Children of Las Vegas
In 2009, Timothy O’Grady relocated from Europe, where he had lived for most of his adult life, to Las Vegas, for a fellowship at the Black Mountain Institute. He stayed on for another year to teach at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Stories from the people he met there, interspersed with his own reflections, make up his book Children of Las Vegas. Those reflections are excerpted in The Arkansas International 1. The interviews are excerpted below.
Maybe you can’t pin everything on one thing, one person especially. Maybe it’s not fair. But it’s hard not to blame my aunt for all the bad things that happened. I remember my mom’s warmth. She took my aunt in because she was always such a caring, family-oriented type of person. The change was so stark. She snaps, she’s defensive, she thinks everyone’s out to get her. My dad went to A.A. after she gave him an ultimatum and as he got better she got worse. She gets in these terrible fights with my aunt. My aunt has ripped chunks of her hair out of her head and my mom has hit my aunt so hard her false tooth has fallen out. It happens right in front of us. I’ve been hit trying to break it up. I found my mom’s straws and razor blades when I was in eighth grade. She snorts meth. I don’t know when she started, but it was my aunt who brought it here. She’ll go into the bathroom and turn on the faucet for thirty minutes and then deny she was doing it. Or else she’ll say she does it to lose weight or because she has to stay up and clean the house. You can hear her at night when she’s high, cleaning and doing laundry. One time I came home and she and my aunt were screaming about who’d used the last of it. My mom said, ‘I wouldn’t have to do it if I didn’t have to clean up after my lazy children.’ So it’s our fault. She gets nosebleeds. Soon her septum will deviate.
I know she’s miserable. She doesn’t see anybody, or even want to. She just stays in her room and only comes out to go to work. She views the world in such a skewed way. We drove her all the way back to La Crosse, Wisconsin, where she was born, for her fiftieth birthday and she stood outside the house, yelling, ‘All I want for my birthday is a gun so I can shoot myself.’ Well, now we have one because we had a break-in. She told my grandma that she has a loaded gun and that there’s no reason for her to be here because my brother and I are old enough to look after ourselves now. One day we’ll come home and she won’t be there, she says. That, or she’ll kill my aunt.
My dad found a stuntman and offered him a million bucks to jump off the Stratosphere. Highest freefall ever. I got the day off school to watch it. I saw the guy, just a little speck way up on the ledge. He must have been up there for more than twenty minutes, thinking long and hard about it. Then off he went, came sailing down, landed on an air mattress. No problem, just hopped off, walked over to my dad to collect the million dollars. He thought he was made. My dad says, ‘Did you read the contract?’ The guy goes, ‘Yeah, I’m a millionaire!’ ‘Check again,’ says my dad. ‘There’s a $990,000 landing fee.’ The guy was freaking out. He’d risked his life and all he was getting was ten thousand bucks. But what could he do? He’s a daredevil, not a businessman. He doesn’t read contracts.
That was the Vegas style before the super-chefs, the superrooms. It was carnival land, Barnum and Bailey, Evel Knievel jumping over buses. Coupons! Two for one! Try your luck! My dad was always making up things – promotional stunts, discount offers, new casino games. He had one deal where you could play tic-tac-toe with a chicken for money. I grew up with that. Acrobats would come over to the house and do flips off the diving board. I used to sit right up on the stage with an Elvis impersonator. His name was Morris. A front-row seat wasn’t good enough. I thought he was Elvis. Morris, he was my idol back then.
I sold a car to a guy yesterday. His card said he was an attaché at the U.S. embassy in Beirut. He’d have been combat-trained, earning a couple of hundred grand with everything paid, escorting politicians. He came into the lot with his suitcases and a gun case around his arm. He said he needed a car. I started doing my usual routine but he cut me off and said he wanted an Audi, with navigation, and he was in a hurry. He was tense, really wired up. He said he had to get on the road right away. I said, ‘We can get everything done in two to three hours.’ He said it had to be within forty-five minutes. He couldn’t wait any longer than that. I showed him an Audi and he said, ‘Okay.’ He didn’t test drive it. He didn’t even look inside. We went into the office and he wrote out a cheque for $25,000. Before he went he told me he’d come into town the day before, checked into the Rio and went to the casino. He gambled right through the night and into the next day. He never even went up to his room. Early on he was up seven grand but in the end he lost ten. That’s a common story. People come in sharp and make good judgements, but then all the free booze they give you starts kicking in. I could smell it coming out of his pores. ‘If I don’t get out of here,’ he said, ‘this city’ll do me in. I won’t sleep, I’ll lose all my money. I’ll crack.’
