Searching for Treasure in Las Vegas
Salmagundi, Spring/Summer 2000, Nos. 126-127
The State of Nevada has, among other distinctions, the highest suicide rate, by more than fifty percent, of any state in the country. It is, in part, because of the state's other more obvious distinctions that it has this one. But though its largest city, Las Vegas, is a suicide destination for an uncommon number of visitors, even without the drop-in traffic, it loses its own residents far in excess of other placesnotably its East Coast echo, Atlantic City, which has one of the lowest suicide rates in the country. In this respect in every respect, it seems Nevada is a state of extremes, a state, you come to feel, only of extremes, with the surreal city of Las Vegas, of course, at the top of the list.
The state's alarming suicide rate, and his father's suicide eighteen years before, led Nevada's U.S. Senator Harry Reid to get the federal government involved. In 1998, .the Center for Disease Controls last year awarded $1.5 million to the University of Nevada Medical Center, to establish its Suicide Prevention Center, in hopes of learning what causes and what might be done to prevent some of the nation's suicides. Each year, twelve in every 100,000 people kill themselves. In Nevada, it's twenty-seven in 100,000. (An early observation: the population's transient nature, and people having fewer family ties in the West than in other regions of the country, make them especially vulnerable.)
In awarding the money to the Medical Center, the government continues a long, sometimes ignoble tradition of to borrow the title of a classic architecture book Learning from Las Vegas. The irony is that most of us hope there is nothing we will need or want to learn from Las Vegas; that many of the things it offers come naturally to us; and those appetites need instead to be contained, restrained, 12-stepped out of us, if we mean to live productive lives. Restraint is a largely alien concept in this city where you can, should you feel moved to, get your hair cut by a woman in her underwear, at a shop smartly called A Little Off the Top.
Restraint was a largely alien concept when the federal government began learning from Las Vegas, by testing atomic bombs about sixty-five miles north of the city between 1950 and 1996. About a hundred atomic devices were exploded above ground at the Nevada Test Site until the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty went into effect; then the testing, over seven hundred detonations, went underground, until 1996, when President Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban.
During the last fifty years in the skies above the Test Site nestled between Nellis Air Force and Gunnery Range and the top-secret Area 51, a total of about eight thousand square miles - the government has gathered other kinds of information as well. Aficionados claim the B-1 bomber, the U-2 spy plane, the Blackbird, and the F-117 Stealth Fighter were developed and tested there. Without doubt the latest fighter-jets-in-progress routinely loop through the big sky on test flights, sometimes mistaken for UFO's, in this largely deserted state, much of whose land I've heard the figure eighty-six percent is owned by the federal government.
Nevada has been a victim of the government's exploitation in a way no other state has been. It has also quite deliberately created its own smarmy identity by legalizing gambling, in 1931, and prostitution, quickie divorces and quickie marriages in a way no other state has done. After reading David Thomson's brilliant, iconoclastic mash note to the state, In Nevada: The Land, the People, God and Chance, I've come up with my own private simile. Nevada is the homely girl from the wrong side of the tracks who knows the only way to become popular is to let all the boys sleep with her, and so becomes the town whore. The state itself terrain, natural resources, weather was not much of an enticement as a destination to live or to visit, until it became the only place in the country you could easily get married, get divorced, get laid, and maybe even get rich quick. It's easy to become the town whore. It might even happen overnight. But once you are, it's tough to transform yourself into anyone else.
I come to my interest in Nevada accidentally and without the slightest taste for gambling. Two winters ago, I was in my last of four years teaching in Princeton's creative writing program; a teaching job for the following year had just fallen through when a phone call came, inviting me to fill in for a novelist who would be going on sabbatical in the MFA program at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. It was twelve degrees in New York, the phrase "winter in the desert" suddenly had a nice ring to it, I needed a job, had never been to Vegas and it was only for a semester.
Like a lot of people who go there, I went feeling slightly desperate. Like a lot of people who stay beyond a few days, I could not wait to leave.
But now that I'm gone, back in the chilly Northeast in winter, I can't get that monster out of my mind. And neither, it seems, can anyone else.
