Matthew O'Brien

What I’ve learned writing about the homeless in Vegas



“Call the homeless what you will, but don’t call them lazy. (You’re the one using UberEATS and sitting on the couch watching TV.) They’re the toughest, most industrious people I’ve met. Their survival depends on it.”

This is an excerpt from my commentary about what I’ve learned in 20 years of writing about and working with the homeless in Las Vegas. Many of my social-networking friends know a lot about homelessness—more than I ever will—and I’m curious how your experience aligns with mine or doesn’t. Please share your thoughts.

http://dtlv.com/2017/05/17/ive-learned-20-years-writing-homeless-las-vegas/

Posted: 5/17/2017 at 12:05:00 PM | Updated: 5/17/2017 at 12:05:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

Discovering the drains



I’ve interviewed about 30 former tunnel residents and asked them all, “How’d you discover the drains?” This answer, courtesy of 24-year-old Szmauz, might be the most interesting so far:

“I was giving this other homeless guy hot dogs I’d found in a dumpster and out of the corner of my eye I see this big guy come over and deck me. The hot dogs go flying. I was stunned. It took me a second to realize I just got hit in the face. He starts wailing on me and I fight back. I’m not a small guy, so he took off. I had this meat cleaver on me and I’m chasing him down the street. The dealers that lived in the shitty apartments nearby knew me; I was a good customer of theirs. They were like, ‘Dude, what’s up?’ I said, ‘Get that guy!’ We’re all chasing him and he dipped through a hole in the fence and went down into a wash and into a tunnel. I stopped. I’m like, I’m not going in there. And that’s how I found the tunnel.”

Posted: 5/12/2017 at 4:09:00 PM | Updated: 5/12/2017 at 4:09:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

Neon photo essay



Dtlv.com just posted the photo essay of people who are helping, in some way, preserve neon in Las Vegas. A lot of folks provided guidance on this essay, not all of whom I was able to acknowledge in the piece. They include Brian Paco Alvarez, Richard Hooker, Lynn Zook, Danielle Marie Kelly, Maggie Mary and Steve Evans. A special shout-out to Rachel Bellinksy, whose photos are simply amazing!

http://dtlv.com/2017/05/09/keeping-neon-burning/

Posted: 5/9/2017 at 11:53:00 AM | Updated: 5/9/2017 at 11:53:00 AM | Add Comments | More Options

Chain reaction story



I had fun getting this chain going and seeing where it went. Hopefully, it will spread a little positivity and introduce you to a few intriguing Downtowners.

http://dtlv.com/2017/05/08/chain-reaction/ 

Posted: 5/8/2017 at 2:18:00 PM | Updated: 5/8/2017 at 2:18:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

What's in a name?



If nothing else, my book about the survivors of the Las Vegas storm drains will feature some colorful names. I’ve mentioned “One Shoe Sue” and “Four-Finger Mike.” My latest interview (the 28th total) was with “Merchandise Mike,” a wedding photographer turned “booster” who shoplifted to support his crack habit.

Posted: 5/7/2017 at 10:28:00 PM | Updated: 5/7/2017 at 10:28:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

Polish magazine piece



I received a couple of friend requests from people living in Poland and did a little research. Turns out a Polish magazine published a piece related to the tunnels. As far as I can tell, the reporter came to Vegas to try to find the “canals” and talk to people living in them. He finally found one and the folks told him, in their own, unique words, no comment.

The reporter never reached out to me, but surfed my website and/or Facebook page and referenced various posts, including my recent interview in Vegas Seven magazine with Paul/Shaggy. The Polish piece also included a few photos from my Facebook page (without permission).

I’m not saying American journalism is all that—it has its flaws—but sometimes foreign media coverage confounds me.

http://magazyn.wp.pl/artykul/tysiace-osob-mieszkaja-w-kanalach-las-vegas-nieznane-oblicze-miasta?src01=6a4c8&src02=facebook_wp#

Posted: 5/7/2017 at 8:59:00 PM | Updated: 5/7/2017 at 9:00:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

El Salvador update



I recently found out more about my job in Central America. It looks like I will be teaching 11th grade English (American lit) and 12th grade AP English (British lit), with the possibility of eventually picking up creative writing. Required works on the American lit syllabus include The Things They Carried, The Awakening and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Works on the Brit lit syllabus include The Importance of Being Earnest, Frankensteinand Pride and Prejudice. I should also be able to choose various other readings to supplement the required ones.

By all indications, this school takes its reading and writing seriously. I do, too. Let’s hope this is a good match.

