Hard-asses with soft hearts
ELKO – The setting sun was dripping pink light on Elko as I pulled into town late Friday, exhausted and dry mouthed from the arid desert air. I crept Harry into the Walmart parking lot off Mountain City Highway, sat on the back bench seat and stared out the window, watching the wind blow around a plastic bag, turning it into a solo sail.
Harry and I had just spent the past six hours in a sun-baked, clutch wearing, monotonous driving session across the Great Salt Flats of Utah and into the craggly peaks of volcanic rock in eastern Nevada before being spit out the hills and into a wide valley, bordered to the east and south by a range of saw-toothed peaks that oozed onto the valley floor on monstrous, smooth rock bases.
There wasn’t much where I was, just the usual, strip mall finds in areas just off a major interstate: Rue 21. Payless Shoes. KFC. A place called “9 Burritos & a Bean” caught my eye. I left.
No. This was not the Elko I was looking for, so I coaxed a tired Harry into a little late evening drive to somewhere, anywhere but this cookie-cutter part of town.
Thousands of lights from small, forgotten looking casinos brightened the sky on Idaho Street, the main drag in a sleepy downtown Elko. I pulled onto 5th Street and headed to the Stray Dog Bar for a beer, the only open joint on the street, noticing some folks outside smoking and chatting in the doorway.
Eric Mitchell stood like a tree stump; rooted and non-movable. His hair was shaved on the sides, the middle top six inches left to grow for years into a waterfall of yellow that washed down his back. He wore a worn, black leather biker vest, a “Snake River Club” patch stitched into the back.
“Can you drink out here?” I asked.
“Not unless you want a $200 fine,” he said.
Myself dry and Eric empty, we headed inside and out of the howling, dust-speckled north wind, pulled up to the packed bar and ordered our beers.
“So what do you do around here?” I asked him.
“Work for the city,” he said. “Water department. Moved there from Streets.”
He got kind of quiet when we started talking about his views on the state of the nation, thinking he might need some sort of approval from a guy named Gus, the leader of the club, before making any remarks.
Gus Rackley, as if on cue, lumbered up behind Eric, a massive man with a handlebar mustache that it seemed an average sized man would have to grab a hold of to pull himself up to Gus’ eye level. His arms reminded me of hunks of deli meat before they are sliced.
“We are taking this conversation outside,” he said.
I didn’t disagree.
We sat and talked, Gus, Eric and I, and they told me about Elko and the boom and bust the town has experienced over the past 50 years, nearly every economic turn related in some way to the price of gold, which is king in this town of 18,500 people. The world’s second largest gold mine sits about 40 miles northwest of the city. It’s not uncommon to talk to someone here and find they know exactly the price of an ounce of gold that day. The Elko Daily, the local rag, ran a piece on the front page Friday with a headline reading: “Gold price hits $1,700.” Inside, a 136-page insert published by the paper, “Mining Quarterly,” was chock-full of ads for mining equipment, job announcements and articles about the progress of myriad mines.
“That’s what this town is – casinos and gold mining,” Gus said. “If you want a job, you go to the gold mines.”
Unemployment in Elko is about two points less than the national average, but that’s come at a price, Gus said. The spiking price of gold has meant that the cost of living has gone up, too. The mining industry has also brought in a stream of transient workers, which does little to strengthen Elko, Gus said, who called many of them “trash, really.”
“Gold mining. Sure, that’s great, but if you’re some poor sucker flipping burgers at Burger King, you’re screwed,” Eric said. “We need more good jobs, you know? We’ve shipped too many jobs overseas, and it’s time we started looking out for ourselves.”
Gus took a sip off his gin and tonic, when a mini van pulled up.
“What the hell?!,” Gus said. “Look at this whipper snapper!”
In the passenger seat was a former colleague of Gus’. He left his city job to work in the mines. More money, he said, more benefits.
“I gotta family to take care of,” the man said, the backseat piled high with diapers, his wife behind the wheel, finishing a bowl of ice cream.
They drive away and Gus followed them with his eyes.
