After all: Vinyl Vitaliev

Vitali Vitaliev recalls his encounters with America's increasingly popular trend of 'commodification', where trees, buildings, food and even people are all made of plastic.

A brilliant book 'Vinyl Leaves - Walt Disney World and America' by Stephen M Fjellman, a leading American anthropologist, starts with the following description:

"There is a tree in Central Florida. It is maybe 90 feet high and huge around the base and has a crown that stretches across almost as many yards as the tree is tall. From the top of this tree, when the wind is still, you can see almost to the Caribbean. The trunk looks about as much like that of a live oak as one might wish. The bark is deeply grained and covered with that pea-soup green colored stuff you see on the trees in hot, wet places. 

It's a big nice tree, a good place for the treehouse that adorns it. But it's not made of wood. The trunk and the branches are formed out of pressed concrete wrapped around a steel-mesh frame. The bark and green stuff that cover much of it are painted on. The leaves - all 800,000 of them - are made of vinyl."

Stephen Fjellmam proceeds to explain that the tree, Disneyodendron eximus ('out-of-ordinary Disney tree')' is in the Adventureland part of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. For him, it became a symbol of technology-assisted 'commodification' of modern American culture. During my many months in the USA, I came across numerous real-life examples of such artificially engineered 'commodification', the most impressive being, without doubt, Las Vegas.

I came to Las Vegas at the very end of my 11-month-long American journey. In a way, I liked the place for its boisterous and unadulterated kitsch (Vegas's variation on 'culture') and for its total lack of pretence, as if the city was constantly taking the mickey out of itself. "Mechanic on duty. Free aspirin and tender sympathy," ran a sign on top of a city garage. Aspirin and tender sympathy certainly help the visitor to Vegas.

One evening I was walking along Las Vegas Boulevard, locally known as 'the Strip', on my way to New York New York Casino - not to gamble, but simply curious as to how the Las Vegas city fathers could seriously claim to have 'engineered' the seemingly inimitable Big Apple inside it. "We have saved you," I had heard one of them proclaim on local radio, "a lot of airfare."

I never made it to the casino. Blinded by the Strip's epileptic lights (anything not lit up like a Christmas tree has no place in Vegas) and deafened by the din of traffic, I felt in a desperate need of that promised aspirin, when my attention was distracted by a brightly lit and somewhat downsized Eiffel Tower in the middle of a 'sidewalk'. Squeaky 'Victorian' lifts were taking tourists to the top and back down - straight to the entrance of the famous Paris opera house - 'Le Grand Opera'. I deduced it was the façade of the then new Las Vegas-Paris hotel-casino. After many months in the States, my nostalgia for Europe was such that I decided to pop in.

I dived underneath the smallish Arc De Triomphe and, having passed through a huge and windowless gambling hall, found myself in an old Paris street. In fact, it was not just one street, but a whole Paris quarter, with cobbled narrow lanes, al fresco cafés, shops (Le Tabac, Le Patisserie, Le Boulangerie), platans and even Parisians themselves - sitting on benches, queuing for baguettes and kissing forgetfully under the trees. A street busker, sporting a traditional French beret cap of the early 1960s, stood on the corner with his accordion.

Power of illusion

The power of illusion was so strong that it took me a while to realise that everything in that fake Paris quarter - the shops, the cobbles, the houses, the trees, the street signs and even the mannequins of the Parisians - was made of plastic. The sultry blue sky above my head was but a vast painted canvas, and the recorded whingeing sounds of the plastic busker's plastic accordion were mixing with the non-stop hungry bleating of the voracious fruit machines from a gambling hall behind the wall.

I popped into La Boulangerie, attracted by appetising displays of freshly baked baguettes and croissants in its window: I hadn't had proper European bread - as opposed to the cotton-wool-like American variety - for many weeks. Inside, they were selling nothing but muffins and waffles, and all the croissants and baguettes on display were purely decorative and - you guessed it - made of plastic.

Feeling claustrophobic, I could not wait to get out of this synthetic world of well-crafted make-believe.

One sign you won't find easily in Las Vegas casinos, however, is 'Exit'. I didn't notice how I got lost in the cobweb of plastic streets. Exhausted and dizzy, I lowered myself on a plastic chair outside a Bistro and ordered un café noir, which proved to be of a tepid and wishy-washy type.

Sipping the watery drink and making notes in my memo pad, I was suddenly blinded by a bright camera flash, then - another one, then - yet another.

I looked up. A flock of Japanese tourists on the opposite side of the plastic street were aiming the gaping barrels of their cameras at me. Ready to shoot.

My first thought was that they had mistaken me for some obscure Hollywood star, but it didn't take me long to realise that they simply viewed me as part of the Paris set: a writer scribbling away at a Paris café… Perhaps they thought that - like other mannequins in the quarter - I, too, was made of plastic…

"Stop it! I am not plastic! I am real!" I wanted to yell at them - but didn't, for a treacherous thought flashed through my aspirin-hungry brain: what if they were right and I - after months in the United States - had indeed become plastic?'

I ducked, then jumped up from my seat and, having overturned the plastic table and the chair, took to my heels, not stopping until I was back on the Strip. Until now, I have no idea how I managed to find the exit.

The feverish lights of Las Vegas Boulevard kept blinking tirelessly, as if searching for something they were never meant to find.

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