Monday, March 13, 2017

Wren Awry: Sin City Notebook

“A modern city, however, is not only a place, it is also in itself … a series of images, a circuit of messages. A city teaches and conditions by its appearances, its facades, and its plan.”
-John Berger, “Ralph Fasanella and the Experience of the City,” About Looking

“I stand in another world.
Not the past not the future.
Not paradise not reality not

a dream.”
-Anne Carson, “Wild Constant,” Float

 I want to write a smart essay about Vegas, I scribble in my new notebook, But all I’ve been able to grasp on to are fragments.
It’s 7 am, the end of December 2016--holiday season, and that strange, eye-before-the-storm stretch of time between Trump’s election and inauguration--and I’m sipping Keurig coffee in my room at the Golden Nugget, trying to get a few words down before a day of visiting my grandmother and hanging out with my parents and partner.
My grandmother lives in downtown Vegas--she lived here with my grandfather until his recent passing, and I visit at least once a year. Each trip, I’m curious what I could essay about this heterotopic, high capitalist wonderland, but I always put it off--I’m not a Vegas expert, I don’t know the history or sociology of the city, can’t speak for daily life here. I’m also concerned that I’ll be too critical--I don’t gamble, I dislike capitalism, and loud noises make me jump; I’m exactly the sort of person who loathes Vegas (and yet, coming here year after year, I’ve developed an odd affection for the city). Maybe it’s my dear grandfather’s death, the way the election jarred me, or how I’ve become more comfortable with my role as a poet, and the symbolism and associative leaps that role entails, but suddenly everything feels more pressing, more visceral, and this trip I decide, finally, to give writing about Vegas a go. I buy a cheap, spiral-bound notebook at the 24 hour Walgreen’s, and start to fill it.

I write about a commercial playing in the Golden Nugget for Jerry Seinfeld’s upcoming Caesar’s Palace show: “We go out,” Seinfeld says--pacing a stage, microphone in hand-- “To forget how much our life sucks.” I write down a line from Joan Didion’s essay “Marrying Absurd”--“Almost everyone notes that there is no ‘time’ in Las Vegas, no night and no day and no past and no future”--and follow it with a comment about visiting the Clark County Museum: In the outdoor ghost town, a wooden covered wagon, its white paint chipping, stands in a field of creosote. Subdivisions spread out in the background, and behind them stand red-hued, rocky mountains, the whole scene a picture-postcard of Manifest Destiny. I recall how, once, flying into Vegas, I flew over the Hoover Dam, and the iodine blue waters of Lake Mead. There are islands in that lake that don’t look like islands, but like the tops of drowned mountains, sunken in the rush to feed this thirsty metropolis. I admit that, out at a fancy restaurant with my family, I order a French Revolution cocktail, $11: “That’s perfect,” my partner says, “You love the French Revolution.” In my excitement I agree then, moments later, correct him, “No, no it’s the Paris Commune, not the French Revolution, that I like.” But the drink has arrived, pink and fizzy and served in a champagne glass, a hibiscus flower suspended in the bubbly. Taking a cocktail sip, smearing butter on a piece of sourdough bread: this is where my anti-capitalist critique of Vegas falls apart; I am seduced, time and again, through my taste buds.
I also journal about spending time with my grandmother: We’re working on a crossword puzzle together. She points to 12-down, which reads, “____ Enchanted, 2004 Blockbuster.” “I don’t know these newfangled clues,” my grandmother tells me, her coral lips cracking into a smile, “They aren’t in any of my crossword solvers, either.” “It’s Ella Enchanted,” I say--I remember seeing that movie in theaters as a teen. I scribble “E-L-L-A” in the puzzle squares. 14-across reads “Famous 20th century golfer.” My grandmother was a golfer--she and my grandfather belonged to a country club back in the Midwest--so I’m sure she knows.  Seconds later, she gives me a name. I check it against the number of letters--it is, of course, correct.
Las Vegas is good to my grandmother--she frequents the same casinos regularly and has made friends with servers and bartenders that staff the casino restaurants. These friends care for her--driving her to appointments when she hurts her hip, checking in about her needs when they hear my grandfather has died.
From my grandmother’s apartment, I can see the Trump International Hotel. Two months ago, in October 2016--before the third presidential debate--the Culinary Workers Union built a “wall” of taco trucks outside it in protest, both of Trump’s position on immigration and his unwillingness to recognize unions in the hotel.

