Last week we met with friends for an evening at the park. Just an informal affair-grab whatever's in your fridge and let the kids run through the fountains. Easy. Fun. As we sit around eating each other's leftovers, the conversation takes a familiar turn.
"When people ask me about raising kids in Las Vegas, I tell them it's great," says one woman. "Living out here, you hardly know the Strip exists!"
Everyone nods as I cast a backward glance at the shimmering cluster of casinos in the distance. Yep. It's there, alright.
This mindset is appealing for many people raising kids in a city that no longer makes pretense about being a family-friendly place. It makes them feel they could almost be somewhere else. Somewhere that features slot machines in its mini-marts and legions of senior citizens wearing tracksuits studded with bling. They rarely frequent the downtown area so to them, in a way, it's not real. Kind of like the toddler who covers his eyes and thinks you can't see him anymore.
But this line of reasoning falls upon my ears like someone else's jackpot. Because I do hit Las Vegas Boulevard on a regular basis. We go there because my daughters, Izzy and Caroline, take music lessons at the Fifth Street School and swim at the city pool down the road.
The view out the car window along the street is not as rosy as the scenery closer to home. People roam the streets looking as if there's a wind at their backs. They look like they've been on their feet a long time.
A double-decker bus swings through the intersection in front of us. It's plastered with King Kong-sized abs and pectorals, an ad for a show at the Excalibur. I can practically hear Caroline's stare. "Button yer shirt, dude," she says.
On this day, the only open parking space at the music school lands us not 10 feet from a phalanx of bike cops guarding a young man laying face down on the ground.
I tell the girls to move along. But Caroline wants to know why that boy is lying there. I tell her I don't know. Izzy weighs in with this sage gem: "Caroline, you'd lay there too if six bike cops were standing over you."
Caroline scowls. "No, I wouldn't," she says.
Leaving the commotion of the city behind, we step into a new world of noise. A hundred violins are being played with such fury it's a wonder these children don't spontaneously combust.
I watch Izzy as she careens through a galaxy of 16th notes. She's in a room with about 10 other violinists, mini musical wizards who can make piecemeal out of Paganini. Caroline, on the cello, saws away with the intensity of a lumberjack.
The drive home is quiet. Caroline is in the back seat, eyes closed. Izzy leans against the window as we thread down Las Vegas Boulevard in a sea of brake lights. We stop at the Fremont Street intersection and I watch as a throng of tourists pile like lemmings along the west edge of the sidewalk, unable to accept the experience is over. There must be more. They peer across the street, willing it to be so.
The people who know better stay away from the crowd. There's a man standing in the shadows with a giant crucifix dangling from his ear. There's a teenage boy, his pants riding so low he's forced to walk like a penguin. There's a couple having an argument. She appears ready to whap her boyfriend over the head with a Stratosphere-shaped cup. But the crowd is getting restless, they keep coming and pushing, and pretty soon everyone spills onto the crosswalk, scatters, and moves off into the darkness.
Izzy is watching, too.
"Mom," she says, "Do you ever look at people and wonder ..."
Her voice trails off, but I know where she's going with this.
"Who they are? Where they come from?" I say.
"Yeah. And, like, what they're thinking about."
"All the time," I tell her.
"Me, too," she says.
There's a lady pushing a cart down the sidewalk toward us. Her eyes are closed and she's swaddled in layers of clothing like a massive cocoon. I watch my daughter watching her. As we return to our house on the hill where it's easy to dismiss this part of the city, I know this is something Izzy will not forget.
Maybe it doesn't make the world a better place. Maybe it makes a tiny difference. But in this moment, an odd sense of gratitude joins my usual misgivings for this byway of ill repute. In a way, from my perspective as a parent, it's helping me get the job done.
Kirsten Cram is a local artist and writer who blogs at www.tollipop.com.