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March 24, 2022

Are we there yet? When, and how, to grieve our pandemic losses | An ode to the good ol' days of air travel | The video memorial we can't look away from

I HAVEN'T REGISTERED my car since October 2019. Initially it went unregistered because I couldn’t access DMV services. Later, it was a lack of income. At this point, it's beginning to feel like something else. 

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I'm driving casually down Tropicana Avenue, anxiously checking my rearview for police cruisers until I come to a stop. Idling at the red light on Pecos, I notice, in my periphery, the soft silhouette of one of my favorite places in the Valley, Tropicana Cinemas. If you've never been there, it's commonly called the dollar theater.

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Tropicana Cinemas runs old films for folks on a budget, usually just after they have officially exited rotation in the box office. It's a place that comes to mind when you're searching for something to do that won't cost you an arm and a leg. For around twenty bucks, an entire family can attend a screening of a slightly used movie. Or they could have, before the pandemic. 

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My eyes scan the parking lot bereft of cars or people, and I become acutely aware of a loss. Lamenting the closure of a low-budget movie theater to a global pandemic that has shuttered inumerable businesses, devastated economies, and cut short millions of lives may reflect an overdeveloped sense of grief. Still, in this pause between motion and destination, the cinemas, much like my expired tags, contain something else – an atrophied appendage of emotion.

I begin to take stock of how many places have vanished. Traveling through the city in my mind, I wince with the same sensation one gets when putting a hand on a freezing surface without warning. Small absent spaces riddle the landscape.

Traveling east Charleston, I find myself hungry and decide to stop at Every Grain. The clean lively flavors produced by my favorite restaurateurs, Jenny and Sheridan Su, always satisfy. But it’s closed. Not just for the day, but gone. Indefinitely. They had been up and running just a few months earlier, but now all that deliciousness has slipped away, leaving an empty feeling in my mouth and heart.

The next day, I pass Texas Station, the locals casino used only as a COVID testing location for the last few years. Texas station's temporary closure is no great loss to me personally, but I consider all the first dates, family dinners, and penny slots that it provided the surrounding neighborhood and imagine how two years without it may have influenced the lives of an already underserved population.

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I understand that theaters close, restaurants shutter, casinos come and go. Still, it must be observed that in 2020 Nevada ranked third in permanent business closures nationwide. Ten businesses per one thousand would never return; that's more than 30,000 statewide. Last year seven local casinos were temporarily closed, and this year three remain unopened.

I'm well acquainted with our city's mercurial nature. We are a culture that implodes casinos. In light of how easily we decimate historic landmarks, why should I care about a cheap picture house, a neighborhood eatery, or a local casino? But I do, and you should too. These are the spaces that turn a town into a home. They’re the way a community creates locus.

And it's not just the places; it's also the time to transition, to mourn, to adjust. The entirety of the last three years has cost us – not simply in material terms. There is an uneasy hollow, a cavernous feeling to things, that arrived sometime in the night, when our backs were turned. What's missing is something different for everyone, I suspect. What is it for you? A theater, a restaurant, a forest, a friend, a lover, a parent?

Is it an individual circumstance? Or is it the creeping realization that we – and I do mean all of us – have lost our core delusions in a manner so fractured that we can't collectively seek each other's comfort? We’ve had no national day of mourning, no local communal action, no moment of catharsis or reconciliation. I refuse to credit the pandemic for this dis-ease. In the long run, the slide from perceived stability to confirmed precarity only feels so sharp in light of the pause that COVID provided us, not because it wasn't always there.

I see that there are new things too. So much development: luxury apartments, entertainment centers, shopping center grand openings. That weird glass car garage next to I-15. To some, these developments must feel like budding flowers growing in hopeful soil. I view them as what they are: another phase in an ever-changing landscape. But under these circumstances, the capacity of engaging them in celebration feels forced.

I keep motoring. The roads seem increasingly congested, drivers agitated and erratic. Are there more cars than ever, and when did this happen? We live in a town peppered with phantoms. And somewhere along the way someone decided the solution was more people?

In any case, I have lost a city, or at least a sense of place. Make no mistake – Las Vegas is still there, running the numbers business, as usual. And that may be the heart of the problem. The greater push to re-engage normalcy, get back to work, continue our hustle in order to project ourselves through a tumultuous present into a future that seems to only offer perpetual crisis … It leaves us panting and desperate, attempting to reach the threshold of our own sanity. Or maybe I'm just stuck in the past, hung up on what once was.

I'll leave you with this though. I'll be here! Driving around our future ghost town, bad tags on the back of my messy little car. And if, like me, you crave the creation of a narrative, a life and a city that diverge from the path we’ve been on, feel free to hop in. You can ride shotgun. We can tour the places that we once loved but no longer exist, make a list of everything that we’ve lost and start a new one. Joe Strummer said “The future is unwritten,” and I believe he was correct. From this moment to the next I will be here, and so will you. I hope we can both make the most of it.

