Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Last Mile in Vegas

I'm at HIMSS12, the big annual Healthcare IT conference, in Las Vegas this year. Thirty five thousand people came this year - a record - filling the meeting space at the Sands Expo complex at the Venetian and Palazzo hotels on Las Vegas Boulevard, the famous "strip." This part of Vegas is arguably the upper crust of the casinos and hotels, with the Bellagio, the Aria, Ceasar's Palace, the Winn and the Encore as neighbors and peers for the beautiful Venetian and newer Palazzo. Luxury suites, gourmet dining in restaurants run by the finest chefs in America, the most beautiful decor and casinos, the prettiest cocktail waitresses...

The crowds, the constant party atmosphere, the noise level, were getting to me after two days, so last night I sketched the huge red Chinese dragon in one of the lobby spaces. It helped me unwind enough to sleep.

Today, after day three, I returned to my room, changed into jeans and denim jacket, and headed out to get some air and some perspective. Quiet is what I needed, but that is not something you can find on the strip except in the few hours before dawn. I more or less leapt out of the hotel lobby and headed north. I met some co-workers headed for a restaurant, and I had enjoyed the two previous evenings of fine dining and conversation, but tonight I needed to pass and spend some time alone.

This morning I had picked up a pedometer from the Kaiser Permanente booth, the "Every Body Walk" campaign. The goal was to walk 10,000 steps before 5:00. Five miles. Not unlikely at a conference like HIMSS, and I had actually done 7800 steps by 5:00. As I headed north from the Palazzo, I knew I'd finish the last mile+ on the walk up the street.

As I passed the Encore, the Winn's twin to the north, I crossed into another Vegas. I had heard that the area up by the Needle was "sketchy," but I was surprised at the sudden transition to tatoo parlors, cheap buffets, liquor stores, and dirty sidewalks. The manicured gardens and surround sound show tunes of the streets near the Palazzo were replaced by gravel pits, barred windows, and garish neon signs. The people on the sidewalks were mostly indistinguishable from the pan-handlers who frequent the pedestrian bridges at the crosswalks in the posh part of town. The tall, thin guy on in-line skates with six inch wheels, rolling along while playing electric guitar on his portable amp was the most memorable, but nearly everyone looked care worn, tired, and ragged. The Riviera and Circus Circus casinos are the saddest I have ever visited, with more cigarette smoke created by fewer patrons, who sit like zombies in front of slot machines, or lurch to the bar and teller machines for more. I eventually realized that the most common trait among the denizens of the Riviera was a limp.

On my return, with my feet very sore, and a bit sobered by the gritty heartless concrete mess that is the north end of the strip, I met a women with two small kids who asked me not for money, but for a meal for the children. There was a Denny's a half a block behind me, so I took them there. Ruby had lost her apartment, evicted because she could not pay the rent. This was mentioned on the way to the restaurant, simply as a fact, not a complaint. I heard not a single complaint from her, nor from Ashley, her 11 year old daughter, whose big beautiful blue eyes, usually full of smiles, looked out of a round Latino face, with hair cropped so short I initially mistook her for a boy. The youngest, little four year old Steve, never said anything. Ruby told me that he had stopped talking entirely. We had a time keeping him from drawing on the furniture instead of the kid's menu. Since we Steves sat together on one side of the booth, it fell mostly to me to remind him that the crayons were for the paper only. Ashley wished for a pen, instead of the fat crayons, so she could actually draw or write, and I handed her one of my Prismacolor sketching pens. I explained how gently the felt tip must be treated, and she spent several happy minutes impressing her mother with the quality of her cursive. Then we discussed what the difference is between ketchup and mustard (Ashley thought they were the same stuff, just different colors). Except for Steve, who never said a thing, but just fidgeted and sat closer and closer to me as the dinner progressed, the other two made a charming effort to keep up conversation and to keep it light and positive.

