The City Where Nobody Smiles

I had business in Las Vegas the last couple of days. Las Vegas is probably my least favorite city. The conference I attended was lodged in Harrah’s, which meant that no matter where I wanted to go, I had to wade through rows and rows of slot machines, colonies of Keno players, and other assemblages of people who have come from all walks of life to have a good time.

The thing was, not a one of them was smiling. There were young couples, groups of gawking frat boys, middle-aged Italians, elderly singles being pushed by their offspring in wheelchairs, or perhaps hobbling along on walkers. Men and women of all ages, manners of dress, languages and dialects. All had flown to Las Vegas, the sleepless city, the city that knows how to keep a secret, the city of lights and fortunes, and every blessed one of them looked like someone awaiting execution.

Perhaps people have more fun at the shows and restaurants. But you can get better versions of each in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, heck, even Atlanta. No, what sets Las Vegas apart is the gambling, and perhaps the prostitution. Millions of people visit every year, and I wonder, does a one of them find what he is looking for?

Do they even know what they seek?

Which I suppose can be asked of us all, not just the poor souls sitting numbly in front of those cold machines with the pretty, pretty lights. The answer, I think, is that we are seeking something that will fill the great Empty.

It runs right through the middle of you, this emptiness, and though every good writer has tried to describe it, and though we all know it is there, we are most of us terribly afraid to think about it, which is perhaps why a place like Las Vegas can exist at all.


  1. Gary Sweeten

    My wife and I stopped in Las Vegas in 1976 while driving to California to deliver some papers at a conference on psychology. We went to several of the casinos and watched people.

    Since I am a therapist I was interested in their body language and the ways they interacted with each other. Each of us echoed your comments about the lack of smiles and the absence of fun. Their affect was flat, expressionless and there was a distinct lack of interaction among the people. It was robotic and creepy.

    In a high tech world we need more high touch places to congregate not more computer chips hiding as fun machines.

  2. Jay Smith

    R. Brown– Perhaps the following cuts right to the quick of “That Emptiness” we see in Vegas and as we walk the streets of whatever town in which we find ourselves. Focus particularly on the portions I’ve put between asterisks.

    “Death is the result of separation from God, Who alone has immortality and is the source of life. Death is the “sin of this world” because it is the manifestation in all mankind of an alienation from God. When we refer to individual sins, we are not referring to “breaches of law” but to any and every action which separates us from God or increases our alienation from Him. **Fear of death leads us into more and more individual sins and also into the corporate sins of society (such as neglecting the poor, waging wars of conquest, etc.) The root of all sin is egoism and self-love, and the fear of death pushes man into more and more deeds and life styles of egoism and self-love.** Thus, “The wages of sin is death” (Rm.6:23)

    While death is the product of sin (Rm.5:12), Sin is the falling short of the goal of everlasting life in union with God (theosis). Thus sin and death are partners, or rather “shades of the same thing.” As the root of them is our egoism and self-love, our self-absorption and self-centredness, the healing of them is the unconditional, co-suffering love of God in Jesus Christ, which recapitulates our nature (Eph. 1:10). Having received such a gift of divine love, our struggle is to assimilate it to ourselves and struggle to conquer our own egoism, replacing it with unselfish love. This is the path toward a re-orientation of our lives toward the will of God, and the very meaning of faith, the faith that saves us where works of the law could not, is an unconditional orientation toward the will of God. This is not a call for moral codes or moralisms, but a call for a transformation of the human heart toward unselfish love of God and neighbour.”
    — Archbishop Lazar Puhalo

  3. Marc V

    It ain’t called “Sin City” for nuttin’! After you get past the drones attached to their buzzing slot machines (reminds me of the “Matrix”), you have to contend with the wanna-be high rollers at the blackjack, roulette and poker tables. You may see a few more smiles from them than the “slotters”, but not many more.

    My brother decided to get married there a few years back. At the time we could not afford for my wife and son to fly out, so I flew solo. Much prayer before and during helped me to survive my first (and hopefully only) trip there. I don’t know how some people can function daily in that spiritual oppression/darkness.

    Not only do people want to fill some kind of emptiness there, but they want something for (next to) nothing. Who doesn’t like free drinks, cheap buffets and comped rooms? It’s all provided for a “little” gambling.

  4. Tony


    What comes to mind, in no particular order, and in now way comprehensive:

    Frederick Buechner: see in particular his Secrets in the Dark and Telling the Truth

    Walker Percy: The Moviegoer

    Robert Penn Warren: All the King’s Men

    Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People”

    Anything by Chekhov or Dostoevsky

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