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Can’t smile without you

A homeless woman, a nervous do-gooder and a guiding star: a Vegas story like no other (and like every other)

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Photo: Benjamen Purvis

It’s not about you or me, thank God, and keep that in mind. It’s not about the cost of staying alive or the dashing Mr. Manilow or spiders with fangs. It’s not about nurses or Ugly Betty metaphors or the will to live or bus benches or that Shangri-La across from the Boulevard Mall where I first met her. It’s just a Vegas story: Somebody lands here to hide or die or get a thousandth second chance or chase a dream or coast through their autumn years singing sweet pop melodies to the loyal fans they’ve never met. Thank God for Vegas. That’s what Connie has told me several times, minus the God part—she’s back-and-forth on God these days, but Vegas is great. I love Vegas, she says, and she really emphasizes that love part, I LOVE Las Vegas, and her blue eyes open wider, and a silly grin develops on her plain face. As far as I can tell there are two things she really loves.

How did she get to Vegas? How does anyone. Things went to hell in Michigan. Social Security found out she had tried to hold a job, and they stopped her disability checks, and so she couldn’t pay rent, and she was drop-kicked out of her apartment. She tried staying with a sister, who had to make a deal with her landlord that it wouldn’t be for long. And so then Connie had to go somewhere. That’s a tough spot: figuring out where to go when you don’t have a reason to be anywhere. So when I ask her, as we eat our first lunch together at IHOP, why Vegas?, her answer lands like a full tray of dishes crashing, making the place go quiet: Because that’s where Barry Manilow is.

She came out here on a Greyhound with 85 bucks in her purse, four suitcases and a CD player with Barry Manilow Live spinning. It was September 17, 2005, the day before her 45th birthday, and hot. She stacked her suitcases against a bus-station wall, and began walking toward the Las Vegas Hilton. I challenge you to refute this logic. Here you are on the planet, with nothing, save the burden of being alive, not even the ability to earn a living because your health is messed up, and you have no one, and you’ve been in shelters and hospitals before, all temporary, nothing that sticks—why wouldn’t you go to Paradise Road in Las Vegas, Nevada, searching for the beautiful Barry Manilow, whose everlasting songs are as soft and pink as a suburban bedroom?

I don’t come to this conclusion right away, when she first tells me. It’s a recent arrival on the tableau of ridiculous thoughts called Making Sense of the Universe. So let me explain: One day I get it in my head that I should do something useful for others, a noise that typically ends up manifesting in doing something trivial and redundant with a handful of well-meaning volunteers, or precious and self-serving. It’s an absurd existence. Let it be.

So anyway, I call a few activists I know, people with actual big hearts who spend their lives helping others and occasionally accommodating the drop-in do-gooder—a service in itself, relieving the consciences of the privileged. And I end up in contact with a woman who has just gotten off the streets and into a temporary apartment through their help. She has severe health problems, including Type 1 diabetes, and some vision and walking problems, and sometimes she seems a little foggy, and so she needs some help getting adjusted, maybe needs volunteers to check in on her, help her run errands, whatever. Be a friend. I don’t know. Help. I’ve done this before, and usually I end up at Target with someone who desperately needs underwear, and in the stretch of an afternoon, we help each other out—underwear and socks in exchange for getting out of my world, and we shake each other’s hands, and that’s it. The end. A clean transaction. You know?

The first time I call Connie earlier this summer, she is planning to go to the Barry Manilow show for the third time, by herself, and how she can swing that I don’t know. Who am I to judge? I ask her if she’s free to go to lunch, and she’s a little hesitant, because she wants to have plenty of time to get ready for the show, which starts at 7 p.m. She agrees to grab a quick bite at noon.

I meet her at her apartment near the Boulevard Mall, in an area where some people are afraid to walk down the street, and others are just fine. The place is actually quite nice for a budget—kitchen, bathroom, carpet. Pictures of Barry torn out of magazines and taped to the living-room wall. A twin bed in the bedroom, under a hand-written sign: “I Have Severe Diabetes.”

“This is luxurious compared to where else I’ve been,” she says. Now Connie is living the dream in Las Vegas. She orders a Rise and Shine breakfast at IHOP, the ingredients of which, I find out later, she is not entirely certain of because she cannot see well—she was, for a couple of years, completely blind due to diabetes, but one eye has been repaired. She has short brown hair that she cuts herself and white Midwestern skin, stands not much higher than 5 feet, with a small upper body and bigger legs, and she starts to tell me how she got the giant, circular scar on her calf.