“He’s doing the right thing,” he said. “But a lotta guys work the mines and buy all this crap, stuff you don’t need. You don’t need much to be happy. Like where we are as a nation – everyone wants stuff they don’t need.”
Just then, a massive truck rolls by on Idaho Street, hauling a 30-foot sailboat.
“Like that,” Gus said. “A sailboat in Nevada. What the hell does a man in Nevada have a sailboat.”
“What we need is more cooperation,” Eric said. “We need to work together more.”
I had to tell myself again that these guys were in a motorcycle club, that they were rough and tumble, capable of breaking skulls and walking away without remorse. But I had a hard time keeping that thought going. Last year, the club raised $130,000 for children’s charities in the area, Gus said.
“We do a lot of good,” Eric said. “But don’t cross us. You will be dealt with.”
I believed him, even though it was hard to.
Hippie Paul and his parking lot
ELKO – Hippie Paul sits on the side of the coffee shop, his four-foot long hair nearly sweeping the floor. A tiny pair of armless reading glasses hang precariously on the end of his nose, so dainty that it might be more appropriate to call them spectacles. They look like a matchbox car at the Indy 500 because the Hippie’s body takes up half the wall.
“When you get cancer, they nearly kill you to save you,” he tells a worker at the shop. “What kind of sense does that make?”
The woman agrees, and then gets hooked onto the Hippie’s conversational tractor beam. She stands there, awkwardly, for 15 minutes while the Hippie talks about Lupus and the farce of organic food and what parking lot he slept in last night.
He lets her go. “Nice talking to you, love,” he says.
If anything, the Hippie is friendly. He’s friendly like a grandma mixed with an old teddy bear covered in serotonin-infused honey. He turns around, flashing a big smile of perfectly aligned, snow-white teeth. His grin is bigger than he is.
“So, what’s your story?” he asks me. “You working or something?”
I was. I would be no longer.
I told the Hippie what I was doing in Nevada, and Elko specifically. We walk out to the parking lot at Smith’s Grocery and Drug and I introduce him to Harry.
“Nice, nice,” he says. “Self contained. I like that, dude.”
He motions across the lot.
“That’s mine,” he says. “It’s called ‘The Dolphin,’ because, well, that’s what it is.”
The Dolphin is a 1984 Toyota camper truck of the same model name. We both laughed.
“Both our vehicles are gonna turn 30 soon,” I say.
Hippie Paul is actually Paul Nelson, but he calls himself “The Hippie” because he likes the anonymity. Just call his cell phone: “It’s the Hippie. If you don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to tell ya,” his message says.
Paul’s been living in The Dolphin since December 2009, after his “favorite” ex-wife took off with all his money. He moved to Elko to toil in the mines, working as a blade man on a massive earth-moving machine. He had $57 to his name when he left Los Gatos, California and headed east into the desolation of northern Nevada in search of something else.
“What are you doing later?” he asks me. “Why don’t you come by in a bit. We’ll head to Dos Amigos for a margarita.”
I say I’ll think about it, and Paul and I part ways, Harry and I driving around Elko a bit to charge his auxiliary battery. We end up back at the Walmart lot, doing nothing in particular. A massive mobile home from Quebec pulls next to us and a man falls out of it and starts arguing with his wife in French.
Harry and I left immediately, heading back to Smith’s.
I knock on The Dolphin, and Paul swings open the camper door, wearing nothing but a pair of gray underwear.
“I didn’t think you’d show up,” he says. “Check out the digs.”
The inside is cramped and cluttered, Paul having turned the sink into a library, full of reference materials and books on the etymology of words. Paul loves words, he says, loves the English language and the way words sound, how they play on the tongue, where they came from.
A bumper sticker is pasted on the wall above the library. It reads: “Don’t Blame Me, I Met You In A Bar.”
He wants to know where things came from.
“I’ve got something for you,” I say, handing Paul a tomato from the garden I tended in Kalamazoo this summer with my great friend Stacy. “Grew these myself.”
He takes a bite out of it like he’s eating an apple, and a mix of slimy seeds and watery, pink tomato flesh cascade to the pavement. I do the same with mine.
“That’s the best damn tomato I’ve ever had,” he says. I gave him another, and tell him they’re organic.
