“People come to Las Vegas to blow off steam and then go. But I’m stuck here. When I see the city lights I think of all the parts they don’t shine on. I think I’m living there, in those parts. The shadows pull you under.”
Shelby Sullivan, a student who has lived in Las Vegas all her life, told me that.
Las Vegas is a much regarded city, a global celebrity for its glitter and splash, its poker tournaments and shows and hedonistic spree, all of it centred on the intense concentration of light known as the Strip. I lived there for two years. Near the end, in a class I was teaching, my students began to speak of what it is like to grow up in Las Vegas. I thought at first I had misheard, or that it was a collective prank, then listened with amazement as they spoke of being robbed by their parents, routinely losing their homes and raising themselves while their parents pursued the addictions serviced by the city. There were overdoses, desert shoot-outs, suicides, all before high school was over. There are horror stories in every city, but these things were happening not just in Las Vegas but because of it. And they were happening, they told me, in every neighbourhood.
It seems to me that Las Vegas is what we ask it to be. It moves through sequences of twenty-four hour instant gratification and debt and anaesthesia. It was something that had happened to my students. They’d struggled to survive and transcend it, and they’d been watching it all their lives. No visitor or writer or expert had the view or the authority they had about their highly particular but universal city. I asked a few of them if they would be willing to tell me about their lives and have it published. I didn’t think they’d agree, but they did. They seemed to need to have it heard. I made a couple of calls and found a few other witnesses to the city. This is a book of what they said.
It gripped me, moved me, appalled me, astonished me, enlightened me, profoundly upset me, amazed me (resilience!), drove me to read on and on. It is a city guide like no other to a particular circle of glittering hell in which the arcades of mirrors of fun show us the fantastical distortions of our wishes gone wrong, come true. You orchestrate and conjure and share the voices of these remarkable citizens with such gentle clarity and moral kindness, and it adds up - like the individual mirrors of the great star-seeking telescopes - a vision which shows us all how where and why we are now. Your own descriptions of the landscape and cityscape are so beautifully eloquent.
Like you, and I am staggered this book is not published with alacrity, to wide acclaim, as one of the few 'travel' books - along with something like Anna Funder's Stasiland - which are necessary classics. The world must catch UP!-
AWARD WINNING POET NICK DRAKE
Here is a selection of short extracts from some of the stories that feature in the book. To read a full length excerpt, go to Read more
We drove all the way out here from a little town in Louisiana in 1989 with all our stuff in a U-Haul. There was me, my mom, my two older brothers and my sisters. I was seven years old. We were coming in on Lake Mead Boulevard from the north. It was about one or two o’clock in the morning. And suddenly there it was, spread out over the valley below, this giant city, just glowing, sparkling. We were so far above it. Our town had, like, five thousand people. I’d never been in a plane before. I never saw a city from high up like that. It just took my breath away. It still does, more than twenty years later. I still drive up there on weekends. My mom pulled over to the side so we could have a good look at it. We all thought it was just gorgeous. We were mesmerized, without a doubt. “We’ll do good here,” she said. Or something like that. It was a long time ago.
- Louis Harper
I wanted to be one of the people who strode through casinos, the kind executives paid attention to. I wanted to have the right watch, the right car, the right suit. I wanted people to see I had those things and to be subservient to me. Then I’d know what it really felt like. I used to stand in front of Caesar’s watching the tourists from Ohio photographing the glitterati pulling up in their Lotuses. I’d think, “I want to be that guy. I want them to take pictures of me” – and of course not one of the people who cleans their toilets.
- Kenny Baker
I was bored with gymnastics by the time I finished eighth grade. It wasn’t quite performance, at least of the kind I was starting to aspire to. I started to pick things up from these amazing people who came to our house – magicians and sword swallowers and fire eaters. They’d bring their toys over and do tricks. I asked them how it worked and they showed me. I learned to do certain bullwhip tricks with targets I was later able to apply as a prostitute. Above all, I wanted to be an acrobat. I tried juggling, but I didn’t have a passion for it. It didn’t have this immediate, otherworldly grace that I saw when I watched an acrobat.
- Christopher Erle
I came back from college and got an intern job as a craps dealer at the El Cortez. I figured my grandfather and dad had done it. I had no idea how miserable it would be. I went on to being a casino host for high-end players. I was at the Hard Rock, and Caesar’s. That involved getting them in, keeping them there, making them feel good, issuing their complimentaries. In this town how much you gamble dictates who you are – what types of room you get, the seats you get at the prize fights and shows, who acknowledges you and who doesn’t, whether or not you’re introduced to the celebrities in the show rooms. I worked on that for the casino. I also had to deal with their requests for extra credit. You eat a lot of shit with these people. They’re high demand. They’re negotiators by trade and they want to get every inch out of you, just on principle, just for fun. They were people who made it in property, mortgages, things like flooring. They could be New York traders, IPO experts. There were pimps, drug dealers, conmen with years of jail time. But green is green. Vegas isn’t picky. They don’t care how you get it, as long as you lose it.
