This is how you ground yourself in an elusive, unfamiliar city — on foot, walking it into focus in all its specificity and wonder
There was a homeless guy in my neighborhood. He called himself the Facebook President of the World. Every now and again, I would see him, a burly man with close-cropped graying hair, pushing a shopping cart or sitting at an outside table at the Starbucks on Maryland and Dorothy, sipping from a container of coffee, wearing what looked like a Runnin’ Rebels basketball shirt, slit up the sides all the way to the armpits, with that designation — Facebook President of the World — hand-painted on the back. Like Las Vegas itself, he was elusive; I’d see him, and then I would not. Just when I began to believe I had invented him, just when I began to doubt the evidence of his existence, he would reappear.
It was the same with everything. I had come to Nevada, as is my tendency, without preparation. I was living a short walk from UNLV for four months, the length of a semester, on a fellowship from Black Mountain Institute. The day I left Los Angeles, I was at such loose ends I missed the turnoff for the 15 north, in Ontario, and had to double back, using the 215. By the time I reached Las Vegas, it was dark. On my phone, I have a slow-motion series of photographs tracing the sequence of my arrival, taken through the driver’s side window of my car. First, the Ivanpah solar power station, just on the other side of the state border, the last landmark in California before you cross over into Primm. In the gloaming, the three boiler towers rise from a field of mirrors that glimmer like an artificial lake. Next, an image taken 40 minutes later: the Statue of Liberty holding her torch aloft at the corner of the Strip and Tropicana, gateway to New York-New York. I grew up in New York, but only visited the actual statue one time, when my children were younger, many years after I moved away. Chalk it up to resistance, perhaps, or skepticism … of being a tourist, of doing the expected, of buying into any vision of a city other than my own. The Statue of Liberty has never made me feel at home, either in New York Harbor or on Las Vegas Boulevard, where it stood squat and compressed as I drove past, a facsimile in incremental scale.
This preparation, or, more accurately, its lack — this was the key to my disquiet. I had imagined Las Vegas, if I had imagined it, as a dream space: not the Strip (for months before my arrival, I would tell whomever might be listening that I was eager to discover the other Las Vegas, the real Las Vegas, although I did not possess the slightest notion what that was) but the neighborhoods. And yet, what were these neighborhoods? How were they defined? I had a small apartment on Elizabeth Avenue, in a cluster of side streets named, I had decided, for the developer’s daughters: Deirdre, Heidi, Roberta, Lorilyn. There were only a few ways in or out of the subdivision: Elizabeth or Dorothy, which opened onto Maryland, and Gabriel Drive, three or four blocks east, which led to Spencer Street, and then north to Harmon Avenue. I had been warned, before I came, that Las Vegas isn’t a walking city, but what was I to do? I am, to borrow a phrase from Alfred Kazin, a walker in the city; it is how I ground myself.
That was why I had chosen the place on Elizabeth, because of its proximity to campus; I anticipated quiet. Strange, I know … it was not as if I had never been to Las Vegas, not as if I didn’t know where the university was. Across from the airport, just east of the Strip, the whole conglomeration like some strange amorphous triple junction, designed for tourists or, at least, for visitors: easy in and easy out. Still, when I thought about where I’d be living — no Googling for me, no mapping and no photos, not a single search to see the street, the façade of the building, the pocked ribbon of Maryland Parkway stretching north toward Downtown, pavement dusted white with alkaline, homeless huddled at the intersections, hiding first from the piercing winter wind and later from the sun — the image that arose was that of a college town. Town? No, neighborhood, that word again, as if the city were (as it likes to sell itself) a template for my desires. Then I showed up in the gloom of a January evening, sidewalks scoured empty, shadowed by the Strip. I drove east on Tropicana, past the Thomas & Mack Center and the Vons. I found the address, moved my stuff out of the car: a suitcase and a pile of books. The air was thin, the darkness brittle. I was alone. The solitude felt crushing, as if I had driven off the edge of the known world. The feeling grew more pronounced once I returned to the car to explore the territory: Tropicana to Eastern, Eastern south to Russell, and back around. I was looking for somewhere to eat, but all I encountered were shopping centers, no visual cues to orient myself, just façade after façade of what looked like the same chains. It wasn’t, I would later learn, that there was nothing to discover, just that, like the Facebook President of the World, the city had a way of concealing itself, of hiding in plain sight. This may be the truest thing I have learned about Las Vegas, that all the spectacle is only that, a distraction, a sleight of hand, a way by which the place refuses, or resists, being revealed. To see more than these chimeric glimpses, you have to peer beneath the surface. You have to make the city small. You have to walk the streets in daylight. You have to get out of the car.
