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Desert Companion

Ten Years. Ten Writers. Ten Perspectives. (PART 2: 2012-2016)


Blurry Obama
Illustration by Brent Holmes

The valley took on many guises during the decade that Desert Companion has covered it. Foreclosure capital. Party town. City of ambiguity. Some of our favorite writers look back at the years that were important to them.

See Part 1



Obama, and Everything After

Shaking the hand of the first president who looked like me couldn’t prevent my hand from being cuffed

By Nicholas Russell

August 22, 2012, Canyon Springs High School, North Las Vegas. 

It’s a relatively cloudy morning, with the vague scent of rain filling my nostrils. My mom and I have just parked in a neighborhood some distance from the school grounds. She still has the Acura TSX, with its cracked leather seats and questionable passenger-seat legroom.

The shirt I’m wearing, emblazoned with a stylized rendering of the face of the man we’ve come to see, won’t fit me a year from now. It’s four years old; the man on it is running for reelection. As we walk inside, onto the creaking, polished-wood basketball court that’s been adorned with flags and campaign banners, I notice the familiar smell of sweat that high school gyms have. The bleachers have been retracted. Rows of folding chairs face a small stage where a podium stands, the presidential seal not yet hung on the front.

Support comes from

It’s strange thinking about what this place must look like on a normal day. In a movie, this would be where I flash back to a memory of my dad yelling from the sidelines as I run up and down the court with a stitch in my side. But this gym is new to me, and I haven’t played basketball in a long time.

The building fills up. My mom and I stand together, away from the seats, waiting. Eventually, after an introductory speech by a local schoolteacher, amid the hubbub and chants of “four more years,” I hear the crowd applaud and scream. I’m 16 and much shorter than I will be. He’s here, but I can’t see him yet. My mom lets out a “Woo!,” an exclamation she saves for charismatic presidents and Sade.

Among the many things I mimicked as a child, the specific smooth gait of a black man was highest among them. It always belied a confidence and a sense of belonging that is hard to describe to people who can’t see it. Denzel Washington didn’t just walk. My dad and my uncle didn’t just walk. And, apart from the little jog he does up to the podium, neither does Barack Obama.


His sleeves are rolled up. The auditorium is silent for a moment before someone shouts, “We love you!” The president doesn’t break, responding effortlessly, “I love you back,” before he begins to speak.

Obama’s first remark about the city is, “… I didn’t know it rains in Las Vegas.”

At the time, I hadn’t clocked the significance of seeing a president speak in person, let alone the first American president in 219 years to look like me and countless others around the country. I remember having a headache that morning because I hadn’t gotten enough sleep. My mom came into my room to wake me up more than once. If I had complained enough, I could have stayed home. Even after the rally was over, after the talking points and strategic pauses, after we unexpectedly joined the sea of hands President Obama shook as he walked by, I couldn’t qualify how it applied to me beyond the feeling that someone famous had touched me. I wasn’t old enough to vote. What did it matter to me, really, whether he was reelected or not?

There are many ways to interpret Obama’s two terms, and none are simple. The perspective that has stayed with me through the years, the one I finally wised up to after the rally, is explicitly racial. As time passed, as my body grew, as I began to look less multiethnic and simply black, and as the consequences of that appearance began to affect me, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was that Obama had navigated, was navigating in his life, both as leader of a country with such an unavoidably racist and painful history, and as a man of color. Even with his own biracial makeup, the verdict had already been passed by almost everyone: Barack Obama was simply black, and, as much as many, including himself, may have tried to downplay that at times, there was no getting around it.

I had my first racially charged encounter with the police a couple of years after the rally. Though there are occurrences that could be chalked up to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, this wasn’t one of them.

One day, on my way to class at the CSN Henderson campus, driving my then-girlfriend’s car as she sat in the passenger seat, an NHP vehicle pulled into the lane behind us. There’s a paranoia that comes with driving while black; it’s been well-documented many times over. You’re hyper aware of your speedometer, of your turn-signal usage, of where your hands are, of what an undercover police vehicle looks like. At the time, I didn’t yet have that paranoia.