- Nevada Stupak
My dad had disappeared and now my mom started doing it. She worked swing shift and the graveyard shift in a cashier’s cage in a casino. She’d be out in the bars a lot and hungover when she was home. That left us to our own devices. I was doing the laundry, organizing the housework, paying the paperboy, writing letters to teachers if my sister was sick – all by the time I was eight. She brought men home one after the other. My sister was furious. She’d make all sorts of noise to disturb them, running the vacuum, banging into my mother’s bedroom door. But I was fascinated. I used to sit there on the edge of my seat like it was the most exciting kind of theatre, just waiting to see who would come out.
- Kenny Baker
I was six when they divorced. I was the youngest. From that point on she was out all the time, either at work or with her friends. These were people who were into cocaine and gambling and drinking. There were dishes piled up in the sink for weeks. We’d throw apple cores behind the television. We were in a middle-class neighbourhood and ours was the house with the dirt front yard. We had to wear these hand-me-down clothes to school, which meant we were teased mercilessly through grammar school and junior high. It wasn’t that there wasn’t money coming in. She worked and my dad always sent child support payments. But there was never any food in the house. We’d go days eating peanut butter out of a jar with a spoon. She’d eat in casino restaurants. One day she came back with a bag of leftovers and we were hungry and asked her if we could have some. “No,” she said. “That’s mine.”
- Alesha Beauchamp
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.
- Melinda Medina
Being a young woman in this city sucks. All these images of strippers with manufactured bodies flash down at you from the signs. You’re supposed to be the perfect Vegas party girl, the good luck charm perched up on a stool in a low-cut dress in a casino, a floozy who’ll do whatever she’s asked. You think that’s the way you have to be if you want anyone to hang out with you. Be a bad girl, you’re in Sin City. There wasn’t a single time when I went to the Strip when I was in high school when a guy wouldn’t scream something obscene from a car, or pull over and talk to me like I was a hooker. I’ve been groped. I’ve walked through a casino on my way to the rest room when a guy threw a drink on me. He made this kind of sizzle sizzle noise and said, “You’re hot!” All his friends laughed. It ruined my dress. You become a shut-in.
- Alesha Beauchamp
I got a little stronger then and got a very dull job writing business plans. Something like that just couldn’t work on its own. I missed feeling interesting, to have adventures and something to say every day, like when we were chased out of Albuquerque or I was flying over the stage on hooks. I felt the need to be on stage somewhere crude. I’d worked for a while in a tranny hooker bar over in Commercial Center on Sahara serving cocktails. A waiter I slept with got me the job. He told me I’d have to wear almost nothing. “Even better,” I said. That was a time when there was a lot going on. The cast of “Freaks” used to come in. The staff loved them, especially Little Miss Firefly, the World’s Tiniest Female Performer. People used to slap my ass and grab my balls. I took it a step further and started stripping – one of those staple entertainment industry jobs here in Vegas. I was an immediate hit. I had a shaved head, a strip of coloured hair and this jaded look. I did contortion tricks and had this acrobat/slut/erudite personality. I was way more raunchy than the Ken doll dancers around me. I’d rub my crotch like Madonna in the nineties. There was a Champagne Room for private lap dances. I could dance all over them or else just sit spread-eagled on the couch, touching myself and talking about Fauvist colour theory. There was a certain strain of customer who really got a kick out of that. They felt special because they thought I was special.
- Christopher Erle
It’s difficult to live in a place you can’t stand. It’s normal to get bored. That could happen anywhere. But this is something else. This feels like some disease that’s on your skin. They say, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” But it’s not true. I think it’s going to stay with me forever, wherever I go. I have this friend, she went to Kansas. I may be stuck here at the University of Never Leaving Vegas, but she got away. She writes to me, “Cindi, you wouldn’t believe it. There are humans here! They don’t binge, or at least not much. They smile, they’re nice to you!”
- Cindi Robinson
Gareth Evans has organized a few events in London around the publication of Children of Las Vegas this week. On Friday, 19 June, there is this -
http://burleyfisherbooks.com/event/book-launch-children-of-las-vegas-by-timothy-ogrady/. This is a new bookshop in Dalston. On Sunday, 21 June, there will be a screening of the film "I Could Read the Sky", which is based on another book I did with Steve…
It was a remarkable experience for me to watch week by week as people both known and unknown to me supported the book Children of Las Vegas. It seemed to me above all support for the ten interviewees, who had not previously been heard but would like to be. We are having a drink to them and also to the improbable existence of the book at The Boogaloo in London on 16 June. Many…
These people are helping to fund Children of Las Vegas.