Making the city small: This is how I’ve lived in Southern California all along, which suggests one characteristic Las Vegas and Los Angeles share. I don’t want to make too much of this, don’t want to frame comparisons between places that are so distinct. And yet, the commonalities — from the chains (bank, supermarket, restaurants) to the sprawl, the nebulous lack of center, the insistence each city offers that we must make it up as we go along. My first weeks in Nevada, I met a bunch of people, other writers mostly, journalists or university faculty. I spent a lot of time on Fremont Street, although I did not walk to get there — too far, the blocks along Maryland too long, too industrial. I did, however, start to recognize the landmarks: the Boulevard Mall, the Las Vegas Country Club, Sunrise Hospital, all built in the 1950s and 1960s by Moe Dalitz, who wanted to be remembered not as a bootlegger but as a philanthropist.
Dalitz was my kind of guy, a tough Jew from Boston, by way of Michigan and Cleveland. In another world, he could have been my grandfather … or, more likely, a distant uncle, someone we talked about but never saw. My father had cousins named Buchalter, and as an adolescent, I often fantasized that one of them might be Lepke, notorious founder of Murder, Inc. I ran across his name at the Mob Museum, along with Dalitz, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel. Theirs were stories I recognized, which led me to the second truest thing I have learned about Las Vegas, that its most outlandish bits of narrative may in fact be the most down-to-earth. Las Vegas is a new city, or a cluster of new cities (Paradise, Summerlin, Henderson); it wears its myths like a psychic skin. They exist as origin story, in the sense that what we make of them says a lot about who we are. They assert that the past — or at least, tradition — doesn’t matter, that image, or reinvention, is everything in the glittering pleasure dome of the New World. For me, though, the past is useful because of what it tells us of the present, where we are and how we arrived. Dalitz, the Mob Museum, even Tony Hsieh and his elusive Downtown Project: I needed a way to pierce these public narratives, to find a passage to the private narrative inside. This was the issue with which I wrestled each time I walked to campus, or drove past Sunrise Hospital. I thought of Hunter S. Thompson: “A little bit of this town,” he wrote in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “goes a very long way.” That was part of the history, too, although I never realized it until I landed here and reread the book, recognizing all the landmarks I had once glossed over, that I had once imagined not as geography but archetype.
The key, of course, was walking. I thought about that as I cut through alleys and parking lots to reach my campus office, past Jimmy John’s and the Stake Out, Chewy Boba and the Army Recruiting Office, Mr. Sandwich and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. This was urban walking after a fashion, repetitive and serendipitous at once. This was the only way I knew to connect with the city on my terms. Headed home in the afternoons, I would stop at the Town Mini-Mart, pick up a six-pack or a couple of quart bottles of beer. I am looking at a photograph of it right now, courtesy of Google, sky above Elizabeth Avenue overcast and that flimsy promotional flag fronting the sidewalk: SMOKE SHOP, it declares in block letters of black and red. What I am seeing is evidence of a double vision — not just past and present, although I am no longer in Las Vegas as I write. No, equally important is a sense of reshaping the environment to fit my requirements, most essentially that of navigating at the level of the streets. In Los Angeles (I almost wrote Las Angeles; do you see how landscape blurs and overlaps in my imagination?), I have always lived within walking distance of the basic amenities: bank, mini-mart, coffee shop, bar. It was luck, or coincidence, to find I might do the same in Las Vegas, and then intention once I realized this could root me to the place. I was looking for the familiar, a city that felt like home. I was away from everything, but still: By retracing these footsteps, I might sketch out, or start to, the shape of something (community, let’s call it) every day when I set out for work. I began to walk the campus on the weekends, for exercise and recreation, but also as a strategy. Back in Southern California, I often walked through Hancock Park, past the La Brea Tar Pits, and there was something about UNLV that felt if not reminiscent, then at least equivalent: the green of the North Mall, the long stretch of it, and the quiet on the other side of the Student Union, after escaping the traffic rustling north and south on Maryland.
One Saturday in mid-winter, I decided I should visit the Springs Preserve: relic of a different history, predating Dalitz and legal gambling, stretching back to Mormon days. Las Vegas, the Meadows, oasis in the high desert, trading post between Los Angeles and Salt Lake. I hadn’t expected that (again, the lack of preparation), nor the rain that pebbled the sidewalks, spit from the February sky. I spent the morning waiting out the weather; it was a lazy Saturday, no reason to do anything but drink my coffee, pace my small rooms, stare out at the grayness of the day. I hadn’t meant to leave until the afternoon, at any rate. The Preserve was not far from a sushi place I liked, on Spring Mountain Road in Chinatown, and the idea was to end up there when I was done. This felt like an ordinary thing to do, the activity of a resident, the sort of plan I might make on any given Saturday, anywhere. For all the people I met, I spent much of my time in Las Vegas by myself, less transplant than alien, so let’s call this an attempt to normalize. The rain, though, it would not cooperate — or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that nature doesn’t care. By mid-afternoon, I felt antsy, cooped up, if less than eager to trek the Preserve. Instead, I pulled on a hoodie and a leather jacket and went out into the misting drizzle, thinking I might wander campus for a little while. I wanted air, I wanted space, I wanted to feel the city breathe around me, I wanted to see the afternoon pass as slowly as the weather, I wanted to walk right through the middle of it. The streets were empty, damp with precipitation; the pavement gave off that wet concrete smell. I was the only person on the sidewalk, and if I’m being careful with the details, it’s because the whole thing feels like a dream to me now. Yes, a dream, one more layer of concealment … or revelation, take your pick. Like the Facebook President of the World, who I may or may not have encountered on the walk to UNLV; I want to say I did, but I cannot recall.