The navy-blue Ford Explorer flashed its lights and turned on its sirens, the driver pushing in dangerously close to our rear bumper. I pulled into the emergency lane, parked, and checked the side mirror. The officer stepped out of his vehicle, one hand on his pistol as he yelled at me to come out with my hands above my head. This was already steps above what I had expected. I assumed I was speeding, maybe had a broken taillight. I was nervous, not about any wrongdoing, but about the fact that I was tall and, unlike most of my life before that moment when I had never had to worry about it, that I wasn’t white.

As I stepped out, my hands raised, the officer took a step back, looking me up and down before telling me to put my hands on the trunk, legs spread. My arms were pulled behind my back, a pair of hard metal cuffs fitted around my wrists as I was asked if there were any weapons in the car or on my person. I nearly laughed as I replied no; I was in flip flops and shorts. I saw my girlfriend staring from the passenger seat. I was on the verge of tears.

Minutes passed. I was told to sit on the hood of the car, though I couldn’t bring myself to put my full weight down. When a second patrol car came, and the arresting officer went to talk to my girlfriend, the difference in interactions was stark. He seemed almost bored when before he was jittery, radioing for support while staying uncomfortably close. It may have been because my girlfriend was white that she was being treated so civilly, but, even in that situation, I doubt it. After my innocence was assured, they let us go.

A man in a car of the same model and color as my girlfriend’s had been driving recklessly on the highway. At one point, he waved a gun at the person who called the police.

No apologies were given as they uncuffed me. The man they were looking for was driving alone. He was also white.


Since that incident, I have had numerous encounters with the police, all of them trivial and pointless: stopped on my way home from a friend’s and questioned about my whereabouts; stopped on the way to school and questioned about the contents of my car; stopped for a broken taillight that wasn’t broken.

The latest happened in February. I was standing on the pedestrian bridge connecting The Cosmopolitan to CityCenter. Three yellow-shirted Metro bike cops had gathered at the end of the bridge, putting their heads together and pointing at me before coming over. Surrounding me on all sides, one of the officers said some tourists had accused me of inviting them to “have a good time.” Needless to say, no one had approached the officers; I had been watching them well before they approached. Compared to my first police encounter, this one left me irritated. Most cops wouldn’t have deigned to come up with an excuse at all; this one was just unimaginative.

When I tell my father about these things, he becomes practical. He asks if I write down badge numbers, if I was told to consent to a search even though I’m not legally required to. On some occasions, he acquiesces to the realities we both face as black men. He’s also a cop. But being a member of that club doesn’t guarantee safety or respect.

It would seem that only when becoming president of this country does a black individual find him or herself protected. Even then, it’s not out of a common understanding or implementation of the law; it’s because the president is an asset and a leader.

How strange it must have been to know that for eight years, the same forces that watched over you and your family were terrorizing and crushing the lives of those who shared the same skin as you, were even darker than you, were ultimately helpless, unlike you.

I wasn’t ready to articulate that notion in August of 2012. Being black, among other things, is an acknowledgment and celebration of culture and community, and of survival. It is also a struggle with the notion that the exceptional among us tend to be just that, isolated and taken as outliers. You shouldn’t have to be president to receive fair, civil protection under the law. However, in this country and, yes, in this city, at least for now, being black is not something incidental. To many it is seen as a choice, and an unfortunate one at that.



2013, As I’ll Describe it to Strangers in 2033

Phone Play

Starring overpaid DJs, vanishing vinyl, horny Millennials, and the decline of EDM

By Doug Elfman

I’m going to answer, now, the journalism query I have fielded more often than any other entertainment intrigue on the Strip.

“Why do some Vegas DJs get paid half-a-million dollars a day to stand around in clubs and push buttons? I could do that.”

To solve this old puzzle, let’s Snapchat ourselves back to The Bronzer Age of Daytime Pool Clubbing, 2013.

It was a simpler time.

The economy was churning.

Barack Obama was in his second popular term as president.

Historians may regard this epoch as, “Before America Stepped on a Banana Peel and Died, Sad.”

