(Nov. 10) Lost wages. Las Vegas. Babylon in the desert. Sin City.
Las Vegas has a lot of names, none of them subtle.

The cab driver from the airport to the Strip will clue you in on the city’s fortunes. “Las Vegas was built on gambling, booze and sex.”

You might add a couple of more building blocks: big shows and food. You can see the “old Vegas” downtown, in the old Fremont Street casinos shown in a thousand movies. This is the home of the $2.99 buffet.

But out on the Strip, Las Vegas Boulevard, is the new Vegas, home of the billion-dollar casinos, the world’s biggest hotels, fancy new restaurants, huge theaters, the world’s largest signs. Only Las Vegas would build watery Venice in the Mojave Desert. And New York and Paris.

Siegfried and Roy played to more live audiences than any entertainers in history — an estimated 40 million people. They distracted you by making white tigers disappear, which took your mind off the fact “the house” was making your wealth disappear. Now the act is broken up, but something will take its place.

Today, Las Vegas is undoubtedly the world’s leading host, the top hospitality and foodservice destination in the world. It has more hotel rooms. It has an incredible number of restaurants and eateries. It has 35 million visitors. It’s the nation’s fastest-growing city and has the sixth-busiest airport.

Las Vegas is the world’s greatest monument to chutzpah — guts combined with audacity. Call it “cool hand Vegas.” In the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” Paul Newman won at cards with a “bluff hand” — a cool hand. He won with nothing.

That’s what Las Vegas has done. It took nothing — sand and 116 degree desert days — and made it a world destination. You hear a lot of languages in the lobbies and casinos.

The Mob built Vegas. No one denies that. Now the place is run by corporations. Wall Street meets Sin City. Las Vegas recently announced it is abandoning its family friendly campaign.

Corporate Las Vegas learned in recent years that visitors want good food, not just cheap food. Cheap eats was a part of the deal. It still is. Virtually every casino and hotel as a “meal deal,” a low-priced buffet of some kind. But Wolfgang Puck moved in, along with Ruth’s Chris and dozens of other marquee restaurant names. People will pay for good food, and the casinos know that it doesn’t hurt to comp the high rollers with free meals.

All the cliches about Las Vegas are true. There are no clocks. For five days I had no idea what time it was. There are no windows. Night and day merge. What difference does time make? Nothing closes.

My son and I make a reservation at a fancy Northern Italian restaurant in New York, New York, one of the big casinos. We had to decide whether to sit indoors or “outdoors.”

But outdoors is indoors because the “outside seating” next to a stream is really deep inside the casino. The food? Good but not great.

Down the way, in Greenwich Village, the steam is rising from manhole covers, and there is the faint smell of methane sewer gas. There‘s also an inside Coney Island roller coaster. Here’s New York without the grit and grief.

At the Bellagio, a vast casino and hotel with plush public rooms and a famous water show, dozens of chefs are working at various stations preparing a wide array of foods.

This is the Bellagio buffet, which is served most of the day. Everything is prepared on the spot. One woman complains because the tray of crepes or omelets is empty.
“That’s because we’re making fresh ones,” the chef explains. “Don’t you want ’em fresh?”

Like all good chefs, the Bellagio chefs know you have to have fresh ingredients to create quality. Here the produce and fruit dishes are made fresh on the spot.

The price for all this? Twenty-five dollars per person.
New Orleans is represented in Commander’s Palace. There’s Gallagher’s from New York. Emeril Lagasse, the cooking superstar, oversees the Delmonico at the Venetian. Puck runs a branch of Spago at Caesar’s Palace. A lot of upscale chain and theme restaurants are represented. Scores of Italian restaurants, Mexican, Chinese. There are even Persian and Indonesian entries. No one goes hungry in Vegas.

The throngs in Las Vegas mostly know they are being taken. They joke about it endlessly. “You can’t beat the house” is heard constantly. “Hey, I’ll play ’til the money runs out.”

Most people reconcile this by setting limits and by taking advantage of the meal deals and the spectacular shows. If you get a good meal it takes the sting from that hour you spent at video blackjack or deuces wild poker, the evil machines that ate your bonus money. Or the money for the watermelon crop.