This is a season busy with love letters that threaten to give Las Vegas an almost starchy respectability. There have been travel pieces, editorials, and op-eds on the opening of hotel-casino complexes modeled on both Paris and Venice, which are presumably there to keep the New York skyline and the Egyptian pyramid company. This month the Four Seasons hotel at Mandalay Bay became the first hotel in town to receive a five-star rating from the American Automobile Association. And the September/October 1999 issue of The International Design Magazine, a snazzy publicaation for graphic and industrial designers, is devoted to celebrating the region's visual splendors, from casino chips and slot machines to the desert homes of Penn Jillette, one-half of Penn and Teller, and the more Liberace-style digs of magicians Siegfried and Roy.
And there is film critic David Thomson's substantial In Nevada history, travelogue, shimmering meditation that all but makes us want to pass the hat for the poor state, or at least send it to a shrink, for all the abuse and neglect it's suffered at the hands of the federal government, starting not when the first atomic bomb went off, but in 1861, when Lincoln angled to make this wild west mining country a territory and then a state, with Congressional representation, despite its population of only 15,000. Lincoln needed taxes from the mines to finance the Civil War and votes against slavery in Congress. (Curiously, Thomson is so wedded to this idea of Nevada-as-victim-of-the-federal-government that he seems to view Lincoln's efforts to make it officially part of the Union as the ur-infringement on Nevada's "freedom" instead of as a practical, even essential gesture in the fight against slavery.)
Author and subject here are an ideal match: the bold, eccentric state of Nevada and the bold, eccentric Thomson, a Brit who lives in San Francisco and has written sixteen books about or inspired by the movies. They include the essential and idiosyncratic Biographical Dictionary of Film, biographies of Orson Wells, Warren Beatty, and David O. Selznick, as well as a sort of novel, Suspects, which invents the lives of a hundred film noir characters before and after the movies in which they ordinarily reside.
If there seems an incongruity in a sophisticated film critic becoming infatuated with, maybe even falling in love with, the state of Nevada, I'd argue that the connection makes a lot of sense. Both Hollywood movies and Nevada are fueled by big, brash dreams, stories with a lot of plot, sudden reversals, extreme emotions, and extreme gestures that when we make them in our own lives make us feel that our lives are "like a movie": getting married, getting divorced, hitting the jackpot, pawning the car at 3 am, committing suicide.
In Nevada is lushly written, elegiac when Thomson writes about the allure of the desert or about nuclear nightmares that never end ("Fallout is like music or the word of God: It goes everywhere."), and appropriately insouciant and slightly defensive when he turns his lens to today's Las Vegas. It's a place whose excesses and intentions offend so many people that everyone who even sort of likes it and is sharp-witted enough to be paid to write about it is bound to feel he has to explain himself, or else risk our thinking that he is as culturally oblivious as many of the thirty million tourists who visited Southern Nevada in 1999.
Las Vegas resembles the other great Nevadan theme park up the roadthe Test Sitewhere the world may have been saved, yet tainted at the same time.... And I felt about the movies as I do about Las Vegas, that while we might have been better off without them entirely, how can you take your eyes away from the sight? Las Vegas teaches us the very startling lesson that Hell and Heaven may be the same place....
This is a state or at least a city that inspires more ridicule than tears, more bad jokes than empathy, and more curiosity and extreme feelings than any one place I can think of. Mentioning Las Vegas is a little like shouting "Monica Lewinsky" in a crowded theater: everyone will have an opinion, even if it's contempt and people's opinions will surprise you. From a distance Las Vegas is easy to dismiss, and living there it is easy to loathe, as much because of the pounding presence of gambling as the traffic, the undrinkable tap water, and a distinct feeling that nearly everyone there suffers from chronic low-grade clinical depression, except for those whose afflictions are more serious. But as it tries to become more like the rest of the country (designer shops and chic restaurants cheek-by-jowl with casinos), and the rest of the country becomes more like it (ubiquitous gambling, stock market as giant casino, internet prostitution procurement), it might be worthwhile, or at least amusing, to contemplate dispassionately for a few minutes. (Sustained dispassion about Las Vegas isn't possible; the place is too over-determined for that.) I won't inflict on you the obvious lessons you might already know from Las Vegas that radiation kills and that loneliness, transience, and addictions do too - but only the ones you might acquire if you had the peculiar fortune, as I did, to live and teach there for five months.