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HIS NAME WAS Luther Tubbs. Bright lime-green uniform with brighter yellow piping, like the Wizard of Oz in partial disguise — and an even greener green cap with crisp gold braid. He offered a chauffeur service at the Oakland Airport in a green 1958 Lincoln Continental (he was proud that the cabbies hated him). As a kid, I loved to go to the airport with my parents to pick up friends and relatives just to maybe see him, so in business on his own.

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I loved even more to be hauled out across the Bay to San Francisco International Airport where the kerosene rush of the jet fuel was stronger, and there in the main terminal was a giant wooden jigsaw mosaic with Polynesian and Asian themes, outrigger canoes and Chinatown dragons, Gold Rush pickaxes, sea lions, cable cars, and California missions — a gorgeous, mingled mass welcome to the new American West and Pacific Rim Exotica.

I thrilled to watch the clacking names of cities rotate on the big black signs … Hong Kong, Honolulu, Athens, Oslo, Karachi. Even domestic destinations like Detroit and Milwaukee took on an air of enigma and wonder. (The idea that I might one day go to Cincinnati was then a source of awe and not dismay. Imagine that.)

Everything about airports electrified me, from the first moment I could go to a public restroom unchaperoned. I savored the different psychic auras of departure and arrival surrounding all the strangers I somehow felt I knew. Sorrow. Longing. Hope. Solitary excitement. Communal celebration. Uncertainty. Necessity. And that mysteriously intuited but still foreign adult relief of those glad to be departing with just a Bloody Mary at a lounge bar to see them off. At age 8, I wrote down in a small Carnival notebook the first overheard line of my writing life: “We’re only here to say goodbye to people.”

My first actual air travel experience found me wiggling in polyester ecstasy. It was far too short a flight to Burbank, California — but I hit that never-forgotten high of First Stewardess Adoration. I spiraled like a chain of suitcases out of a DC-10 for Jackie. Even prettier than my third-grade teacher, she wore a uniform like I’d never seen before. Her tight blue waist-cut jacket and skirt (and that hat) truly suited her (maybe the first moment I can remember where such symbolic authority seemed purely reassuring and not intimidating — and genuine, as in deserved). I held my breath as she took me by my right hand and led me to the cockpit to meet the pilot and crew. She pinned silver wings to my striped shirt and gave me extra pretzels and a Fanta grape drink (my favorite then). I wanted to live with her forever, in our own airplane, where she’d be served, and we’d never land.

Thousands of air miles later, memorable moments and crises: an engine catching fire out of Heathrow; landing in Shanghai after midnight on the first day of Chinese New Year; getting a ride on the mobile stair unit to the closed door of a running plane in Reykjavik (what a learning experience); the sheer design intensity of Vancouver and Kuala Lumpur’s airports; just the thought of Cairo or Mexico City’s bazaar cacophony; witnessing a sleek-suited man from Delhi buying a Nigerian woman a $150,000 Cartier watch in Dubai at dawn; LAX and Kennedy over and over (how can anyone not delight in Jamaicans landing in Queens in tropical regalia despite the sleet?). Oh, yes, mate. Something special about Qantas passengers upchucking for hours across the blind Pacific … or taking off in a black-eye cyclone from the Isle of Pines while sending up a huge rooster tail of rain down the runway lined with rebel forces, the wind-shear shudder like the end of the world. And, of course, the little matter of a twin-engine emergency crash landing in a remote part of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Hard to forget when the rescue team carries black palmwood spears.

But there’s also that first fabulous time flying into Vegas at night. Sooo worth a window seat: The sheer symphonic transition from utter high desert mountain dark to the sudden shapeshifting mirage of the ultimate Boom Town — night-blooming oasis of impossible possibility. (And they call Paris the City of Light!)

In my personal flight log, I’d place that right up there with the Cathay Pacific upgrade to first class from the Philippines to Singapore, sipping a real Bordeaux and listening to Yo-Yo Ma on custom headphones, dining on stir-fry beef and mushrooms in oyster sauce, the jungles of Vietnam almost innocent below. For those of a certain vintage, even defunct airlines hold a special fondness. Who in the know doesn’t miss Pan-Am, PSA, and TWA? Hughes Airwest and People Express? Of all the lost airlines, though, Western Airlines wins the prize for memorable campaign lines: “The ohhhnly way to fly.”

I don’t think the infamous skyjackings of the ’70s, the tragedy of 9/11 and its consequences, the ghostly conundrum of MH370, increasingly extreme weather, or the on-going COVID obstacles of recent times — or any one event or development — is the root of the lost glamour and charm of commercial airline flight. There’s a pattern that follows the cost-cutting mandates of free-market efficiency: Less legroom, thinner blankets, no blankets. Carry-on luggage rules, plastic cutlery, plastic food. And let’s not forget problems at the hard metal and industrial end, with accelerated airplane production times, union stresses, training and skills shortages. Maybe air travel is simply more magic than we can economically, culturally, and environmentally sustain. As a pilot friend of mine says somewhat cryptically, “Only so many pigs can fly.”