Posted: 5/6/2017 at 11:40:00 AM | Updated: 5/6/2017 at 11:40:00 AM | Add Comments | More Options

Dead ends and dumpster divers



I’ve been biking the alleyways of downtown Las Vegas. Here are my observations (along with some really cool pics courtesy of Krystal Ramirez).

http://dtlv.com/2017/05/01/dead-ends-dumpster-divers/

Posted: 5/1/2017 at 3:36:00 PM | Updated: 5/1/2017 at 3:37:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

Just so y'all know



Someone just asked me to contribute 500 words, before the end of the month, to his soon-to-be-self-published book. He said he couldn’t pay me and ended his email, “Let me know what you think.” I gladly obliged.

“Jack,

“I’m a professional writer with 20 years of experience. I get paid for my writing. It, in large part, is how I cover my rent, utilities, car payment, car insurance, health insurance and many other expenses, including food.

“You may have heard this analogy before (or perhaps not): Would you go into a doctor’s office, ask him or her to diagnose you, then suggest that he or she do it for free? Of course you wouldn’t. Nor should you ask this of professional writers and artists.

“Sincerely,

“Matt”

Posted: 4/12/2017 at 11:38:00 AM | Updated: 4/12/2017 at 11:39:00 AM | Add Comments | More Options

Blue Angel prose poem



I wrote a prose poem about the Blue Angel sculpture coming down. Please don’t take it too seriously. It plays on the word “rehab” and humanizes the sculpture as a woman who may have stayed at the motel herself.

Special thanks to Bill Hughes for the pics, and Shaun Christensen and Jarret Keene for guidance on the piece. Also to Jessie O’Brien for publishing it.

http://dtlv.com/2017/04/07/convalescence/

Posted: 4/7/2017 at 4:04:00 PM | Updated: 4/7/2017 at 4:05:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

Vegas Seven story



As many of you know, I’ve been interviewing people who used to live in the underground flood channels. My plan is to include snippets of the interviews in a book—an oral account of surviving the Las Vegas storm drains.

Here, in the latest issue of Vegas Seven magazine, is an abbreviated version of one of the interviews. Thanks to Paul Vautrinot for sharing his incredible story!

http://vegasseven.com/2017/04/06/one-mans-survival-story-infamous-storm-drains-las-vegas/

Posted: 4/6/2017 at 11:31:00 AM | Updated: 4/6/2017 at 11:32:00 AM | Add Comments | More Options

From Sin City to the Savior



Somewhat to my surprise, my trip to El Salvador turned into a job interview at a prep school. I toured the campus, talked to the director and dean of faculty and met a few teachers and students. Before I left the country they offered me a job teaching 12th grade English. After returning to the States and giving it some thought, I accepted the offer.

There were simply too many positives for me to turn it down: I can save money, learn Spanish (though it’s an English-language school), see more of Central and South America, etc. Also, after nearly 20 years in Vegas, things feel stagnant. I’ve felt, at times, like a poker player who’s sure he has a full house, but everyone else seems to think he’s bluffing. Perhaps I’ve played this hand a little too long.

I won’t leave Las Vegas until late July, which gives me time to tie up loose ends, work on a few local projects (which you will hear more about), visit one or two state and national parks and get coffee or a drink with friends. Also, I hope to maintain my relationship with Vegas and return once or twice a year.

I’ll post more thoughts on this dramatic change—from Sin City to the Savior (Salvador)—as the date approaches. With love and respect for everyone who has supported my Vegas adventure …

Posted: 2/6/2017 at 4:21:00 PM | Updated: 2/6/2017 at 4:24:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

Fun while it lasted



I helped deliver the last issue of Downtown ZEN. Apparently the magazine is not going to be re-funded for the New Year. The timing seems odd, as we had put out additional newsracks, the pick-up rate was increasing, we had hired a proper sales staff, and the editorial product was strong (and getting stronger), but this was out of my control. Who knows? Maybe it will be revived in some form at some point or folded into an existing product, etc. There was, after all, a rainbow above downtown as I made my final rounds.

Posted: 12/31/2016 at 4:32:00 PM | Updated: 12/31/2016 at 4:32:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

NHA resignation



After four years on the board of the Nevada Homeless Alliance (http://nevadahomelessalliance.org/), I recently resigned. I want to focus on my own Shine a Light community project, book projects, etc., and I thought the board could use some new blood. If you’re interested in being a board member of the NHA, which, among many other things, puts on the annual Project Homeless Connect, please email me. Thanks!

