Las Vegas: The city that never shuts up

I haven't been to Bangkok or Macau. So I can't say with certainty that Las Vegas is the only city where a married couple, walking arm in arm and smooching discreetly, will be approached every few feet by guys who shove fliers for escort services in their faces.

I knew better than to expect subtlety when I stepped off the plane and saw the huge faux pyramid (fronted by a suspiciously clean, unsexed sphinx) across the sand. But I realized only after I'd come back home how much Vegas embodies the end-point of America's "gimme" culture. It's what we become when we can have what we want all the time.

Women? Gambling? Food? Entertainment? Stimulation from flashing screens and neon and noise? The heart of Las Vegas, known colloquially as The Strip, provides these 24 hours a day. Even buskers seemed to work nonstop.

It wasn't enough to re-create landmarks of the famous Manhattan skyline for the New York-New York Hotel-Casino and fill the place with Big Apple-type restaurants, down to Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs. No, a roller coaster had to be added to the roof, so passers-by could enjoy the screams of people riding above at 67 mph.

That's not to say you can't find quiet in the suburbs, where my brother and his wife live, or in the desert, where I saw the first roadrunner I'd encountered outside a Warner Bros. cartoon. (It darted across the road, insect in mouth, in Valley of Fire State Park, a terrain of red rock formations northeast of Vegas.)

Nor does the city lack fine art. On Saturday, the Las Vegas Philharmonic will play Mozart's Flute and Harp Concerto and Mahler's Symphony No.1. Nevada Ballet Theatre, where former ballerina Cynthia Gregory is artistic advisor, begins its annual choreographers showcase today in the Viva Elvis Theatre at Aria Resort-Casino.

Overpowering presence

But Vegas isn't meant for contemplation. It's about accumulation. Everything must be BIG and NOW and OFTEN to achieve the desired effect.

Take the exhibit of hanging glass at Bellagio. Many pieces - I stopped counting at 100 - are crammed together within a recessed ceiling, atop and beside each other, until they blur in a blob of colors. They're remarkable, because they were designed and made under the supervision of Dale Chihuly, who did a more restrained wall for our Mint Museum. But they're impossible to appreciate, except as a kind of visual shriek.

The same is true of Bellagio's plant conservatory: Flowers that would have been lovely and inviting in smaller arrangements have been massed together so ostentatiously that the smell is overpowering. I wanted to lie down, like the Cowardly Lion in the poppy fields near Oz, and go to sleep.

'Twas not always so. When gambling became legal in 1931, and casinos began to rise from the wilderness, the city had a different cachet. Through the 1970s, people came here mainly to bet money. The place had a Rat Pack kind of class - that phrase is not oxymoronic - and anyone watching Frank Sinatra perform at the Sands with Count Basie's band would have seen a giant close to his apex.

I tried to recapture that magic by popping the CD from their 1966 concert into the player of my rented Hyundai and tooling up Frank Sinatra Boulevard. But when I drove over to the corner of The Strip where the Sands had stood, Steve Wynn's casino towered over me. Wynn has dumped a small mountain - dirt, trees and all - in front of it, and the illusion dissipated at once.

A change for the worse

Had you seen Old Blue Eyes in his glory, you'd have worn a jacket and tie and might have treated the concert like a once-in-a-lifetime event. That mood no longer prevails.

People who have spent $345 a couple to see Cirque du Soleil's extraordinary water show "O" come in late (and sometimes loudly), snap photos with camera phones after being asked not to and grumble when they are requested not to text during the show.

Visitors push strollers or lead bored children through smoky casinos, as if ambling around Concord Mills Mall. They wear ball caps and torn jeans and mildly obscene T-shirts to restaurants that charge $40 for lunch.

Vegas has been called Sin City, jokingly so by gamblers and disapprovingly so by moralists (but partly inaccurately, as prostitution is illegal there and in the rest of Clark County).

Yet the prevailing sin these days seems to be gluttony. The Vegas where I spent my vacation didn't seem wicked or corrupting. It was more like a giant playpen, full of loud, oversized infants who could suck and suck but never get their fill.