“Get a cup,” he says. “I’ve got something for you, too.”
Paul makes me a drink – vodka with lemonade and orange juice – and we sit in Harry and relax, two parking lot dwellers, and I let him talk. It’s hard not to. He tells me about a woman he wooed away from James Frank “Guinea” Colucci, a former strong man with the Hell’s Angels, how his mom cheated on his dad when Old Man Nelson was fighting in the Pacific in World War II and how Paul fixed up his dad’s house in his last years of life.
They were the best years of Paul’s life, he says.
Paul fetches a few sugar-tipped cigars from The Dolphin and we light them up, looking up at the stat-filled sky and pointing out constellations, planets, stars. Then a woman emerges from out of the darkness, sliding through the sweet cigar smoke.
“My phone’s dead and I’m cold,” she says to Paul. “And I’m hungry.”
Her body fidgets and jerks randomly, but not in a way that a body would to warm itself. She curls her lips over her teeth, whips her hair around violently, darts her eyes in a thousands directions. She can’t stop moving.
“What’d you do with the money I gave you last time?” Paul asks her. She doesn’t answer. He doesn’t even know her name.
He pulls out a wad of cash and peels off a $10 bill.
“Go to Denny’s,” he says. “And get some coffee.”
The woman, from Traverse City, lumbers up Mountain City Highway, toward the diner.
“I make money, you know, but I put aside 10 percent for tithing,” he says. “I have no idea who she is. She just keeps asking for help.”
Our cigars cashed, Paul and I crashed, The Dolphin next to Harry. The woman came back some hours later, and I heard her rap on Paul’s door.
“I’m cold, man. I need a sweater,” she says. He gives her one, and tells her to be careful.
In the morning, the air is cold and full of sunshine. Paul calls me up. He’s out washing his clothes at a Laundromat downtown off Idaho Street.
“Let’s go eat,” he says.
He picks me up in The Dolphin and we head to the Red Lion Casino for a buffet lunch. Paul turns on the CD player. “Wanna get you mind blown?” he asks. Then he cranks Beethoven.
Paul tears into a pile beef spare ribs the size of dog legs and tells me that if it were up to him, there would be a brand new political party, one that would be unbeatable, a perpetual juggernaut.
“I’d call it ‘The Radical Middle,’” he says. “Because that’s where most people are – right there in the middle. That’s the sweet spot. If you get too far out on the fringes, you’re bound to fall straight off.”
On the drive back to Smith’s, Paul honks his horn at strangers. No one waves, but he doesn’t care. He just smiles away their ambivalence. His hair is curling around my arm like a soft snake, strands licking at my lips as they move in the breezy cabin. I didn’t brush them away.
At Smith’s, we both get out and say goodbye. I’m off to Vegas, I tell him, off to more places to meet more strangers. Off to Somewhere.
“Vaya con Dios, brother,” he says, then gives me a peace sign.
I drive away, missing him dearly.
Cole Morse stands in the shade under a stand of oak trees, sweat beads bubbling forth form his reddened brow, his huffing lungs desperately seeking more oxygen. He seems about ready to collapse on the trampled grass in Main Street Park.
“This ain’t nothing,” he says. “I’m just getting started.”
In his daily life, Morse has been a truck driver for the US Mail, an RV park operator and a cook. But on this Saturday afternoon, he is “Sir Duffer,” a member of the Duchy of the Desert Rose, a local Ampgard outfit in Elko dedicated to keeping Medieval warfare tactics alive.
Cole wears a face of experience. His thin eyes are kind and welcoming, deep lines running down their edges to his cheeks, like commas. His white beard makes him look a bit like Santa Claus. But don’t be fooled. Cole is every bit a barbarian.
He wears a cloak of heavy fabric, spinning a foam battleaxe on instinct alone and fanning himself with a circular shield, waiting for the next fight.
“I tell these kids out here that I could whip them all,” he says. “Then I realize I’m old.”
