It all connects somehow
Travels in the invisible city
Wed, Dec 31, 2008 (midnight)
Photo: Richard Brian
Say what you will about Las Vegas being fake. Under that, or maybe because of that, is a city of everyday people whose lives create contradictions that make this place, especially at this moment, a masterpiece of art. Its contradictions are rhythmic, its absurdities deep and various; every nameless Las Vegan offers an authentic vista from which to view the artificial in a unique way. I know I sound ridiculous here, but that’s the tone that makes it possible for me to live in Vegas year after year. I’m choosing to describe “art” over “tragedy” where possible, and for this choice I am grateful, although as an outlook I confess it ebbs and flows.
Las Vegas is a city where residents get upset because mobile billboards showing half-naked teenage girls for sale are parked on their neighborhood curbs. They’re upset because they don’t want to see it from their driveways, not for the elephantine other issue; but that’s how the neighbor makes his living: driving huge escort advertisements down the Strip for $10 an hour in a place where prostitution is illegal. Las Vegas is a city where a coalition of parents once went after the Hard Rock Hotel because the casino’s billboards were deemed too sexy for locals to have to view. But that’s the industry that keeps us thriving, and so on and so forth; nothing is as simple as it seems in Vegas.
Once, I went door-to-door in the Vegas suburbs with two female Mormon missionaries as they proselytized. It was a day rich in irony, layered in contradictions, which is the way the city sustains me. Most memorable was that they were wearing knee socks and name tags and huge blinders about the world they were in—forbidden to drive down the Strip, forbidden to watch TV or see a movie—and yet they were wickedly shrewd in their salesmanship, clever beyond their years in selling the tale of Joseph Smith and his magic glasses in suburban living rooms. They were at once exactly like the average Las Vegan, reliant on blinders to one degree or another, as smart as any Vegas hustler and precisely the antagonist to Las Vegas’ sin ethos. I liked them, even though I didn’t agree with their beliefs, nor they with mine. I liked the discord.
Vegas is like that. All of this talk of bankruptcies and frozen construction projects and mass layoffs would have you think the city has crashed and burned. It’s a complicated place, though, no matter how many simple cliches we rely on to sell it. Too complicated to write off so quickly, I hope. A lot goes on here in the crevices of the city, a lot that went on before the economic downturn and a lot that will keep on going, likely. Vegas is in a county of 2.1 million people on 8,084 square miles, with 146 city parks, nine large shopping malls, 107 acres of orchard land, 62 acres of harvest vegetable fields and 15 hospitals. The largest single employer is the Clark County School District, which is the fifth-largest in the nation. It operates 341 schools and employs 38,237 residents, and is not known for its educational excellence. Still, this is remarkable, that the fifth-largest school district in the nation sits here, in the last place on Earth you’d think to raise your Midwestern kids. There are so many inverse relationships.
I knew a woman once whose anxiety wouldn’t let her sleep, and to calm her brain she’d drive the Strip, which is something people with insomnia who live in other cities can’t do, and for this we should be thankful. It’s entirely different to drive the Strip for solace when the nightmare of the suburban bedroom keeps you up than it is to drive the Strip as a tourist looking for the next party. You notice different things, like maybe you’d notice the way these things are all adjacent to each other, creating a confluence you can find nowhere else: Caesar’s massive arm is held up in triumph, in front of his Palace, toward the building-size visages of Donny and Marie, while they look down at a Salvation Army bell-ringer, who is flanked by two porn-peddlers who wear T-shirts that say “Girls Direct to You.” But you can’t pause too long to take the scene in, if you’re inching along in your car, because you may hit a couple jaywalking across the Boulevard, beer bottles in hand, heading towards the Colosseum, she in her Vegas dress, which is a little hoochier than what you know she wears in Ottumwa, something that she shopped for especially for us. I appreciate it.
