties while at Art Basel earlier in the month.
Ed began slicing up an apple and showing me Disney diagrams and various cartoons and how he has been considering these things in relation to his own work and how he’s thinking about how they could, perhaps, affect our journey. I didn’t see the connection, but I was open to the conversation. Before we could really progress with the conversation in order to get to the connection, Ed suggested we go get sandwiches at Langer’s in MacArthur Park. Dean removed his headphones to confirm his hunger, and we all attempted to find Amalia, who had left to either make or take a phone call. We found her by the elevator, which she pointed out smelled like shit. We obviously took the stairs. For some reason, she took the elevator. After about an hour at Langer’s, we parted ways without a real plan. But we seemed to have a good feeling. And sometimes that’s all you really need. A week went by and it was time to head to the desert. I woke up with brutal stomach pains. I ate four Tums. Ed texted me to let me know he couldn’t leave until later in the day because he had to help install one of his pieces at an important collector’s house in Beverly Hills. I wrote and replied to emails and listened to television news networks tell me that ISIS might, but probably wouldn’t, attack America the following day. I ate four more Tums.
Ed texted me that he’d be heading back to his place soon. He said he’d be ready in about an hour or so. I headed to a marijuana dispensary between my place and his; I didn’t realize my certificate had expired the week before. Ed told me not to worry about it—Dean had plenty of drugs. I pulled up to Ed’s place, which was now also Dean’s place. I texted them that I was outside. They threw their luggage in the back. Ed casually entered the passenger seat. Dean slithered into the backseat. Ed took a swig from a carton of Trader Joe’s orange juice and said, “Vitamins. Vitamins are very important this weekend.” Dean moaned from behind us. I asked, “What’s up with you, homie?” Dean said, “I had to try the product. I haven’t slept a wink. But I watched a lot of YouTube videos on card-counting this morning. I feel really good about this weekend.” For the first half hour we talked about French video art. I don’t think any of us were invested in this subject. It just happened. It’s strange how long topics like this can linger around in a conversation. Ed intervened and told us a few stories about previously losing money in Vegas. Next, Dean tried to get my opinion on a number of various young artists. Soon, it was time to refuel. I was low on gas, and Ed and Dean were starting to get hungry. We decided to wait until Barstow. They decided on In-N-Out. They didn’t realize In-N-Out was a Christian burger chain. They didn’t seem to mind. Ed dug into his burger and said, “Protein. Protein is very important this weekend.” Next stop: Primm. The Brits needed to piss. I needed another Red Bull and more Tums. The stretch between Barstow and Primm is grim. I mean, it’s a marvelous sight. But it’s dark, even in the daytime. If you spend enough time in the desert, you will surely die—even with access to air conditioning and buffets.
We were so close to infinite air conditioning and endless buffets. No more stops. Not until the hotel. At around 9 pm, we dropped my car and our bags off at The Renaissance, a Marriott hotel slightly off The Strip. As soon as we walked out of the hotel lobby, it felt impossible to breathe. I had never breathed desert air like that. We immediately hopped into a cab and Ed chirped at the driver: “Caesars Palace.” We got there and took notice of all of the people wearing beach attire. Everyone in the lobby seemed to be transported from Myrtle Beach, and they were all drinking tall boys. The three of us wondered why there were so many children out and about, all by themselves. I wondered why people make you feel like an asshole if you’re judgmental in Vegas. I mean, if you don’t let your toddler roam around an expansive and expensive castle of debauchery, people probably won’t judge you. For some reason, I was under the impression that this was one of the nicer casinos in Vegas. Although the overall look and feel of the patrons didn’t prove this to be the case, the cost of food and drink seemed to agree. What a clash of cultures. It’s like when professional athletes park their cars on their lawns in gated communities. It was interesting to start Vegas off with the “go big or go home” crowd. We still had a full day ahead of us—Independence Day. I didn’t want this to turn out like that shitty movie Swingers. None of us did. After our overpriced dinner, we headed over to some craps tables. My belly was still hurting, but, oddly enough, the more beers I drank the better it felt. Ed looked like he was ready to get hyphy. Dean looked like he was ready to fall asleep.