It was the final year nightclubs and dayclubs meant something profound about music, before Calvin Harris (the Hakkasan DJ) and Taylor Hicks (the paparazzi Rasputin) walked into a Nashville Whole Foods wearing matching outfits, thus puréeing artistic credibility into oblivion.

Anyhow, this is what it was like for your brain as you (A Professional News Person) walked past 7,000 young, glistening, bikini and board-shorts bodies at the luxurious hotel pool party known as Encore Beach Club, during a typical summer Saturday, while DJs pushed buttons.

Your brain:

“The women and men here are really into their bodies.”

“Heyyy. … Those are boobs.”

“I feel fat. Aaand, now I’m hungry.”

“Those are this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit models in the VIP section.”

“Hold on. The cocktail servers waiting on the Sports Illustrated models are more glamorous than the Sports Illustrated models. How do they find these servers?”

“Oh, that’s right. They cast head-shot ‘AUDITIONS’ for cocktailers.”

“I can’t believe electronic music finally became popular. It always sounds like robots mating. Who doesn’t love that?”

Those are approximations of my memories, not verbatim notes. Notice I’m not quoting conversations from Encore Beach Club. I’m not sure when was the last time you listened to two beautiful 22-year-old tourists in drunken heat flirting in swimwear. But the convo is pretty limited.

Encore Beach Club’s raison d’être was (is) to be sexy pants. Great idea.

But this lascivious, spring break-ish club scene was very different than techno parties from the olden days.

Way back during the George H.W. Bush years, I had fallen in love with underground electronic music at a dance club in New Orleans. I put on a collared shirt and tie, passing the “rude boy” dress code. There was no air conditioning in the joint. The sweaty nihilism felt almost as liberating as slam dancing. (Nothing beats slam dancing.)

Then, in 1999, at an illegal warehouse rave in Atlanta, I stayed up many rapid heartbeats past sunup to take in the best dance-music DJ set I’ve ever heard, starring Paul van Dyk. He did it vinyl-style. Kids on the dance floor jumped on “E” (molly/ecstasy). Kids lying against the wall were floating through “heroin pills” and “special K” (ketamine, the horse tranquilizer).

The music was a dream so captivating it spawned a beautiful subgenre called “progressive trance,” lulling us into a therapeutic wonderland of “happy-happy-joy-joy.”

Drug lunatics aside, I yearned for electronic music to become popular on the radio and in mainstream clubs, so I could hear it everywhere.

But it wasn’t until Barack Obama’s first term that Las Vegas hotel clubs poured fountains of riches onto DJs to exploit the finally exploding music genre.

Consequently, for about five or six years here, we electronic music lovers swam through the same kind of heavenly pool of talent Nirvana fans experienced during the grunge wave.

Deadmau5. Skrillex. Justice. Armin van Buuren. Kaskade. Diplo. Zedd.

We hoped this butterfly would never flutter bye.

The music slowly worsened, though.

Vinyl disappeared. DJs began pre-programming set lists on thumb drives. Instead of flying the world with crates of records, they arrived in Vegas with a laptop, a USB flash drive full of formulaic remixes, and an itchy libido. (Restroom stories are as routine as swimming pool tales, wink-wink.)

I witnessed one DJ do his set from his iPhone, synced to the club sound system. (Not a good night.)

Another DJ told me he’d toyed with the idea of showing up in Vegas with zero gear, and then running his set list live from a cloud account, like Dropbox, through the club’s system, but the cloud wasn’t dependable enough for that yet.

However, DJs weren’t just DJs, anymore. In the old days, DJs exclusively spun other people’s music. They were curators. Now, DJs were writing, producing, and performing their own hits. They had become creators.

To be a star, a 2013 DJ had to be a successful musician in his or her own right, creating pop hits on laptops during plane rides from Miami to Tokyo.

So we still called them DJs.

But it’s more, like, oh, imagine if Beatles producer George Martin had written all the Beatles songs himself, and then flown around the world every 12 hours to press play on existing Beatles albums in front of the prettiest party animals in existence.

That’s what DJing morphed into, a touring opportunity for studio musicians.

In other words, when you watched studio producer David Guetta push buttons as a “DJ” at Encore Beach Club, you knew him from his songs stored on your Samsung Galaxy Note II.

