Beyond the sin and glitter: For some, Vegas is about growing up, not growing big

From: Masters Thesis and published in The Easy Reader, 2006

by Carly Mayberry

Driving with my niece, I glance over at her in the passenger seat, her head and small frame bopping to the song’s beat as her lips move to every syllable. She knows every word by heart but it’s her solitary stare I recognize. We pass sidewalks, streetlights, signs advertising the latest family planned community and the next candidate for mayor and assemblyman.

Remnants of road construction litter the streets as the dust of tractors and backhoes warn us it’s in our wake. And yet even now, after years of building and an influx of a million and a half people to the valley, there still remain beige and brown patches of earth left alone for a cactus to inhabit or a tumbleweed to find relief from its vagabond existence.

It was the tumbleweeds, adorned with litter swept up by the desert wind – the occasional one escaping back to freedom, missing its turn as it danced in to the middle of the road – that brought the memory back as instantly as my niece’s anticipation of the song’s next rhythm.

I had not remembered the air this way – as dry as the atmosphere bright – my eyelids could barely pry open a half-squinted glance as I emerged from our Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser. Out of the various station wagons we had as a kid, I remember that one the best – its tapioca exterior contrasted by the brown strip running horizontally down its mid-section from bumper to headlight resembling ‘60s wall paneling. This “ranch-style” wagon was typical of the time.

It had just carried us all the way from the mossy tree-laden lushness of our home for the last three years in northern California back to my roots of cacti and bright lights – if you can have such a history at nine years of age.

But my anticipation of this new landscape evaporated more instantly than the sweat and stickiness on my legs and chubby backside from the hours sitting on the brown vinyl seats.

It was not what I remembered.

Why were we moving back?

We had moved to California to be closer to my grandparents, but the real reason was my father’s desire to escape the gambling business. From ‘floor man’ to ‘casino manager,’ his job titles were as numerous as the casinos he had worked in. But this was the hay day of mob corruption and casino skimming and it was getting too close to home. What was his desire for more fulfilling work was overcome by the lure back to a well-paid job and a comforting familiarity with slot machines and casino chips – that and the ventures in California not as golden as anticipated.

My need to take in my new environment hadn’t a chance as my bare feet were scorched with each step I took on the paved sidewalk. I was participating in a sort of tribal dance with the cement as my feet played hopscotch with the ground – not by choice but from sheer pain from the sweltering surface.

Funny – even the barrenness of the desert hadn’t hinted of the extreme Vegas heat. Perhaps it was my sheltered viewpoint from the back seat of the car. But the blurriness rising off the center yellow line and gray of the highway’s blacktop reminded me of the same siphoning air I’d seen funneling above the hot coals of a summer barbecue. It was an optical illusion, I reasoned, one produced by the car’s glass windshield. Even so, I had no time, nor nagging desire, to figure out its secret. To look further in the distance was to see fractions of the world to come. Oncoming billboards with faces on them seemed huge and important.  Wayne Newton at the Aladdin … Ann-Margret at the Hilton … Sammy Davis Jr. …

Some billboards counted down the miles left – others reminded visitors to stay at Circus Circus. That’s what I remember of Las Vegas then – but my eyes were young and I saw things simply.

I saw things like the revolving shoe high atop the Silver Slipper Hotel; it’s lot in life to signal the exoticism and Wild West world beyond its front doors. But to me, its high heel and sleek line covered in pink flashing bulbs was right out of Cinderella.

I saw the Landmark Hotel, its design like a rocket, its trunk full of rooms piled one atop the other like the steps of a ladder while its pointed top looked ready for take-off.

I remember the days I spent wrapped up by the cool fluidity of our backyard swimming pool – its comfort as desired and necessary as a down coat in a winter freeze.

Our pool was custom built in the shape of a figure eight – contrasting the shape of my best friend’s who lived one door down. Their pool was rectangular in shape with a much springier diving board. While it had a chain link fence around it to prevent small children from entering when unattended, ours had a wrought iron fence painted white that followed the pool’s curvy lines. It also looked good as the backdrop for my sister and I dressed in our Easter dresses in home movies – matching the white bunny hopping amidst the slender green grass and manicured shrubbery that framed our house. It was the same white fence that our neighbor Mr. Ferelli jumped over before bellowing in to the blue pool to save a drowning bunny rabbit that had hopped its own path in to the crystalline water.

In the summer time, the majority of my hours and those of siblings, friends and neighborhood kids were spent underwater in the swimming pool. To this day, it’s the reason for my strong lungs and why I can run long distances on a consistent basis.

Usually, we’d swim through a succession of rings strategically placed for challenging maneuvers. This underwater course was fun for a time, but then I would need to challenge myself with the deep end. There I would throw my hand-held rings of blue, green and red to the bottom and retrieve them.

I became very proficient at propelling my body mass to the pool’s depth and grabbing them all in one trip. If I was really brave, my descents down to the porcelain surface included touching the drain. This required risk, and a spurt of adrenaline, from making contact with the pool’s deepest point. That adrenaline would last through my ascent to the surface without looking back at the imaginary “drain monster.” Perhaps it was from movies I had seen where the cast of characters included a bold shipmate who braved the depths of the ocean – only to discover the mystery behind the sunken vessel forever lost at sea. Or maybe it was the sterility of the drain, its power to hold the water in, or suck it down, that created some imagined evil at work.

Other hours in the pool were spent perfecting my underwater somersaults or pretending I was a beautiful mermaid with long hair that flowed through the water. I would hold my legs together to portray a fin and from the edge of my eye, watch my long hair chase me through the water. I was fascinated by how the water made it move in wavelengths and resemble the motion of a car driving over dips in the road.

