Mourning and healing unfold in Las Vegas, but this is still Sin City
las vegas — Forty-seven hours after the massacre, Crystal Rose was back in her flouncy red showgirl plumage on the Vegas Strip, bare-chested except for tiny, shiny pasties keeping her just this side of legal.
“Come on over — get a photo with the showgirls,” she called out to the flow of revelers cruising the sidewalk Tuesday evening outside the Flamingo Hotel and Casino, many of whom stopped to pose with Crystal and her fellow feathered attraction, Sabrina Borden, near the busy craps and beer pong tables.
“I took the day off yesterday, out of respect,” said Crystal, 25, who uses her first and middle name when posing for tips on the Strip. “It’s a dark time, but people come to Vegas to have fun, not to be afraid. So we are here to lift everyone’s spirits.”
This pulsing City of Sin has returned almost immediately to its high-glitz version of normal after Sunday’s massacre of 58 people, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. The shows go on. The roulette wheels spin, the dice fly, and people carrying Coronas wander the Strip alongside bubbly showgirls and a guy dressed as Chewbacca.
Thousands have come to candlelight vigils to kneel, pray, cry and hug strangers. So many people donated blood that police asked them to slow down. Local hotels are providing rooms and food to help families of the dead and the nearly 500 hundred injured, most of whom were from out of town. Fifty-eight white crosses have been erected near the Mandalay Bay hotel, where the shooting happened.
Those are the familiar markers of mass shootings, which are now as much as part of American life as hurricanes — certain danger we have come to expect and feel helpless to stop. All sides of the gun-control debate rise up with each slaughter, but little seems to change, and no one believes the killings will stop.
Virginia Tech. Newtown. Orlando. Dallas. Now, Las Vegas.
These horrors are joined by a common tragic senselessness. But while each place has processed the trauma differently, Las Vegas has bounced back to business unusually fast.
On Thursday evening, a beam-
ing Jillian Aucoin from Nova Scotia walked down the Strip in a white wedding gown and carrying a bouquet of white roses.
Married three hours earlier at a wedding chapel, Aucoin, 39, walked with her new husband, Byron Aucoin, at her side, and a gang of merry bridesmaids following along in the shadow of the 460-foot replica Eiffel Tower at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.
“He didn’t scare us,” Jillian Aucoin said of the Vegas shooter. “At first I didn’t want to come and celebrate in a place that was mourning. But we decided to come and share our happy time with the people of Las Vegas.”
The couple arrived on Tuesday, just two days after the attack.
“We’re bringing a little bit of the positivity that Vegas is known for,” said Byron Aucoin, 35, who could see the bright lights of the Mandalay Bay just down the Strip. “You’ve got to keep living life and keep going forward.”
The same resilient spirit has appeared in other communities devastated by mass shootings, but never with quite the same rubber-band recovery.
In Newtown, Conn., the 26 dead were mainly elementary schoolchildren gunned down in their classrooms by a mentally ill young man motivated by demons that are still not understood. Grief consumed the town. The pain was intimate and personal, evident even in the eyes of customers stopping by the only Starbucks in their country crossroads.
Still, one high school sophomore said: “There was a lot to cry about. It’s a lot to recover from, but we have to get stronger, and we will. That’s the truth.”
They have, but no one believes Newtown will ever be the same.
Orlando felt like a wake for days and days after the shooting of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub by a brooding young loser who wrapped himself in jihadist language. For days, streets and restaurants were empty. A big, sunny city was dark and quiet. Even the bouquet-filled memorial downtown was often as still as a cemetery; people came in huge waves for nightly vigils, but mostly it felt as though they were hunkered down in private, trying to process something impossible.
Dallas prayed. Churches were filled for days and weeks with mourners for the five slain police officers, killed by a fringe lunatic who used an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter march to commit a demented act of revenge against law enforcement. People — black and white — left flowers and stuffed animals on two police cars parked as a memorial; one handwritten note said, “Back the Blue because someone I call Dad is on the force.”