            One morning, I take off by myself, leave the Golden Nugget and walk south through the Fremont Street Experience--four pedestrian blocks of casinos and souvenir shops watched over by Vegas Vic, that iconic neon cowboy who is so often a metonym for the city as a whole. At night, animated Bon Jovi and Beatles light shows illuminate the Experience’s LED sky, and zip liners slide on steel tendons above daiquiri-swilling crowds; but in the morning Fremont Street is quiet, populated almost exclusively by panhandlers with clever signs (one reads, simply, “Fuck you”--I smile at its brashness) and men nursing beers purchased from the 24 Hour Walgreens.
The Fremont Street Experience ends at Las Vegas Boulevard, but the street keeps going, and so, on that morning, do I. I pass under the neon archway that announces the beginning of the Fremont East District, an enclave of hip bars and restaurants: The Smashed Pig, Beauty Bar Las Vegas, Le Thai. Vintage neon signs rise from the median, including two of my favorites: a martini glass with an olive the size of my face; and a glittering, scarlet-red high heel. The high heel is posted outside of the El Cortez, the oldest casino in Vegas.
The El Cortez is a dim-lit throwback to when downtown was the heart of Vegas--before the Strip, two miles south, tempted away the tourists with its themed casino-resorts, faux Eiffel Tower and cartoonish volcano that rumbles and explodes on the hour. It’s my favorite casino in downtown--I like the dark wood paneling and that, once, when I stayed here, there was a roll-top desk in my room. Run for a time by infamous gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, the casino feels like a time capsule--I can imagine Joan Didion posted up at the lobby bar, sipping a martini and scribbling down notes for “Marrying Absurd”: “Las Vegas is … bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies’ room attendants with amyl nitrate poppers in their uniform pockets.”
Atomic Liquors, the oldest free-standing bar in Vegas, is a few blocks south of the El Cortez. A neon sign advertises “Liquor and Cocktails,” the yellow arrow below it pointing to a building with a gray-stone facade. The bar opened in 1952 and, throughout that decade, patrons scrambled onto the roof to watch mushroom clouds rise from the nearby Nevada Test Site. I know how environmentally dangerous the testing was and continues to be[1], and how it represented the specter of Cold War nationalism. I admire the anti-nuclear activists who walked on to the Nevada Test Site throughout the second half of the 20th century, risking arrest in a struggles against war, and against poisoned bodies and landscapes. And yet, I admit to myself, watching that atomic spectacle from the roof of the bar, cocktail in hand, must have been beautiful. In “Marrying Absurd,” Didion calls Vegas “the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements” and this bar, where militarism and Cold War fears melted into entertainment, feels emblematic of that.[2]
South of Atomic Liquors, the hip stores and tourist spots disappear, and Sin City shows its seams. I walk past abandoned motel after abandoned motel, trash shored up in the bushes along the cracked sidewalk, houseless individuals asking for spare change and huddled on stoops in front of boarded up businesses. I photograph a vacant lot with the Stratosphere rising behind it and an image of Edgar Allen Poe--a favorite icon of my birth father, who died from the effects of sadness at fifty--painted onto an electric box. I’m walking through the Las Vegas tourists rarely see, the people and neighborhoods that aren’t shiny enough to be commodifiable or put on display. At least, I think I am.
I see a sign up ahead for a bakery, and a donut or cookie sounds good, so I decide it will be my destination. But, crossing Fremont Street, I see that the bakery is no longer open--it, like so many of the neighborhood businesses, is abandoned. I pivot and head north, back towards the Fremont Street Experience and my family, walking on the side of the street with all the shuttered motels. Their signs remain--they have whimsical names like the Desert Moon and the Peter Pan. The buildings are gated and boarded up, but when I look closer I noticed that they’re also covered in murals. Fake doors and windows have been painted onto plywood boards covering the actual doors and windows of the motel rooms, and bespectacled cats and dogs peek out of the false frames--a motif that repeats itself for blocks, on motel after motel. In the courtyard of one, two semi trucks are welded together
into a spectacular piece of public art, foregrounding a spray-painted sign that reads “Life Is Beautiful.” It seems a strange message in this stretch of the city, and I--ever the anarchist--wonder why artists are painting abandoned motels, making huge sculptures in their lots in an attempt to attract tourists, instead of breaking them open and refurbishing them into homes for Vegas’ houseless community.[3]
“Las Vegas seems to exist only in the eye of the beholder,” Didion writes, and I, the beholder in question, cannot stop seeing the cracks on Vegas’ shiny facade, the discord beneath the pinging of slot machines and the rock bands playing on Fremont Street stages.