But when sea monsters weren’t chasing me and mermaids weren’t calling, the pool was the center of birthday parties and barbecues. Emerging from the water after a full day of frolic always rendered the same result – a feeling of chill from the breeze of the swaying palm trees hitting the water droplets on my goose-bumped skin. And an instant later, it was gone. As little girls, the pool also meant that at night, skinny-dipping was permissible, and an event that invigorated us while our parents were securely fastened at home.
As I got older, it meant feeling jealous of my older sister as I lay next to her in the sun, her petite frame the attraction of various high school boy friends, while I was still in what my mother referred to as my “chubby stage.”

That was when the palm trees were firmly rooted in the earth from age … when their branches seemed deserving of their sway in the desert breeze. Then, houses were more than a few meters apart. Streetlights were only one to a block.

It was a time when sitting on the hump in the front seat of the car between mom and dad, the Vegas lights brought nothing but comfort, in the distance their alignment simple – just vertical and horizontal – like those pierced through the black construction paper on my Lite Brite toy.

This is what I remember from then – the billboards, the hot summers, the glittering lights, and for me, a certain innocence to it all ñ when the Vegas brand of rebellion was often endearing, even if sinful to outsiders.

Now, endless developments dot the landscape. Yards are contained by connecting block walls. Cookie-cutter shopping malls sit on every other corner made from a faceless mold. Both residential and commercial localities make areas of town seem like an endless stream of concrete.

The swimming pool that served us with hours upon hours of insulation from the arid heat was perhaps a symbol of what was to come – the man-made lakes and falls that help entice buyers to the newest planned development and tourists to the latest pleasure hotel. This, in a city where residents have set timeslots for watering their shrubs and running their sprinklers ñ where water is at a premium, if not a precious commodity.

But then the men who built Hoover Dam in a depression-weary 1930s never could have known that halting the currents of the Colorado River would provide the water supply and electricity needs for a million and half people. My grandpa and many of those men who worked in treacherous conditions and intolerable heat, worsened by the reflection of the summer sun off the wall of concrete, were just looking for a paycheck and their next meal.

On one of his trips to the Far West, the 1840s explorer John C. Fremont never would have imagined his legacy would be the attachment of his name to one of Vegas’ glitziest sections – Fremont Street.

Or could have the California businessman Thomas Hull have known that expanding his string of motor inns in the 1940s and opening the tiny El Rancho Hotel would launch what is today the Las Vegas Strip. With a hundred rooms, a western-style casino and a pool set in the complex’s middle, his aim was to lure hot and tired travelers off the highway from Los Angeles. Soon, his success led to the Last Frontier Hotel, which not only established the Strip but the birth of a new frontier.

In the vastness of this desert land, the Vegas known to its visitors is truly bigger than life. Crowds hoard around the exquisite hotels ready to take in their attractions. There’s ‘Paris’ and ‘New York, New York’ and any other make-believe world your mind can conjure.

And what once sat alone on the outskirts of town, the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas!” sign that greets visitors from Interstate 15 South seen in many movie classics and MTV videos now seems archaic and small shrouded by the growth around it.

Near that lone sign is the beginning of a stretch of highway that leads to Los Angeles and also serves as a jet way for speeding cars full of anxious commuters and visitors. Long ago, this route was first traveled by a Mexican scout diverting west from the Spanish Trail with the simple goal of finding water.

Now that area on the edge of town is full of the sound of aircraft noise from McCarran International as the airport has expanded and encroached closer and closer to people. It also includes a cemetery with a mortuary styled from the 1970s and a grave that is my sister’s.

My sister’s untimely death is a remnant of the very sin and corruption Vegas all too often represents – a Vegas that gambles away lives, sometimes even of the locals that inhabit it – with the relentless onslaught of gaming opportunities and the addictive behaviors that often accompany them. To say my sister’s life and essence symbolizes the opposite of the disregard of the young woman who visited numerous watering holes on her way home from work before getting behind the wheel and hitting my sister on her bicycle is to not say near enough.

Now as the sun sets on the desert dust making it invisible, the darkness is somehow safe. Outside the city, looking in, with a chance to consume the night sky above you and see the city before you, the lights are beautiful and they still bring comfort. Most still shine from someone’s home and many symbolize family to me.

I hardly ever go down to the part of Vegas where the tourists gather but one night I find myself entranced by the dancing waters I watch outside the Bellagio. The fountain’s streams of water are like champagne flutes with blue, green, red – colors from the entire rainbow – shooting vertically to heaven in sync with music. It’s an extravaganza all right, but it’s the natural elements of water and light that spark my insides as the city lights of my youth once did. Or maybe it’s the lit-up face of my niece, sitting atop the shoulders of her dad looking on in childish glee.

Now, driving in my car with my niece sitting next to me, I wonder what the nine-year-old sees. These feelings of “place” and “surrounding” began for me as they are beginning for her – sitting in the seat of the car, staring out at the scenes that pass like edited video clips.

The Silver Slipper has vanished as the dreams of my fairy tales. The Landmark’s rocket fuel was an implosion that left only dust.

And my older sister is gone.

And I know … how differently we see things … at different points in our lives …

And my mind wanders as a tumbleweed misses its turn, landing in front of me in the center of the road.
It comes to its rest, not on the tide of construction dust, but simply from a gust of desert wind, but is there only a moment as it flees off into unknown worlds on the land and in my head.

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.