Suicide in Las Vega

Hell is expensive. This is my first thought as my plane lands in Las Vegas. The
Luxor hotel\'s glass pyramid seems dangerously close to the runway\'s edge, as do
its chocolate-and-gold sphinx and rows of shaved palms. I wonder if these rooms
tremble when jets land. Behind the Luxor are mountains kissed by dust the hue of
bone; to its left lies the Strip, where color is so bright it looks like it has
died, rotted, and come back as a poisonous flower.

I have been forewarned. First, I am told flying in at noon is "not the way to
enter Vegas." Correct entry is at night. This way I would have the full
treatment of neon and glowing sky. As a child, I was taught not to buy into
anything at night. The spoiled, chipped, or dangerous could be easily disguised.
Yet here, in one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, nighttime
is the appropriate time "to enter."

Exiting is another matter. According to a recent cover story in Time, Las Vegas
has the highest per-capita suicide rate in the country. This coincides with its
enormous expansion, yet the most talked-about suicides -- those of tourists
leaping from hotel balconies after losing everything they had -- are dangerous
myths for a city poised to become America\'s newest economic icon. In fact,
tourists taking their own lives surrounded by the glamour of the Strip comprise
only a small percentage of the fatalities. The bulk are those who moved here for
jobs, who live just beyond the lights. Eight times as many residents kill
themselves here as do visitors.

Second, I am told that in Las Vegas I will feel more alive. Anything can be had
here; this is the last place before the millennium where real money can be made.
An open season: anything goes; like America used to be. My friends in Los
Angeles, who seem to know such things, say forget about winning. This is the
town where you get to stub your cigarettes out in an egg, sunny side up, at four
o\'clock in the morning -- if you can remember what time it is, and you won\'t --
and then get in your car and drive.

This will happen before I leave. But I will be driving just to clear my head of
the suicides and failures. On Paradise Road, near a white asphalt lot filled
with empty Boeing 707s, I will sit in my car watching early-morning business
flights descend into the starch of a Nevada dawn and I will suddenly see how Las
Vegas is our new mirror. Reflecting how things are going to be done. And who
will win or lose.

"There\'s a small but steady amount of suicides we call \'jumpers,\'" states Sgt.
Bill Keeton of Metro Police. "They\'re generally tourists. Some jump off an
overpass, even Hoover Dam, but casinos are first choice. Balconies. The hotels
wised up. Roofs stay locked."

Las Vegas has other names for its fatalities. "Snowbirds" are retirees from the
Northwest who settle here or come to gamble their pension funds. "Downwinders"
are former Utah residents fighting cancer who lived downwind of radioactive
breezes in the fifties and sixties. Nuclear testing was only one desert valley
away; like the airport now, it was so close hotel rooms shook.

"It\'s not necessarily gamblers," Keeton goes on. "Just people who\'ve planned one
last fling. We used to get a lot from Los Angeles. Now it\'s people from all over
the world. We had a young man fly in from Ireland. On his immigration card, it
said he seemed either on drugs or depressed. He came here and went to a pistol
range, shot targets for a while, then took his gun into a bathroom and killed
himself. His family in Ireland kept asking, why Las Vegas? At that same pistol
range, a man from Japan shot himself in his shooting stall. It\'s strange."

I hear other stories. Of a wealthy man from Malibu, in the computer business,
who committed suicide with sleeping pills and a plastic bag, in a luxury suite
at the Mirage. His body was found next to the room\'s baby grand piano. He had
bad relations with his ex-wife. There was a suicide note, resulting in a family
court battle. In Nevada, suicide notes can be interpreted as legal wills. As I
listen to the story, I realize it will be told again, and often, into the next
century. It is part of the city now, part of its dazzle.

"You have to remember, these are the visitors," Keeton says.