The battle begins, and the dull thumping sound of thick foam on body fat fills the air. Cole is fighting a kid 40 years younger than he is, a teen with some sort of double-headed foam stick. Cole, all five-feet, five-inches of him, charges the kid like a wild bull, thrashing the foam death axe like a man possessed, pushing the boy backwards. The kid falls down and the fight stops, but not before Cole hits him again – a hard foam blow to the shoulder.
“You can’t beat me,” Cole tells him.
The fights, if that’s what you want to call them, last no more than 10 seconds. Then the weekend warriors – some with foam jousts or clubs – break away and suck air. I ask what it feels like to be hit with a club.
“Are you sure?” says a guy in a gray kilt.
“Yes,” I say. “Whack me in the back.”
He hits me and it feels like being pushed from behind.
“Harder,” I say.
The man rears back and I can hear the club moving the air as it lands on my left shoulder.
“That’s enough,” I say.
Cole and I sit down for a while and talk, the rest of the crew retreating to a break of homemade cupcakes, giant plastic mugs of soda and a chain-smoking cigarette session in the middle of a 5-year-old child’s birthday party.
Cole is a fourth generation Elko resident, and has seen the town grow and contract over the decades. Things are good now, but he’s not optimistic about much – not about Elko, not about Nevada, and especially not about the path in front of the nation as a whole.
Like all great nations, America will fall, he says, “we’re just going to do it quicker than most.”
The emerging nations of China and India “have bought us out,” he says.
“There’s no cooperation anymore,” he says. “It’s going to take a worldwide disaster to get everyone together.”
Like many I’ve spoken to in northern Nevada, Cole has a healthy distrust of government, and doesn’t believe that government institutions have the best interest of people in mind when crafting regulations, policy, rules.
“Government is in it to make money,” he says, “plain and simple.”
Cole gets up and grabs his 128 oz plastic mug from the Kum & Go gas station, takes a deep sip from a long straw and plops himself down in a lawn chair next to his wife.
“I’m done,” he says. “Where are those cupcakes?”
Rise and Shine
LAS VEGAS – Like a lot of good conversations, Cordia Smith and I started chatting in an aisle at the grocery store – the vitamin aisle, specifically. I was searching for Vitamin C when she came flying around the corner, giving very specific instructions to her friend, Lisa, who was trying to keep up.
The road can wreak havoc on a nomad’s immune system. The random screaming from a late night joy ride will wake you up and the slight but constant anxiety of being compromised in some way in that night’s parking lot makes you sleep with one eye open. Truly sound sleep is rare.
“Potassium, that what we need,” Cordia says. “P-O-T-A-S-S…”
“It’s right there,” I said, pointing to it with my toe.
“My, child, what eyes you’ve got!” Cordia said.
“Fish oil,” I said. “Take it every day. Good for the eyes.”
“And the skin,” Cordia said.
“And the brain,” I said.
“And the hair,” she said.
“And…” Before I could lop off another benefit of the foul smelling supplement, Cordia handed me a bottle of MSM.
“Good for the joints,” she said. “I was a runner and these knees are bad, but now I wake up with no pain, just life.”
I handed her a bottle of biotin.
“Good for the hair,” I said. “Not that you need it.”
The ladies laughed, and the three of us headed outside into the fast-warming Vegas air.
It turns out that when Cordia said she wakes up with life, she really means it.
When Cordia’s kids moved out – some to college, some into the military – she had what she can only describe as a breakdown, a serious case of Empty Nest Syndrome that somehow landed her homeless and living on the streets of San Diego.
Like so many who find themselves in similar circumstances, it kind of just happened, came out of nowhere.
“You just wake up and all of a sudden you are homeless,” she says. “And things change very quickly.”
She stayed on those streets for all of eight years, scrimping and surviving. She attended college, paying for it herself with money from odd jobs. Then one day, she made a decision to stop feeling sorry for herself. Everyone struggles, she said to herself, but that doesn’t mean I have to be destitute.
Cordia decided to make a new life for herself. She decided to start living again.
She got off the streets, and, always wanting to be a writer, got to work. It’s said that a writer writes what they know. Cordia says she has enough material for the rest of her life.
And, because of her time in poverty, it’s no surprise that she is mostly concerned with the plight of the poor. They should be able to rise into the middle-class, she says, but that isn’t happening.
