About thirty minutes after our brush with the Okies we pulled into an all-night diner on the Tonopah highway, on the outskirts of a mean/scag ghetto called “North Las Vegas.” Which is actually outside the city limits of Vegas proper. North Vegas is where you go when you’ve fucked up once too often on the Strip, and when you’re not even welcome in the cut-rate downtown places around Casino Center.

This is Nevada’s answer to East St. Louis — a slum and a graveyard, last stop before permanent exile to Ely or Winnemuca. North Vegas is where you go if you’re a hooker turning forty and the syndicate men on the Strip decide you’re no longer much good for business out there with the high rollers … or if you’re a pimp with bad credit at the Sands … or what they still call, in Vegas, “a hophead.” This can mean almost anything from a mean drunk to a junkie, but in terms of commercial acceptability, it means you’re finished in all the right places.

The big hotels and casinos pay a lot of muscle to make sure the high rollers don’t have even momentary hassles with “undesirables.” Security in a place like Caesar’s Palace is super tense and strict. Probably a third of the people on the floor at any given time are either shills or watchdogs. Public drunks and known pickpockets are dealt with instantly — hustled out to the parking lot by Secret Service-type thugs and given a quick, impersonal lecture about the cost of dental work and the difficulties of trying to make a living with two broken arms.

The “high side” of Vegas is probably the most closed society west of Sicily — and it makes no difference, in terms of the day to day life-style of the place, whether the Man at the Top is Lucky Luciano or Howard Hughes. In an economy where Tom Jones can make $75 000 a week for two shows a night at Caesar’s, the palace guard is indispensable, and they don’t care who signs their paychecks. A gold mine like Vegas breeds its own army, like any other gold mine. Hired muscle tends to accumulate in fast layers around money/power poles … and big money, in Vegas, is synonymous with the Power to protect it.

So once you get blacklisted on the Strip, for any reason at all, you either get out of town or retire to nurse your act along, on the cheap, in the shoddy limbo of North Vegas … out there with the gunsels, the hustlers, the drug cripples and all the other losers. North Vegas, for instance, is where you go if you need to score smack before midnight with no references.

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)