Then he was gone.
I got together with a guy whose marriage broke up when he was twenty-four. He went to Costa Rica and made a failed suicide attempt. Then he went out with someone who cheated on him. I met him when he was in that wonderful state of mind and thought he was the one for me. I lived with him and his mom and stepdad, who used to brag about shooting black American soldiers when he was in combat in Korea. He said he shot his first black man when he was ten. He thought it was great. I thought, I’m living with a psychopath. My boyfriend was originally from Utah, prim, buttoned-up, Mormon Utah. He thought Vegas was the Devil’s playground and he went for it – poker, craps, but especially Megabucks. Obviously you’re not going to win that. He was a waiter and he blew all his wages on the machines. It was his way of not thinking about things, like his ex-wife, for example. He wanted me to go with him and I didn’t want to go and then when we got there he’d stay with the machines and ignore me while I’d drink myself retarded. People would hit on me and he wouldn’t notice. He was emotionally closed and abusive. I could say, ‘How do I look?’ and he’d say, ‘You could do better.’ It could get much worse – ‘You’re fat, you’re worthless, you’re stupid, you’re drunk.’ His friends did it too. It was like home. Normal. I’d drink some more...Sadly that was the longest relationship I’ve ever had.
Las Vegas is very Futurist, in the ways it embodies speed and dynamism and technology and the violence inherent in the city’s own break-neck evolution. We build things we know we will get rid of. They’re like stage sets. Nothing lasts – jobs, buildings, relationships, families. Everything has a fly’s lifespan. Flies live and die so quickly they don’t even realize they are themselves. Vegas taught me a lot about the importance and limitations of speed. It taught me about self-awareness, mostly by observing people who don’t have any. This is the city where it’s okay to be vain, it’s okay to have nothing to say, to be unoriginal and derivative, a complete victim of somebody else’s marketing ploy of what you should be and how you should behave. It’s okay to be a drone, and you might be really successful at it. It’s the city of quick fixes. You get disillusioned with one franchise, just re-illusion yourself into another. You learn to be interesting. I learned. Of course everything is insubstantial. You get a gimmick. ‘I’m not the computer itself, I’m just a cool feature.’ You are utterly the sum of your parts. I was a fun little trick – he’s young and vulgar, but educated and musical and also into sado-masochism and swallows swords, etc. Vegas taught me that performance is not just something that happens on stage. Performance happens every minute. It is every interaction you ever have with anybody, it’s the awareness that somebody else is the audience to what you project. You can’t survive here and look for substance or be sensitive. It’s not allowed. You become detached. I want to be the camera, like Isherwood. It’s living in this environment so long that made it easier for me to be a prostitute.
I heard about the tunnels under the city. I had friends who were from there. I met Manny from drinkin’ with him in the streets. I knew he lived down there. He was always good to me. He protected me, he never came on to me. I felt safe with him. He was a ticket hopper, from Alaska originally. He’d go around the casinos checking for money left behind in the machines. You might find hundreds of dollars that way because the people playing are often drunk and they forget. He said I could come down there and live with him. I was scared, it was so dark down there and unknown. But he promised me no one would hurt me. His place was off Flamingo there by the railroad tracks, under the Rio. I made him walk in front of me. We had miners’ lamps on our heads. When I got there I could see it was like a normal room that somebody would live in, with shelves and a little bathroom with a curtain and a king-sized bed, all nice and neat. I freaked out the first time I slept there. I thought, What’s happening to my life? But it was safe, just like he said. We had a sofa, a radio. We swept it out every day. There was always somebody with me down there. People would go to the wealthy neighbourhoods lookin’ for stuff they’d thrown out and then bring it back and pass it around. They all had different personalities. One guy had porno all over his wall, another couple, Catherine and Steve, they had, like a house, with a kitchen and barbecue and everything else a house would have. There were fights sometimes and one girl, she used to freak out on speed and she was a klepto. You had to watch out for the rain and get all your things up high for when the water came flooding through. People lost everything that way and even got killed. Sometimes days would go by without me leavin’. You’d have to wear shades then when you went out ’cause you were so used to the dark. I got to feel like I didn’t have to be in the outside world, and then when I did go out I couldn’t wait to get back to the tunnel where I could hide. It did the same thing for me as drugs. When I was down there I felt like I didn’t have to worry about anything.