Basically, Encore Beach Club (like all Vegas clubs) had a choice to make between the old marketing model and the new marketing model. Old: Pay the cast of Jersey Shore to walk around the VIP section in gold chains. New: Pay a producer to craft music for the whole club.

The DJ gambit worked. Vegas clubs were earning $100 million in a year. That’s not equal to what one big whale would throw away in a gambling bender in a casino, but it’s still a tidy fortune.

In 2013, if you were lucky, you could rent a not-private Encore Beach Club balcony space overlooking this festival of flesh for five grand a day.

If not: How about $20,000?

That was the price libidinous people paid (with corporate credit cards and bachelor party budgets) to cruise for fatless abs at 1 in the afternoon.

And there’s the crux.

The greatest strength of DJs was serving as bait for hot bods and credit cards.

It was, for sure, a Millennial moment.

Millennial stereotypes: salacious, experiential, smart, upbeat revolutionaries.

If you want to get all college professorial about Millennials at dayclubs, you could posit:

1) Millennials (like flappers and hippies and disco ducks before them) survived great upheaval (911/Bush/war/Katrina/recession/iPhone/Twitter).

2) So, to repair the anxiety, they escaped into existential rabbit holes (fetishized hobbies, Marie Antoinette costume gatherings, Earth’s-going-out-of-business parties).

No, they’re not all like that. But maybe think of club Millennials as among the most gregariously lustful of their age.

So now you can see the DJ cliché in toto:

The selfies generation could go to clubs to share mating heat with other well-coiffed survivors of America.

But (and this is equally important) the club’s famous DJ was social media wallpaper and mustn’t overshadow club-goers’ lust for each other.

That is the biggest crowd difference between DJ shows and rock shows.

Baby Boomers stared at Mick Jagger like a god.

Gen-Xers looked at Eddie Vedder like a leader.

Millennials took social videos of Kaskade for the first song, then sauntered off to pick up that cute person over there.

To paraphrase a comically bad old rock song, it was all about the nookie.

A postscript about DJs after the Vegas money flood:

Most clubs eventually pared down DJ expenditures. Hot bodies continued to go to clubs for meat marketing, of course. It worked out about as well, and proved cheaper.

On the sliding scale of “cool,” DJs went from innovators (Reagan/Bush years) to early adoptors (Bill Clinton’s time) to early majority (George W. Bush period) to late majority (Obama era) to laggards (today’s hacky Chainsmokers, et al).

By 2017, even the best DJs chose to sell out to showbiz, writing unlistenable nursery rhyme pop drivel, just as previous music industry sell-outs squandered rock, rap, grunge, and country movements.

As it happens, the worst thing that can come of anyone is cleaving one’s way to the top of the zeitgeist.

That’s the Calvin Harris Rule: As soon as people earn what they’re worth, they’re no longer worth what they earn.



Don’t Mind the Suitcase


The year I definitely committed to Vegas, no regrets

By Heidi Kyser

It’s nobody’s fault that I moved to Las Vegas but my own. I don’t blame Peter. I clearly remember thinking it through with him on the phone as I sat in my little red Honda outside Hollywood’s Virgin Records in late 2003. I’d just bought Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below CD, and was listening to “I Love the Way You Move” while we talked. We mulled it over for a good 10 minutes. He told me there were several Trader Joe’s and yoga studios in Las Vegas, and I was like, “Sold!”

Then he asked about the kids — you know, if I wasn’t afraid of moving in with him and his 6- and 9-year-old, leaving a carefree, childless lifestyle behind for a joint-custody insta-family, complete with ex-wife. Totally not a deal-breaker, I told him. I liked kids. I’d done some babysitting as a teenager. How hard could it be? I thought about how Peter looks like Paul Newman and Anderson Cooper rolled into one.

I’m not sorry I left L.A. in 2004, even though I make less money now in Vegas than I did then. I have the best writing job in town. Literally! And that whole “big fish, little pond” thing pays off in surprising ways. For instance, I was once invited to judge a Halloween pug-costume contest. And my housesitter asked me to autograph last month’s copy of Desert Companion. She friended me on social media and shares my stories with all her Millennial friends. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.

