Las Vegas is the spiritual heart of America. It’s rotten with avarice and greed. It’s also amusing as hell, stocked with enough distractions and entertainment to insure that boredom is never a problem. The culture of the city is what you might get if New York City raped Wildwood, New Jersey on acid under a full moon in Scorpio in a filthy stinking desert instead of on a beach. If you don’t gamble, it’s a pretty cheap place to live, but the uglier aspects of the town are truly appalling. It’s a uniquely vicious town. I don’t gamble, at least not with money, and I have a vicious streak of my own. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, just barely nowadays.
I had a few friends there from my tenure with the Big Apple Circus. One of them, Tom Bider, was going out on a six-week tour doing lights for some rock ’n’ roll act and needed somebody to look after his two cats while he was gone. I got there in time to hang out with him and discuss job prospects and rentals over a fairly considerable amount of beer. There were and are a lot of sound and lighting production companies based there, and the various hotel-casino venues had tons of crew jobs available.
I was by this time persona non grata at Cirque du Soleil. I’d served on the tent crew of their touring unit off and on from 1993 to 2001. They dusted me off owing to my unwillingness to eat shit for the Cult of Guy LaLiberte and his circle of Quebecois chauvinists up in Montreal. I could go on about that egotistical poseur for a few thousand words, but I don’t feel like getting sued, so I won’t. Suffice it to say that the phrase “malignant narcissist” doesn’t begin to approach a clear enough description of the kind of pretentious jerk that changes his job title from CEO to “The Guide.” I still had a lot of friends there on the crew, but Management in Montreal hated my guts, so that was out.
Also out was any possibility of getting the necessary Sheriff’s Card to work in any of the hotels: it involved a drug test. I use drugs very infrequently; I rarely take so much as an aspirin, but am very fond of burning flowers and inhaling the smoke. I smoke pot like a Rasta. That’s not going to change in this lifetime. I can beat most piss tests, like the one given by the Taxi & Limousine Commission in New York, but these Prohibitionist morons were using hair tests, and there’s no beating that.
A little online research uncovered an interesting item: Vegas is swarming with collection agencies. They don’t drug test. Bingo. First interview I went out on, I had a job with the biggest agency in town: Academy Collection Services. The commission schedule was way ahead of any other agency I’d ever heard of. There was the very real possibility of pulling in $75,000 to $125,000 per year. I saw the pay stubs for their top collectors. Now I had to find an apartment. Tom took off on tour fully confident that all was well. Zam and Boni, the cats, were fully engaged with me and adored me, as all cats do. Daisy was relieved and delighted. She’d bought herself a used Volkswagen from a reputable dealer. She started planning the departure from Kansas. It was the end of September. I told her to plan on occupying a place in Vegas by November 1st.
When my friends moved out there after leaving the Big Apple Circus in 2000 or so, around when it became redundant and repetitive, the rents had still been fairly low: $550 per month for a two-bedroom was not unusual. This was 2005, and the real estate bubble that would implode three years later was in full swing. One-bedroom apartments were going for $750 to $850. Developers were building all across the floor of the valley right out to the mountains, particularly in the Southwest district, my district of choice. Northeast was the ghetto, Southeast was the airport and an industrial park wasteland, and Northwest was just really developing and pretty pricy, out of my range. The recurring joke around town was that the State Bird was the crane: the construction crane. They dotted the town, ubiquitous over the glittering landscape. A lot of the apartment complexes were booting renters out and converting to high-priced condos. Renters have no real rights in Las Vegas. As with everything there, you’re on your own. Nevada is a good picture of libertarianism run amok, except when it comes to drugs, of course. The casinos don’t like competition.
I started working at Academy. They started me on a small-balance retail desk, average balance maybe $500. Within a week they bumped me all the way up to their Bank of America desk. The B of A desk, the Capital One desk, and the Citibank desk were the top in the room, and they competed with each other ferociously. The average balance was $5000. The high end went up to $30,000. I was beyond enthusiastic: I was rabid. The money started rolling in, and it was good money. I enjoyed the team I worked with, and they enjoyed me. We were nearly all potheads and drunks, and there were a fair number of cokeheads, crackheads, and prescription drug addicts in the room. Management looked the other way, as they always do in situations where the only thing that matters is results. I also found out that there were guns in the room, and made it a point to discreetly find out who was packing, just like I did at the circus. I like to know when to step out of the room or stroll off to the bar.
I came across a distressing story out of Inwood, my old neighborhood in Manhattan. I’d been in Oakland, California in 2002 when some filthy Dominican juvenile delinquents smashed a baby swan to death at the estuary, and swan eggs had been smashed with rocks. An elderly woman I’d seen hanging out by their nest who adored them committed suicide over it. I hadn’t heard about any of it before. Now some vicious sub-human shitbag had beaten one of the two parents to death with a baseball bat. The other adult died of heartbreak a few weeks later. I wept for hours, furious beyond description. I couldn’t even imagine what my response would’ve been had I still been living there; something along the lines of the old Charles Bronson movie, Death Wish, I’m sure. I’d had enough run-ins with the Dominicans to develop a robust hatred for their so-called “culture.”
