Down and out at Trop and Boulder
Scenes from my long week at an unusual motel
Thu, Jan 8, 2009 (midnight)
Photo: Ryan Olbrysh
- Editor’s note:
- Hoping to get a sense of how people displaced by the foreclosure crisis and crumbling economy are dealing with their changed circumstances, Richard Abowitz checked into the Sportsman’s Royal Manor—the sort of weekly motel where he assumed many such people would wind up. It didn’t take him long to realize he had a different story on his hands.
December 24, 11 a.m.
A group of men are standing in the cold. They watch me with wan faces, rubbing their hands for warmth. They don’t speak much, only look at each other and at the castle behind them. The castle is heated inside, but none of the men enter. I’ve been in the castle handling registration for the hotel. And now I’m being taken around to see the different room options on the grounds. I ask the clerk who is showing me around why the men are standing there doing nothing.
“They are contractors waiting to get paid,” E. says. “Their checks come by Fed Ex today, and they wait.” I ask other questions. But the answers stop. E. does not know why they don’t wait in the hotel’s castle-shaped, heated lobby. E. ignores my question about what labors they perform to get paid.
The Sportsman’s Royal Manor, at 5600 Boulder Highway, is huge: more than 600 rooms in roughly 20 buildings, two pools, laundry facilities, a gas station with a convenience store, as well as a bar with video gaming machines; the bar also is castle-shaped. Much like Wynn’s new Encore, the castle is guarded by metal statues of giant cats.
But that is where the similarity ends.
This place is a community all its own, taking up a block at the corner of Boulder and Tropicana. English Street marks the other border, but a wall topped with barbed wire prevents Sportsman’s residents near my unit from getting to English Street. At one end of the complex is a Shell station and at the other, just off the property, a Circle K. Many people wander from one building to another with their entire social life centered on this property.
Walking the grounds of Sportsman’s Royal Manor with E. is a slightly menacing experience. But E., the attendant, remains effusive and friendly, brushing aside my concerns with a wave of his badly deformed arm. He has a clean presentation and a short haircut. He has given this tour a lot, and his speech is down pat. He thinks this place is great. The dissonant things I am seeing and hearing E. seems determined not to notice. For example, as E. shows me different units, one man starts following us through the complex, yelling “Hello, hello, hello.” E. says nothing to him. “What’s that about?” I ask E. “People here are friendly,” he says. The man continues to stalk us, yelling his greeting more than a dozen times before we duck into a horrible-smelling room for my rental consideration. “This is what an upgrade looks like,” E. says. The odor is overpowering.
We walk past a Dumpster overflowing with trash, as well as groups of parent-less children on bicycles or wandering in groups.
“What are your average customers like?” I ask.
“Just regular people, some tourists. A lot of contract workers who do construction live in the front building.” We are heading away from the front building toward the back, where the convenience store and bar are located.
I am starting to think this is where you come when you have few options. They don’t require a credit card at check-in, and that is increasingly unusual. E. just talks the place up and tells me how the owner isn’t stuck up. E. has worked here three years. But when I ask him if many residents hang out on the property, well, he isn’t sure. In truth, he has only been in the bar a couple of times. He tells me none of the employees live here. When their shift is over, they leave.
My building, M, is located on the Dumpster side of the mini-mart. It is one of the older buildings, according to E. The other side of the complex has mostly temporary workers and tends to be calmer. As for the people in my building, E. offers somewhat cryptically that I will be in the “singles” building. “It can get noisy at night,” he says.
When I go to the gas station’s convenience market, the woman behind the counter recognizes me. “I saw you being showed around. Welcome to the neighborhood.” She then gives me a 50 percent discount coupon for the pizza/deli.
Noon. There is dirt in the tub and shit in the toilet. I see a manager, R., walking the property. She sends someone to clean my toilet. Building M is eight doors across and three levels high. My room has a mattress covered in plastic with no sheets or pillows. Those are $80 extra, a fact not mentioned in the “fully furnished” advertising. But then again, to be technical, linens aren’t furniture. Making things look cheap while charging a lot for seeming essentials is very Vegas. The entire room is just over $200 for a week—$80 for linens is on the high side. If I want maid service, the cost rises to $120. There is no trash can.
2 p.m. A neighbor in my building leaves his unit, walks over to my car and expertly smashes himself against it, setting off my car alarm. He is inside the convenience store by the time I get outside. I drive to the front of the castle to ask E. if there are a lot of cars stolen from the lot. “I am not going to lie and say it is perfect.” I decide my 5-year-old Honda will not survive a week parked here, so I take the car home and have a friend drive me back.
“Are you sure you want to be here?” my friend says. She grew up in Las Vegas. She remembers one previous visit to this place. “A friend of mine was staying here. He was on heroin. This was about five years ago. I did not know it at the time, but the windows in the rooms don’t have screens. You can just open the window and a hand [would] reach out and sell you drugs.” When I get back to my room, I check. Sure enough, the windows slide up with no screen to keep the bugs outside or hands inside.
If I am worried about my car being in jeopardy, it seems reasonable to worry about me.
3 p.m. Three 20-something men stand outside my window in the parking lot and motion for me to come join them. I don’t feel settled enough yet to socialize, and I shake my head. One gives me the finger, and they walk away all glaring back at my unit. Their thug wardrobe is augmented by Bluetooth devices of the sort I can’t afford.
3:10 p.m. The bar does not take credit cards: “We have too much paperwork from the gambling machines already, and the owner did not want any more.” Five men are drinking and playing video poker. They don’t seem to be part of a group, just occupying adjacent seats at the bar. One has a present wrapped in Christmas colors in front him.
3:39 p.m. A housekeeper is finally sent to clean my toilet. She has only a rag and a spray bottle and a surgical mask. No rubber gloves or scrub brush. She cleans it swiftly and leaves. It is not really clean. Perhaps that was hoping for too much. I wonder if she expected a tip, like I would automatically give at a resort. Of course, I have never stayed on a Strip property only to find the bathroom greeting me with leftovers from the previous occupant.
7:30 p.m. There is a group of men standing at the corner of the building. One is dressed as a skeleton with a white mask that shines off the security lights.
8 p.m. In the bar, the barflies are friendly, as is the waitress. Christmas music plays, and a dozen people spend Christmas Eve gambling and drinking beer.
8:30 a.m. I go to the convenience mart to pick up the newspaper. On the way back, a man who lives in one of the upstairs units greets me. “Merry Christmas,” he says. We discuss the snow from last week and the overcast day. He is very friendly.
9 a.m. Noise outside. A woman, only her eyes visible, is standing behind the Dumpster, yelling at a tall, thin man. “I don’t want to go to your mother’s. I want my shit. I am calling Metro, and not about that room [she points to my building], but about what they are doing [she points to another].”
I go outside to get a sense of things. I see the man who greeted me with such holiday cheer start walking down the upstairs walkway of my building, He stops at an open door and borrows, ever so politely, a frying pan from a neighbor, one of the units lit up with Christmas lights. “I tried to buy one, but they are so expensive. I’ll bring it right back,” he says. He then stands at the head of the stairs with the pan, looking more like he plans to hit something rather than cook something.
Meanwhile, the woman has come out from behind the Dumpster and looks to be no older than a teenager. She screams at two women walking down the sidewalk in front of the motel. “I want my ID back. Give me my ID back, bitches.”
Then it is over. Everyone disappears into various units. Metro does not come.
A few minutes later the man walks by my room and stares in my window for a moment. He no longer has the frying pan. I pretend I don’t see him.
9:36 a.m. A couple laboriously works at getting their car to start. Two other men watch them, drinking beer. The car next to theirs, the car in front of my unit, has no license plate or tags.
2:33 p.m. A man with a weather-beaten face in a bandanna paces back and forth past my window for the fifth time. He has a purposeful gait but is going nowhere.
3:20 p.m. A woman in a pink dress, with a heavily pockmarked face, stumbles past my window and goes to the store. I need a soda, so I follow. She is barely able to walk and smashes bag after bag of chips while trying to get one. She pushes her arm against one row of chips to get leverage to pick up another bag. “Enjoy our atmosphere,” the cashier says to me. She points to some tables where a young person of not quite clear age or gender sits in a hoodie, reading a book as if he or she is not in the room, as if trying for all the world to climb into the book and not be part of this atmosphere. There are three books piled next to the kid. I can’t see the titles, but for some reason I am sure they are science fiction.
7 p.m. This place really challenges my liberal worldview. I expected to find victims of the foreclosure crisis, people looking for work and others who are shooting for better. Most of the people I run into are looking to get no further than the next dollar. If I had a dollar for every person who asked me if I had a dollar—in front of the store, next to the bar, in front of my room, walking to the Dumpster—I could rent the room for another week.
The question is never if they can have my dollar, only if I’ve got one. I guess if I do, giving it to them would be the natural course, to their way of thinking. My libertarian friends would like my wave of irritation. These people act like mean, small grifters who troll through the property like low-level predators. They behave like they have no role in how the world treats them, victims all. And if they have ever fought back, well, they had no choice in the matter. Stories at the bar all blend but seem to share a sense that fate and poor fortune have some crucial role in all of life’s disasters, this despite more obvious culprits like bad judgment, drugs and thievery, which make cameos in every story.
