November 18, 2021
I RECENTLY CELEBRATED a milestone: the 21st anniversary of my move to Las Vegas. This isn’t just any old anniversary — 21 is a special number in Vegas. Being dealt 21 means you’ve hit it big! You beat the house at their own game! YOU’RE RICH!
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When I look back at my 21 years here … well, I’m certainly not rich, and I wouldn’t even say I hit it medium, let alone big. But I have no criminal record, debt, or addictions — and I still have my original breasts, lips, and hair. So, in Vegas terms, I guess you could say I broke even!
When I first announced my decision to move to Las Vegas back in October 2000, most of my friends and relatives thought I was nuts: “Vegas is a second-chance town — why are you moving there?!” I guess it seemed an unlikely choice for someone with a newly minted art degree, a well-used library card, and an intact hymen. Why on earth would I move to Vegas, of all places?
Now you have to remember, this was Y2K — things were different. Vegas was still gross and dumpy — a place where you could get 99-cent shrimp cocktails and $2.99 steak and eggs while oxygen tank-toting grannies chain-smoked at the penny slots and busted old cowboys cried over their Crown Royal as some shitty lounge singer butchered “Solitaire.” A place where you could sit down at a nightclub without mortgaging your house! Times were different — and I loved it.
Nothing anyone said could dissuade me; I found Vegas — in all its tackiness, grittiness, fakeness, and realness — uniquely fascinating. And so it was that I embarked on my first, and greatest, Nevada adventure: becoming a Las Vegan.
At the time, I had a very particular idea of what the ultimate in Vegas glamour looked like, and I set out to achieve it in advance of my move: I threw away all my frumpy old hippie clothes and cultivated a new aesthetic I called “Ho Nouveau,” which involved a lot of Spandex, a lot of sequins, and a lot of pink — including my car.
Never mind that I already owned a sensible Nissan Sentra. In my mind, the ultimate Vegasmobile had to be fuel inefficient, American-made, and as square as the silent majority … so I traded that milquetoast 4-banger for some magic beans in the form of a grossly impractical and obscenely oversized 1986 Lincoln Town Car, which I had painted the color of Pepto-Bismol. It had a white top, a white interior, ashtrays full of candy, and a leaky oil pan. And the very next day, I set sail across the Mojave Desert!
I wasted no time upon arrival, securing a tidy 1-bedroom across the street from Palace Station for $560/month, then hitting the streets to find a job. My original plan was to be a cocktail waitress at Caesars Palace … but back then, they didn’t just hire chicks for being cute; it was more of a merit-based grind of working your way up the union ranks from midweek graveyard at the El Cortez, until one of the dinos at Caesars croaked to make way for fresh blood.
So I had to settle for lesser jobs, and in my 21 years in Vegas I did them all — go-go dancer, movie extra, cartoon mascot, camera girl, cigarette girl, Hooters girl, showgirl, convention model, nude model, fetish model … and now, YouTuber. Basically, anything that did not make use of my college degree, or allow me any measure of job security. But I sure had fun!
My first year in Vegas, I went to a different 24-hour coffee shop every night after work for chicken-fried steak — then burned the calories by dancing my pink hot pants off at all the clubs and lounges in town. And over the years, a pattern established itself: eat, drink and be merry … for tomorrow we get old and ugly!
I once had a fortune cookie at TAO that read, “Those who say YES have more fun,” and I took it to heart. Drinks after work? YES! Dancing at the swingers’ club? SURE! Monday Night Football at the titty bar? WHY NOT??
I swilled rotgut in dive bars, champagne in high-limit rooms, cocktails in a converted laundry-room speakeasy, and bourbon at a biker bar where Manson Family look-alikes screamed obscenities through megaphones. I threw back boozy coffee drinks on Mt. Charleston and boozy slushies on Lake Mead — and vodka cranberries everywhere.
And life was good. Party all day, hustle all night — or vice-versa; it didn’t matter. As long as I made my monthly nut … well, there was nothing else to worry about. Stuff like goals and artistic fulfillment and the meaning of life — I successfully kept those black dogs at bay through a strict regimen of drinking, dancing, and professionally pandering to the lower-brow tastes of middle America.
But after a while, no amount of booze could stop self-awareness from creeping in, and I saw myself as a pinball — aimlessly bouncing around the blinking, flashing neon maze of the Vegas Strip from gig to gig, party to party, one fun thing to another. $100! Ding! $500 DING!! $1,000! DING DING DING! I was racking up points, and desperately working the flippers to avoid the void.
And then, gradually, my interests shifted. I’m not sure what started it, but I began spending more time exploring the rest of Nevada, outside Vegas — because turns out there’s a whole state outside the city limits! The pinball game lost its allure … and finally, one day I let go of the controls, and let gravity roll me between the flippers, down the hole, and out of the whole glittering machine. Out past the last Dotty’s and the last Del Taco, into the desert … finally coming to a stop somewhere just outside Death Valley.
