A tanned and toned man follows through on his golf swing on a manicured course. A woman laughs with friends in a bingo parlor as the winning number is drawn. A couple holds hands on a park bench in Summerlin, the planned community in the foothills of the Spring Mountains.
When you think about retirees in Las Vegas — the jewel of the Mojave Desert and home of the $5.99 buffet — idyllic images like these may come to mind.
But try to process these images:
A pale and flaccid man living in an underground flood channel washes his tattered clothes in the runoff. A sad-faced woman reads a romance novel on the bed of a $99-a-week motel — the only "home" she can afford. A couple stands stone-faced outside their crumbling double-wide after being told, in a form letter, that the trailer park they've lived in for 15 years is closing; a developer bought the land and is going to build a high-rise condo on it, and they have six months to "vacate the premises."
Those are some of the images I saw while researching my books.
Notes from Vegas underground
For Beneath the Neon, I strapped on my boots, grabbed a flashlight and an expandable baton (the kind carried by cops) and explored the city's underground flood channels. I figured I'd find some ironic debris — playing cards, casino chips, handbills — and, if lucky, poignant graffiti. I did not expect to find hundreds of people — many of them older than 50 — living in the tunnels, which can fill a foot per minute in a flash flood. Since 1982, more than 20 people have died in floods in Las Vegas.
"Me and my wife own a Freightliner truck," said Mike, a Vietnam vet who lived in a drain with a view of the iconic Strip. "Well, I pissed her off just before I went into a casino to use the bathroom. We were getting ready to leave town, and she just drove away. I came out of the casino, and my blanket and pillow were lying on the ground.
"I had an apartment, but I ran out of money last month. Now I got to get my wife to love me again. Every time I call her, she hangs up on me. I moved into this tunnel, because I didn't have anywhere else to go."
The tunnel is 15 feet wide and 4 feet high. A couch, accompanied by a mismatched ottoman, sits against one wall, and a plastic cooler serves as a coffee table. A trail of ants weaves in and out of the camp, disappearing into the blinding light created by the sun and the glass-and-steel gambling cathedrals.
Reclining on the couch, Mike, balding and missing his front teeth, tells me he served three years in Vietnam.
"It ain't John Wayne," he said. "It ain't like the movies. It's different, much different. There ain't no heroes — except the dead, I guess — and anybody who tells you they weren't scared is lying their ass off. I pissed in my pants more than once. I'll be the first to admit it. … It's survive or die. You just do it."
Mike pointed at a lump next to his navel and said he needs hernia surgery. But when he went to the hospital, a receptionist told him there weren't any beds available for people who don't have health insurance.
On Sept. 21, 2005 — a year after our conversation — Mike died in a ditch along the railroad tracks. According to the coroner's report, the cause of death was a gastrointestinal hemorrhage. He was 55 years old.
Underbelly of the beast
For the title story of My Week at the Blue Angel, I stuffed some clothes into a duffel bag and my laptop into a work bag and made my way to one of the seedier, more poetic motels in Sin City. En route to the motel, the cabbie, when told I was going there to search for stories, said I should visit a retirement home instead.
"People that have been here 30 or 40 years, they have so many stories," he reasoned. "They know everything."
He didn't realize the Blue Angel Motel is a retirement home of sorts. During my stay at the motel, which provides towels, toilet paper and little else, I discovered that many of the tenants — no one even pretends to call them guests — are older people.
"Lots of retired people live here," said Steve, a 61-year-old Vietnam vet and part-time sign painter who'd lived at the motel for six months. "People on the go. People that don't know where they're going or what they're doing. People trying to get somewhere in life. People looking for work, donating blood to survive."
Steve is 6 foot 3 and has a paunch. He was wearing a military baseball cap, a collared shirt, jeans and black Velcro sneakers. Removing the cap, revealing matted hair that was brown on top and gray on the sides, he wiped his brow and adjusted his prescription glasses.
"It's sort of like Peyton Place," he continued. "Things happen here that you don't hear about and things you do hear about you're not sure really happened. I wouldn't recommend it to anybody, but it's better than being on the streets."
Steve and his poodle Dot moved to Las Vegas from Yuma, Ariz., in November 2008. Living off a $985-a-month military pension from his service in the Navy and desperate for a place to stay, he was drawn to the Blue Angel by the 10-foot-tall sculpture hovering over the motel: an angel with yellow hair, red lips and white skin, wearing a light-blue evening gown that bunched at her feet, waving a five-pointed wand.
"I saw the angel up there and said, 'Well, I guess God wants me to stay here,' " said Steve, sitting at the table of Room 133 and petting Dot. "They say that angels are watching over you; I figured that's the angel watching over me."
He opened the bottom drawer of the nightstand and removed a list of doctor's appointments, including 11 in the next three months. Then he reached behind his chair and opened an art supply box full of medicine: an inhaler for emphysema, eyedrops for glaucoma, blood thinners for clots, morphine for pain and Xanax "to try to make me forget the war."
"When I came here, I was looking for a place to die and didn't even know it. So yeah, the angel's watched over me."
However, Steve said he didn't plan on staying at the motel much longer. He wanted to get healthy, then leave town.
"The Blue Angel was a stepping-stone in the direction I wanted to go in, but I won't miss it. The only thing I'll miss is the angel," he says. "But God will have one watching over me wherever I go."
Shine a light
One of the reasons I wrote Beneath the Neon and My Week at the Blue Angel was to call attention to how desperately and precariously some Las Vegas residents live, hoping to get them help. But why wait for a politician or bureaucrat to come up with solutions? In the spring of 2009, I reached out to HELP of Southern Nevada, a charity organization that works with the homeless. I know the drains and the people in them, I said. You all have the resources and know-how. Maybe we can work together?
A few weeks later, I began escorting their social workers into the tunnels, and Shine a Light — a community project that provides housing, drug counseling and other services to the people of the underworld — was born.
In a year and a half, HELP of Southern Nevada has placed more than 50 people from the tunnels into housing and "helped them help themselves." It's a beautiful thing to see: my silhouetted friends emerging from the darkness, getting clean, giving up their hustle, putting on healthy weight and looking for work.
But there are so many other people, of all ages, out there living in the storm drains, weekly motels and trailer parks of Las Vegas. So many other people still cowering in the neon shadows.
Matthew O'Brien is the author of Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas and My Week at the Blue Angel and Other Stories From the Storm Drains, Strip Clubs, and Trailer Parks of Las Vegas. He has lived in Las Vegas since 1997. For more information about his community project, visit www.beneaththeneon.com.