Since I had already eaten earlier, at an outdoor hamburger stand, a wonderful contrast to the gourmet dinners of the previous two nights, all I ordered was water. Ruby ordered for Steve, and Ashley was so excited to be ordering whatever she wanted that she had a hard time deciding. She finally chose the egg slam, which she jokingly referred to as a heart attack. It was a burger, with hashfried potatoes, an egg, cheese and bacon. We had to keep the ketchup bottle from Steve - we were unsure where the squirting would go. When he got up and got one from a neighboring table I had to fetch him and gently disarm him. As hungry as all three of them were for the burgers (their reaction to the food when it arrived was a lesson by itself) they were obviously just as hungry for the conversation and for ordinary time with other people. We talked about South Carolina beaches, where they had once spent a vacation on Isle of Palms, recently enough for Ashley to remember it. We discussed blue crabs and I told a story which made Ashley laugh so loud she turned heads - no mean task considering the gloomy weary crowd around us. Ashley and Ruby discussed that it might not have been the best idea for her to trade her sneakers for the prettier sandals, because the sandals were already coming apart. We talked about whether dogs go to heaven, and how it could possibly be that God and Jesus could be the same person, a topic Ashley brought up out of the blue. When I told Ashley she could keep the pen, she clipped it to the front of her shirt collar like sunglasses. Our waitress, with a voice like Harvey Firestein, joked with me that I must be preserving my girlish figure, ordering just water. I think she didn't catch on until I was leaving, letting the family finish the meal after I paid for it, that we weren't actually a family. I excused myself because I was exhausted and still had over a half mile to walk. When I tapped on the window outside the booth and waved at them through the blinds, I saw Ashley giggle one more time.

My remaining 700 steps on the pedometer went by in a blur. I was heart broken over little Steve, who seemed autistic to me, and who would not get care. I was amazed at the bouyant sunshine of Ashley, still fascinated by everything, and charmingly open to everything. I contrasted her spirit with the crushed looking people I passed in the remaining blocks of the strip and grieved for the way life was likely to erase her smile. As I returned to the noise and money of the Winn and Palazzo I heard all the whining and complaints of people around me - people who were well dressed, well fed, and would be sleeping in expensive hotel suites tonight. I had been one of those tired, petulant, spoiled people just an hour before, and I know I will be again, probably tomorrow. But tonight I crossed the last pedestrian bridge, catching a full sized reflection of the Palazzo in the glass side, everything backwards, and with stars shining through the dark shadows at the bottom, looking as real as the facade behind me, the money factory hiding the other Vegas from thousands of visitors. An old cowboy busker was playing a tune on an accordian on the bridge near me and I put a dollar in his bag. I stopped to listen a bit and left after he played the first two verses of Amazing Grace. It took my breath away.

11 comments:

df said...

Beautiful. Better than 90% of professional journalists write.

df said...

And more moving, I should add.

Lisa Golden said...

This story is enormously important because you shared with us a moment that many of us never experience. Our lack of first, second or third hand experience makes it easier for us to pretend that this isn't really happening.

Or as someone who's recently been "food insecure" said to me "it's easier to watch it than live through it." She's young so I didn't have the heart to tell her that it depends on who you're watching suffer.

Kay said...

thank you

Summer Kinard said...

This is the best Ash Wednesday writing I have read. Thank you for writing your encounter and sharing it with us.

Steve Emery said...

Dear everyone, thank you for the kind words. I am frequently reminded how much we all have to learn, and how incredibly powerful and beautiful human beings can be under pressure. I was deeply grateful for the lessons I learned from Ashley, from Ruby, and from little Steve.

Ruby spoke several times about getting out of Vegas, and maybe moving back to Philadelphia, where she has some family...

Steve Emery said...

Lisa,

I have taken homeless people to dinner before, though it's been a while because I encounter so few these days. They have been gradually moved and pressed out of sight as towns have struggled to handle the need (and also to remove an impediment to tourism and trade in their business districts), often by building shelters and facilities out of their mainstream.

But this was my first encounter with homeless children. It has changed me. I'm not sure, yet, what I'm going to do, but I am going to do something about this.

So I think I know what you mean by "it depends on who you're watching suffer."

linda said...

when you know, please let me know...xx

Lisa Golden said...

I would have been a heap of blubbering woman after spending time with them, Steve. I can imagine how you're changed from the experience.

susan said...

This is a very remarkable and beautifully written experience of a tragic situation that's become all too common here in North America. Things are generally better in Canada for families but far from perfect. I know you won't consider yourself brave for the simple act of sharing a meal with that family, nevertheless, most people are shamed by looking at the human results of poverty. Most ignore, some hand over a few dollars, but I'm very touched that you acted the way you did.

Linda said...

Thank you for this. You paint as beautifully with words. Peace...