It was back in 2005, after arriving here, but before meeting Kathy Shea of Nevada Health Centers at the Salvation Army and Linda Lera-Randle El of Straight from the Streets.

Let’s go back. September 2005, the day before her 45th birthday, and hot. By sunset, she was making her way step after step down Sahara—Connie has a slow gait, her legs damaged by diabetes—and by her birthday, at 3 a.m., she was in front of the Las Vegas Hilton. She always says it that way: the Las Vegas Hilton, never merely the Hilton.

“And I walked right in,” she says, alight. “That was magnificent. I didn’t know how big it was.” She speaks slowly, deliberately, as if each word has been chosen from a pile of laundry after a search, taken out, snapped clean, held up and embraced. “Magnificent.”

So she ambled around the Hilton until she found the M Store, a heavenly display of Barry Manilow dream-stuff. The songs waft out into the hallway as you approach—Oh Mandy, well, you came, and you gave without taking, and I sent you away—and inside, a bath of Barry: Manilow CDs and T-shirts, Manilow fragrance and Manilow wine, Manilow DVDs, china and stemware, playing cards, songbooks and wristbands. There’s even a Barry Manilow Visa application. And beaming from several screens are videos of Barry in concert, his sexy Brooklyn eyes and generous, nerdy smile at work on a smitten crowd.

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She bought nothing. She found the theater where he would be performing and tried to go backstage, but employees were all around. So she got crafty and picked up the courtesy phone to ask for Russ McKinnon’s room. The operator patched her through to Barry’s drummer at 5 a.m.

Take a moment to take in the breadth of it: She had ridden a bus from Detroit to Chicago, Chicago to Omaha, Omaha to Denver, Denver to Vegas, arrived after nearly two days on Greyhounds at 1 in the afternoon Downtown on Main Street, camped out in the station to get her bearings for a few hours, walked, slowly, painstakingly, to the world-famous Las Vegas Boulevard—and right on past it—and up Paradise to the Las Vegas Hilton, where she had gone inside, touched Barry Manilow playing cards and shot glasses, picked up a house phone and called Barry Manilow’s drummer, and, at sunrise on the morning of her 45th year, been patched through.

When she tells this story, there’s a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Actually, it occurs to me, when the subject is Barry, the twinkle never leaves. But when the subject changes to what’s left of her family back in Michigan, or to diabetes, or food, shelter, health care, money or people—the rest of this life ordeal—that electricity falls out of her face immediately, and her expression gets as cold as a gray stone.

Russ McKinnon answered. He told her it was so early, 5 a.m., could she call back later? And she waited there till 9 a.m., in the Las Vegas Hilton, checking off the hours, and called him back promptly at 9, but got no answer.

So close. I’m enchanted by her story because it’s crazy, and brave, and because in one fell swoop, one mission, she very nearly went from Point A—a dank, scraping-by existence in Michigan—to Point B—Barry Manilow, aka nirvana. Never mind the rational analysis—Vegas demands of us all that we often put aside rationality. The countless majority of Vegas stories are built on escapist fantasies, and this one very nearly became real. As so many do, very nearly.

Then there’s the other half of the Vegas story, where things start to suck.

Connie was shooed out of the Las Vegas Hilton, and found a bus bench on Paradise and went to sleep. In the next few days, she’d retrieve her suitcases—still there, believe it or not—plunk them into a shopping cart and return, having made Paradise her home. Day after day she would go in and look at the M Store, and then at night, sleep on the bench, where no one hassled her. She tells me this part of the story over the Rise and Shine. While she gums sausage and eggs—she lost her teeth—she offers broken details of her life, and I piece together small parts of an emerging mosaic.Her family—some dead, some distracted with their own health and finance problems—was in Battle Creek, Michigan, home of the breakfast-cereal industry and the bitter cold. Her father had been in construction, her mother a homemaker and maid. The first of their five children was a son who had brain damage, and the second, slow. The third, Connie, was the only one to go to “normal school,” where only one boy ever liked her, and he and she would send each other notes to meet near the middle school’s girl’s bathroom at a certain time, and they did so, surreptitiously, until other boys found out, and made fun of him for liking Connie. His family had to move shortly thereafter anyway. She likens herself to America Ferrera, Ugly Betty, because, she says, “America is beautiful, but they make her up to be ugly for the show. Really, she is beautiful.”