In addition to a graduate workshop in fiction writing, I taught an undergraduate literature lecture of my own design, which I loosely called Addiction Fiction, though it also included a few memoirs. A woman in the front row in pink overalls who always had a lot to say captured my interest. When I asked the class to think about why we are so drawn to the confession genre, she said brightly, "It's much more respectable to read a book than watch a movie. For instance, my boyfriend was watching porn movies the other day while I was reading Linda Lovelace's autobiography." Here she paused and mimed reading a book, avidly scanning imaginary pages. "It was like, 'hmmm'" another pause, in which she seemed to be vacuuming up words and concepts from many pages, with recognition striking suddenly"dogs!"
The following week we read Dostoyevski's The Gambler. For fifteen minutes, we talked about character, destiny and when the students thought Alexi knew he would succumb to the temptations of gambling and destroy himself. Then the woman in pink raised her hand and said, "I work the graveyard shift as a cocktail waitress in a dive on the Strip that's so dumb it's named after another gambling town. I have to laugh when guys say, 'Wow! The drinks are free!' Like, no, dude, the drinks are not free. I saw medics wheel in a woman with a tracheotomy. She sat at a slot machine for eight hours. Another guy spent sixteen straight hours playing blackjack, knocking back gin and tonic. They had to carry him out."
As she left that day, she mentioned to me the Mardi Gras festivities coming up and said she intended to dress up and celebrate the beginning of Lent even though she is Jewish. I double-checked the class list after she left, wondering if I had her name right. Treasure Barnes is Jewish? Another Las Vegas anomaly, like the billboard on the Strip that advertises vasectomy reversal call 713-REVERSE. (At the other end of the Strip is a billboard much more in keeping with the spirit of Las Vegas: WHO'S THE FATHER? 1-800-DNA-TYPE.) For a moment, the latent Jewish mother in me shuddered for Treasure, which I decided had to be a stage name. A nice Jewish girl who serves drinks all night in a casino, reads Linda Lovelace and calls herself Treasure! It seemed a little de trop, even for Las Vegas.
I didn't think anything of it when she missed class the next week, but when she was absent a second week, I phoned the number on the class print-out from the registrar. Given my stereotypes about Las Vegas casino life and this latent Jewish mother thing I was concerned something had happened to her. An older woman answered and said she did not know where Treasure could be reached.
I rarely went to the Strip. It was many miles from where I lived; cars moved at a snail's pace, when they moved at all; and I'd already made my obligatory strolls through New York New York and the MGM Grand. But there was a morning I couldn't sleep. I left my apartment just as the sun began to bleed light across the city, and the car moved in the direction of the Strip, which was empty and weirdly, crazily, boldly alluring. It is the lights and flashing brash billboard images of Times Square running horizontally for six miles. There are a few pauses where the manic street seems to take a breath and you see a nest of crummy stucco buildings and one-story joints, Subway, McDonald's, Souvenirs, Las Vegas Helicopter Tours. On a mini-marquee outside a motel: ROOMS BY THE HOUR. Much further down, close to the MGM, is a one-story store-front casino that looks taller because it's topped with a huge clown, a fake, small-scale roller coaster, and a big sign that says BOARDWALK. I realized that this was where Treasure must workthe casino named for another gambling town, though she must have known that Atlantic City got the idea for itself from Las Vegas, not the other way around.
I scanned the casino floor looking for her. Compared to the ritzy, cruise-ship glitz of the big hotels, this place was modest. A single room smaller than a high school gym, with only a ten or twelve-foot ceiling, the floor crammed with slots and gaming tables, and natural light from the store-front-style windows. The fancy places, whose casinos are deep inside their buildings, impervious to the elements, try to trick you into thinking time does not exist. The Boardwalk, with its nickel slots and twenty-five cent blackjack tables, doesn't even try. At the bar I nonchalantly asked a sallow-skinned young man with his hand on the seltzer spritzer if Treasure was around. "She just left," he said. It was six-thirty in the morning.