The university paths were empty, as they often are on weekends. Or no, not empty but almost — which can be lonelier, a reminder of our fundamental isolation, the distances that don’t collapse between us, although today the opposite was true. Not that I felt connected, or part of something … except that in a way I did. It was a communion based, in some odd way, on a set of shared separations: Everyone was here for reasons of their own. First, a student film crew, shooting kids on skateboards as they did tricks on the Student Union stairs. I watched briefly in the drizzle, listened to the director call out Action and Cut and Action again, the skaters pouring onto the East Mall like water off the back of the world. Their boards kept clattering as I moved more deeply into campus, past the art gallery and the enormous Flashlight, by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, which stands like an obelisk in the plaza of the Concert Hall. I knew Oldenburg’s work, although I hadn’t thought about it for decades; his Split Button had been installed at the University of Pennsylvania shortly after my freshman year. His name felt unexpectedly familiar, as if he were an acquaintance I hadn’t anticipated seeing again. Near the Chemistry building, a group of South Asian students played cricket: a regular Saturday engagement, I would come to learn. I stood for a few minutes here as well, took in the looping motion of the bowler, the joshing exhortations of the players, tamped down and softened by the rain. I could have been anywhere — Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Central Park — which felt, in this moment anyway, like the point. At the Lied Library, an exhibit celebrated the city’s literature, which I was getting to know a little bit. Before moving to Los Angeles, I had read everything I could get my hands on. If the same was not true of Las Vegas, I was making up for it now. My nightstand was stacked with a small pile of books about the city: Thompson, yes, but also Geoff Schumacher, William Fox and Dave Hickey, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. All the same, what I was experiencing now felt most exhilarating because it existed outside those narratives, because it was mine alone. I was reminded again of Hancock Park, the Tar Pits, all those circles I liked to walk in that other city, a reflection of the paths I was traversing here. This is how we find ourselves, I remember thinking, by way of these small instants or interactions, which have less to do with other people (how could they?) than with us.
I don’t recall how long I stayed on campus, or what time it was when I left. I know the rain had stopped and twilight was descending, a thin gray blanket dropped over the face of a grayer day. I wandered south on Maryland to Tropicana, stopped in at the Crown & Anchor for a drink. Afterward, I crossed the avenue and went to Vons to buy groceries: meat and cheese, bread, soup, and bottled water, which I carried back the way I’d come. Standing on the corner, across from the Chevron station with its standard Vegas Valley come-on — Beer • Cigarettes • Poker, a sign I’d photographed my first week in the city, as if it might tell me something useful — I watched as a Southwest jet arced out of McCarran into the blankness of the sky. I thought about taking another picture: faded white lines of the crosswalk, broken surface of the roadway, phone and power lines suspended above traffic signals, gas and fast food joints. Glamorous Las Vegas, I would call it, a postcard for the city in which I lived. Then, the light changed, and I started across Tropicana, and the moment … it was gone.
I didn’t see him until I was partway up the block to Elizabeth, plastic bag handles cutting into the creases of my fingers as I dodged the fenced construction north of Jack in the Box. I was wrangling with the bags, shifting them from one hand to the other; when I looked up, there he was. Facebook President of the World, in his basketball shirt, shopping cart almost toy-sized in his heavy hands. Hello, I mumbled, but he didn’t hear me, or didn’t want to acknowledge that he had. It didn’t matter, I would never know him, regardless of how long I stayed in town. This is the third truest thing I have learned about Las Vegas, although really, it’s the case no matter where you are. The city, it doesn’t care about you, any more than nature does; anonymity is the whole idea. I could remain here four months or four decades and it would be the same, a series of concentric circles, the patterns by which we mark ourselves in civic space. Later, I would drive to Chinatown, sit at the sushi bar of the place I liked, feel like I belonged. This had been the plan all along, to find a way to be connected, but if the Facebook President of the World had anything to tell me, it was that I could just as easily end up lost. I watched him push his cart down Maryland and disappear around the corner, gone. By the time I could think more about it, I was already home.
David L. Ulin is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. He spent the winter and spring in Las Vegas as a Tom and Mary Gallagher Fellow at UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute.