Getting to Know Las Vegas

Located in the southernmost precincts of a wide, pancake-flat valley, Las Vegas is the biggest city in the state of Nevada. Treeless mountains form a scenic backdrop to hotels awash in neon glitter. Although it is one of the fastest-growing cities in America, for tourism purposes, the city is quite compact.

Help for Troubled Travelers -- The Travelers Aid Society is a social-service organization geared to helping travelers in difficult straits. Its services include reuniting families separated while traveling, feeding people stranded without cash, and even providing emotional counseling. If you're in trouble, seek them out. In Las Vegas, there is a Travelers Aid office at McCarran International Airport (tel. 702/798-1742) that is open daily from 8am to 5pm. Similar services are provided by Help of Southern Nevada, 953-35B E. Sahara Ave., Ste. 208, at Maryland Parkway, in the Commercial Center (tel. 702/369-4357; Hours are Monday through Friday 8am to 4pm.

Adapting to Las Vegas -- Las Vegas is, for the most part, a very casual town. Although there are a few restaurants that have a restrictive dress code, most of them -- and all of the showrooms, casinos, and attractions -- are pretty much come as you are. Some people still choose to dress up for their night on the town, resulting in a strange dichotomy where you might see a couple in a suit and evening gown sitting next to a couple in shorts and sandals at a show or in a nice restaurant.

Generally speaking, nice casual (slacks or nice jeans, button up shirts or blouses, a simple skirt or dress) is the best way to go in terms of what to wear, allowing you to be comfortable in just about any situation. Go too far to one extreme or the other and you're bound to feel out of place somewhere.

The only exception to this rule is the nightclubs, which often have very strict policies on what you can and cannot wear. They vary from club to club, but, as a general rule, sandals or flip-flips, shorts, and baseball caps are frowned upon. A nice pair of jeans, a clean t-shirt, and a simple pair of sneakers will get you in the door, while fancier clothes (jackets, cocktail dresses) may get you past the velvet rope a little faster.

Yes, it does get hot in Las Vegas, so you really should factor that in when you're planning your wardrobe for your trip. It's important to note that every enclosed space (casino, showroom, restaurant, nightclub, and so on) is heavily air-conditioned, so it can actually get a bit chilly once you get inside. Think light layers and you should be okay.

Las Vegas is a 24-hour town, so you can find something to eat or drink all the time; but many of the nicer restaurants are only open for dinner, with 5 or 6pm to 10 or 11pm the standard operating hours. Nightclubs usually open around 10pm and go until dawn, with the bulk of the crowds not showing up until midnight at the earliest. There are a few afternoon shows, but most are in the evenings, with start times that range from 7pm until 10:30pm, often running two shows a night. Casinos and most regular bars are open 24 hours a day.

A Funeral Director's Look Back at Vegas: No Tomorrow

Las Vegas is convention central. Orthodontists go there, as do architects, computer geeks, gynecologists, TV preachers, township clerks, postal workers, and pathologists. There's an abundance of good hotel rooms, cheap eats, and agreeable weather. Coming and going is reasonably painless. There are golf and gambling and ogling of girls -- showgirls of unspeakable beauty -- and, of course, the mountains, the desert, and the sky.

The National Funeral Directors Association advertised its 116th Annual Convention and International Exposition there in the trade press as "A Sure Bet." Debbie Reynolds was talking at the Spouse's Luncheon. Neil Sedaka was singing at the Annual Banquet. There was a golf outing, a new website, the installation of officers. I called the brother and the brother-in-law and said, "Let's get our funeral homes covered and go out to Vegas for the convention." Pat and Mike agreed. All of us are funeral directors. All of us were due for a break. Here's another coincidence: All of our wives are named Mary. The Marys all agreed to come along. They'd heard about the showgirls and high-stakes tables and figured Pat and Mike and I would need looking after. They'd heard about the great malls and the moving statues and the magic shows.

My publisher paid for my airfare and our room at the Hilton. "A Sure Bet" is what they reckoned, too. My book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, was being featured in the Marketplace Booth at the exhibit hall. The association would be selling and I'd be signing copies for a couple of days. So there I sat, behind a stack of books, glad-handing and autographing, surrounded by caskets and hearses, cremation urns and new computer software, flower stands and funeral flags, and embalming supplies. Some things about this enterprise never change -- the basic bias toward the horizontal, the general preference for black and blue, the arcane lexicons of loss and wonder. And some are changing every day. Like booksellers and pharmacists and oncologists, many of the small firms are being overtaken by the large consolidators and conglomerates. Custom gives way to convenience. The old becomes old, then new again.

Las Vegas seems perfect for the mortuary crowd -- a metaphor for the vexed, late-century American soul that seems these days to run between extremes of fantasy and desolation. Vegas seems just such an oasis: a neon garden of earthly delights amid a moonscape of privations, abundance amid the cacti, indulgence surrounded by thirst and hunger.

Or maybe it's that we undertakers understand these games of chance -- the way life is ever asking us to ante up, the way the wager's made before the deal is dealt or dice are tossed, before we pull the lever. Some people play for nickels and dimes, some for dollars, some for keeps. But whatever we play for, we win or lose according to these stakes. We cannot, once winning is certain or losing is sure, change our bet. We cannot play for dollars, then lose in dimes; or win in cash, when we wager matchsticks. It's much the same with love and grief. They share the same arithmetic and currency. We ante up our hearts in love, we pay our losses off in grief. Baptisms, marriages, funerals -- this life's casinos -- the games we play for keeps.

Oh, we can play the odds, hedge our bets, count the cards, get a system. I think of Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French mathematician who bet on heaven thus: "Better to believe in a God who isn't than not to believe in a God who is." Figure the math of that, the odds. Pascal's Wager is what they called it. All of us play a version of this game.