too many words by laura lemay

A trip to comdex

In 1971, Hunter S Thompson wrote the book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” The basic subject of the book was a trip to Las Vegas, accompanied by a Samoan Lawyer, to cover a motorcycle race. The actual subject of the book is drugs, violence and general mayhem.

I’ve just experienced much the same thing, minus the lawyer, in 1996. Alas, there are no motorcycles in this story. Just Comdex.

I had not previously attended this wondrous event, working mostly for small software companies or those that don’t feel the need to attend this tradeshow. This year I went to sign books and to schmooze, all expenses paid by my publisher (the *only* way to travel). This was also my first time in Las Vegas.

Comdex, for those of you who don’t pay attention to media or current events, is the largest computer tradeshow in the world. There are a quarter of a million computer people in this city right now, they say, or at least there will be 249,999 in a matter of hours when I finally manage to leave.

Because its not just the attending of Comdex that inspires fear and loathing. It’s the trying to get out again.

I’m fortunate enough to only have spent two days here, the majority of which was in parties and schmooze-fests. I’m now in the airport, awaiting my 8:45 flight to actually arrive here in Las Vegas at 10:45 or so, bringing me home sometime past midnight. Given that today I got up at 7AM (after spending much of the night learning how to play craps with various executive-types and sucking down cocktails), and that I have talked to endless amounts of press and signed enough books to prop up the side of a building, you can imagine how tired I am. Try to imagine how tired I am. I’m really tired.

What I’d really like right now would be a trunkful of ether, mescaline, amphetamines and adrenochrome. That would make things a lot more interesting, I think. As it is I am here sitting patiently and resisting the urge to throttle the gentleman across the way who is playing the slot machines OVER and OVER and OVER again.

I suspect just about everyone else here was at Comdex as well. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to come to Las Vegas during comdex unless you had to be here — although I did notice an inordinate number of midwestern families in the casinos. But I think they breed here. Like Elvis impersonators and scary casino bouncers in sunglasses. But here at the airport everyone has that comdex look about them…that slightly nerdy ambiance. Or maybe its the fact that all of them have IBM comdex Stuff Boxes that gives it away.

I am being carefully watched by many of these nerd types, given that I am typing on a laptop in an airport. Always worth scrutinizing. Am I a journalist writing my story? Am I some hacker with a wireless modem breaking into the Pentagon? Am I writing the Great American Novel? Sitting next to me is a gentleman who, I believe, is reading over my shoulder as I type. Hi there. How are you?

The gentleman has just turned red and is now very carefully reading a magazine.

If this were a vocal narration, I would have just paused for a long time between the previous paragraph and this one. I got bored writing this, so I packed up all my stuff and went to play the slots for myself.

This is a funny phenomenon of Las Vegas. There are slot machines everywhere. Everywhere. And there are lots of them in this airport. I went to a bank of machines over in a quieter area of the airport so I would not disturb anyone. I stuck a five dollar bill into the quarter machines, and began hitting the buttons repeatedly.

And promptly won $250.

Wow. Cool.

Of course, when you cash out $250 in quarters the machine makes a whole hell of a lot of noise, which attracts people to come over and stare, which is not what I needed right now.

But back to Comdex. I had very few exciting comdex moments, as I was there primarily to work. I will share with you, however, the few bits of amusement that I did have:

  • On the plane trip over, I was in an aisle seat. The gentleman sitting next to me was VERY interested in the woman in the window seat, and throughout the flight was leaning over to chat her up. Amusingly enough, however, in between chats he was reading the business plan for WebTV networks, which was marked PROPRIETARY and CONFIDENTIAL in big letters. And every time he decided to hit on the girl by the window, he would sort of tip the business plan so that it faced me.I didn’t read it, exactly, I just sort of assimilated the words.

Note to WebTV networks: you should really be more careful who you give your business plans to.

  • I did some Comdex browsing in between signing books. I was actually interested in Digital’s laptops, so I wandered over to the Digital booth. I found the laptop I wanted. I played with it a bit. I had questions. I spent the next 15 minutes trying to attract the attention of a Digital sales guy. And couldn’t.

And yet, when random people (men) would so much as walk BY the laptops, there would be a sales guy there to pester them immediately. But for me they avoided eye contact and disappeared entirely when I needed them.So I went over to the IBM booth and got in a terrific conversation with the sales rep for their laptops for over half an hour. I’ll be writing IBM a check real soon now, I think.

Note to Digital: Women buy computers too. Hint hint.

  • I saw an Elvis impersonator. Really! It was so cool.

  • I was told, repeatedly, that I had to go see the Luxor, which is apparently a giant hotel shaped like a pyramid. It has a pyramid theme. This seems to be the trend in Las Vegas. Each hotel has a theme. I was in the Mirage, where the theme is a sort of desert oasis thing. There’s a volcano outside in the parking lot that goes off every once in a while with much pyrotechnics and dry ice. Next door is Treasure Island, which has this pirate theme going with big moving pirate ships and everything.

I can only imagine what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would have been like if, in the scene where Hunter S Thomson goes berserk in the bar and thinks that everyone is a giant lizard, he had been assisted by people in pirate suits.

You don’t need to be on a drug trip to visit Las Vegas any more. Las Vegas IS a drug trip.

I have difficulties with the concept of hotel as attraction. I’ve got this kind of silly old-fashioned idea that a city has attractions that are somehow useful or interesting, and that you stay at hotels when you’re not off looking at the attractions. Here’s a city where you never have to leave the hotel the whole time you’re there.

Actually, come to think of it, that’s very convenient. If they put internet cafes down in the casinos next to the slot machines, and fed you weak cocktails while you surfed, Las Vegas could be a terrific nerd attraction all year round — not just during the hellish five days of Comdex hell.