I mentioned her bright presence and continuing absence to the chairman of the English Department. A lot of UNLV students have to drop courses because they work full-time, he said. In this twenty-four hour town, their schedules can change abruptly.
In City Life, Witold Rybczynski makes no mention of Las Vegas, though his quotation from Vincent Scully on appetites that twentieth century Americans share with the Plains Indians brings Vegas very much to mind: "... a sense of open horizons, an impatience with communal restraints, an instinct for the continuation throughout life of childish joys, a taste for violence, hard use, quick turnover, lonely fantasies, eternal change."
Las Vegas has these qualities in abundance, but it lacks so many others that, like a meal made up only of sugar and fat, it leaves us feeling hungry, malnourished.
THE ABSENCE OF POETRY
Months after returning from Nevada, I linger at the tables of books, probably stolen, outside Zabar's and this title leaps out at me: The Emerald City of Las Vegas, poems by Diane Wakoski. When I won the school poetry competition in twelfth grade, the prize was a copy of her book, Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, which had on the front cover a picture of her and a motorcycle. Might she have driven it to Las Vegas?
I take all of my Las Vegas books to a secluded, hundred-year-old house that a friend has lent for the month on Martha's Vineyard. This is an island where billboards, electric signs, and even hand-painted wooden road signs much wider than eighteen inches are prohibited; where small is beautiful, earnestness is everywhere in evidence, and many people still keep appointments, as Thoreau did, with beech trees and yellow birches.
I keep my appointment with Wakoski: her Las Vegas poems concern usual poetry themes, art, longing and loss, but instead of comparing her love to a summer's day or a starry night, she summons casinos and slot machines (which, unlike "the men who left me" are nice to you "while you are losing... so willing to keep taking my/love.") She writes about reading Henry James once while paying Keno and, after a lifetime of looking in more appropriate places, of hearing Beethoven's music in the "thunk thunk thunk/of silver dollars" as they fell into the slot machine tubs at the MGM Grand.
This sets me to wondering if Las Vegas has made appearances in anyone else's poetry. When no one comes to mind, I email my former graduate writing students at UNLV and a few serious poet friends. I phone Diane Wakoski. Everyone draws a blank. I look through an immense new collection called The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry , which suggests that when American poets want to be rebellious, they permit themselves to be inspired by 1) San Francisco 2) the Bowery 3) Mexico 4) Jack Kerouac 5) Whitman 6) Rimbaud 7)Van Gogh 8) drug addiction. Even William Burroughs, three of whose poems are included here and who went once to heroin rehab in tandem with his addict son not to mention accidentally shooting his wife to death did not, from the available evidence, sink as low as scribbling a few lines about Las Vegas.
For such a bright, shiny, deeply unusual place, you'd think it would have gotten the attention of a poet or two driving across the country.
This absence leads me to thinking about genre and Las Vegas; about why it is such a rich setting for so many good movies (Casino, Desert Bloom, Hard Eight, Leaving Las Vegas, The Gambler, California Split), and such an unpopular, limited setting for poetry and fiction. There are some genre novels, the predictable gambling/theft/murder police stuff, but only occasional appearances in more serious novels. They include Joan Didion's Play it as it Lays, Edward Allen's Mustang Sally, where it is used to rail against political correctness in the academy, and Joyce Carol Oates' recent Broke Heart Blues: A Novel, where it has a small role as the place the protagonist left to move to Buffalo, where the action of the book takes place. It is also the setting in a lovely short story, "Eternal Love," by Karen Bender, reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 1997, about a husband and wife in their sixties who take their grown retarded daughter to Las Vegas to be married in the Chapel of Eternal Love, and learn in the process something about their own tarnished love. When Las Vegas appears in fiction, counterpoint is often the point.
When I turn to another book in my pile, a quite dazzling anthology of essays, magazine pieces, and non-fiction book excerpts, Literary Las Vegas: The Best Writing About America's Most Fabulous City, several other truths about Las Vegas-as-material begin to emerge.