I will find myself going back to that metaphor throughout my time with Connie, and I will be filled with a foolish hope that it does indeed apply in the broader sense, that really, things are not as ugly as they seem:

By the time someone noticed her at the bus stop outside of Barry Manilow’s Las Vegas Hilton, Connie was unconscious. She was in a diabetic coma on the bench. Suitcases stolen. Money gone. An ambulance was called to deliver her to Desert Springs Hospital. What she remembers most upon waking up in the hospital room is seeing a giant bandage on her calf. A brown recluse spider had bitten her leg, and the scar is a breathtaking, baseball-sized crater. “What the hell happened to my leg?” she asked.

The bite—not the diabetes Type 1A, brittle diabetes, a case that nurse Shea says is one of the worst she’s ever seen—is what Connie remembers most. When Desert Springs let her go, blood sugar stable but spider bite still a painful wound, they gave her a cab coupon, and the cab was to take her to the Salvation Army shelter, but the cabbie could not find it, and when she told him where she thought he should turn, he told her to shut up. And when they finally found it, it was too late in the evening, and the Army was not taking any more bodies, and so he took her back to the hospital, where a doctor gave her permission to sleep in the lobby, and so she did, but when dawn came, a security guard told her she had to go. And so she did.

From there it was to Shade Tree and back to the Salvation Army, or maybe it was vice versa, until the 30-day limit expired at each, and from there, back to the streets, and from there, back to the hospital, and from there, back to a shelter, and from there, someone put her up in a weekly motel, which wouldn’t last, of course, but what else to do?

I am America, she says, and her skin is so pale and her body so soft and her eyes so lost, so ill-prepared for a life on the streets. Her fingers are squat and her nails nubby, and she picks up another small link of sausage and eats it slowly, and keeps talking.

While staying at one of the shelters, she says, she got robbed of a $5 watch with a beautiful butterfly face. You have to leave the shelter between 10 and noon, and again between 4 and 6. It’s crowded, and men follow you into the bathroom. These are the things Connie tells me about her life on the street. Once, she was raped by a man who dragged her under a work trailer. These kinds of things happen more than you know, Shea tells me later. It’s life on the streets.

Connie thanks me for lunch, and we say our goodbyes. She is neither inordinately sweet nor unpleasant in the least; she simply is. Life simply is. Shit happens, really bad shit, and you just keep going. Whatever, you know? Thankfully, on this day, there is a huge, glitzy, loud, loving light at the end of the dark tunnel, Mr. Barry Manilow, in concert. I am relieved to know that that’s where she’s heading when we part ways.

The next time I call Connie, about a week later, no one answers. Linda Lera-Randle El, who helped Connie get into the temporary apartment, contacts me to tell me that Connie was taken to the hospital the night before. Details haven’t been determined.

I call the hospital. They transfer me to the Neuro Intensive Care Unit, which can’t be good.

“Who’s calling?”

“Her friend, Stacy.”

I ask the nurse whether Connie is okay. The nurse isn’t sure whether to tell me what’s going on with Connie—I’m not family—do I know of her family? I say that Connie has some friends who are advocates who have helped her get off the streets, but that I don’t think there’s any family here. Bless her heart, the nurse says. She’ll put me through.

After a long series of transfers, I hear someone breathing on the other end.

“Connie? Hi, Connie, it’s Stacy. How are you? “

“Hi, Stacy. I’m feeling better.”

“What happened?”

“Well, I pushed a button that almost hung up on you.”

“I mean, why are you in the hospital? What happened?”

“I’m not in the hospital. I’m at the library.” A nurse in the background says, “You’re at the hospital.”

Connie repeats to me, quietly, “I’m at the library.”

“Okay ... well … how was Barry? Did you go to the show?”

“It was GREAT!” she says, her voice suddenly strong and flowing, with a rush of relief at knowing what to say and saying something happy. We are both unburdened by having this subject matter.

“Were your seats good?”

“They were great! He was great!”

“That’s cool … So you’re doing okay?”

“Well, I’m going. I’m going well. I’m not sure where I’m going.”

“Is everyone being nice to you there?”

“Yes. Everyone is being nice.”

“Do you need anything?”

Pause. Pause pause pause pause pause.

“Okay, Connie, well, I just wanted to say hello. Take care, okay?”

“Okay. Bye, Stacy.”

The nurse tells me the situation is not good—there is bleeding on her brain.

Barry Manilow is huge and 50 feet high on the sign at the Hilton. Music and Passion, the sign says. That’s what Connie tells me she loves about Barry, that he is so passionate about his music. The grounds of the Hilton are meticulously groomed, the parking lot full.

I wander the M Store to buy a get-well picture of Barry for Connie—because this is all I know of her, really—and I stop to watch the video of his show. Barry Manilow, born Barry Alan Pincus in 1943, is shaking his stuff onstage. Tall, thin, large-nosed and, with spiky blond plumes, unequivocally bird-like, he is completely alive on the stage. He’s strutting, one hand holding the mic, the other arm spread out, fingers splayed wide-open, Broadway-style. He smiles while he sings. It may be a show he’s given hundreds of times, songs he’s sung multiple thousands of times, but he’s in his element, piano in the background, audience waving in the foreground—Barry Manilow is in the right place. One imagines that he’s felt that kind of feeling a lot: being at the right place at the right time. There was working with Bette Midler in the early years, and writing commercial jingles that hit it big, and “Copacabana”—things appear to be pretty good for Mr. Manilow.

In 1979, nearly three decades before shoring up in the kindness of devoted fans in the Las Vegas Hilton, home of Elvis Presley and countless other stars post-peak, Manilow was featured on HBO from the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. That’s when Connie discovered him. She was in her uncle’s house, and saw him on TV, and watched him sing—a young, rising star, wringing everything out of himself for the performance, and she thought, “He’s too cute for me.”

Barry went on to record more than 25 studio albums, a ton of compilation albums, launch more than 40 hit singles—generally overwhelm the world with his presence, and become the one happy thing in a life troubled by some hefty doses of misfortune. When he announced in 2004 that he’d be performing the house show at the Hilton, and Connie found out about it, and shortly thereafter found out she didn’t have a house to stay in at all, he became more than a daydream. He became a destination.

I buy a postcard of Barry and head back out. I look for the bench that Connie once called home; a home as close to her dream as she might ever get. There’s construction all along Paradise now—a new condo development is going in—and the bus stop has new rails dividing the seats on the bench, so that you can’t lie down. It’s a small gesture that says, “Get out of here.”

I have a horrific thought: What if Barry is an asshole?

The next day I call Connie from my car, and she takes the bedside phone and does not know who I am. Which makes sense, because after all, I have met her only once.

The nurse says, “It’s your friend who called before, don’t you remember?” The answer is no, and so the nurse takes the phone. She tells me that Connie has perhaps had a stroke, and that she will be in intensive care for at least two weeks, and that they need to know more about her physical condition. My heart drops a notch.

“Do you know her health history?” the nurse asks.

“She’s a diabetic. That’s really all I know.” A vague little panic related to shouldering responsibility for others threatens to come alive in me. Very unflattering. I try to squish it like a spider, but it runs. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I’m afraid. I want to explain: I don’t know her that well, I was just going to stop in and buy her some socks or take her to lunch or otherwise try to be helpful in some marginal, noncommittal way. Like the rest of America. You’re going to need a professional advocate.

But before I get it out, the nurse says they really need a list of her medications.

Shit. I am in my car, on my way to an appointment for work, and I take a deep breath and rue the day I left the comfortable confines of my parents’ suburban home a million years ago. The battle in my head and heart rolls out quickly:

Should I cancel my appointment and go over to Connie’s apartment and look for evidence of medications? I have met Connie just once, and she doesn’t remember me, would it be infringing on her privacy to ask the landlord to let me in? Would I be overstepping? Am I the person who should rifle through her few belongings and try to sort out her health? Is this beyond buying socks and underwear? If there is no one else, does that mean there is just me?

I think of the nurse saying “bless her heart” upon realizing Connie has no family available. And bleeding on the brain.

I try to reach the professional homeless advocates, to no immediate avail—they have hundreds of clients in need.

Amid the list of quandaries is one central question: How involved should I become? Of course I should do something. Everyone should do something. The world is full of spiders with fangs and mean boys at school and people dying on the streets, or stroking out and laying in hospitals alone, and we just go on to our appointments. So what’s more insane, trying to help, or justifying not doing anything? It’s so much easier not to look. But I’ve looked. And suddenly I blame Barry Manilow for this whole improbable situation, this sick woman on the street in Las Vegas, chasing after his illusion. What would Barry f’n Manilow do now? Shouldn’t he have to answer to this?

