I am constantly surprised by how many acquaintances, and even some friends, don’t know I grew up in Las Vegas. I spent twenty years of my life there, a very significant number of years during one of the formative periods of my life. I arrived there when I was eight and left when I was twenty-eight. And yet, I’ve been gone for so many years, it’s understandable many don’t know that part of my past.
I learned things in Las Vegas that you can only learn by living there for an extended period of time, things that never made the tourist ads. For example, it was a very godly town. There’s several religions that exerted their influence on local school boards, political decisions, and inflicted their version of morality on everyone else. I doubt that’s changed. Extremism doesn’t give up fucking people for money, it just finds a new bed partner.
Religion in Las Vegas taught me what hypocrisy looked and smelled like. It looked a whole lot like a preacher who bellowed from the pulpit about sin and the evils of drink, whoring, and gambling. But if you looked closely you saw the outrage ended at the church doors. Those same preachers flung open the welcome sign when there was money involved.
And there was no difference in Las Vegas between preachers and politicians, because it wasn’t the unsavory sinners who funded them or the casinos. It was those fine upstanding moral citizens and their banks who invested in the debauchery because it honored the only god they truly worshipped: the holy dollar.
And there was no one holier than the pulpit pounder who availed himself of an escort “service” on Saturday night and then stood in line to be forgiven on Sunday morning. And chances were excellent at least a couple of those escort earnings graced the collection plate when it was passed around.
The other thing I learned growing up in Vegas is that sex was a commodity like anything else. It’s a state of legal brothels. Like many who live or have lived there, I grew up with women who were sex workers. It was not a glamorous job. But neither was working at Wally’s world for shit wages and exploitative conditions. Or in any of the casinos if you served drinks, danced, entertained or anything that required you to wear skimpy pieces of fabric in your “job.” It was shitty work like any other shitty work. Just because it was sex didn’t make it better or worse than gutting chickens or shoving packages along an assembly line. It was a job. No more no less. And the moralists were usually the ones profiting from it. You can bet on it.
The other lesson I learned growing up in Las Vegas was personal. Gambling is a serious addiction. My father gambled. He sucked at it. That guaranteed we were often evicted, lived in cheap motels, in the car, or on our way somewhere the debt collectors wouldn’t find us.
We were often without enough to eat, or on the rare occasions we had a roof over our heads, we would come home from school to find everything gone, down to the pots and pans because they were sold to get gambling money. I learned the lessons of non-attachment early in life.
But the benefit to growing up in Las Vegas was there were then and probably still are a lot of under the table jobs, non-union, no taxes paid or declared, no age requirement. During the worst of my father’s gambling sprees, I was always able to find some kind of job in some crappy way off the strip restaurant by lying about my age. Tips brought immediate food. I was 14 when I went to work at the first one. The first lesson I learned was to unbutton the top buttons on my uniform so I’d get better tips. I didn’t care. The money went to that week’s crappy motel.
But the best thing about growing up in Las Vegas were the entertainers. There were lots of professional dancers, musicians, writers, and all kinds of artists. Like anywhere else, the bigotry and intolerance was nearly non-existent in such communities, and I got an early idea of what the world could be.
And while there will always be racist assholes in the woodwork, there was more diversity per block in Las Vegas than in most places. People came from all over to visit, to work, to perform, to teach. No matter where you worked, you worked with a diversity of people from other cultures.
It was just part of Vegas. I grew to expect it and that was the hardest part of not living there anymore. Everywhere I went seemed so bland and overly white. I was and I still am homesick for that diversity all these years later. It brought a life to the place that I miss. I don’t miss anything else about it. Like most of my friends then, we realized we belonged elsewhere and we went there.
The thing I missed least of all about Vegas was the religion. There was only one god, one religion, and that was the worship of the almighty dollar. You grew up seeing that everything and everyone was for sale. You could buy loyalty cheaper than you could earn it. If you threw a few dollars around, everyone wanted to be your friend.
It’s one of the reasons I am the way I am. I live minimally. I don’t give a crap how much money you have or don’t have. It just doesn’t impress me or buy me or whatever works for other people. I grew up watching the game and have no interest in being part of it. I think that was a good thing I brought with me when I left.
My new novel When The Last Ocean Dies
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