SEPTEMBER 10, 2016
IT SEEMED LIKE another peaceful bus ride from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, until a passenger had a seizure and we pulled over to the side of the I-15, just shy of Nevada.
The Pepsi-swilling, pony-tailed bus driver called an ambulance. Ten minutes later, two California Highway Patrol officers arrived. About half an hour after that, a San Bernardino County ambulance pulled up. The medics escorted the large female seizure victim off the bus. They strapped her onto a stretcher and loaded her into the ambulance. Then we continued our Sunday afternoon charge through the desert.
I’d visited town two months earlier for the first implosion of the Riviera Hotel and Casino, when its Monaco Tower was destroyed, and I was traveling back for the second and final implosion of the property, scheduled for 2:00 a.m. on Tuesday, August 16. It’s probably foolish to hope for anything when on a trip to Vegas, but I was hoping for a quiet trip. It looked like my wishes might be granted though, because as soon as I stepped off the bus and ordered an Uber to my hotel, I received a text alert from my driver, informing me that he was deaf. It was a silent ride downtown to the El Cortez.
The El Cortez opened in 1941; to mark its 75th anniversary (it’s the longest continuously running casino in Las Vegas, as many signs and bartenders in the place will tell you), a big black ’41 Cadillac convertible was parked in the lobby. I dropped my bags in my room and stepped out into the street. I took a lap around the Spanish Colonial Revival-style building in the brain-crushing 108-degree evening heat, vaguely comforted to find a mailbox on one of the corners.
I had about 36 hours before the Riviera implosion. I wandered toward the shuttered Beverly Palms hotel and peered through the chain-link fence surrounding it: a dead phone booth, 10 cents for a local call.
It became a bit difficult to breathe in the heat. I needed to go inside. So I walked over to Atomic Liquors for a beer. In the 1950s, people used to sit on the one-story structure’s roof to watch atomic bomb test blasts — 119 detonations took place between 1951 and 1958. “People flocked to Las Vegas to watch this freak of nature show,” said a notice on the wall, “better than any fireworks show or implosion since.” The bartender showed me an old radiation measurement device that the bar had on loan from the city’s Atomic Testing Museum.
Later that night, strolling up and down the Fremont Street Experience — a neon-blazing canopied pedestrian mall with many of the city’s original hotels and casinos, and a zip-line overhead — I happened upon a disused kiosk and looked inside. A cardboard young Elvis Presley stood smiling in the corner of the dirty little room. Heartbreaker. I went into the Indian Arts & Crafts Store. It smelled like baseball card bubblegum. They maintained a decent moccasins section. I bought a postcard of desert ocotillo flowers in bloom.
On my way back to the El Cortez, I passed a man with a very large lump on his neck, banging on a set of steel drums. The hot wind got me drowsy. I retired to my room.
I thought the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement — also known as the Mob Museum — might tell me something. So I ventured there in the morning, posthaste. On the elevator ride up to the start of the exhibitions, a black-and-white video of a sweaty cop read me my Miranda rights. So the first thing the museum told me was that I had the right to remain silent. My wish for a quiet trip continued to be granted.
An elaborate chart of chalk writings on the wall, mimicking a police brainstorming session, explained the “daily routine” of mobsters: “eating, drinking, playing cards, making the rounds, talking about scores, waiting around.” I was waiting around too. Waiting for an implosion.
I admired a massive cigar ashtray with “INTELLIGENCE UNIT” stamped along its long thick leg. The placard noted that this black steel receptacle was used in the Unit’s North Atlantic Region offices in New York City. It looked like it could also serve as a brutal weapon.
I found some relief in an early 1950s menu from the Flamingo Hotel. Sanka, 30 cents. Baked potatoes, 50 cents. Add sour cream and chives for just 10 cents more. “FLAMINGO SALAD BOWL with choice of FRESH SHRIMPS, FRESH CRAB or JULIENNE OF CHICKEN and HAM or BEEF TONGUE. Served with our Famous Flamingo Toast.” Two dollars and 50 cents. By the time this menu was printed, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the mobster who developed the Flamingo, had been shot in the head in Beverly Hills for skimming mob money from the Flamingo’s construction budget. (These days, an oversized copy of his death certificate hangs in one of the Flamingo’s men’s rooms.)