It may be one of the few places on the globe that inherently inspires better journalism than fiction. Why? To begin with, the truth about Las Vegas even just a recitation of the basic facts is richer, crazier, more extreme, in general more unbelievable than anything a writer could invent. (A local controversy while I lived there was whether developer Bob Stupak, who named his son Nevada, would convince the city council to let him build a thousand-room Titanic theme hotel with an adjacent iceberg-shaped shopping center. In a rare display of municipal restraint, the city has said noso far.)
Literary Las Vegas is a royal flush: Joan Didion on wedding chapels; A.J. Leibling on the value of subscribing to the Las Vegas Sun while living in New York; Michael Herr on FDR, Bugsy and JFK in Las Vegas; Susan Berman, who wrote a memoir about growing up Jewish in Las Vegas in the 1950s with her gangster father; Noel Coward, who kept a diary during his three-week gig at the Desert Inn in 1955: "On Friday I was driven out into the Nevada desert, where I was photographed for Life magazine sipping a cup of tea. The temperature was 118 degrees." But it's Tom Wolfe's 1965 essay "Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can't hear you! Too noisy) Las Vegas!!!!" that conveys the noise, rhythms, manic energy and creative juice of the place, and Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, of which a tiny excerpt appears here, that reminds us there is one individual on the planet as insane as the city itself.
The facts about Las Vegas are so weirdly riveting that it's really not necessary to populate the place with fictional characters to hold our attention. The city, you might say, is its own most interesting character. If we are drawn to admire Paris for its beauty, Venice for its history and fragility, and New York for its steely nerves and ambition, Las Vegas, which just elected a notorious mob lawyer as mayor, offers itself as a high-functioning lunatic whom everyone takes a crack at understanding, explaining, condemning, and/or apologizing for. In Swann's Way, Proust describes the phenomenon of people becoming obsessed with the most annoying person in the room, instead of the kindest; Las Vegas, case in point.
Art critic Dave Hickey spends, I think, a good bit of his time defending Las Vegas against this kind of snotty intellectual attack. One of the highlights of my semester there was a three-hour-long cup of coffee with the gregarious Mr. Hickey, who teaches art criticism and theory at UNLV. Surely there is no one as smart who loves living there so much; and no one who loves living there as much who is as smart. (I must have been the millionth person to ask him why he's there. "Because I like to gamble, stay up late, and smoke indoors.") Over coffee, he offered another reason why there is so little good fiction set there (for him, Larry McMurtry's Desert Rose is an exception). It's a place where everything is permitted, he explained, and everyone's equal, unlike England, with its history of rigid classes, exclusionary opportunity, and thwarted desire. All of which have led to the sagging shelves of wonderful English novels, to Sterne and Dickens no less than to Ishiguro.
Literature, we sometimes forget, is about yearning, yearning to be someone else (Stephen Dedalus) or to be somewhere else (Odysseus) or to acquire knowledge upon which a great deal depends (Hamlet). In real life, people in Las Vegas feel and yearn and hurt as much as people everywhere. But the place it occupies in our consciousness is so over-determined, so driven by a single theme, so firmly incrusted as an idea, and the idea is both frivolous and depraved gambling, tawdry sex, and now, God help us, shopping that it overwhelms and hence trivializes whatever yearning a fictional character might have.
Movies are another story. Movies are about setting, spectacle, a ticking clock, conspiracies, secrets, surprises, reversals, people you didn't expect showing up at the door with a gun. Movies are about yearning too, but we're more inclined to be sympathetic even if all the character wants is to rob a bank, knock off his competition in the mob, or romance a pretty girl. Simple stories work well in the movies, and Las Vegas is full of those.
THE DEMOCRACY OF LUCK
It is different from other cities not because there are places where you can pawn both Beanie Babies and cement trucks. It is different because there is a single narrative that, despite the Disneyfication and the designer shopping and Steve Wynn's art collection, is hard-wired into the place. When you tell people you lived in Las Vegas or even drove through Las Vegas the two things everyone asks are "Did you gamble?" and "Did you win?" (Invariably the answers are "yes" and "no.") No one really cares if you saw the Marvelettes or Andrew Dice Clay or Julio Iglesias, or bought a mini skirt at Karl Lagerfeld, or if an exotic dancer came to your hotel room. Those aren't about luck or odds or the possibility of winning big. Those are just shopping; you get, more or less, what you pay for. But when you gamble, your quarter might turn into a thousand quarters just like that. You might get something, a whole lot of something, for almost nothing. Simply standing at a craps table or before a slot machine and playing opens up the possibility of being transformed, becoming, you think, someone else. Someone you are not in Cleveland or in Flagstaff. Someone with money. Someone with money to throw away. Someone who's lucky. Someone who wins. Someone who doesn't care if he loses.