From my new digs, I can still see the machine’s midnight glow, and feel its distant hum. And I still have a few quarters left, so I could insert a coin and be right back in the game any time I want, which might be fun to do — or even necessary, at some point.
But it’s been 21 years, y’all … 21 years!! You know what that is in Vegas years?! Ages!!! And for now, I’m OK just toasting my 21 and walking away from the table. They say you gotta know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em — and though I might never be happy with what I have, I figure it’s prudent to cash out while the cashing’s good.
Sure, I’m still as artistically unfulfilled, unlucky in love and most definitely not-rich as ever — but who ever got rich at blackjack, anyway? Even the good casinos only pay 3 to 2.
And like I said earlier … I’m felony-free, addiction-free and debt-free — and still have my original breasts. I’ll take that as breaking even: I may be flat busted … but after 21 years in Vegas, at least I’m not broke!
This essay was originally published in Vegas Cannabis magazine.
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The job that has robbed me of my leisure time, and my energy, is designing signage for EDC, the Electric Daisy Carnival. It is simple work. Or it would be, were it not for the time crunch. Over the preceding two weeks, a small army has been battling unrelentingly to create a party, and I am in the trenches. I design signs for ADA compliance, for way-finding, and menus for food vendors. (The food vendors are the bane of my existence; flippant and frequent menu changes lead to cascading design conundrums and errors.) As soon as signs are approved, it’s off to the printer, and then back to the site the next day to be placed along avenues and at kiosks throughout the carnival.
A vibrant thumping has been sounding in the distance on and off all week. When this thunderous noise first arrived it was unsettling, but by Sunday morning, it barely registers as a nuisance. Superseding the massive sound system tests are jet fighters from Nellis Air Force Base putting in their paces. By 9 p.m. the base and the bass are quiet; the last remnant of music I hear is taps wafting peacefully across the desert from the Air Force’s loudspeakers.
Monday. Dust whips up, and 30 mph winds bear down upon the odd 15-person crew that makes up EDC’s signage department. They scramble, trying to keep corrugated plastic signs from taking flight. This is our second windy-day setback, and it leaves this bubbling group of young people exhausted.
The crew here is beautiful, spanning race, ethnicity, and body type, a menagerie of American dreamers. Orphans, country kids, urbanites, engineers, and hired hands. All searching for their place in a notoriously fickle industry. In this aspect of the job, I find a gentle grace. Despite my longing for my family, rest, easy afternoons watching tv, visiting friends, and working on passion projects, this crew brings me an odd joy. I am a stranger among strangers, readily accepted by diligent, professional oddballs. This may be my first job where I am not the weirdest person in the room, and for that I’m grateful. With them, this marathon of place-making is sort of fun.
Tuesday through Thursday are a breakneck race to recover from the wind. Everything must be rehung, and many signs redesigned. I've yet to see any of my hard work in person, relegated to my computer and folding chair. I watch the crew move to and fro with stacks of signs on the backs of golf carts, zip ties fastened to their waists.
On Friday, the attendee traffic begins. I arrive early, and there are still loose ends to tie up. The details are boring, but once the doors open, the boredom dissolves rapidly. At sunset, you can see the line of cars like shattered glass glistening in the distance, and then the helicopters begin to land. I'm told the endless stream of whirlybirds are toting children of the super rich from as far away as the Ritz Carlton in Los Angeles. I'm taken aback by this revelation, watching the helicopters at dusk, questioning why all of this energy and effort exists in service of a good time. Coming out of a flaming summer, still in the throes of a pandemic, with crisis and inequity so ubiquitous, is it really time to party? The answer for the human chattel streaming into the Speedway is Yes, it is time to party.
I catch a ride to what the crew refers to as the infield. Our golf cart zips along the race track, a poor imitation of its intended traffic, and I'm dropped off behind what I’m told is the most expensive stage on the planet. I am impressed. The stage is a three-story owl composed of massive speakers and neon feathers, a feat of technology I barely can fathom. The rest of the carnival is stunning from a purely aesthetic viewpoint; it’s a glittering marvel of cyclopean structures spanning endless acres of what would otherwise be barren concrete.
As the throngs of bodies pour into the space, it comes to life like a miniature city built for dazzling the senses. In recollection, the most recent event in my life that felt similar happens to be the George Floyd protest. That collective of human action focused on pain, not pleasure, provided me with greater joy and ecstasy than any amount of amusing lights and thumping rhythms can now. I wonder if the mass of will that generated this event could have been used in contribution to loftier goals, instead of a backdrop for influencers and the hyper-wealthy to satisfy their need for opulence. Still, it's a nice Friday night. I leave early and fight traffic for two hours back to my quiet home, discontent with the state of human affairs simmering in my gutt.
My Saturday is spent attempting to reconnect with my family. For a fortnight, I've seen them only in sporadic moments, late at night or early in the morning. On Sunday, I received a request from my middle child, an 11-year-old boy, wanting to see what his father’s labor has contributed to. “Can we go to EDC, Dad?” It's been a difficult year to be a dad — and to be a kid. Economic uncertainty, reintegration into a hobbling school system, and difficult reappraisal of what domesticity looks like in mercurial times make a trip with the kid to EDC seem like a viable bonding experience. So, I put in a request.