5 p.m. I spend most of the day away from the property. Shortly after I get back, a man knocks on my window as if he had been waiting for me.
He looks to be in his 40s and is wearing a cap. I open the door. It is just getting dark. He starts to push past me to enter my room, but I walk out and close the door behind me. “Did you bring a cigarette?” he says.
“No,” I say.
He looks at my door as if I am going to go into my room and get a cigarette for him. I do nothing.
“The thing is,” he explains “I need water. I need to buy a water.” He points to the corner store. “So do you have a dollar?”
I shake my head. “I got a watch I could give you,” he offers.
“I need water, man!” He stomps his foot. He is agitated. He is irritable. He looks at me. “What am I going to do?” He looks at me again like this is my problem and I will soon solve it for him. After all, if I had just given him a dollar we would not be in this waterless mess. And I have solved his problem: I am about to tell him his room has a tap, when he surprises me with a question. “Did you know the police were here looking for you?”
“They aren’t looking for me,” I say. I try to sound calmer than I feel. Of course, there is no reason the police would be looking for me. But he has caught me off-guard. Wouldn’t you tell someone this before asking for water money? Or is this a bluff so that I will give him money to get more details? He moves closer. He is a large man, probably over 6 feet tall, and I am 5-foot-6. He is using his size advantage to violate my space. But I don’t back down. I say again: “The police aren’t looking for me.”
“Are you sure?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. “But why don’t you call them and say you found me?”
Without another word he walks off, leaving me alone. I go back in my unit and lock the door. But I am spooked. Outside everyone has vanished; there is just a bone-chilling breeze. For this night, I join my car in not spending the night here.
10 a.m. I return to my room. Soon I see the man who accosted me for water money. I see now that he is the same man connected to the Dodge Stratus, the car without a license plate. In my head, I call him “two-car guy.” He uses his other car, the one with a license, to block the driver’s-side door of the Stratus. I also think he is the guy who set off my car alarm, probably, for parking near the precious, unlicensed Stratus. He spends much of his day shining both cars, even though they are in terrible condition.
I assume he keeps his cars parked that way to prevent theft or because he is trying to hide the lack of a plate from the tow trucks that regularly patrol the lot—E. told me the two trucks were always checking for cars with lapsed registration.
I stand outside my room talking on the phone as he carefully arranges the two cars. It takes 20 minutes. He keeps glancing at me but does not say anything. He is about three times my size. Not that he looks healthy—he has the build of an athlete gone to seed. He is bald without his cap.
11:30 a.m. A police car drives through the parking lot. Despite how often the police have been invoked by residents, this is the first time I have seen a patrol car. I go outside to watch what’s up and to be available if the police really do want to speak to me. As if alerted, the men who are constantly at the side of the building have vanished. The police cruiser is just patrolling, it seems, and is soon out the driveway back onto Boulder Highway.
Noon. I have seen one seemingly intact family. On Christmas Eve I saw a man, a woman and a little girl getting in an old Volvo. Earlier this morning I saw the child head off into the parking lot on a toy scooter. There is no sign of the parents, and I decide that I would like to interview them about their lives and being here with their child. I am not sure what unit they are in within my building, so I leave a note under the windshield wiper of the Volvo: “Hi, my name is Richard. I would like to speak to you at your earliest convenience. I am staying in Unit M15.”
1:15 p.m. I am about to head off to get lunch; the note is still under the wiper. The little girl doesn’t seem to have returned from wherever she is playing. If I was a parent, I would be worried. The girl looks to be 7 or 8. I notice she hasn’t returned because my drape is drawn back and I have a clear view from my ground-floor window of the staircase leading to the units on the upper floors. I saw her walk her scooter down hours ago. The window to my room has a joke of a lock in addition to no screen. Anyone could enter this room anytime.
As for the bolt on my front door, it is surrounded by splintered wood. I assume this is because the door has been kicked in before. I wonder why? The window would have been easier to get through. I also notice on the way out that despite the bright, cold day I am the only one in my three-floor building with the drapes open to let the sun in. I could easily think after a few days of living here that there is nothing outside the window worth seeing, including the sun shining on the filthy drifters and hustlers and some truly mentally damaged individuals passing by the window and staring in at me like I am a fish in a tank.
1:32 p.m. As I’m heading to the Dumpster, I see the child going up the stairs with her scooter. “Hey, little girl!” I call out. I hear how patronizing that sounds as soon as I say it. But she stops and asks what I want. I explain that I want to interview her parents, and that I have left a note under the windshield wiper of their car.
“Why?” she asks.
A reasonable question, I tell her, and one I would normally be happy to answer, but I am not comfortable talking to a child without her parents around. So I tell her I would rather explain to her parents. She turns around and runs up the stairs. I head to my room in case the parents come down. They don’t. A moment later I see the little girl run past my room window. She is alone and I assume off to play some more.
The note on the Volvo is gone. Then my room phone, whose number I have given to no one and which has not rang since I checked in, starts ringing. I answer, and a woman says, “Wrong number.” She hangs up. A moment later the phone rings again. “Hello?” I say. “Who is this?” a man’s voice demands. Then click.
2:40 p.m. More calls. Sometimes it is a man who claims he dialed the wrong number, and another time it’s just someone hanging up. Sometimes it is a woman. I spend over an hour waiting for the Volvo family to visit or for the people calling to identify themselves.
Finally, I go out for lunch. As I am leaving, I see a man on the ground in front of the convenience store. I head over to see if he needs help. But a security guard is standing next to him, and the man’s hands are tied behind his back. The cashiers are standing outside the convenience store, watching. “What happened?” I ask. The cashiers seem pleased. One explains that the man came in and threatened them. They told him to leave or they would call security. He left but came back. Security was called. “He says, ‘You aren’t as big as I thought you would be’ to security. So he doesn’t leave, and the security guard showed him who was bigger.”
I ask the cashiers about how long it takes the police to arrive. “Fifteen minutes,” one cashier says.
“You must have a lot of experience calling the police?” I say.
“Yup,” she says.
I get in my car five minutes later, and the security guard is still standing over the crumpled man. I wonder vaguely if he has been maced. But the guard is on a cell phone and is not abusing the man, just standing over him. I drive off happy that I have a home that is not this place.
8 a.m. The police are arresting someone at the Circle K on the Tropicana side of the motel. He is a young man with ties behind his arms, being leaned against the police car. The day is breezy and cold.
1:30 p.m. I see the father of the little girl pull up in his Volvo. I call out to him and walk over to where he is parked. I tell him I am a reporter and would like to talk to his family about life here. He says he’s been living here three weeks on account of the economy. It turns out he had a conflict with the two-car guy. “He asked me for drugs,” the father explains. “Then I pulled up next to one of his cars, and he slapped me.” He points to the car without a plate. “I would have kicked his ass,” the father continues, “but I didn’t want to get arrested. It is too expensive to get arrested. They shouldn’t let his kind into the country. Where you are from?”
“What are you, Italian?”
“I know some Jews. Good people. I am a Hebrew from the tribe of Jacob.”
“I am sorry. I don’t know what that means; I wasn’t raised religious.” That seems easier to say than to tell him I can’t follow crazy talk.
He promises we can do an interview in an hour. He will come down for me. He goes up to his unit and closes the door. In the parking lot, a group of five children, none older than 9, play harmoniously with his daughter. No adults are around watching after any of them.
2 p.m. A friend calls. He knows a hooker who has an advertisement on Craigslist. She is supposedly hooking from another building in the complex. I call her for an interview, but the man who answers her phone says no and demands to know what unit I am in. I decide not to tell him.
2:30 p.m. I sit on a rock to read to wait for the interview with the family and the girl. The kids approach me at once. “When are you going to interview us?” the girl asks.
“Your dad said an hour about an hour ago; so, soon, I guess.” The littlest of the children looks at me. “Do you have a dollar?” she asks. Amazing that she has learned to beg in the same language as the adults. I explain that I can’t pay for interviews. I ask the kids how old they are. The youngest, who just tried to sponge a dollar, is just 4; the oldest is the girl I want to interview, 9.
“Are we getting paid for this interview?” the girl asks.
I explain that I had told her dad I would take her family to lunch for the interview. “Give me a dollar for ice cream, then,” she says.
When I refuse, the kids head off, and I sit down to read on the rock again. Then the father walks down, and I stand up to greet him. But he walks past me to his Volvo as if he has never seen me before. The kids materialize around him, and I hear the girl saying to her dad, “He promised he’d take us to lunch for the interview. I want to do the interview now.” The dad slams the door of his Volvo and walks past me again, this time glaring. He seems totally different from the person I spoke to an hour ago.
2:58 p.m. I am in Unit 15, and the police knock on 14. I come out of my room. They seem surprised. “Have you seen this guy?” They point at the door.
“I don’t think anyone is staying there,” I say.