In his collection of essays, Air Guitar, Dave Hickey writes beautifully about the democracy of luck, about sitting down to play video poker at the airport on his return to town after being a judge on a panel for the National Endowment of the Arts:
In the reality of that chance, Vegas livesin those
fluttery moments of faint but rising hope, in the
possibility of wonder, in the swell of desire while the
dice are still bouncing, just before the card flips
face-up. And win or lose, you always have that instant of genuine, justifiable hope. It is always there. Even
though we know the rules governing random events are
always overtaken by the law of large numbers, there is
always the window of opportunity, that statistical
crazy zone, before this happens, when anything can
happen.... So right there at the airport, I could make
a little wager, and there was a real chance that luck
and foolish courage might, just for the moment, just
for a couple of bucks, override the quagmire of status
and virtue in which we daily languish.
In fact, I hit the jackpot.
There must have been another morning I couldn't sleep and I drove again to the Strip and went again to the Boardwalk and asked for Treasure. I was there out of curiosity, because she had sat in my classroom enough weeks for me to see that she was bright, and the two or three things I knew about her made me want to know more. The only other Las Vegas character I had gotten to know was a family friend of a friend, a man in his late seventies who had worked as a backstage wardrobe manager for dozens of celebrities and peppered his talk with stories about Frank and Sammy and Liza, just as the walls of his house were covered with autographed photos of himself with the stars. Treasure would be a visit to another corner of the city. But I had come too late again that morning. She would be gone until tomorrow.
At the end of May, two days before I was to leave Las Vegas, I still hadn't returned to the Boardwalk. I was racing around town doing errands when I realized that if I didn't look for her that day, I wouldn't have another chance.
I was in a good mood as I scanned the casino floor. The temperature was ninety degrees. I had been swimming outdoors every day for the last month. I had had visitors from out of town, gone with friends to Death Valley, and would be leaving for New York in forty-eight hours. There were three or four cocktail waitresses crossing the floor or hovering by one of the bars. None looked like Treasure, though I had never seen her in uniform: a low-cut purple and deep pink petaly confection not much bigger than a bathing suit but with a bit of skirt; you were meant, I think, to think of a court jester or the jack of hearts. I approached the one who looked most like herlong, dark hair, bangs, high cheek bones, big smile, an appealing strength and openness to her face.
"I'm looking for Treasure."
We stood talking by a row of empty barstools, easily picking up a conversation that had been interrupted several months before. I said I'd liked having her in the class so much, I wondered what had happened to her.
"They didn't tell you? I got offered a full-time, day job here, instead of the graveyard, and I had to rearrange my courses. They were supposed to tell you."
"I called the number I had for you, but the woman who answered said she didn't know where you were."
"That was my grandmother. I keep giving the school my new number but they never put it on the right lists. I didn't want to drop your course, but I really needed the job. I've been in college for seven years. I started when I was eighteen. But it's hard, you know, because I'm on my own, I'm an orphan, so it's taken a long time. But I'm so excited now because I'm going to Paris!"
"Fabulous. When? For how long?"
"Not that Paris. I mean, the fake Paris, across the street. I just got a job as a cocktail waitress there. I've never been east of Wyoming!"
When I asked what her major was, I brought forth her academic disappointments (that UNLV has so few philosophy courses, she has had to major in English); her ambitions (to teach high school English); and writing credits, which she mentioned shyly to me. She had written the scripts for two porn movies. She offered to send me videos of her movies, if I was interested. "Of course!" I chirped, always eager to encourage literary activity. And Treasure was hard to resist, this mix of girlish enthusiasm, naivite, small town street smarts, and what seemed like an ease with her shapely woman's body; she was well used to displaying it in her scanty uniform, no doubt accustomed to the attention and unpleasantness that came with that.