After Dean came back from the bathroom for like the third time, he asked me if I wanted to go to the bathroom. Ed was down at the moment and I had no idea how to play craps. I was just drinking free Coronas, pretending that I might get in the mix at some point. I went to the bathroom, took a piss, and got something caught in my throat. I choked and coughed for at least five minutes, guzzling a bottle of Perrier from Primm in between. By the time I got back to the table, I had forgotten about my stomach pains altogether and was even more talkative than usual. Ed had made friends with the entire table, including the Russian croupier. I’m not sure how much time we spent at that table, but once Ed’s money ran out, we decided to go to another casino. The nearest one that we recognized by name was the Flamingo. I liked how the entrance was all business. No flirting. Straight to fucking. This is what I expected in Vegas. It was no more or less trashy than I had anticipated. Ed said he wasn’t into the vibe of the tables at this place, but that he could use a momentary breather from gambling. We sat at the bar and he ordered us each a Blue Moon: “A good American beer, right?”
We smoked a few Parliaments and drank a few Blue Moons. But then Ed got the itch and Dean said he needed fresh air. Once we were outside, Dean said this wasn’t the type of fresh air he meant. He needed water and air conditioning. We went straight to the Paris. Dean went straight to the bar. On our way over to the Paris, Ed asked me if I wanted to drop. I said sure. On the way back from the bar, Dean and Ed shook hands. Dean went straight to the bathroom. Dean came back and we all agreed we’d play blackjack once we found the right table. I told them I didn’t care where we played, that it was up to them. I told them I wanted to scope out the scenery a bit before settling on a spot. I wanted to navigate the crowd. People-watching is crucial, especially in times of risk and negligence. I watched a Beyoncé impersonator do a rendition of “Single Ladies.” I watched a young couple, both wearing polo shirts, argue about shots in line at the bar. I watched the bartender yell “YOLO” a few times. Then I ordered three Blue Moons and tried to find my dudes. They had settled on a table. It seemed fine to me. We saddled up, each put down USD 20 to start, and started chatting with the croupier. After a few hands, she started chatting back. As a group, we were breaking even the first few hands. After a few more hands, we started collectively going up. Soon, I had split aces. Then all three of us started coming up. Those aces turned into Double 21 and we were on a roll. We were rolling. After we won about two hundred plus, Dean’s eyes were rolling. He had been up for like two days. It was time to get him back to the hotel. There was no way Ed and I would be able to fall asleep. Ed had a look of panic, then a look of brilliance. “We have magic mushrooms back at the hotel!” The three of us got in the taxi line outside the Paris, and Ed started talking with some confused couples from Connecticut. Maybe we were the ones who were confused. It’s difficult to say. Eventually, it was our turn for a cab and we scooped Dean up from the concrete and all burrowed into the car. As soon as we took off, Ed asked the driver, “How depressed are you?” The guy chortled and yelped, “Excuse me?” Dean said, “Ed, I think that came out wrong.” Ed spent the next ten minutes debating whether he’d have his body buried in the United Kingdom or the United States. When we got back to our room, Dean and I started casually shooting the shit and somehow Ed ended up on the phone with his London dealer. We looked over at Ed and he was munching on psychedelic mushrooms like they were In-N-Out fries. We both yelled, “Ed, what are you doing?” He tried to assure us it was no big deal: “What? I’ve only had a couple. Here, Keith have some…” I didn’t want this to get Gonzo, but I also didn’t want to steer this trip into any one specific direction. I chewed a few caps and we decided to let Dean get some sleep. Ed and I hopped into another cab and Ed hollered, “Take us to a place with cheap tables.” The cabbie dropped us off at Harrah’s. For some reason, he didn’t drop us off in the front. So we walked through this brutalist entrance and a security guard escorted us to the casino. After a few steps, I realized this place was the worst. Ed argued he couldn’t really tell the difference between good and bad at this point and suggested, “Let’s just sit down at a table.”
We sat down next to some guy probably a few years older than the two of us, who had been up for probably about as long as Dean; he said he didn’t see a bed in his near future. We played a hand or two and watched the guy next to us lose consecutive hands and sulk in his beer. Ed quickly looked at me and said, “Okay, this is bad. Let’s go to The Mirage.” We walked into The Mirage and the floors felt so good on our feet. The air conditioning felt better than any of the previous spots. Everybody was nicer here. We sat down at the bar and Ed ordered two Blue Moons from a furrow-browed, nostalgic man. Ed drank both beers. He told me I looked greener than usual. He told me all the women in the casino looked Asian. Then the bartender made a call on his radio. Ed got spooked, but the old man just needed to refill his till. Then a large black man, sipping out of a straw and puffing on a Newport, sidled up to us and some muffled words came out of his mouth. Ed asked, “Need a smoke?” The man showed him the cigarette he was already smoking. Then the dude mumbled some more words at us. Ed said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t understand you.” The man repeated, but much louder, “Y’all fuck with coke?”
To be continued…