“We can be considerate of the wealthy, but if the wealthy aren’t willing to pay it forward, then what’s the point?” she says. “The middle-class helps everyone.”
If she could talk to Obama, who she supports, she would tell him to focus on average Americans and the issues facing them; get money to schools because children are the future, she says, give the middle-class and the poor a chance to make it, to live the American Dream, whatever that means to them.
This time four years ago, Cordia was working on a book of poems, “Melodies in the Sun.” The book was published in 2010, she said,
There’s a lesson for the nation tucked into her experience, she said: No matter the challenges facing us – and there are so very many – there are brighter days ahead if we learn to embrace each other and our differences and acknowledge that we all struggle, get pushed around and sometimes get knocked to the ground.
What matters is how we – as individuals and collectively as a country – get back up.
LAS VEGAS – The young man stands behind the lectern, his confident voice booming off the walls in a cavernous ballroom at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas’ student union. He is leading a panel discussion on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedy, and he is speaking about sacrifice and resilience and remembrance. He shakes the hand of a New York City cop, who his student organization brought in for the event, and thanks him for his service. He peppers a state assemblyman with smart questions about how the nation can muster in these times the same cooperation seen in the months after that fateful day.
He walks off stage as the lights dim and a documentary on 9/11 plays on a large screen. He moves swiftly around the room, giving directions to one person, telling another where to be in 10 minutes. The arms of his suit coat are swallowing his wrists and his pants are washing over his loafers. The young man seems to be swimming in his black suit.
When the event is over, he thanks all for coming, gives the appropriate thank you’s and shout-outs to all who participated: elected officials, public safety officers, university professors and administration personnel. Then he hops off the podium, and is surrounded by questions, ideas, handshakes.
Elias Benjelloun, the president of UNLV’s Young Democrats, will not be voting in this year’s election. That’s because Elias, in first grade on Sept. 11, 2001, is 17 years old. At the moment, he is a junior studying biology at UNLV. He’s been a student here since he was 15, graduated high school when he was 14.
“Eighteen, 19, that’s when I’ll be graduating,” he says. “I’ve still got my MCAT’s to go.”
After that, it’s medical school, hopefully at an Ivy League institution or, if that falls through, a school in the University of California system. Elias wants to study neurology and hopes to find a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. Talk to him for fifteen minutes. You'll be convinced he will.
At an age when most of his peers are thinking about a crush they have in a particular class or when the newest iPhone is coming out, Elias is thinking about what it will be like to be a brain surgeon in his late 20s.
“Where does your motivation come from?” I ask him. “Because I know that a young man’s brain doesn’t fully develop until his early 20s.”
“The frontal cortex, you mean,” he says. I nod, because I have nothing more to say.
The importance of education was hammered into Elias, the son of a Moroccan father and Dutch mother, since he was a young boy, he says. (he was born in the Netherlands and still pronounces his ‘T’s’ like ‘D’s’) is involved in politics, or, as he calls it “public service.”
Elias volunteers in several organizations on campus and in the community. He believes in civic engagement, that a well-informed, active citizenry is what makes a democracy work best. He says he’s often frustrated with the lack of interest
His grade point average? Won’t say, just admitting that “it’s over 3.0.”
“Let’s just say that I haven’t made to 4.1 yet,” he says, smiling.
Dust to dust
LAS VEGAS – Sam Castrogiovianni is a first generation American, and if you can’t tell where his bloodline extends back to by his last name alone, all you have to do is listen to him speak.
The phone rings at his auto repair shop off Decatur Avenue on the west side of Vegas. He recognizes the number immediately.
“This guy,” he says. “Busting my balls again!”
Sam’s mother and father came to the United States from Italy on the heels of his father’s brother, who made the family’s maiden voyage to America, settling in southern California. He urged his brother to do the same.
Opportunities were as far as the eye could see. With hard work, future generations of the family would prosper, be better off than their parents. With toil and sweat, success was assured.
“I love this country,” Sam says. “My mother and father came here and we didn’t have nothing. Now we have our businesses and we’re happy.”
