The word on the streets of Vegas was that Gates had gone native after delivering his keynote address on Jan. 7 at the International Consumer Electronics Show.

Somewhere in a darkened convention room just off the Strip, Gates sat amidst his minions on a small pyramid of Zune devices while Vegas showgirls from the Frank and Dean era shoved spoonfuls of buffet instant mashed potatoes down the tycoon’s fish-gasping mouth.

The horror. The horror.

My job was to pull Gates out; I had completed a similar mission when I extracted Malone from the Philippines after the first incarnation of AT&T bought TCI. But this is the place where Howard Hughes took his final swan dive into insanity, and despite the glitter and hype of both the CES show and Vegas itself, it is the heart of darkness.

Thanks to yet another missed connection at Denver International Airport, my first day in Vegas was a complete washout. Instead of looking for Gates, I holed up at the Riviera to come up with a strategy. The "Riv" is a casino that is tottering on its last legs after the glory years of the ’80s died away, where the nonsmoking rooms still smell like smoke, and where the Neil Diamond impersonator pulls in a few shuffling zombies who never made it back to Iowa. During Monday night’s college championship game, a few hardy fans cheered on Florida’s surprising success, while the rest of the patrons sat hunched over the poker screens built into the bar, oblivious of everything but the elusive royal flush.

Tuesday was spent trudging around the Las Vegas Convention Center with a film crew and CableFAX‘s Mike Grebb. Pushing a four-wheeled cart loaded down with video and sound equipment through the teeming masses of CES is no small feat, but our local video crew of Dann and Jimmy endured numerous elbows and re-takes after attendees walked into the various show floor shoots.

With 108-inch TVs and 30-inch rims on an SUV on display, CES is all about excess at full throttle. The Vonage ladies were decked out in orange mini-skirts and matching go-go boots. Over in another booth, more beautiful show babes slowly rode a bucking mechanical bull while their images were blasted onto a large screen.

As if Vegas and CES aren’t surreal enough, there’s also the added element of having the adult film industry in town at the same time for an awards show and convention over at Mandalay Bay.

Our cameraman, Dann, who is from Vegas, spent most of Wednesday pondering whether to accept the assignment of following around a porn star on Thursday. While Dann is a freelancer, the company with the assignment went ahead and gave it to Dann before he even said yes, which he was fine with until he found out he’d be following around Dustin Diamond. Diamond was the annoying "Screech" in the "Saved by the Bell" TV series, but his most recent work is a porn flick titled "Saved by the Smell." Even Dann, a local, was caught in one of Vegas’ sleight-of-hand tricks.

Despite looking high and low in places like the Double Down Saloon, I never did find Gates. Instead, I left on Thursday looking like Keith Richards will if he lives to the age of 82. Vegas is not powered by the Hoover Dam, or by the money spent by tourists. Vegas is powered by the immortal souls that are stripped from the people who visit there.

The giddiness of drinking free, top-shelf booze in the same VIP room where Britney passed out on New Year’s Eve evaporates in the desert sun the next morning when faced with a full slate of CES appointments, at least for some of us. But to paraphrase author Kurt Vonnegut, I’m just an old fart now, with my memories and Pall Malls.

What happens in Vegas may physically stay in Vegas, but the memories are burned deep into the synapses, there to remain forever, or until they’re wiped clean by next year’s show. – Mike Robuck

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