And let’s face it: The cost of living is much lower here than in L.A. Thanks to the mortgage reorganization Peter and I had to do after the housing bubble burst, our monthly payment is $100 less than the rent I was paying on a much smaller house in West Hollywood. We just don’t think about our dream home having lost half its value and still being underwater 10 years later. Or the recent closing of the nearest Trader Joe’s. Utilities are so cheap!

Making friends in Las Vegas was kind of hard, but who among us hasn’t struggled with that for her first five years in a new place? I was working at home, which made it especially hard, though I got to meet some mighty friendly contractors and delivery people. I remember one guy who hung around after fixing our kitchen sink to tell me about how he ended up in Vegas when his truck broke down near the Strip. He’d left Utah because of an ex-wife he owed money to and some outstanding warrants, as I recall. Thankfully, some great bars and restaurants have opened near our Downtown neighborhood now, so Peter and I get to know lots of cool people before they leave town.

One of the big payoffs of my decision to move here is the outdoor recreation. I like to tell my friends in Boston and Pasadena about how, if I wanted to, I could get on my bike and ride 100 miles, almost entirely in dedicated bike lanes. They’re so jealous, I don’t ruin it for them by noting that I could only do that four months out of the year due to scorching heat and pummeling wind the rest of the time. Instead, I focus on the natural beauty of nearby sites like Red Rock, with its scenic loop — which definitely won’t be ruined by traffic from the 5,000-home community that a developer is planning to build out there. It’s his private property, and he should be allowed to do whatever he wants with it. As we say in Nevada, “Live and let live!”

Despite my obvious happiness, I think Peter was worried that, deep inside, I wished I was somewhere with an independent movie theater. Sure, I kept a rolling suitcase full of clothes and toiletries in the closet, but that was just a reminder of my days as a traveling reporter. And everybody here indulges in a little moving porn from time to time. I guarantee you can find “best places to live in the U.S.” and “top 10 cities for jobs” in plenty of browser histories besides mine. I hear Salt Lake City is nice. Have you ever lived there? What was it like? (Text me later.)

Anyway, after 10 years of Sin City cohabitation, I felt it was time to show Peter that any vague, fleeting reservations I had about living here had nothing to do with him. Let’s get married! I said. We decided to elope to Utah — but only because we knew this cool farm-to-table bed-and-breakfast in Boulder that just happened to have a Buddhist monk who could officiate, and a great backpacking trail nearby. It had nothing to do with how it would look, my starting a third marriage in a town famous for drive-through weddings and hassle-free annulments. Any local will tell you, it’s critical to get out of town for a couple weeks every summer.

That was three years ago, and my devotion to this city is as strong as ever, as is Peter’s. We’re never jealous when friends and coworkers move to Austin or Charlotte. Sure, those places have social safety nets and abundant natural water resources, but do they have legalized pot and 24-hour access to liquor? Those things come in handy whenever you’re tempted to worry about climate change or another recession. And as we like to say, “If we can make it here, we can certainly make it in Albuquerque or Tucson!” Not that we consider moving to those cities, of course. Why would we?   



The Best Year of My Life


All it required was leaving home

By Kristy Totten

When I said it, I was joking. I wasn’t going to leave town every weekend, all summer long. I couldn’t, or at least I didn’t think I could.

But then I did. (This was in 2014, but bear with me.)

The decision was fueled by a slurry of factors: a job I didn’t like, a living situation I didn’t like, and a whole bunch of personal failures magnified by Las Vegas’ unforgiving heat. So I left. I tolerated my job during the week, and hopped in my car each Friday, looking for a new escape.