We get permission to attend as father and son, and arrive a few hours early. My son is informed on the golf cart ride to the infield that he is being given something even the wealthiest of attendees don't get: a glimpse behind the scenes with a personal chauffeur. He is ecstatic and marvels at the stages and rides. My jaded sense of inequity is shuffled to the back of my mind as we line up for the sky screamer, a plate of overpriced nachos, ordered off a menu I inform my son I designed, in hand. We flit from kiosk to kiosk, stage to stage, never finding a rhythm that suits my boy. We do have a great time, though, and his smile is more rewarding than any amount of financial compensation I was working to receive.
Still, it's a mixed bag. After about three hours, my son loses interest in anything but the carnival rides, and by then the lines are too long to be worth the wait. The sights and sounds that enrapture raver after raver fail to capture the interest of my preteen, making me wonder what the fuss is all about. I do believe in the need for dance and light and joy in human life. I embrace what rave culture was originally created for: a disarming of the senses in a concert space that made way for peace, love, respect, and unity. But in the miles-long traffic jam on the way back home with my son by my side, I worry that the pursuit of pleasure we’ve just left is contributing to a world that will deprive his generation of the same frivolity.
1. FIRST, THE GOOD NEWS: In the small town of Hondzonot, in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, a group of Mayan housewives started a softball team to get outside for some fresh air and exercise. That casual afternoon diversion has evolved into a highly competitive women’s softball team, Las Diablillas (“the Little Devils”), who play barefoot and in traditional dress.
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Their story, which appeared in Yahoo! News this past April as “ Indigenous softball team bats away Mexico machismo” and was recently amplified by The New York Times, can’t help but make you feel hopeful for the world. Not only do the Little Devils overcome sexism and other barriers to pursue their sports dream, but they also cling to their Indigenous traditions along the way, even inspiring a second women’s team to form in their region. And the quality of their play has made them national stars — one team member recently appeared at a public speech with Mexican President Andrès Manuel Lòpez Obrador — stoking hope that the country will invest more in women’s softball to help out municipal leagues. Go, Devils, go!
2. Now, back to reality: the god-awful politicization and polarization of every nook and cranny of our society — most recently, school boards. Not that they haven’t always been political to some degree, but what’s happening lately in these traditional domains of crossing-guard rules and school lunch menus has turned downright sinister, as displayed in this week’s riveting two-part episode of New York Times podcast The Daily. Titled “ The School Board Wars,” the series summarizes and analyzes the events of the last 18 months in the public school district of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, from the formation of a parents group pushing for school reopening during the pandemic, to the recent infusion of hundreds of thousands of PAC dollars into statewide school board races. In one notable moment, the swing voter on the increasingly partisan Central Bucks School District board resigns at a public meeting, citing death threats against himself and his family as evidence that the parents gathered to shout each other down, once again, are “disgusting.” So, why does this concern us here in Southern Nevada, where we have our very own school board drama to attend to? Two reasons. First, it provides national context for the local conversation about what school boards should actually be doing (particularly in the second episode), and second, it tells a cautionary tale about what can happen when parents, teachers, and administrators lose sight of the big picture and stop working together for the common good.
3. As you’ve undoubtedly noticed in my previous recommendations, I have a weakness for writers who are willing to spend countless hours poring over boring meeting minutes and regulatory memos in search of smoking guns. A recent example of this comes from Stanford University’s Benjamin Franta, who did exactly that and found indisputable evidence that the oil and gas industry has long known its products and services were contributing to harmful global warming. How long? Since at least 1959 (let that sink in), when a scientist gave a speech at a petroleum conference including this nugget: “Whenever you burn conventional fuel, you create carbon dioxide. … Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect.” The scientist went on to warn those present that if the world kept burning fossil fuels, there would be catastrophic effects. The story won’t make you feel any better about the mediocrity on display this month at COP26, but it should certainly dispel any lingering doubt you may have that what we’re experiencing now — from year-round wildfires to 90-degree Novembers — is no accident. It was a choice.
4. Okay, let’s end on a high note, shall we? As you head into the holiday week, bookmark some devilishly funny videos by Ladies of Native Comedy to pass the time. I was turned onto them by a recent Daily Yonder article about Kiowa and Plains Apache comic Adrienne Chalepah, whose bit about long-haired girls who always have a hairband around their wrist struck a hysterical personal note with this small-town girl from shit-kicker country. (In Chalepah’s version they’re Native, but I can attest to the cross-cultural wisdom of her advice not to mess with “that girl.") There are only a few clips available on the LNC and Yonder websites, but a quick search of the group’s members by their names will turn up many others. They’re the perfect distraction from long airport and Lyft waits on the way to grandma’s house for Native American Heritage Month dinner. Heidi Kyser
Photos and art: Wonderhussy courtesy Sarah Jane Woodall; EDC photo by BRPHOTO.CO
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