It makes me feel bad to live in a city based on something that takes so much from people. They look so sad, so lonely when they gamble. I wonder why they do it. When I drive I try to look at the mountains rather than the Strip. I’ve yet to meet anyone brought up here that hasn’t been pulled under by it in some way. It’s just this minimum-wage place where everything bad for you is available 24/7, where everything is about what you can get right now and where no one connects. If you’re not getting groped at a bar you don’t have a social life. Men just come up to you and grind on you and think it’s all right. In high school people already start to show some of the same symptoms as their parents, just falling into the traps Vegas sets. A lot of girls I know became strippers. One of them got a boob job as a graduation present to herself with money she got from stripping. It’s like they don’t feel they’re worth anything unless they’re naked and being looked at. If you don’t have that certain look the city asks of you, if you don’t have money or you’re not in the nightclub scene, you feel secluded, like you’re on the outside looking in at something. It’s all so sad, so wasteful. It’s obvious that these things people put so much time and money and belief into are not going to last, but they just go blindly on. They don’t want to think about what will happen when it ends or when there’s some kind of reckoning. It would be too bleak. You just kind of live with that here. It becomes some sort of normality, but a normality that’s full of tension. For a long time I had bad anxiety problems. My sister once put me in a cooler and sat on it. The feeling of living here is like that, of being trapped, overwhelmed. I’d have these night terrors where I’d sweat and lose my breath. I used to smoke weed to deal with it, but now I meditate.
I know I’m going to have to get out if I’m going to have any kind of life. It’s a ‘no tomorrow’ place. Everything about it is telling you that. When I was in high school the science teacher used to play ‘Dead Puppies’ in class. He’d talk about the weather, the news. I think he was on drugs. When I was out for two and a half weeks after a tonsil operation I asked him what I’d missed. ‘Nothing,’ he said. There’s no real concern for education or the environment or art or any of the things that sustain you. I graduated, I think, fifth in my high school class. I had a 4.3 average. But it didn’t make me look forward to adult life. It’s hard to grow up here, or even want to, when your parents are falling apart. You know you have to grow up fast, but you don’t know what to grow up into. Your parents are supposed to be anchors, but they’re the ones that need guiding. I felt like I had to be the parent. The adult world just looked vile. Greedy, but also hopeless. I watched them, weak, passive, just accepting everything and endlessly repeating the same mistakes.
My dad opened for the Mills Brothers. He used to tell jokes and twirl guns. It was amazing how he picked up things like that. He and Sammy Davis Jr were supposed to be the fastest gun twirlers in the West. He’s a full-blooded Italian who was born in Brazil. He came here as an illegal immigrant. He headed for Detroit to work in the car industry. One time he was in Kansas City and got into a fight in a bar and – it must have been one of those magical moments – the bartender threatened dire consequences and then said, ‘You can either fight or you can sing.’ So he sang, and then just kept on doing it. He sang at supper clubs and Italian festivals all over the country. He met my mom, who was a ballroom dancer. If you were an entertainer in the 1960s you went to Vegas. He worked on the Strip, singing Spanish songs, Italian classics like ‘Volare’, some Sinatra. He’d do country songs in his Italian-Brazilian accent. We’d sit in the audience when we were small and he’d sing right to us.
More than a child of Vegas, I’d say I was a child of the desert. The desert came right up and into the city, all around. You’d see it breaking out in the vacant spaces among the houses and then stretching out as far as you could see. If I just stepped outside I was in it. It was this great wilderness playground for us. We’d play this game, ‘Let’s Find Al Bramlet’. He was a Vegas union boss who’d been murdered and whose body hadn’t been found. Kind of sick, I guess. We’d build forts, climb on things. And it stayed like that for me. When I was a cigarette girl I’d see people taking their money out from underneath a pile of bills they hadn’t paid and cash it in for chips. I’d see little kids left in a corner while their parents gambled and they’d still be there hours later. The desert became a kind of antidote for me to the debauchery and misery. It’s quiet, it’s slow. I can sit on a rock for hours. Maybe I got it from my mom, who was into Transcendental Meditation before anyone else I ever heard of. When you’re in the desert you have that silence, that ascetic quality, and you have a sense of the animals in it and what they do. You have that image of the snake shedding its skin. I still come out here twice a year from New York to sit in the desert and do that, to shed skin, to let go of whatever has to be let go. Or watching the hawk soar. The desert really helped me. You have to be very clear here. It’s so easy to get pulled under. Having a goal, a dream, that couldn’t be met by Vegas gave me strength. Maybe if I was a better singer and dancer I’d have stayed. (Laughs.) Maybe I’d have had a career more like my dad’s. But I got out.