When I asked if I was keeping her from work, she said, "I'm just about to start to my break. Let's go outside." She took me through a door that led to the Boardwalk's parking lot. Against the side of the building was a cement ramp with two or three park benches on it. "I have to sit there during my break." I supposed that was so the staff wouldn't be tempted to runoff and do the things people can do so easily in Las Vegas.
"What happened to your parents?" I asked.
"My father died before I was born. My mother died when I was six."
When she saw me wince she must have had a lifetime of watching others wince when she said this she said brightly, "Really, I'm okay."
Her mother, Debby Shapiro, had been a high school senior in Las Vegas, in love with and pregnant by an eighteen-year-old, Galen Barnes, who was "WASP, Irish and German." Twenty-six years ago the townsfolk were scandalized; there is a heavy Mormon flavor in Las Vegas, a counterweight to all the permissiveness. But everything changed when Galen died in a fire. Treasure's mother was so distraught that she turned, with Treasure in utero, to heroin. She named the baby Treasure "my parents both liked the name, and there was a Mme Tresor who was a spy in the French Resistance" and then gave her to Galen's parents to raise. Debby became a full-blown heroin addict. Though Treasure lived with her mother on and off, mostly up north in Sparks "where it's all pig farms and whorehouses" her grandparents legally adopted her when she was three. She was with them in Las Vegas when her mother died.
Her life was altered dramatically again at sixteen when her grandfather died. Bad investments pushed her and her grandmother into poverty; they ended up in a trailer. In her last year of high school, Treasure worked full-time, until ten at night, in a child care center.
"When I turned eighteen, I was hungry," she told me. "I mean, literally hungry. I got a job as a stripper. A lot of girls do that here, because you can't serve liquor until you're twenty-one, which means you can't even waitress at Denny's. Eighteen-year-old guys get construction jobs for twenty-three dollars an hour. Girls can't legally do anything that pays well except strip. My first night stripping I made two hundred dollars. My second night I made a thousand. I did it for three years, but I quit because I was really starting to hate men, and I don't hate men. Now I just hate drunken gamblers."
Out there along the ramp overlooking the parking lot, Treasure told me her personal ambitions (to marry and have three children); her politics ("I was a socialist seven years ago, but now I'm a complete libertarian; government, stay away from me!") and about a terrific course she had audited at UNLV. It was taught by a lawyer in town, Alan Lichtenstein, and intended to explore legal issues around obscenity. "I'm very interested in the first amendment," she said, "and I thought everyone else in the class would be too. Hah! Ten percent of the students cared about free speech. Forty percent were totally anti-obscenity: 'Give us our guns, but not our speech!' And half were sports-types."
At the end of her break, Treasure walked me to my car and we exchanged addresses. I said I was sorry I hadn't found her earlier; I had come several times before. She said her co-workers had mentioned me. "They said you looked like you might be a relative, but I said that couldn't be, because I don't have any relatives." I know I winced again, but this time I hid it better. (As far as any resemblance, we both have long brown hair; I suppose that's enough to link us.) She smiled, wished me well in New York, and I wished her well in Paris. I made my way out onto the Strip and found a place for myself in the thick afternoon traffic. I was heading west toward the freeway, back to my apartment to pack, though now I was sorry I had to leave so soon.
David Thomson, In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance, Knopf, New York November 1999.
David Thomson, The Biographical Dictionary of Film, Knopf, New York, 1994.
David Thomson, Suspects, Knopf, New York, 1985.
Diane Wakoski, The Emerald City of Las Vegas, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa, 1995.
Alan Kaufman, ed., The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1999.
Joan Didion, Play it As it Lays, New York, Noonday reprint, 1990.
Edward Allen, Mustang Sally, W.W. Norton, reprint, 1994.
Joyce Carol Oates, Broke Heart Blues: A Novel, New York, Dutton, 1999.
Mike Tronnes, ed., Literary Las Vegas: The Best Writing About America's Most Fabulous City, Henry Holt paperback, New York, 1995.
Hunter Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Vintage Reprint, 1998.
Dave Hickey, Air Guitar, Art issues.Press, Los Angeles, 1997.