If you were here two weeks ago you were witness to what excites Las Vegans, and the Las Vegas media, more than Britney or Paris or prostitution or booze: snow. A few inches turned us into nature’s sweethearts. We broadcast pictures of kids flapping out snow angels in their yards, foreclosures be damned. It was heartwarming. One in 65 houses is in foreclosure in Vegas right now, but a little snow can replace that headline. We get 294 days of pure sunshine each year; there are 180.3 square miles of surface water in the area. On the way out of town to the southeast, Las Vegas residents cringe when they see the bathtub ring around Lake Mead, marking the shrinking water level. We know Vegas exists as a mirage, natural-resource speaking. We treat 70 million gallons of drinking water a day for use here; which is still precious little of the Colorado River’s water compared to Arizona and California. And in the last few years, residents have cut back on per-household use of water with a little push. We’re here, negotiating this existence at the far edge of reason. All that piped-in water has consequences, of course, asides, stories, tangents. For example, the tunnels under Lake Las Vegas, the improbable resort community of mountains and fountains now in bankruptcy, have deteriorated and are in need of repair lest the fake lake collapse on them. So today, while the attorneys quibble over whether to close the Lake Las Vegas golf course, workers with head-lamps repair holes in two 2-mile-long, 7-foot wide, awfully dark pipes that drain Las Vegas Wash flood water under 80 feet of land and fake lake back into Lake Mead. On the edge of reason.
Las Vegas has 350 miles of storm drains, some of which are home to dozens of our 10,000 homeless people. We have 1,715 miles of sanitary sewers, some of which make a stretch on the Las Vegas Strip smell a little foul, right around the escalators leading to the walkway across Flamingo. There’s almost nowhere left to cross the main part of the Strip legally without taking one of these escalators up to a crossover; it makes for a lot more footwork but probably saves the lives of some of the 3 million tourists per month, like the ones jaywalking the other night in front of me. It all connects somehow.
seventy-five percent of las vegans travel to their jobs by car, and you can tell that if you’re on the I-15 at 7:30 a.m. Others walk or bike or bus. I took the double-decker bus the other day. It was 3:30 p.m. and we were on Sahara near Fremont, and the middle-aged woman in the KFC uniform in the front seat was on her cell phone. “Somebody else started it? ... Well I don’t get off till 12:30 in the morning, so I can’t come. ... Yeah, he’s asleep. Try him.” She was already wearing her red apron over the black pants and red shirt, and she had a nervous knee, the kind that bounces incessantly. Across the aisle from her was a teenager, a baby-faced white kid with a cock-eyed, crisp black cap; a white kid who wanted to be gangster. A uniformed South Point casino employee sat behind me listening to his iPod.
When the bus stopped, we looked down at the people on the curb lined up to get on; it’s a perk of having climbed the small staircase. An old guy, street-worn, with a gray ponytail that’s turned yellow, got on, came upstairs and took the seat next to the KFC woman. He smelled of cigarettes and had no top teeth.
It took him no time at all to strike up a conversation with the kid, who acted cool, slunk down, the ass of his jeans barely touching the seat they’re hanging so low.
“Call me Lucky or Dog,” the man said.
Soon they were talking about drugs in several sweeping sentences that seem at once blatant and indecipherable.
“I never messed with tar, ’cause I wouldn’t make any money. I only messed with crystal mostly,” the old man said.
“Yeah. And coke? Yeah. Can you cook it up?”
“If I can, I do with baking soda and 7-Up.”
“Yeah. If you ever need any, touch me.”
“Got a pen?”
They exchanged digits, and continued talking about bleach and purity and sugar as we crossed the Strip. I saw the kid between the two—drug dealer and fast-food worker—making his career choices on a bus crossing the Las Vegas Strip.
The KFC woman took a call. “I’m almost there. The bus was late. I’m almost there. I can’t make the bus go any faster.”
Lucky explained to his young protege that he’s been out of prison for five months. He’d been in for attempted murder. He was so wired, his speech was fast and mad and careless like scribble. “I’m old-school. Man. I’ve been doing time since the ’60s. Shit. But I’m carrying a lunchbox again. It’s good. If you need anything, you call me.”
The kid was enthralled with prison. He asked about the Aryan Brotherhood.
Lucky said prison sucked. “You shower two times a week, man. Yard two times a week. Your yard is in a cage. Got no visits and no phone calls. So what the fuck you got?” The bus stopped and Lucky got up. “Homeboy, I’m outta here. Take care of yourself. Call me if you and your homies are going to party, I’ll set you up.”
“No doubt. Take care, man.”
The kid was wound up. He turned to the KFC woman, sized up her uniform.
“That your boss on the phone?”
“Yup. She hates me. She’s 18 and she doesn’t like me anyway and then I have to ride the bus every day.”
“Shit. Bosses suck, man. You should be a manager or something.”
“No. I should just transfer. I started on the other side of town where I live, and they moved me.”
The kid shook his head, and the bus slowed down at the next stop, and she got up, late again. He sat back and watched more of Vegas out the huge windows.