She started locking herself in her bedroom when I was six. We pounded on the door and screamed at her but she wouldn’t answer. We were four, six and nine and we had to do everything around the house. We didn’t know what she was doing in there. We still don’t. There was just this silence. We all talked about her, trying to figure her out, put together the pieces of the puzzle. ‘I don’t know what happened to your mom,’ my grandma’d say. 'She’s not the same. She lies. She’s not like my other kids.’
Around the time we lost the house she called me into her room and told me she had cancer. I was devastated. I was just on my way to church camp but felt I had to stay with her. When I told my dad he said not to believe it unless I had evidence. I got mad at him about that, but he was right, there was no sign of anything, of the disease or the treatment. She did the same thing with her knee, saying she had to have her meniscus replaced She even hobbled around on crutches for two years. But there was no scar.
She stole money all the time. She stole from a woman whose house we were living in for a while and told the woman I did it. She stole all the money my sister had put away to get married. She never told anyone she was pregnant with my youngest brother until he was stillborn three months premature. She never bothered with any kind of ante-natal care. Nobody can figure it out. Why is she like this? Why doesn’t she care about anybody? Why was she just this absence in our lives for all these years when we needed her so much? We can’t even figure out what she does with the money. She still works. She gets paid well. My dad always sent child support. There’s no tangible sign of what she spends it on. It all really got to me. I used to wrap my hair around my fingers and pull it out. I had bald spots all over my head. She’s told so many lies I don’t think she has a sense of reality any more. I think by now she actually believes she had cancer.
My sister says it has to be gambling or drugs. I don’t know. Anything is possible. Lately her teeth are falling out. They started getting yellow and rotten about five years ago and now every time I see her another one is gone. She’s only got about four or five left and they don’t really look like teeth. Her breath reeks. She lost about thirty pounds in a month. Meth could do that, I guess. I don’t really know about drugs. I never smelled anything.
I finally got my own hotel executive. He was head of housekeeping at Caesars. His name was Frank. He was thirty-two, I was halfway through high school. I dressed to impress him. I had paper routes, worked in the school cafeteria, sold personalized Christmas cards door-to-door and anything else a boy could sell at the time. I saved $400 and spent it all on one outfit. It drove my mom nuts. I did that kind of thing for decades. Years later I was living in the Palms Apartments on Sahara in one those old showgirl places with enormous closets. I had $30,000 worth of clothes in there and half of them still had their price tags on. It made me so sad. For Frank I’d put on my new cashmere sweater and Florsheim shoes. He’d pick me up, take me to his place, get me drunk, have sex with me and when I’d wake up he’d get me drunk again and pass me around to his friends. He’d do my homework for me so we’d have more time. Frank was the kind of guy who would get to know your parents so he could have better access. He got me a job in a bank. He liked his boys to work. I kept leaving him because he kept fucking boys younger than me. He’d get older but they always stayed sixteen. He had boys all over the place and I’d see him with them, but that didn’t stop him from being insanely jealous. I’d been in a bar called the Clown’s Den on Boulder Highway and he thought I’d taken someone from there back to an apartment I had when I was seventeen. I was in my pyjamas and about to go to bed when he smashed through a glass door, started screaming ‘Where is he?’, beat me all around the face and nearly choked me to death. The neighbours called the cops and he ran off. A cop asked me, ‘Did you know your attacker?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He’s a former boyfriend.’ He closed his notebook and walked. It was just two fags beating each other up. That’s another reason to hate this city.
Timothy O'Grady has lived in the United States, Ireland, London and Spain and now lives in Poland. He is the author of four works of non-fiction and three novels. He lived in Las Vegas for two years.