            The Writer’s Bloc bookstore has a defunct printing press (“We’re working on it!” one of staff people tells me) in the front window and a curated selection of small press books and best sellers in the back. It also has a bunny rabbit named The Baron--who I was invited to pet but not hold--and a children’s section replete with toys and piles of books. It’s the kind of place I’m prone to hiding in and I go there again and again during my week in Vegas, sometimes with family and sometimes alone, sometimes just to run my hands along the spines of books that I have no intention of buying.
It’s at The Writer’s Bloc that I pick out a copy of Anne Carson’s Float--a Christmas gift from my parents. I audibly squeal when I see it on the shelf in the New Books section and, later, reading the collection of chapbooks in my hotel room, I wonder what Carson--classicist and poet, student of that which rises and falls--would write about Vegas (from her Float chapbook “Maintenance”: “4. Replace the lightbulbs we have hundreds better still turn the lights off.” ) It’s at The Writer’s Block, too, that I read a small card they have on display about Joan of Arc:
After Joan of Arc was posthumously pardoned, she became the focus of one of the outbreaks of cash-in memoirs. Ma semaine avec Joan (My Week With Joan), written by Gilles de Rais, chronicles his time with Joan during the Siege of Orleans. The idea that there might have been any romantic spark between the legendary Joan of Arc and creepy, unpleasant Gilles, who had been a low-level squire in the campaign, captured the imagination of the world.