A little pack of them had attacked me one night at the 181st St. A train station for critiquing their aggressive bicycle antics terrorizing passengers walking the long ramp down to the station. One of the little asswipes tried to slash my forehead with a box cutter to blind me so his friends could kick my ass. I broke his scrawny arm like an oversized carrot and started roaring “SATAN! I AM SATAN!” at their despicable third-world superstitious asses. They fled. I took a few stitches.
I was glad to be out of New York.
Daisy told me that the movers needed to arrive on October 28th owing to a busy schedule. We used the same Lawrence-based outfit we’d hired to get out of NYC. They were good, and honest, a rare thing in the moving business these days. I located a serviceable apartment for us a couple of blocks off the Strip, right near the Palm, in a clean-looking complex with a pool and a nice exercise room. I put down the deposit with the condition that we absolutely had to take occupancy on the 28th. No problem, they said. A week later they called me and told me we couldn’t have it until November 1st. I was making money, but not enough to put all of our belongings in storage and then pay to move it all again. “Take it or leave it,” they said. I told them I’d leave it, and demanded the deposit back. “Wild dogs to you people,” I said. “I hope you die screaming.” When I got over there, they had two big beefy security guards in the room to protect them from my 145-pound ass, and they all looked really nervous as the manager handed me the check, like I’d grab her hand and bite her, infecting her with rabies or the zombie virus. I stood up and said, “This thing better cash without a hitch, or you will believe in werewolves” and left.
I had a fallback position. I always do. A slightly sketchy place called Sunset Meadows, right on the border of the Southwest and the Northwest on the eastern edge of a very swank neighborhood called The Lakes, where the Mayor and the other swells lived. I wasn’t crazy about the place, but any old port in a storm, and the way I was rolling at Academy, I figured we could always move. I arranged a meeting with them.
It was coming up on the end of October. The end of the month in a collection agency boiler room is something that no person who hasn’t been in one could possibly understand. The room has a quota, your team desk has a quota, and you have a quota. Commissions are based on whatever you collect above your quota. If you meet or beat your quota, the quota goes up. If you fail to meet your quota, you get one month’s grace. Fail again and you’re fired. Each desk team leader is responsible for their team quota, same rules. The manager of the room is responsible for the room. Same rules with a slightly longer grace period. Sith Lightning crackles up and down the walls at the end of the month.
The energy in the room would probably kill a non-collector at the end of the month, even at a clean and reputable agency. The ever-present client representatives never came in after the 20th of any month. It was all against all in a viciously cutthroat competition to create as much shrieking tension as possible for everyone concerned, especially the debtors we were calling. The attitude of taking no shit from anyone while simultaneously spinning a line of complete bullshit crafted to make you appear as intimidating as possible spills into your everyday existence until your life becomes one continuous act of vicious aggression. Hence the drugs, the pot and the booze: anything to dampen the aggression, or enhance it. Control it in some way. Of all the people I’ve ever gotten high with, I’m most wary of collectors. They by far exceed the entertainment industry people, ex-Marines, the Manson hippies, the bikers, the hardcore criminal types, even the goddamned fucking sexist cheating cokehead psychopathic stockbrokers. There is always that just-below-the-surface implication that they might go totally postal at any moment. It’s a matchless intensity, mainly verbal in nature. Physical violence is a symptom of a lack of imagination. Psychic violence is immense and very effective.
I didn’t have a bank account yet, so I was cashing my checks at the Orleans Casino, a pleasant and unassuming place off the Strip with a good buffet, a terrific bar, and a very friendly staff. I was on my way there to cash the refund check when the LeBaron got totaled just as I was turning into the parking lot.
I’d stopped in my turn for a pedestrian crossing the street. She wasn’t moving too fast. I looked in my rearview mirror, and saw the big yellow F-250 pickup about 45 feet behind me, driver looking down to his right, oblivious. Texting. The woman was front and center as the truck closed in at speed. I knew what was going to happen. It was a split-second decision: my car or her legs. I engaged the emergency brake, and took a hit that smashed the trunk completely and bent the frame, knocking the glasses off my face and into the back seat. He hadn’t touched his brakes.
I couldn’t pull the injury scam, although I desperately wanted to, because if I didn’t show up to sign that Sunset Meadows lease in about two hours, the apartment was gone. Furthermore, it was coming up on the end of the month at Academy and I was on my lunch break. Not going back, regardless of circumstances, was utter treason to the entire team. They made that clear later, when I called them. No slack anywhere. My immediate response was to leap out of the car and begin roaring at this punk kid. I fully manifested Godzilla right there in front of the Orleans and the tourists stopping to watch me bring this brat to his knees weeping under the tempest of abuse I unleashed upon him. I went all the way from his texting to his toilet training, probably at something close to 85 decibels or so. I had quite an audience.
It helped that the woman was shrieking like a banshee at him as well. She’d seen it. It was like some Carl Orff production filtered through Diamanda Galas by way of Quentin Tarantino. There were no skid marks anywhere except behind my tires. He hadn’t touched the brakes.
Sometimes, neither do I.
This asks the question, Al, that if Vegas ain't right for you, what town could possibly be right?