Toward the exit, the museum posed a clustered parting question: “Where do old mobsters go? They die. Everyone dies eventually. The question is when — and how.” We know how Bugsy died. But we don’t know how Jimmy Hoffa died. A display ran through the hypotheses; for one, Hoffa may have been incinerated at a Detroit sanitation facility.
Back on the Fremont Street Experience, the museum continued to hold a strange power over my imagination. What if the zip-line’s steel cords suddenly snapped and administered a horrible beating to all of us pedestrians below? A Robert De Niro impersonator sat in a canvas chair, twitching, tapping a wooden club on his thigh. A beggar held up a sign that said “Fuck Trump.” I felt the already-familiar need to go inside.
I happened to be standing in front of one of my favorite places to meditate in Las Vegas — the Golden Nugget. I made my way to its 75,000-gallon tropical fish aquarium at the Chart House bar. Some of the big, long-nosed fish looked glum. Yellow-and-black striped ones chased each other around. Up in a top corner, a school of little silver fish mingled intelligently. Appropriately, the televisions at the bar showed the Marlins game. They were playing the Reds, and the game gradually put me in the mood to check in on the Nugget’s sports book. There, a bald Elvis impersonator clutching his black wig in one hand and a sheet of the day’s Major League Baseball odds in the other rushed up to the betting counter. He asked about the Tigers game but it had already started, so he cursed and wagered on another.
Soon, I’d have to start thinking about heading to the Strip for the implosion. I went back to the El Cortez to think about it. In a vestibule of vending machines — one dollar for a comb, 10 dollars for cigarettes, a buck and a half for ear plugs — I admired a photo of Elvis Presley and Liberace kidding around at the Riviera in 1956.
Out on the casino floor, I looked up from the red-rose carpet at a television mounted to the ceiling above a craps table. The six o’clock news featured a report on tonight’s Riviera implosion. Time to get going.
I got lucky and landed a front-row seat on the second floor of a double-decker Deuce bus bound for the Strip. Marilyn Monroe smiled at me from a lip-filled mural on the Kiss Bail Bonds building. At the Stratosphere Tower stop, a large gentleman wearing a T-shirt that said, “Do me a favor and stop talking,” stepped aboard.
“Approaching Riviera Boulevard,” announced the computerized public-address system. As I got off the bus I wondered if the street would continue to have that name once the new Las Vegas Convention Center space opens on the former Riviera land. (Later, I read in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the street will be renamed Elvis Presley Way.)
I looked at the muscular 17-story shell of the Riviera’s Monte Carlo Tower and the adjacent smaller towers — the original nine-story tower, opened in 1955; and the 12-story Mediterranean South Tower, where I’d spent the night in April 2015 during the hotel’s final days. I looked at the semi-dismantled multicolored mirror glass addition where the food court and theaters used to be, and I remembered the big white neon faces that lined the walls along the escalators inside.
About six and a half hours to go.
Entering the nearby Circus Circus, I got another round of silence at the steakhouse bar. I studied a cloudy lithograph of cattle grazing in some ancient ruins for a while. When it came time to sign my bill, the bartender handed me a ballpoint from the Riviera. “The Riviera?” I said.
She snagged it and placed it halfway into her vest pocket before handing it back. What a Vegas joke. “You better keep that!” she said, and then she told me she had her own collection of imploded hotel pens.
But this Vegas joke wasn’t over. The pen had no cap. I didn’t want a big ink spot on my khakis, so I visited my friend the Circus Circus business-center representative. Last trip, he helped me in my fruitless quest for a copy of a note regarding precautions the hotel was taking to prevent Riviera implosion dust from entering the hotel. This time, I merely asked him for a pen, and he delivered. I tore off its cap, placed it on the Riviera pen, and tossed the uncapped Circus Circus pen so it disappeared in the garbage. The scenario had officially transformed from Vegas joke to Vegas magic.