I tell the two officers that I have been here since Wednesday, but I admit I have not been sleeping here consistently. That interests them. “Where have you been staying?” one of them asks. His voice is patronizing. I can tell he thinks I am lying.
I tell them I am a reporter and I would love to talk to them about having this motel as part of their beat. “We aren’t allowed to do interviews,” the one officer says. The other officer says nothing; he just keeps sizing me up. “And even if we were allowed to do interviews, I wouldn’t talk to you,” the first officer says.
They start to walk away. “Why’s that?” I yell after them. “Why wouldn’t you talk to me?” The officer stops and turns just his head to face me over his shoulder. “Because I don’t like reporters. I’ve had some bad run-ins with them.”
Then the police are gone. In fact, I notice everyone is gone, and I am alone in front of Building M. Everyone vanishes when the police come. I go back into my room.
All of a sudden, standing in front of my window is a skinhead who walks over to the rock where I have been periodically sitting to read and spits on it. Oh, no, I think, now they think I am a snitch. Of course, the police don’t like me either, but I guess that does not count for much with the residents.
10 a.m. Going to the Dumpster, I notice there is a huge dent in my door that was not there before. It is as if someone was throwing himself at the door trying to get inside my room.
Noon. Certainly this is not a great place for making friends. According to the Review-Journal, Victoria Magee and Charlotte Combado were killed and their bodies dumped in the desert in 2006. Police theorized the duo were targeted through being part of a social circle centered around people they met at the Sportsman’s Royal Manor. Another murder in July 2006 is even more mysterious. The Review-Journal simply notes: “Las Vegas police responded to reports of gunshots on the second floor of the Sportsman’s Royal Manor apartments at 9:51 a.m. and found the 23-year-old Las Vegas man in Room A-231.” In 2007 Tara Robert and Saul Saenz were found beaten to death here. Their accused murderer and roommate at the motel told police he killed them on Friday and before being caught had planned to head back to do something with the bodies before the week ran out the following Saturday. According to the Review-Journal: “It is unclear what [the] … relationship was with the two victims, other than having rented the room together.”
As for the people I want to meet, by today the Volvo with the family is gone. Two-car guy has his cars lined up as he likes them. The people on the side of the building are outside doing what they do. I call the front desk to find out what time check-out is tomorrow. “You missed it,” a woman says. Her voice is triumphant. She seems pleased she has caught me making a mistake that will cost me money. “You are going to need to pay for another day,” she says. When I point out that my check-out day is tomorrow, she grumpily puts me on hold. “Yeah, I guess you have until 11 tomorrow,” she says. I ask to speak to the manager. I am told she is unavailable.
2 p.m. I walk over to the castle to find the manager. I tell her I want to interview her for this story. She promises to come by my room in an hour. I go back and wait. No one talks or smiles at me since the police visit, which everyone now seems to know about, including the clerks at the convenience store.
The manager never shows up for that interview. When I call the front desk again, I am told she is walking the property and not available. I walk back to the castle, and sure enough there is the manager, R. I ask if she will talk to me for my story, and she agrees but only tomorrow and only after my 11 a.m. check-out, if I call for her. Then R. retreats to her office.
A clerk who checks people into the hotel asks, “What sort of story are you writing?”
“I am trying to talk to people about living here.”
“Ain’t no one here going to talk to you about that,” she says.
“They are embarrassed about being poor.”
“In this economy there is nothing embarrassing about being poor,” I say.
“Here there still is,” she says.
December 31 and beyond
I check out a day early on December 30 to make sure I do not have to pay for an extra night. But there’s one final surprise. Ten dollars is put on my card as a deposit on the key. I return the key and am told the $10 will be instantly refunded to my credit card. I am even given a $10 charge receipt to acknowledge the return of the money to my credit card. But as of January 5 (the time of this writing), that money has not been refunded to my card.
When I call to interview R., I’m told it’s her day off. When I call the next day, I’m also told it’s her day off. I leave a message to talk to her and for anyone to call me to discuss the $10. I haven’t heard back.
UPDATE: After calling my credit card company on January 5 to confirm that my key deposit had not been returned, I filed an official complaint with my card provider over the $10 refund. At that point my credit card company said they would inform the Sportsman's Royal Manor of my complaint at once and get a response from them as well as send me a dispute form. After that conversation with my credit card company, Sportsman's Royal Manor (six days after having given me a receipt from the motel claiming to have returned the $10 deposit to my credit card) in fact refunded the $10 to my card. Again, this happened shortly after my complaint to the credit card company, at which time they had no record of any attempt to refund the $10.