I went to Las Vegas this week for the first time in over 10 years, and it took some of my expectations by surprise.

Neon-lit balloon, Paris Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas

Parts of The Strip are virtually unchanged.  At night the neon is as brilliant and animated as ever and the Chippendale strippers still pose on posters and billboards.

Cirque de Soleil and Blue Man Group and LaReve are all still alive and well, if moved to new venues in a Las Vegas version of musical chairs.  New faces fill the perennial marquee slots.  Comics, country singers, and tribute bands.

The Steve Wynn hotel casino extravaganzas built during the run-up to the Great Recession, however, have rendered some long-familiar stretches virtually unrecognizable.  There are new pedestrian bridges and added miles of monorail.  The slot machines are now all flat screen digital, which is appropriate since Vegas seems to be one big virtual reality video game.

High-rise condos stand against the night sky speckled only occasionally by the lights of neighborless occupants. A vacant lot right on The Strip is unmarked by any sign of impending ground-breaking.  A bit further on construction looks long interrupted on the steel skeleton of a new building.

The Strip’s panhandler population has grown exponentially and dogs sit at the feet of so many that it can only be presumed they earn more than the cost of their keep.  The homeless sleep hidden in the shadows of lush landscaping only a stone’s throw away.  Handouts must come more easily within earshot of a slot machine payoff.

Donnie & Marie at the Flamingo

Donnie & Marie at the Flamingo

The looming billboard images of a forever young Siegfried & Roy are conspicuously absent, along with $5 Prime Rib dinners and all-you-can-eat buffets.  Even in Vegas there appears to be no free lunch anymore.

Throngs shuffle along the sidewalks in opposing streams, and the obvious carb-and-fat addicts among them seem more numerous and even more super-sized than I’d remembered.  It seems like anyone not drinking is talking on a cellphone, anyone not walking is playing a video game, and everyone else is texting. At times the sidewalk hustlers passing out photo cards of near-nude escorts seem to outnumber the tourists.  High unemployment seems to have swelled the ranks of sex trade workers.

The crowd seems both younger and more Asian and Latino than before.  This may be simply a reflection of America’s changing demography, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s also because unemployment has disproportionately stricken the older, whiter Americans who have been Vegas’s historic mainstays.  One day in the not too distant future I expect to see the few surviving Baby Boomer grandsons and granddaughters of European immigrants from the Midwest make their last stand at Caesar’s Palace.

As I scan the face of the oncoming stream it strikes me that few in the crowd are laughing or even smiling as they wind their way from casino to casino.  Many, in fact, are downright grim, as if Vegas has failed to shake whatever weighs them down back home.

I’ve often wondered at foreign tourists who, faced with the daunting task of touring America’s coast-to-coast vastness, opt for Orlando’s DisneyWorld or L.A.’s Universal Studios or Las Vegas as their windows into the American experience.  Americans tour Europe to see the cultural settings from which more of us than not still remain in some way descended.  Europeans come here to see America’s self-parodies.

As I walk The Strip for the last time I see in the dark sky far above the bright pinpoints of planets in their once-in-a-lifetime alignment, and it drives home the transiency of this unnatural desert oasis.

Perhaps the long-separate Vegas reality has at last converged with the broader American reality.  This time, it’s what’s happened outside of Vegas that has stayed in Vegas.

Glass art lobby chandelier, Bellagio