I went to the Trump International Hotel to do some of my waiting in the Republican presidential candidate’s Las Vegas lobby. The Trump Store stocked a deep range of “Make America Great Again” caps (red, white, black, and camouflage). The door handles were gold, the water fountains were gold, the wallpaper was gold. The restrooms were labeled “Ladies” and “Gentleman,” and I enjoyed quite possibly the thickest, highest-quality paper towels in all of Las Vegas. Strong and soft. So nice I washed my hands twice. As I sat in a leather chair watching the fashionable young guests come and go, I heard a security guard ask a janitor, “You expect change this year?” For no good reason, I took that as my cue to leave.
At midnight, the spotlights went on, illuminating the remaining pieces of the Riviera. Even in the light, a gray pall hung over the scene. I had viewed the June implosion from the parking lot of the Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge, the next business over from the Riviera. That wouldn’t be an option this time. The police had cleared out the Peppermill lot and put yellow and black “POLICE LINE – DO NOT CROSS – CRIME SCENE” tape around it. I checked Twitter and saw some news outlets had now confirmed the implosion for 2:30 a.m.
It looked like a decent view could be had from the porte cochere area of the Circus Circus, but no one would be permitted to stand there either. “You don’t wanna be here, ma’am,” a Circus Circus security guard told a lady with two young girls. A gaunt fellow sucking on a brown cigarette sat next to me on a wooden bench under the hotel’s lightbulb awning. He coughed and happily informed me that he’d be watching the implosion from his room on the 33rd floor. “It’s got a straight shot,” he said.
Around 1:00 a.m., right across the street from the Peppermill, by the wall along the Resorts World construction site — a Malaysian-owned project whose status seems up in the air — a small crowd had started to form. A guy drinking a can of iced tea pointed north and he pointed south and then told me the wind would be blowing that way. That would be both ways, and the woman he was with chuckled and said, “I’m just laughing at you because you’re trying to have a conversation while you’re carrying my purse.” We all laughed.
As the hour progressed the crowd along the Resorts World wall increased, to 100 and then more — a multitude of darting eyeballs that returned their gaze to the Riviera every few seconds. Couples sat on the ground, oblivious to the roaches and beetles crawling in and out of the cracks in the pavement. A man in a motorized wheelchair announced, “Last time with all the dust, it was like winter land.” A man sitting on a boulder then proclaimed, “They’re not gonna do it. Look. They’re not ready.”
Now came the men in hats. First, one in a black straw hat, sipping 7-Eleven coffee through a stirrer. Next, one in an old blue Riviera baseball cap. He stumbled further along past the crowd and disappeared behind a palm bush. A few minutes later, I looked to my right and there he was again, leaning on the wall right next to me, rolling a cigarette.
At 1:47, an officer on a motorcycle rode by and announced, “I need all body parts out of the roadway, if a drunk driver comes by you’re all gonna get hit.”
A few minutes later we were permitted to stand in the roadway, and many of us moved in.
At 2:00, a man tied a white bandana over his face.
Two street-cleaning trucks went into position, at the ready for the post-implosion sweep.
I was listening to two young men, probably 19, chatting about weightlifting in prison when, without any warning, the explosives started to pop. Several quick pops, which greatly startled me the way the first rounds of movie gunfire startle me. None of the buildings moved. Was something wrong?
No — the Monte Carlo tumbled to its side, then the adjacent buildings and the multicolored glass. It was a crazed domino sequence, like an angry giant phantom from above had done the pushing. To my surprise, I couldn’t believe it. I especially couldn’t believe the glass section had gone down. I thought it might stay. I walked away from the spreading dust cloud.
The next morning, I checked out of the El Cortez and rode the Deuce back to Riviera Boulevard to have a look at the wreckage. The multicolored glass section lay in a cracked and bent tangle, with stray pieces of insulation wool poking out here and there. Last implosion, I saw an elephant in the morning rubble. This time, I saw a robotic dinosaur who seemed to have crawled down from the mountains and finally collapsed here to rot.
A gust of wind blew some loose-hanging glass to the ground and it made a curious maritime sound. In its afterlife, maybe the Riviera will be a sailing ship. I picked up a small square of silver mirror glass that had passed through the fence, wrapped it in paper, and put it in my bag. I’d take it home to Los Angeles and look into it sometimes.
Joshua Baldwin is the author of The Wilshire Sun (a novella, Turtle Point Press) and an editor and columnist at Eephus, the sports channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Read his account of the first Riviera implosion, at The Paris Review, here.