But while some of us may justifiably lament a vanishing era of at least potentially democratic air travel (with a modicum of convenience and basic corporate goodwill), I keep two things in mind as a tonic to the pining nostalgia. One, I check out Greyhound Bus depots in U.S. cities I visit. I spent a lot of time in Greyhound stations growing up. They have plenty of cultural mystique and heritage — just not easily romanticized — and they speak to class and racial divides Americans aren’t keen to dwell on. Secondly, I consider the history of aviation, and how so many of the aeronautical and engineering innovations emerged from military applications. War.

Still, even when I do my best to put the realities of air travel today into a larger perspective, I get frustrated fumbling with the chintzy bags of Sky Bites (“a savory mix”), wide-body bodies in increasingly narrow seats, and people trying to ram elephant-sized suitcases into the overhead compartments. I drift back in my mind to Jackie and those silver wings. We will soon be arriving … the local time is …

Remind me what the time is? We all hope for the promise of arrival, not merely the fact of departure.


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1. ARMCHAIR PSYCHOLOGISTS are fond of saying there’s no wrong way to grieve. But as far as media tributes to pandemic victims go, some certainly feel more right than others. One is PBS NewsHour’s COVID In Memoriam, a collection of videos, each honoring five people who died in the pandemic, including photos and testimonials submitted by their survivors. My husband and I caught the first of these segments during dinner in April 2020. It came on, as all the subsequent airings would, at the tail end of NewsHour’s Friday broadcast. We set down our forks, riveted to the story of the violist who’d taken over conducting a New York youth orchestra from his father and played with the Metropolitan opera for 33 years; the St. Louis perinatal nurse specialist who fought racial disparities in access to maternal care and “was like a sister, a best friend” to her coworkers and patients; the Seattle taco truck owner who was a father of five and only 44 years old.

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It was such raw, irrefutable evidence of the tragedy we were in the midst of that my husband and I were both speechless by the segment’s end. But as the months — and the pandemic — wore on, we sat through countless more of them, watching till the end, always choked up. It became our way to pay respects those who’d died and the living who’d loved them. And, a chance to grieve what we’d lost ourselves. Heidi Kyser

2. The headline of the COVID pandemic article that most stuck with me is hyperbolic: The Pandemic Has Erased Entire Categories of Friendship. Even The Atlantic isn’t above clickbait. Published January 27, 2021, before many of us got our first jab and began socializing in earnest again, Amanda Mull’s story nonetheless highlights the encounters we overlooked the most: our various acquaintances, or, sociologically speaking, the “weak ties.” People we’d run into at Target. Strangers we’d small-talk with while waiting for our cars to be washed. Baristas, bartenders, and the other parents waiting outside the school gate — all the “human texture” that disappeared in the era of curbside pickup and at-home everything. It turns out these folks were nearly as important to our social health as our Zoom buddies. It’s been 14 months since the story was published, and personally speaking, reconnection to those beyond my inner circle is still occasionally awkward. But as casual interaction begins to feel ordinary again, this pandemic chestnut is a good reminder of why we shouldn't take anyone — even the brusque hostess at a busy restaurant — for granted. Mike Prevatt

3. In regular years, you can’t get the world to agree on much, but 2020 was anything but regular. For the first time in history, there was a period when all 8 billion of us collectively huddled in our homes and stared at a screen. “What the hell do I do now?” we asked, billions of times, in innumerable languages. In a world devoid of socialization and human interaction, the answer we most agreed on was, "TikTok," the social media app known for teenage kids lip-syncing to Dua Lipa. Often, it felt like the only thing standing between us and insanity were 20 seconds of humanity — videos that ranged from skateboarders sipping cranberry juice, to Will Smith doing dance challenges. Of all the TikTok videos I consumed in 2020 (and it was an ungodly amount), none stood out more than hartyt_'s instant classic, his stitch to Cookie Kawhi’s Throw it Back. In a satire of the Twerk-heavy reactions to Kawhi’s song that were going viral, hartyt__ stitched his pet duck flapping his tail feathers — “throwing it back.” The mockery became a smash hit, garnering more than 3.5 million likes and becoming 2020’s 10th most popular video. And it still reminds me that, although 2020’s lockdown brought immense physical loneliness, TikTok, ironically, brought us closer, as the world slowed down, took a break, and laughed together.  Ganny Belloni

4. God bless Las Vegas Weekly editor and my former Vegas Seven magazine colleague Geoff Carter for starting the Facebook Group Commuting to Elysium. The emotive, interesting, quirky collection of music, poetry, and whatever this is comforted those of us who were lucky enough to be invited to the group during the most difficult part of the lockdown. Everything everyone posted was great, but the most meaningful thing to me was a link to the Keep Going Song, a video by husband-and-wife duo The Bengsons that's been viewed more than 4 million times on social media. In the video, the couple, Abigail and Shaun, reflect with compassion and humor on the lockdown's challenges, both large (having enough to eat) and small (hunkering down with their toddler at their parents' house in Dayton, Ohio, for what they thought would be "two weeks, tops"). And the piece ends with a still-relevant prayer: May we realize the world we collectively imagined in those early days, one in which we're there "for each other, and our ancestors, and our kids," understanding our interdependence and leaving things better than we found them.  HK


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Photos and art: COVID closures and airport illustration: Shutterstock; Bob Hope Aiport: Junkyardsparkle, Wikimedia Commons

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