Sam stands next to an open bay at his shop, full of work – a $7,000 job engine re-head job here, a $3,000 transmission job there, all of them 6 feet in the air on hydraulic lifts. He’s been in the car repair business for 35 years, and moved here 20 years ago when the Vegas economy was booming.
Grease and grime is stuck under each of Sam’s fingernails, all of them chewed and picked down to near nubs.
“I don’t know if they’ve every really been clean,” he says. He’s been a mechanic for over three decades and moved from California to Vegas 20 years ago when the local economy was beginning to take off.
But he has some anxiety, too. The economy here has tanked in recent years, with the unemployment rate routinely stuck at twice the national average. Not too long ago, Sam’s wife was at the county health department. Officials there were handing out bread to people.
“I believe the economy’s working – for the very rich,” he says. “They don’t have any problems. The middle-class, here in Vegas, it’s very wasted. People don’t have money, they’re losing their homes left and right. You can’t have a strong nation without a strong middle-class. The dream for a lot of people – it’s slipping away.”
Castrogiovanni expected more from President Barack Obama.
“Adding $5 trillion in debt to the economy is no way to built an economy,” he says. “That is not how you build a foundation for the future. We need tax breaks, need to get small businesses going again. And I could care less if some politician has a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ behind their name. I just want some results.”
Gaming is the city’s No. 1 industry and gambling is everywhere; in bars, salons, Chinese takeout joints, and, of course, on the eye-stinging blocks of Las Vegas Boulevard, “The Strip,” the nation’s epicenter of excess.
There are shows, too, of course, and they’re advertised everywhere, on whole faces of 40 story buildings: “Donny and Marie: Always Incredible,” “Carrot Top Live!,” “George Wallace, the NEW face of Vegas!,” a quote balloon extending from Wallace’s mouth.
“I Be Thinkin’,” it reads.
Harry and I were stuck in a traffic jam when I noticed Wallace’s face and his polished smile. A city bus drove through the intersection, an ad on its side depicting a nearly naked woman holding a massive machine gun on her hip, blown up to make it appear taller than her.
“GUNS! GUNS! GUNS! Fire a REAL machine gun!,” the ad read. The mix of porn and violence – as addicting as anything any wild-minded chemist could ever conjure up in a lab.
Drive around Vegas and you will see signs for bankruptcy lawyers and loan adjustment services on nearly every block, pasted on the back of nearly every city bus. Payday loan shops are ubiquitous, tucked into several of the strip malls that dominate the flat streetscape of the wide valley the city sits in.
From the mid- to late-1990s until the late 2000s, construction was omnipresent. Massive new casinos rose into the sun-filled sky: “The Bellagio,” with its impressive fountain display and Venice-inspired canal system and “New York, New York,” surrounded by replicas of the Statute of Liberty, and the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, just to name a few.
Developers made a bet on housing, and huge tracts of single family homes grew out of the desert on the outskirts of the city. Surely not just the construction workers, but the influx of new residents to Vegas would need homes, the idea went.
Then the economy dropped off the table. The bet turned out to be a losing one.
Take a drive south on Decatur, about three miles from the center of the city, and you can see the aftermath of the burst housing bubble. Pulling west onto Wigwam Street, “Sunset Pass,” a swanky gated community of clean, two-story stucco homes sits across the street from two acres of sand and rocks, a few empty Target shopping carts lying upside down next to the street.
The land is for sale, if anyone is looking. Few, it seems, are.
All over this area south of I-215, a major artery, there is land for sale: 2.5 acres here, 2.08 acres there. In places, residential streets abruptly stop, almost awkwardly, giving way to land that developers had once had plans for, but has been allowed to go back to being desert. Stop signs sit at T-intersections bordered by acres of trash, abandoned vehicles and sun-baked, hardscrabble dryness.
Take a walk down Mohawk Street and the busyness of Decatur fades away into the hot, dry air. The only sound is the chirping of birds in dusty bushes and the buzzing of electricity running through thick transmission lines overhead.
Here, this gleaming oasis in the desert, a city hewn from one of the nation’s most inhospitable lands, is being covered by the fine material it was built on.