Nearly all of us in Las Vegas came here from somewhere else. I can count the true natives I know in our city on my fingers and toes. Two of them are my son and daughter.
My kids didn’t have a choice about living in Las Vegas. The place of their birth was merely the hand that fate dealt them, and thus they don’t yet have a full appreciation of how weird and wonderful our city is in the context of all cities in the world.
I, on the other hand, chose to live in Las Vegas precisely because of its weirdness and its wonderfulness. I had been here just twice before, for brief bouts of overindulgence and ribald frivolity, when I found my packed-to-the-windows Ford Granada headed in this direction in the mid-1970s.
There was something in me that yearned for a sabbatical of irresponsibility following college and graduate school and a highly disciplined newspaper job, where promotions were meted out on the basis of seniority only and I was the youngest buck on a staff of 70 reporters.
At the time of my arrival I was 25, single, virtually broke, carefree, and determined to take a year off before I accepted any further responsibilities or made any more important decisions about what the hell I was supposed to do with the rest of my life. Mark Zuckerberg had already launched Facebook by that age, so I guess you could say I was slightly behind the curve.
While we’ve all seen our share of desperados in Las Vegas who were running from the law, I was merely running fast and far from the creeping dread that if I stayed in my hometown past the age of 30 my anchor would be set for life. Up there I would attend weekly dinner parties where folks with remarkably similar backgrounds would settle on a topic they all could agree upon and spend the evening nodding amicably.
Early in my time here I was invited to an afternoon barbecue at the home of a man I’d recently met. Among the guests were a doctor, an attorney, a juggler working in a variety show on the Strip, a hooker and a bail bondsman who was her date, a landscaper, and a certified public accountant. They were all interesting conversationalists, and the range of discussions was wild. None of them had been in Las Vegas more than 10 years, and they all seemed as interested in me as I was in them. It was reassuring to meet such an eclectic assortment of folks who had settled in an emerging city that had often been stereotyped as one-dimensional.
I had a suitcase full of education when I arrived, but no real clue about how to apply it to the real world. At least two of the books I’d read from writers I admired suggested that Vegas was a good place to go when a body felt aimless and uncertain. In “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Hunter S. Thompson had come here to cover the Mint 400 off-road race and ingest as much weed, cocaine, uppers, and downers as he could buy or steal. And in “Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season,” John Gregory Dunne had spent a summer of discontent here because he felt the walls closing in and rather than willfully punch his ticket to the next life, he opted instead to hole up in a fleabag near the Sahara Hotel and explore the underbelly of the city.
If Las Vegas could inspire the quality of prose found in those two books under such meager pretenses, then maybe I could find my voice as a writer out here in the hardscrabble wasteland.
Whenever anyone asked me back then why I had come to Las Vegas I drew a blank. My feeble rejoinder would go something akin to, “It sounded like a good idea,” or “I’m just passing through.”
That is how I felt for the first several months. I had absolutely no good reason to be here, but no reason to leave. Some might call this condition “clueless,” and I couldn’t argue with that. But it seemed that every day I stuck it out I would hear another interesting story from a kindred lonely heart who came here without any preconceptions and made a go of it.
These tales would cause an invisible muse to whisper in my ear: “Don’t leave. There’s incredible energy here. There’s a valid reason this unlikely burg popped up in the middle of nowhere, founded by thugs running from the law, yet continuing to grow like kudzu on the walls of a haunted Southern plantation.”
About once a week I would talk to my mother on the phone, and she would invariably ask, “So when are you coming home? There’s no future for you in Las Vegas. I’m sure they’ll take you back at the newspaper.”
“Yeah, I suppose they would,” I’d reply, with all the enthusiasm of a man signing bankruptcy documents.
As I floundered through the first weeks and months, only transient elements kept me from bolting: a pretty girl who agreed to a second date, a promise of a tee time three days hence in a foursome of ripe pigeons with fast backswings and fat wallets, a Strip show on the following Friday with a promise of comped tickets.
I would write up the better stories I heard and send them off to regional and national magazines, hoping to dip a toe in the waters of freelance journalism. But I had neither an agent nor any real clue how the writing game was played, and on those times when I was fortunate enough to get an editor on the phone to listen to a story pitch, I had so much anxiety dripping from my voice that he or she could smell the desperation 3,000 miles away.
While dentists such as my late father worked with porcelain and Novocain, tangible products requiring manual dexterity and the knowledge of how best to use them, the only equipment I bring to this trade are the stories I hear along the journey and a keyboard to peck them on. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have driven my stake in the ground in a place that has more wild and wonderful stories than anyplace else.
Although there are still times I tell myself I’m just passing through Las Vegas, the truth is they’re going to have to steer one of those forklifts off the Strip and into my quiet little neighborhood to transplant me anywhere else.
After all these years, I still haven’t found a good enough reason to leave.