The median Las Vegan household annual income is $53,000. Males earn a median income of $35,511; females earn $27,554. The per-capita income is $22,060. There is no personal income tax, which we love, but it’s reflected in the quality of our public services. The unemployment rate is at an all-time high right now, but even in more stable months about 9 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, including 5.4 percent of those under age 18 and 6.3 percent of those age 65 or over.
eugene and priscilla live in north Las Vegas, in a small suburban home, retired here. The other day they were at Walmart shopping for food. Walmart’s grocery stores have been behind constant picket lines here for a couple of years because the pay isn’t up to other grocery store levels. But the picketers are paid less by the union to picket than the Walmart employees are paid. Anyway. Eugene is from the San Francisco area, a photographer. Priscilla taught third grade for 40 years in Chicago. They put a lot of meat in the shopping cart, he got four large bunches of bananas, selecting some ripe and some green for later, as they only get to the store about once a month, when someone drives them. This time, that was me. He pushed the buggy, she checked the prices. They are both physically frail; he is nearly blind now, in one of the most photographed places on Earth.
He has chocolate-milk-colored skin and a white mustache. He smiled a little, kindly, as did Priscilla, but neither were gregarious or all that interested in small talk. She insisted that I let him pick up the crates of bottled water, because, she said, he still likes to be the man. This would be repeated at the checkout stand, and again at home, when we unload the groceries, Eugene would pick up the cartons of bottled water, the heaviest items they purchased, water not from Lake Mead.
When it came time to check out of Walmart, Priscilla said she needed to get her “martini makers,” so we went to the only checkout lane that had access to the store’s secure, cordoned-off liquor section, a few miles from the Strip, where you almost can’t avoid running over jaywalkers carrying booze in the open. Priscilla and Eugene have an evening cocktail hour every day in the privacy of their home. She makes a martini or two for herself; he drinks one beer, only one. She asked the clerk for a gallon of gin and four smaller bottles of vermouth. A young woman shopping near us said, “I guess we should come over to y’all’s house tonight!” Priscilla smiled a shoo smile.
Soon it would be cocktail hour and inside their burgundy-carpeted suburban home, and Eugene and Priscilla would, I imagine, raise a beer and a martini toward each other, a photographer and a teacher, just fine, thank you very much. Las Vegas is a city where some people would not care to join the party.
Some, on the other hand, are sitting in the middle of this place where millions come every year, and yet rarely see anyone. Right around the corner from Walmart, a little east, is where Mary fell. She was going from the living room to the kitchen in her trailer, in this east-side lot, where people take care of their spaces. Things are groomed. There are yard ornaments—ducks, turtles, rabbits—and neat Christmas lights throughout.
Her knee gave out and she hit her head on the kitchen counter, but that was yesterday, and today as I deliver food she comes to the door very much alive, though her gray hair shows a large brown spot where the blood has dried. She’ll need help washing her hair. Las Vegas is a city where people do indeed go unnoticed. Not far from Mary’s trailer park is an assisted living facility where Nan is sitting in the dark but for the TV, because she cannot afford her electric bill, and the landlord has threatened to throw her out if her power gets shut off again. So she’s in the dark, within three miles of the Strip. The average monthly Nevada Power utility bill is $154.70. The average garbage bill $12.27 a month. The average gas bill is $53.41. The average monthly water bill $31.
one time, in loving the irony/agony that is Las Vegas, I went to CityCenter’s sales office and took the tour of the model units, because I wanted a glimpse of the future. CityCenter will save us all, save Vegas, we are told, and in one way we surely hope so and in another way we can’t help but want to see it fail, and I can’t explain that, but I hear it from all types of people in quips, and that’s part of the contradictory nature of Vegas. So anyway, a lovely and smart woman set me up in a small screening room to watch a movie about the project; there were gourmet snacks and bottled waters available should I be in need. I watched the slick marketing video as well as a live shot from the top of the Monte Carlo aimed down into the construction, where thousands of workers were moving like ants, working around the clock, building a luxurious minicity in the middle of one reputed to be struggling for life. Six construction workers have died at the project, which got us to thinking it was cursed for a while. The model units were lavish, promising impeccable living in an “$8 billion dazzling vertical city”; the $40 million in public art will include a 133-foot silver cast of the Colorado River by Maya Lin; there will be “adult-lifestyle” pools on top of amazing “curvilinear glass towers”—it’s excessive in every way, all the things Vegas was three years ago and may well be again. More importantly, it’s deeply absurd, right down to the sculpture of the tired river in a LEED sustainable environment.