I take a picture of the card, and tweet it. Will Slattery, Essay Daily’s managing editor and a fellow lapsed Catholic, replies with, “‘Creepy, unpleasant Gilles de Rais’ is maaaaaaybe just a bit of an understatement”--de Rais was a confessed child serial killer and one of the possible inspirations for the fairy tale Bluebeard. I explain that The Writer’s Block hosts creative writing workshops for children--I’ve seen flyers for them around the shop, and “creepy and unpleasant” might be an attempt to keep that particular bit of history PG. Still, when I attend Christmas Eve mass at my grandmother’s church, St. Joan’s, a few night later, Perrault’s Bluebeard keeps sneaking into my thoughts between prayers.
            I return to The Writer’s Block one afternoon with my cousin Katie and both of our partners. The shopkeeper offers us free baked goods, a holiday gift to the store from a nearby coffeeshop, and Katie--who is as bubbly as I am awkward and shy--strikes up a conversation with him. He turns out to be Scott Seeley, one of the bookstore’s co-owners. Seeley tells us the history of The Writer’s Block--he moved to Vegas several years ago from Brooklyn, with his husband, Drew Cohen, and opened the shop in 2014; it’s the only independent bookstore in Vegas. He tells us, also, about Codex, the shop’s education program--they offer free writing classes for youth ages 5-18, school field trips at the store, and events and book groups for adults.
“We have the workshops in the back space. Have you seen it?” he asks and when we shake our heads no, gestures for us to follow him.
The five of us walk through a portal-like tunnel of trees--Seeley’s tall and stoops so as not to be hit by faux-branches or get a faceful of fabric leaves. He ushers us into a back room, well-lit with big wooden tables. “This is where our workshops are,” he says, pointing to a raised area straight back, “And that’s the stage where we have performances.”[4] I imagine the room full of kids, hard at work on comic books, poems and short stories. I teach creative writing to elementary schoolers in Tucson, and I’m in awe of the work they produce, how children’s vulnerability so often leads them to write in such fresh and startling honest ways.
Seeley points to a shelf of student anthologies, perfect-bound volumes printed on the store’s Espresso Book Machine. He pulls a few down, excitedly telling us about them, the stories they contain and who drew the covers. I want to ask if I can sit down and thumb through them, but Seeley needs to get back to the front of the shop, and the five of us need to leave if we’re going to be on time for family dinner. We exit back through the arbor of trees into the bookstore and, thanking Seeley, go on our way.
As we walk north up Fremont Street, towards the casinos and neon lights, I decide that next time I’m in Vegas, I’ll return to The Writer’s Block, conquer my shyness, and ask if I might sit in that back room for a while, flipping through kid- and teen-written anthologies. I wonder what I’ll find in those pages, what those young wordsmiths will teach me. I’m guessing there will be small glimmers of everyday Vegas, the city that exists alongside the city’s glitz: a city of boring homework assignments, hard days, and simple joys that isn’t glamorous enough to be written up in guidebooks and gangster biographies, or noticed by the tourists who fuel Sin City’s economy.

If words are veils, what do they hide? What difference does it make to see a wharf building as a cathedral for ten seconds or two months or a year, to see Apollo, the god of healing and truth, as a murderous pun?
-Anne Carson, “Cassandra Float Can,” Float


Wren Awry teaches creative writing to elementary schoolers via the University of Arizona’s Writing the Community Program, is an editor at Tiny Donkey and Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness, and has writing at or forthcoming from, Rust + Moth, Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness, Fairy Tale Review’s Fairyland, 1508, and Ghost City Press.

[1] The impacts of nuclear testing in Nevada and surrounding states remain: Rates of leukemia and cancer in communities downwind from the test site have skyrocketed, and 300 million curies of radiation are estimated to have been left behind when testing ending at the site in 1992, radiation that’s currently leaking into the water table.

[2] Didion also writes, of Vegas, that “the sense of what happens there has no connection with ‘real’ life” and is “divorced from some historical imperative.” Of course, this is an illusion: Las Vegas was built on stolen Paiute land and, for decades, coal from Black Mesa, in the Navajo Nation, helped power its brights lights and pinging slot machines. Mining on Black Mesa has led to an increase in black lung and other diseases and had forced residents from their ancestral homelands.

[3] Later, I will learn that the motels were exhibition spaces for the Life Is Beautiful festival, a celebration of music, art, and food that sprawls across downtown each September. A section of the 2017 Life Is Beautiful website reads, “And because it’s not all about you all the time, book with Hotels for Hope and a donation will be made to Project 150, giving homeless, displaced and disadvantaged high students the tools they need to succeed and graduate.” Project 150, and Life Is Beautiful’s support of it, seems like a worthy thing, but it doesn’t erase the fact that people who are houseless or have recently been released from the city jail are resting in front of chain-linked motels with boarded up doors and windows--shelters they cannot access, shelters that have become canvasses instead of homes in this city of glint, of gleam, of surfaces.

[4] Students for each class are chosen by lottery. There are whimsical classes, like “Build Your Own Theme Park” and “Fantasy Newspaper,” and also classes on blogging, speculative fiction, and a high school writing workshop.

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