“Where do you go to school? ”
When a Las Vegas taxi driver asked my friends and I this question on our way to catch a 7:00 AM flight back to Hanover, I was sick of the question. Sick of the response. So, I lied.
It’s a simple question. You’ve answered it a million times. The answer comes to you almost as reflexively as our names. Your college will almost certainly arouse some reaction, regardless of the association attached to your college’s reputation. Answer “Duke”? Get ready for a run-of-the-mill college basketball reference from someone looking to fill the dead air. Answer “Penn State”? Nowadays, you will almost certainly have to endure an uninspired Jerry Sandusky joke.
But say you go to an Ivy League school? Often, whether you want to admit it or not, answering “Dartmouth” creates a social chasm between you and the stranger to whom you’re responding. A typical response of “Oh, so you’ve got some big brains” might sound like a compliment. But too often, I sense a far more disdainful subtext in their tone: “Oh, so you think you’re better than me.”
So I told him that we went to Arizona State University. I don’t know why I picked ASU. I suppose it is nearby to Vegas, it is a historically “fun” school, plus one of my best friends goes there. I guess if you’re going to lie about where you go to school, picking ASU is as good a pick as any. But more interesting than the particular of the lie is why I lied in the first place?
A weekend in Las Vegas is a weekend in adult-Disney World. It exists in a vacuum, surrounded in all directions by miles of desert. It feels unlike any other American city. Visiting Las Vegas doesn’t just mean that you’re gambling, or that you’re seeing Cirque du Soleil, or that you’re going to a bachelor party: Vegas is the attraction in it of itself.
Rampant gambling. Sexual depravity. Alcohol abuse. Las Vegas is where social taboos go to die, a city built on succumbing to temptation. You hear sad stories about people losing it all in Vegas: their money, their family, their dignity. In Las Vegas, even the most responsible adults let loose; it allows people from all walks of life a chance to escape from their monotonous daily routine, escape from their real-world anxieties, and to succumb to Vegas’s all-encompassing extravagance and absurdity.
But there’s something else about Vegas that stuck out to me: all the flaws systemic to Las Vegas’s identity unify the people there. Our social class might define and isolate us when we’re at home, but in adult-Disney World, blue-collar experience the same jolt of excitement as an investment banker from New York, an excitement expressed by three simple words: “Vegas, Baby, Vegas”. Putting aside prior social differences and instead embracing Vegas’s debauchery provides the people there a weird sense of camaraderie.
I’m not trying to say that class divides don’t exist in Las Vegas. In fact, a walk down the Las Vegas Strip showcases examples of the social chasm: underprivileged street performers are everywhere, hoping to elicit a laugh and a buck from passing tourists. Wealth dictates where you eat, where you stay, where you gamble, where you shop; your experience in Las Vegas will almost entirely depend on where you (or your friends) fall on the socio-economic scale. As Littlefinger from Game of Thrones said, and as Las Vegas might do well to adopt as a slogan: “All desires are valid, to a man with a full purse”. It’s not fair, it’s not right, it’s not admirable. But at least it’s honest.
I think I know why I lied to the cab driver. I think the answer stems from the instinctive human desire to appeal to our audience. It’s natural. We aim to please. We spend hours researching and planning our answers for job interviews in order to say exactly what we think our potential employer wants to hear. We spend 15 minutes writing a flitz to our crush to make sure that we’re perceived as interested, but not too interested. By saying whatever we think our listeners want to hear, we attempt to use their agreement as a way of validating our own opinion.
I had reason to believe cab driver wouldn’t want to hear “Dartmouth. “ Immediately upon getting in the cab, before he asked us anything, our driver launched into his life-story: a series of absurd, horrifying, and outlandish anecdotes that painted a grim picture of an immoral man. He proudly described how he has lost almost all of his income at the Blackjack table, how he has repeatedly cheated on his wife, how he’s slept with “about half of the strippers in Vegas,” how he encouraged his son to punch his high-school football coach when the coach wouldn’t start him because, “my son ain’t a pussy.” All in all, this man was a thoroughly despicable human. I figured if there was anyone who would begrudge an Ivy Leaguer, it had to be this guy.
But upon reflection I’m pretty sure now that I was wrong. People in Las Vegas don’t give a shit about where you’re from or what you do. They don’t fear your moral judgment, and they don’t conform their behavior to best suit those around them: Because they know why you’re there. It’s the same reason they’re there. You’re there to escape. You’re there to embrace the ugly side of humanity.
Our taxi driver exemplified everything wrong, and everything right, about Las Vegas: He wasn’t concerned with what we would think of him, he wasn’t concerned about ruffling our feathers, he wasn’t concerned that we would stiff him on a tip, and, most of all, he wasn’t concerned about what we wanted to hear. His answer was true to himself, regardless of the unpleasantness of that truth. Maybe Dartmouth can learn from Las Vegas.