A proud city still trying to shake its forever image as the site of John F. Kennedy’s assassination was forced to grieve its losses while starting frank and painful conversations over longsimmering racial tensions — conversations that continue to this day. Now, Las Vegas. A man who lived in a retirement community and liked to
gamble at local casinos slaughtered dozens of strangers at random, leaving, as far as anyone knows yet, not the slightest clue about why he rained hot metal mercilessly on people enjoying a country music festival.
This city has begun healing faster than those struck by mass shootings before it. The snap back to normalcy could reflect a growing resignation that these horrible events have become part of our lives, and we are learning to cope. Or maybe it’s just Vegas, where fun is virtually a religion. All but six of the 58 who died in the massacre were tourists in town for the three-day Route 91 Harvest festival.
Monday was subdued here, but by Tuesday the party was rolling again on the Strip. Jimmy Buffett’s version of “Brown Eyed Girl” filled the happy sidewalks. “Vegas Strong,” read billboards overhead, and “We’ve been here for you during the good times. Thank you for being there for us now.” On the street, trucks drove by carrying huge signs advertising, “Girls Direct to You! 24 hours!”
Michael Politz, publisher of the Las Vegas-based Food & Beverage Magazine, said his city’s quick rebound has been an act of defiance, as well as economic common sense. He said all the partying gets the most attention, but many of those partyers have come to Las Vegas for huge trade shows that grow businesses and create jobs all over the country.
“It’s still on everybody’s mind. The fear is certainly there,” Politz, who grew up in Potomac, Md., said Friday. “But Vegas needs to get back on its feet fast because of the commerce that’s created here. If that stops, if this city bows down, that’s what this guy wanted. You have to pull up your pants and be a big boy, and, as much as it hurts, move forward.”
Tirrsa Isom, 35, a Las Vegas resident who has been counseling victims and their families, said the city usually is focused on hospitality for visitors but suddenly finds itself in the unusual position of tending to its own residents who were affected.
“It was Sin City before, and now it’s grace and love,” she said. “We’ve seen that flip, and that’s been really awesome to witness.”
Tom and Brooke Kostielney stood on the Strip on Thursday evening a few hours after arriving in the city, holding plastic cups of beer and watching the huge “Fountains of Bellagio” show — a display of light, water and sound outside the Bellagio Hotel & Casino.
The couple was at home in South Bend, Ind., when they heard about the shooting, and they spent Monday deciding whether to go ahead with their long-planned trip, which they won in a silent auction for a children’s cancer charity.
They called Tom Kostielney’s cousin, who happened to be staying at the Luxor Hotel, right next to the Mandalay Bay, when the shooting happened. She told them that despite the horrific tragedy, “everything seemed back to normal” in the city.
“We asked her what she thought, and she said the city kind of needs people to come back — it’s almost like a way of recovery,” said Tom Kostielney, 27, a theology teacher at a Catholic high school.
As his wife was explaining that the city felt normal to her and “not tense at all,” a huge “boom” rang out — part of the sound and light show at the Bellagio. She flinched.
“I wonder if things like that are freaking people out,” she said.
Before the killing started, Sunday was a warm, happy October evening in a city where people come to escape reality in an obliging fantasyland in the desert. That Eiffel Tower, that Arc de Triomphe, that Egyptian pyramid and those Venetian canals? All illusion, like the sad, corrosive lie that a life-changing jackpot is just one more hand, one more spin of the wheel, one more roll of the dice away.
And maybe like the illusion that this city will ever be exactly the same.
ABOVE: Adorned in plumage, Geli Yescas, left, and Jaime Davidsmeyer wait to pose for photos with tourists watching the “Fountains of Bellagio” show on Tuesday in Las Vegas. LEFT: A pedestrian stops at a fortunetelling machine Tuesday.
ABOVE: People watch the “Fountains of Bellagio” show on Wednesday in Las Vegas, a city in which fun is practically a religion. BELOW: A person lounges by the pool at the Tropicana Las Vegas on Thursday. Tourism and the money it provides are the realities that Las Vegas, even in mourning, must face.