I will reflect on my own mental stability another time, but at this moment, I simply pull my car over to call Barry Manilow. What the fuck, I will say to Barry Alan Pincus Manilow. What would you do, Barry?

I try first to reach Connie’s advocates again, and have better luck this time. They will get her med list, thankfully. They have it under control. In fact, please note here that if not for Kathy Shea at Nevada Health Centers and Linda Lera-Randle El, who plucked Connie from the streets with an infected flesh-eating spider wound and critical diabetes, and set her up with housing and health care, Connie would’ve already been dead.

But I’m too far gone to let Manilow off the hook now. I reach the Hilton’s spokesperson, Ira David Sternberg, on his cell. Hi. Yes. I’m calling to ask Barry Manilow to explain the universe, please. Could you connect me to Barry? I have a few questions about life and fairness and fate and fans; benches, blindness, America and comas. Especially comas. Some kind of numb state where you can’t really acknowledge the people around you, where you’re enshrouded in a comfy layer of distance. I want Barry to explain this phenomenon.

“There’s a lot of people in addition to her,” says Sternberg about those who love Barry, who need Barry to make bad situations better.

“We get it all the time. There are a ton of people who have health and financial problems from all over the world who love Barry.” Barry is Vegas, I know. And Vegas is this full-speed-ahead thrust toward fantasy in hopes that the sheer intensity of the wish will pop you through into another, better life.

“So what does Barry think about all of these people?”

“He’s used to attention from fans.”

“But what does he think about the influence he has in their lives?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know him well?”

“Yes, he’s great.”

Then a gracious Sternberg politely suggests that he have Barry’s personal publicist call me, and he takes my number. I take it upon myself to e-mail and call the publicist, but I do not get a reply from her. Or Barry.

Days later, I walk into Connie’s room at Sunrise Hospital. She’s sitting up in her bed, the room is quiet and dim and empty, and she looks blank and tired. I greet her and she says she remembers me, from IHOP, and I ask how she’s doing. She says she’s fine when her head isn’t hurting, but that it hurts most of the time.

I give her the postcard of Manilow, who is wearing passion red and has bright blue eyes and a giant smile. It takes a minute to register, but then that electric spark lights up her face, and then, certainly, it lights up mine, too.

“My baby!” she says of the aging pop star, and her eyes swell with him in her sights. I ask about her condition. She brushes her bangs aside to show me her head, where another baseball-sized wound appears on her body. This one is fresh and red and sutured shut, and contains some kind of medical hardware, a shunt, that will forever remain there draining excess fluid. It turns out she had a brain hemorrhage, and no one really knows why; probably a complication of diabetes somehow. She turns and shows me the back of her head, where the other end of the contraption peeks out from the hairline on her neck.

We visit briefly. When I go to leave her alone in the hospital, I squeeze her shoulder and tell her I’m thinking of her and to take care. She draws the postcard to her lips and kisses Barry. It is at this moment that I thank God for Barry Manilow.

Some time later, I hear from Linda Lera-Randle El that Connie has been released from the hospital, so I drop by her apartment. When she answers the door, it’s as if none of this hospital thing has happened; she is standing there next to a walker dressed in a T-shirt and shorts and white walking shoes, and she is fine. Fine. Shit happens, and you keep on going. She invites me in to the Shangri-La, which has a view of the apartment complex’s small pool, and the AC is on full blast, and the TV is on a soap opera, and it all feels pretty good, pretty damn good.

She starts to make a spot for me to sit on the living room chair where three pictures of Barry are propped up, but I tell her not to. Please, I say, leave Barry right where he is.

She says she’s doing well now, things are all in order: She’s getting public assistance, and taking her medication—12 different kinds, and Kathy and Linda and their associates are checking in on her regularly, in fact she gets a phone call every night, and she loves Las Vegas, and would never go back to Michigan, and she’s been writing letters to Barry Manilow, whom she hopes to see in concert again when she saves up enough for another ticket.

If she ever meets Barry, she says, he would be very sweet, and very kind, and very humble. “I’m sure,” she says, “that life has been difficult for him, too.”

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