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Win Some, Lose Some

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Charles Bock's Believer essay about UNLV basketball phenom Lloyd Daniels vividly evokes Las Vegas of the '80s.

In the first month of 2019, Las Vegas and Nevada made appearances in national publications ranging from earnest and literary to superficial and silly. Most are mercifully bereft of the usual casino clichés and prostitution puns, and a couple even taught me something new. But even the best of them made me long for similar work that originates on the home front.

On the serious end of the spectrum, bird preservation nonprofit the National Audubon Society published a lengthy investigative report on the Anaconda copper mine cleanup. President Obama had put the site on the path to Superfund listing after federal agencies found that the State of Nevada and mine owner BP were failing to solve the problem of polluted drinking water for Yerington town residents and Yerington Paiute Tribe members. But after industry-friendly Scott Pruitt took the helm of President Trump’s EPA, the cleanup was turned back over to the state and business, with little to no input by citizens or tribe members — who had agitated for Superfund listing in the first place because they didn’t trust Nevada and BP to do the right thing. (And they still don’t, according to the article.)

The Audubon investigation is unfortunate for a few reasons, the most obvious of which is the story it tells of people being poisoned and the polluters (mostly) getting away with it. It suggests that Nevadans — averse to admitting anything is less than perfect in their tourism-addicted state — downplay the issue, implicitly allowing the corruption to continue. And it demonstrates that even the widely worshipped Governor Brian Sandoval was not above kowtowing to mining corporations, just like his predecessors.

Nevadans, (citizen advocate Peggy Pauly) says, tend to trust the mining industry more than the federal government; to many, EPA is a dirty word. State political leaders and residents not directly affected by the contamination argued that listing the site would stigmatize the entire community and might hurt sales of local farm products. “I had people tell me I should move to Tahoe and hug a tree,” Pauly says.

But most disappointing about the piece is that it wasn’t reported and written by local independent journalists. The obviously huge amount of work the writer did — sifting through stacks of documents acquired through FOIA requests, interviewing countless characters from all sides of the story — is complicated by its publication through a nonprofit that has a clear advocacy position on environmental issues (as BP’s foe, for instance). That’s not to say the story isn’t accurate or necessary — it is — but that it’s easier to dismiss by those who regard organizations such as Audubon as having an anti-industry bias.

An "investigation" of another sort came in the form of a Business Insider photo essay — and I use the term loosely here — titled, “Disappointing photos show what Las Vegas looks like in real life, from crowded venues and packed pools to long lines.” Unlike the complex Audubon story, the Business Insider one can be summed up on a sentence or two: Las Vegas is an extremely popular tourist destination, whose biggest attractions draw huge crowds, sometimes resulting in long lines. Also, it gets really hot here. The story comes across like it’s meant to scandalize, but seriously, who doesn’t already know these things, or that they’re also true of Disneyland, Times Square, and Miami Beach? Nothing to see here, folks.

And speaking of tourists, the New York Times discovered Las Vegas rare book sellers Natalie and David Bauman (nine years after Desert Companion did, but who’s counting?) and profiled them in its Style section, which is nice. But was this really necessary?

In a town of sparkle and flash, rare books are an anomaly, but for the Baumans, they are lucrative. One visitor spent $400,000 on “The Great Gatsby” and McKenney and Halls’ “History of the Indian Tribes of North America” in a single visit. Another, a quiet man in shorts, flip-flops and a T-shirt spent $15,000 on a first edition of “Huckleberry Finn” and then several weeks later returned to pick out a first edition of “The Catcher in the Rye” for $17,000. (One can only imagine what Holden Caulfield would think of that.)

The reader can practically hear the sniffing in that first phrase, and of course people shop for books in flip-flops and T-shirts in Las Vegas. Because only the trashy nouveau-riche vacation here.

A more novel look at Nevada came from Forbes contributor Liz Elting, a New York-based entrepreneur and feminist, who penned an opinion column about our state’s task force on workplace sexual harassment. Elting described the task force, created by brand-new Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak through his first executive order, as a potentially powerful model for professional female equality in a post-#MeToo world.

Nevada is currently considering even more stringent measures, including specific guidelines for what an anti-harassment policy needs to include and mandatory monthly reporting. This isn’t just notable; if passed, it would be genuinely revolutionary, with the potential to completely upend the traditional working environment women face in heavily male-dominated industries (like cannabis and gambling) in an enormously positive way. 

Although Elting acknowledges that the creation of a task force is a first step, and that the effectiveness of the policy remains to be seen, her hopeful tone about Nevada leading the way in a positive direction can’t help but make the local reader proud.

If you have time for just one Nevada-centric national read, though, make it Charles Bock’s essay, “The Sporting House,” in The Believer. Bock remembers UNLV basketball phenom Lloyd “Swee’ Pea” Daniels in a gut-punch of a story that takes the uninitiated reader through some of Las Vegas’ most familiar history lessons — Tark the Shark’s reign, the good old days of Mob rule, Westside segregation — from the fresh point of view of an ’80s teenager with NBA stars in his eyes.

Bock, an accomplished author who now lives in New York, deconstructs Vegas clichés through the sentimental irony of his own lived experience:

The Sporting House was exactly the kind of athletic club you’d expect in our fair, twenty-four-hour city. It was tucked away on an industrial boulevard called Industrial Road, about a three-point shot away from the Las Vegas Strip, and was open around the clock. If that wasn’t Vegas-y enough, the place was owned by a snarling middle-aged restaurateur with a pompadour, a permanent tan, and rumors of Mob connections. To get to the Nautilus machines, free weights, stationary bikes, locker rooms, and the private area out back with nude tanning, you first had to pass the sunken, hardwood basketball court, the club’s de facto centerpiece — once in a while, you might spot Jerry Lewis or Bill Cosby at the restaurant after a workout, looking down through the huge glass window onto the action. … When the courts weren’t crowded, though, I was likely taking jumpers from around the horn, pull-ups from the lane, staring into the wall of mirrors while trying extravagant dribbling combos that almost looked like dance routines. I had a blind faith that this was enough to ensure my future, that I could make it on effort alone.

He can’t, of course, and neither, sadly, can Lloyd Daniels. I’ll spare those who don’t know the basketball legend’s story any spoilers. But even if you do know how it all turns out for Swee’ Pea, there’s another character that makes this story worth the time: Las Vegas. Daniels hits the city like an alcoholic at an open bar, and the codependent train wreck that ensues speaks volumes about both lovers in the relationship.

What makes “the Sporting House” palatable to local readers is Bock’s vivid intimacy with a hometown from which he’s gained a healthy distance since adolescence. His affectionate realism allows him to nail what too many writers who aren’t from here miss about Sin City: If you simply point out that it’s corrupt, gaudy, and wild, you’re not saying anything it doesn’t already know.

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