Doing Vegas...The Sober Way

By Ruth Fowler 06/23/11
Sin City is ideal for decadence. But what’s it like when a former stripper and cocaine-and-champagne imbiber tries it stone cold sober?
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Keeping it clean in Sin City Thinkstock

A lot of people scared the Bejeezus out of me when I quit drinking because they said I could never participate in the real world of casual drinkers, bars, meals and holidays without a posse of AA bores traveling in my entourage, meetings twice a day and numerous prayers to get through it. But I got sober so I could enjoy life—not be afraid of it, not claim an allergy to drinking and drinkers and avoid them like they had something I might catch.

So when my old drinking buddy Paul called and asked me to drive to Vegas with him, I said yes. Excess! Indulgence! Sin! Strip clubs! Boozers! For me, Vegas wasn’t about dipping my toe into the warm waters of temptation, it was just about going to Vegas. I’ve served my time sitting at home, missing out on fun for fear I might cram a Vicodin in my mouth and wash it down with Veuve. It didn’t occur to me that I was doing anything subversive—Paul, is, after all a non-drinker these days too. But the amount of tongue clicking and wary nods I received from people I’d bump into who knew about my plans was odd. It was obviously a path right back to the strip-pole and imminent degradation.

For me, Vegas wasn’t about dipping my toe into the warm waters of temptation, it was just about going to Vegas. I’ve served my time sitting at home, missing out on fun for fear I might cram a Vicodin in my mouth and wash it down with Veuve.

Turns out Vegas these days is full of fat, gray people playing slot machines and smoking 40 a day, or families on a cheap vacation before the crowds of Spring Break hit. That is, if you hang out in the $20-a-night hotels like the (now closed) Sahara and Circus Circus. I’d packed a bunch of heels and slut clothes so I could look pretty while I slurped my Diet Coke. Instead I slouched around in a hoodie playing roulette with Fat White Men. This wasn’t fun. Would it have been more fun blind drunk? No, but at least I wouldn’t have had to remember the enormous family sitting behind us in a restaurant yelling at the waiter in horror that “the mozzarella sticks still haven’t arrived!” Am I fattist? You would be too if your beer goggles were stripped off and you had to watch the heart disease statistics of America congregate in a casino hall. So low budget Vegas didn’t kick it for a sober evening of fun, though it made me give up smoking after watching some old dude wheel himself over to craps carrying an Oxygen mask with him.

Family Vegas was more fun: roller coasters and fairground rides, sweet little children cooing over cheap stuffed toys that may or may not give them asbestos poisoning. Love it! I nearly forgot about the fact I should, by rights, be holed up in the Bellagio with C-list stars, someone else’s credit card and a dealer, wearing a spangly g-string and plastic heels. Never fear! There’s nothing like meeting old friends from your past to remind you of what you left behind. Seeing Daisy, a fellow stripper from New York, and G-Cup, a mutual friend, kind of tugged at my heart a little. Only five years ago I too, was hairless (not, like, on my head), perfumed, oiled up, covered in pancake make-up and ready to down five shots of vodka prior to extracting money from your wallet by feigning attraction to you. And now—well, now, life’s a lot calmer. It means I get to see my old mates and laugh with them about my (former) line of work, swap stories, slurp a Virgin Margarita in a swanky bar in Caesar’s Palace, acknowledge a distant sadness for the days of old when, swamped in alcohol, I didn’t care about much. It means that when they go off to hit Blue Martini, I could go too, but I kind of don’t want to--I’d rather scoot off to watch an edgy burlesque show and laugh just as hard as I would have when wasted. It means that by midnight, I’m holed up in a $30-a-night hotel room with a guy who’s not paying me to laugh at his jokes, working on an article and drinking coffee and eating Krispy Kremes until well into the early morning.

I think the coolest thing about being sober is that you get to do all the things you did before, go to all the same places, and find that your experiences when sentient are completely different. Not even better, necessarily. I’m the first to admit I had some great times drinking and remember a lot of them fondly. But when you’re in a place, enjoying it for that moment and not thinking about the next drink, the next line, the next party, the next man—that’s a pretty amazing place to be. Even if that place is Vegas.

Ruth Fowler has written for The Village VoiceThe GuardianThe Huffington PostThe New York Post and The Observer. Her memoir, No Man's Land, which documented her pre-sobriety experiences as a stripper in Manhattan, was published by Viking in 2008. She also wrote about why doctors can't deal with addicted patients and nursing your way back to health, among many other topics.

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