In between personal, familial and financial failures, Mark Twain took time to see the world and insult the peoples, locales, and histories of the places he visited. It is in this tradition of being annoyingly unsatisfied and too smart for our own good that we present "Not So Innocent Abroad:" a deplorable, ethnocentric, at times hilarious, and always historically unreliable dump on every place we have ever visited.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Finding Polk in Las Vegas (Encontrar a Polk en Las Vegas)

Tales from the Lied Library, The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA:

To say Las Vegas should not exist is like saying you wished money and sex fell out of the sky all the time--but just on you. Both statements are obviously true, but reality doesn't give a shit. Were it not for the notion that gambling was some sort of social problem pervading practically all of the country more than half a century ago, there would be no reason for a city to be located in the middle of nowhere in one of the hottest places on the continent. But such is history, replete with inanities that have, somehow, profound and significant effect.

As a perennial student, I’m quite familiar with the downtown area where the university is located. Only in a city like Las Vegas would they decide to teach 17-22 year olds serious subjects—next to perpetually naked women, booze, and gambling. Somehow I graduated from it in three and a half years, but then again, people have described me as peculiar—also a homosexual. In any event, this is more about the college than the city, because UNLV is much like the city which surrounds it—except not exciting and the women aren’t naked.

Founded in 1957, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas has a very broad focus in that it trains tomorrow’s future hotel managers today! Always constructing new buildings that have the names of complete unknowns on them (everyone in Las Vegas until the economy tanked was a virtual nomad, no one grew up in this town and stayed—except of course the crazy psychotics—we call them Mormons), UNLV prides itself on....hold on, it’s right, well it has a lot of pride. Unlike most D-1 schools, UNLV has made the bold move to locate the football team’s stadium many, many miles away in an adjoining city, which has had the major benefit of allowing the team to be really bad in almost complete obscurity. But, look, if you want a great second-rate undergraduate education at a large school where you can either live off campus with well over half of its over 25,000 students, or live on campus where you will be ostracized by the extremely clique-ish Hawaiian and Samoan populations that dominate dorm life, then UNLV might be for you!

But this has all been a digression. The real story is an epic tale in search of a rare treasure of marginal importance to a history dissertation that, in part, delves into the Mexican War—James K. Polk’s diary. Turns out that Polk had nothing better to do at the end of his days than write up the events he’d witnessed, forever condemning the reputations of such famous figures as Postmaster General Cave Johnson. I’m kidding of course, who the hell knows who the hell Cave Johnson was?

One day I went to UNLV’s Lied Library—Ernst Lied to be precise, an ubiquitous philanthropist who established a trust to continue random grants to cultural centers and universities after his death in 1980—which for some reason smells like a Calcutta alleyway out front during midday (bad sewer placement). Once I stepped in from the third world aroma and thousand degree heat, I was hit by the true Las Vegas environment, ice cold AC.

The Lied Library, University of Nevada, Las Vegas (Yes, it looks this a prison)

It's always about right here that one gets their first whiff of the "lovely" aroma in front of the Library.

As I made my way to the third of five floors, I recalled that at some point during my undergrad years some unnamed apparatchik had claimed proudly that the library (recently completed at the time) had been purposely made the largest building on campus by then UNLV President Carol C. Harter. Why? So that it could be said the university’s biggest building was an academic one. The previous title owner was the Thomas & Mack Center where evil sports and musical events are routinely housed. But I remember that this proud puff-story culminated in the actual square footage between the two buildings being one square foot! One square foot! And they actually told the story to impress people. Just imagine how many extra books you might be able to stack in a one square foot space! (I might also add that much of this space is gratuitously wasted in a giant internal cavernous atrium that extends throughout the middle of the building to the ceiling.)

These three pictures are of the cavernous interior of the place--as you can see, they really tried to maximize their use of space here...........

Back to the hunt for Polk. I get to the third floor and make my way to the Mexican War section of the American history stacks where they keep all the Polk-related materials. If you ever want to learn why they called him “Young Hickory,” this is where you go. (Hint: it wasn’t his barbeque sauce, but it may have been is penchant for being spanked with certain sorts of switches.) When I get there, they have what I’m looking for, but there is a problem, a somewhat serious problem as I examine the book. The title will help clarify—Diario del presidente Polk, 1845-1849. WHAT THE F***!!!??? They seriously had Polk’s diary, but only the Spanish translation. WHY? The Spanish translation of Polk’s diary has to be much more difficult to procure in the United States than the original English—also it’s not of much use to most English speakers at a college populated with drunken, gambling addicted, oversexed reprobates who would be better off reading the original language anyway. Polk’s diary in Spanish is like finding Patton’s memoirs in German—War da ich wusste, dass es. Or like finding Shaka Zulu’s memoirs in English—Shit! Why that didn’t work and 101 other lessons from the bush. And so, like nearly every other story I have from Las Vegas, I left disappointed.

No habla!

As I left, I tried to pick up a cappuccino at the attached Seattle’s Best only to discover that the coffee shop had been destroyed, to be replaced by a competitor in a couple of weeks. Vegas!

Visit the campus of UNLV and it's library at your own risk!
Based on visits from August 2010.

If you would like to learn more about Cave Johnson and pretend like you too go to UNLV, check out:

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