Later, on the streets around Maryland and Twain, down the street from UNLV, which is experiencing budget cuts this year like everything else, a young woman tells me she makes her own cigarettes. She buys a big sack of tobacco for $14 at the shop up by the homeless corridor, which is owned by Paiutes, which means it’s less expensive, and she can roll her own. No filter to worry about, she can make it through a month or more with one bag. Saves her $40 a month.
las vegas has always seemed like a place you go to die, or for a second chance, whether you’re a celebrity or not, and I’ve always liked that about it, even though I didn’t come here to die and will need many more chances than two. I think about this when I chat with Cathy, who is in dire need of a second chance, which I hope she finds.
She’s the kind of young woman you expect to wear holiday sweaters, only she’s not today, just a simple blouse, green windbreaker and slacks. She’s the former Midwestern girl whose parents wouldn’t have dreamed of raising her in Vegas. Blond, bright-eyed, full-figured and teeming with family-get-together niceness; still, there’s something incredibly sad emanating from her. Something cautious. Like if you said Boo! she would cry. She was a bartender off the Strip, a small locals place near Valley View. She got laid off six weeks ago. She’s been looking for work, but so far, nothing. “The place I was just going to apply at just shut down,” she says, softly incredulous. She owns a condo and has never missed a mortgage payment but is facing that probability next month.
“Last month I paid everything on the credit card,” she says. We’re standing outside the West Charleston office where a social service agency was supposed to conduct a foreclosure-assistance meeting, but nobody showed up. Maybe we got the times wrong?, she says. I sense that her sadness is eclipsed by panic.
“And I live frugally,” she says: No cell, no cable TV, “and most of my furniture I’ve gotten from Dumpsters, or people who have set stuff on the curb.” Right now she’s debating whether to put next month’s $211 health insurance premium on a credit card or go uninsured.
Her biggest fear is that her father back East will find out she’s in this mess.
A lot of us are from somewhere else, and not a few of us are hiding something. We argue about whether being from somewhere else makes us unable to commit to the city, to really embrace the community as ours. Maybe we don’t want to own up to the fact that our paychecks are derived from vice in one way or another. Maybe we we’re just selfish. Maybe we came here to get out of the suffocatingly mannered, nosy communities we lived in elsewhere, where everybody knew everybody’s business. Maybe, in spite of the bitching, we don’t really think there’s much wrong with the way we are, the way our city is.
the pigeon lady has drawn a huge crowd of friends—you wouldn’t believe it—dozens of pigeons in a sketchy parking lot on Maryland and Trop, under a gray sky and near a sidewalk caked with sludge and garbage near a gutter, and she’s made a beautiful scene out of it. It will always be in my head when I think of Vegas. She’s an old woman in a wheelchair wearing a blue coat and bright pink lipstick.
“They say I shouldn’t do it,” she says without bothering to look me in the eye yet, a few pieces of bread still to be pieced out. “But if it weren’t for the pigeons, this place would be covered up with bugs.” I don’t think she believes that, either, but all of us here—her, me, the pigeons, a City of Las Vegas employee parked nearby watching—understand that what’s going on here is more important than killing bugs.
“I didn’t come out here for a week, and oh, they let me know,” she says, chuckling at the pigeons. “They came to my apartment and took me to task.”
She lived in Hawaii with her husband, a doctor, and they retired here because it was affordable. He died, and here she is, 20 years later, never expecting to outlive him, not by two decades, in an apartment on Maryland Parkway in Las Vegas. She has soft white hair and there’s a smattering of dandruff on her coat collar. When she’s done with the bread, she starts wheeling, slowly, slowly, toward the grocery store at the top of a slight incline.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“I’m fine,” she says. “It’s the world that’s got problems.”
i moved here because i liked the idea of reporting on religion in Las Vegas; I was drawn to the apparent absurdity. I remember going to prayer services with a Baptist minister on the Strip; I held hands with the Rockettes in various stages of costume before a two-drink show as he read from the New Testament.
There are times when things have to be over-the-top absurd in order to make any kind of sense at all. That’s kind of the world we live in now. Yet I feel a little renewed by the stories of regular people living in an irregular place. I feel a little renewed by what’s happening as our beautifully ridiculous city becomes a screaming headline about economic disaster: The people who live in it just keep chugging along.