beneath the neon

I arrived in Las Vegas with a clear idea of what I was looking for. The dark side of the city, the underworld. Millions of tourists walk up and down the Las Vegas strip every year, looking to have fun and make some money. But beneath the flashing lights, there is a much darker side of the city. Underneath Sin City’s most famous casinos is a secret world: a labyrinth of tunnels that run for miles under the Las Vegas Valley. Built to protect the desert city from flash floods, the tunnels have become home to almost a thousand of homeless.

My first thought was “Who is the best guide that I can have about this subject?” and the answer was easy, Matthew O’Brien.

The next morning after meeting the journalist, I started following all his instructions by my self. I parked the car in front of the famous sign “Welcome to Fabulous LAS VEGAS”. Designed by Betty Willis and installed in 1959, the sign originally served as a beacon for tourists traveling from Southern California to Las Vegas on Highway 91 (also known as the Los Angeles Highway or as the Strip), is no longer the main road into Las Vegas; the main road is Interstate 15, which was completed in 1963.

sign

The annual passenger count at McCarran International Airport, which sits east of the sign, shot from 1 million in 1960 to 41 million in 2013. Bali Hai Golf Club sits west of the sign and two parallel tunnels are located below it, according Matt instructions. The left one it’s supposed to be empty, without people living in there. The right one is the spot where John lives, he has been living there for more than 3 years now.

It didn’t took me much time to discover the entrance of the tunnels. I was in front of the sign and I scurried across the Strip dodging speeding cars. I was the exception. Nobody else needs to do it since a car park was built just in front of the sign in 2008. Then, I passed around a metallic fence and there it was, the entrance of 200 miles of flood tunnels just in front of me. Also the house of a small proportion of the 14,000 homeless counted in Las Vegas. A city that offers barely 1,000 beds at the shelters.

“The police comes once a year to count us. They want us here cuz we don’t disturb them, we are the hidden side. And also cuz they get thousands of dollars from the Government to help us, haha… money that never arrives as you can see.” – John

out

The smell was a concentrated mix of urine and tobacco. I felt the tension in front of the unknown but a sensation of relief for being in the shade, was so hot at noon out there. A bunch of cigarettes, a lot of Bud ICE beer cans all around and a wheelchair welcomed me. Then, a man sleeping… – This must be John – I thought, and after a second of looking at him trying to don’t make any noise I remembered the advice that Matt gave me:

“Don’t surprise anyone down there. Imagine if somebody enter your home without warn you before. You need to let them know that you are there from a prudent distance.” – Matt

johnentrance

I obviously wasn’t in a prudent distance so I went back some steps and called his name few times until he moved. That was the beginning of 3 hours of a nice conversation walking through the tunnels and visiting the spots of his neighbors. A lot of graffities, writes and paints on the walls gave me an idea of the history in that place, the people who lived, their believes, ideology, feelings… their art.

“Two years ago this tunnel was full of people, even families with kids! They were the first ones to obtain social assistance. Do you see this? -pointing me the rabbets of the concrete pieces that form the tunnel.- They used it to hang some sheets in here so they had privacy, and a bed and all sorts of furniture, was pretty nice. Now only me and a couple that lives in the other entrance are left in this tunnel.”– John

The paint of a somebody pointing to the darkness -the nearest exit was in the opposite direction- captured all my attention. John just stopped close to me.

“Is pointing the course of the water. You never wanna swim against the water in case of flood, if so, you are done… even the other exit is farther, you wanna follow the watercourse. When the water comes is very dangerous, is only twice a year but can kill you so fast.” – John

paint

We passed through the Travis spot, one of John’s neighbors, while trying to figure out where to put my feet on the dark floor with the help of a flashlight and knocking down spider webs, hoping not to meet any of those poison ones famous in the place.

“Travis, the guy who was living here, is a crazy drogui guy. By the way, he is in jail now. He is a good neighbor though, we used to share stuff, you know, is nice to trust with the people who lives around you. You never know who can visit… One night a boy was laid down there for more than three days – showing me the entrance of the tunnel – I thought he was dead. I was checking if he was alive every morning, one day he just left.” – John

We stopped in that place for some minutes, time enough to relax a bit for me and to finish the cigarette for John.

john copy

We ended up at another spot out of the tunnel. The spot was under a bridge.

“ Here lives a seventy years old mad man. He collected all this crap in less than 3 months, I wonder how he could do it. One day he became crazy and burned a part of it. He is completely out of his mind, it seems is not here now…” – John

I thought – and I hope not to meet him, at least in that mood.

crazy

Walking under the daylight, pretty close to the Luxor Hotel Casino but in the other side of the Strip, John was sharing with me some of the memories of his childhood. He grow up in a family with nine more siblings, his father was a Doctor and always a good example to him. His mother a humble and sweet person. He became the owner of a Restaurant, father of two boys who are in College now and sometimes visit him.

“I was a businessman, I had a stressed life, awesome cars, always worried about how to make more money and had a bitch as a wife. I am good now. I chose this. I prefer more to be quiet living by my own than to come back to that hell.” – John

Is curious how easy is to connect with strangers sometimes. Who has nothing in common with you and doesn’t care about you at all. And little by little, an environment of confidence and trust is built by looks of understanding and smiles of complicity. And then, during the conversation and mainly in the course of silences, you realize that you are more similar than it seemed, and it just feels so good in both ways.

walking_piku copy

Some hours later I was ready to walk into the crowd in the city of neon lights. Advertisement of new shows and hot babes, music everywhere, people drinking on the street having fun with the puppets, taking photos with sexy girls, gambling and smoking in the Casinos and buying all sorts of jewelry and fashion. The Disney World for adults.

01

paio sentat

airport

And it came to my mind a quote from that novelist of the Beat Generation:

“America is not so much a nightmare as a non-dream. The American non-dream is precisely a move to wipe the dream out of existence. The dream is a spontaneous happening and therefore dangerous to a control system set up by the non-dreamers.” – William S. Burroughs

bokeh

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