I hiked Flagstaff’s forests. I fought a skunk in Laughlin. I shuffled up the Virgin River in Zion until I could feel my hip flexors, a muscle I didn’t know I had. I cliff-jumped into alpine lakes above Bishop. I boated in Utah wearing a fox onesie, and later saw a real one, my first, trotting up a path in Boulder. It was magical. I napped on a beach in San Diego, where my pallor revealed my tourist status more so than my sensible shoes. I found a secret swimming hole in Sedona and rented a geodesic dome from two conspiracy theorists who had met in a Ron Paul chat room. (Because if anyone had the real intel on 9/11, it would be a former escort and an engineer from Arkansas.)​​

It was the most exciting summer of my life, and when it was over, I gradually began to realize something about the place I was determined to leave: It’s not so bad. This was an important set-up for 2015, the best year of my life here in Las Vegas. That year, I found a job I loved, a home I loved and a person I love, all because I realized this is a city I love.

It’s hot, yes, and I had changes to make, but overall, I was able to travel so often because it’s an affordable home base. Work is easy to find here, rent is easy to make here, and the natural beauty is unrivaled, to say nothing of the restaurants.

And then there are the people. I always forget this part of the equation when I start to think Las Vegas is the worst place on Earth. The people are the best. They’re pioneers and geniuses and scrappy adventurers with great stories to tell. They’re weird, and accepting of outsiders, and they’re my people.

I used to view Las Vegas as desolate, geographically isolated and depressing. It took getting away from home to realize Las Vegas is connected — to amazing day trips, stunning natural wonders, and, perhaps most importantly, me.



He Rubbed Off On Me

What I learned from a famous writer

By Joshua Wolf Shenk

In the fall of 2016, I hosted the writer William T. Vollmann at UNLV. He came for a literary conversation on the “spectacle of violence.” I’ve seen writers wear a variety of outfits for these panel conversations. Some take up the role of the Distinguished Figure, and wear a dapper jacket and dress shirt, or a dress picked out with care. Others go for Cultural Casual, and wear something sensible but sharp. Vollmann wore sneakers, jeans, and a loose-fitting tan shirt, untucked, over a tee.

Vollmann writes, paints, and makes photographs in a former Mexican restaurant in downtown Sacramento. He has a phone line in his studio but no internet. He doesn’t email or use the web, and he doesn’t use credit cards. He has traveled the world, though, including an adventure in his early twenties when he went to join the mujahadin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Though I’ve chosen a few select details pointing in this direction, it’s hard to emphasize just how much Vollmann is his own person, how little regard he has for piety, how little concern he affects — and, though I can’t know the man’s soul, how little concern he really seems to feel — for others’ conception of his work, his ideas, his person. I knew these things before Vollmann came to UNLV. I knew he had a thick FBI file, because he was once suspected as the Unabomber. I knew he brought a gun to a podium for a reading tour and shot blanks at the ceiling. I knew he has an alter ego, named Dolores, and made a book of self-portraits as her, in dresses and thick makeup. I knew he had spent copious time with skinheads and prostitutes. 

And so it was strange thing to learn what I learned from him, which is what it feels like to really listen. At the event itself, and around a long, white-clothed table at Ferraro’s afterward, and in the bright midnight lights of a casino diner with the other members of the panel, I watched Vollmann watch others, and sit still in a way that might be described as a kind of Zen slump. The next morning, we had chilaquiles and coffee, and the questions he asked me seemed like he had a kind of infrared gun sight set to focus on what’s important to me. I told him secrets, and they came out like water from a tap, and I began to ask him questions — practice, I realized, for offering back what he was offering me: I asked him what I most wanted to know. 

A few hours later, after a conference with graduate students at the BMI office, I felt a sensation which was, I realized, what curiosity feels like when you feel it in your chest.

It’s strange how disparate qualities are actually the norm. The most generous are so often the most needy, the most courageous the most vulnerable, etc. These tensions are heightened in people we generally consider remarkable. But when you get to know someone, you see that it’s not a contradiction but the operation of disparate gears toward some common end. We had Vollmann to town because of his work on violence, and yet I found him so tender, and we admired him for his literary voice, but he seemed so interested in listening. But I realized this was all part of the same project — the listening in order to speak of what’s most truthful. “If possible,” he said at our event, “we want to know something about the entire range of human experience. If you’re trying to solve an equation, it’s good to plug it in for zero and one and infinity — and then a couple of random numbers. And if it works for all of those, you might have some confidence that your solution might be right.”

See Part 1

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