Posted: 12/15/2016 at 4:00:00 PM | Updated: 12/15/2016 at 4:01:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

Crazy Good Turns



The fledgling podcast Crazy Good Turns was kind enough to dedicate an episode to me and my work in the underground flood channels. They also interviewed former tunnel resident Billy Richardson, who, as usual, stole the show. (The feature stands on its own, but also serves as a follow-up to the CrowdRise fundraiser.) I gave shout-outs to Mark Danner, Joshua Ellis, Michelle Neffke, Jason’s Deli, CityLife, U.S. Vets and HELP of Southern Nevada. I think I also said “ascribe” instead of “subscribe” at one point.

http://crazygoodturns.org/episodes/shine-a-light/

Posted: 11/25/2016 at 11:35:00 PM | Updated: 11/25/2016 at 11:35:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

Second edition



We’re working on a second edition of my book Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas. The plan is to clean up the writing a bit and add an extended epilogue and an “extras” photo album at the end.

We hope to release the second edition next year on the 10-year anniversary of the book. I’ll keep you updated. And thanks again for your continued support!

Posted: 9/24/2016 at 12:40:00 PM | Updated: 9/24/2016 at 12:43:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

KNPR



Here is the KNPR interview. Jazz shares his tale and I try to provide some perspective at the end.

http://knpr.org/knpr/2016-08/flood-spells-tragedy-tunnel-dwellers

Posted: 8/3/2016 at 1:41:00 PM | Updated: 8/3/2016 at 1:41:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

Upcoming exhibit



“Nelson’s Landing,” the poem I posted a few weeks ago, is going to be included in an interesting, mixed-media exhibit sponsored by Nevada Humanities. I’ll let you all know more about the exhibit as the Sept. 1 reception date approaches.
Posted: 7/30/2016 at 10:47:00 AM | Updated: 7/30/2016 at 10:47:00 AM | Add Comments | More Options

KNPR interview



George (“Jazz”) and I just visited KNPR’s studio and were interviewed by host Joe Schoenmann about the tunnels and last month’s deadly flood. Jazz shared his harrowing tale of being swept down the channels and losing his girlfriend Sharon. The interview should air next week. Keep you all updated.
Posted: 7/27/2016 at 3:44:00 PM | Updated: 7/27/2016 at 3:44:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

Book update



Joseph Watson and I have finished the “final” draft of the fictional memoir/art project we have been working on, off and on, for several years. We think it is now, finally, a very unique and publishable Vegas-related book. We think it is special.

We are more confident than ever about shopping around the book and are in the process of doing so. However, we are not sure we have reached out to the right people. If you know a literary agent, or a publishing house outside of Nevada, who may be interested in this combined art and literature project, please let me know.

Thanks!

Posted: 7/25/2016 at 11:58:00 AM | Updated: 7/25/2016 at 12:21:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

A poem



A poem I wrote that was partly inspired by a visit to Nelson’s Landing: 

            Nelson’s Landing

Volcanic rock claws
at my feet.
I’m frozen.
Behind me on the bank
a blanket.
On top of it our clothes,
a bottle of wine.
The sky burgundy.
Five fathoms below,
the Colorado River
creeps toward oblivion.

The Spanish found gold here.
Eldorado.
A Civil War deserter
beaten to death
with a shovel
for a yellow stone.
The veins dried up
during WWII.

Nelson, Nevada.
Population 24.

A flood flashed
through the canyon,
carrying them away.
A rusted water tank
and bandaged mines
remain.

Reaching the bend in the river
John Wesley Powell said,
“We are ready to start into
the Great Unknown.”

Atop the cliff
everything comes clear.
The beginning of this relationship
betrays how the last ended.
I can’t see her,
but hear her treading water.
“You scared, old man?”
she says.
I smile,
close my eyes.

And jump.

Posted: 7/25/2016 at 11:58:00 AM | Updated: 7/25/2016 at 12:17:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

Sun story



At least three homeless people died in the latest flood and hardly anyone is talking about it:

http://lasvegassun.com/news/2016/jul/05/deaths-of-3-found-in-las-vegas-area-washes-were-fl/

Posted: 7/25/2016 at 11:58:00 AM | Updated: 7/25/2016 at 12:11:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

More death in the drains



A man’s body was recently pulled from a wash near Decatur and Russell. If he was a victim of the flood—and I suspect he was, as that area was hit hard—that would bring the body count to at least three. And the monsoon season is just underway.

Posted: 7/25/2016 at 11:58:00 AM | Updated: 7/25/2016 at 12:05:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

Flood death update



Jazz, Sharon’s longtime boyfriend, who was also carried away by the flood, is slowly recovering, mentally and physically, in a motel just off the Strip. He says he feels like a motorcyclist who fell off his bike. But his spirits, I could tell, are rising.

Sharon’s family is preparing to have her cremated. They will most likely, her youngest daughter told me, have a viewing here in Las Vegas, before having a memorial service in the L.A. area (where much of her family is from). I will keep you updated on all of this, as best as I can.

Those of you who have contributed to my Shine a Light project, through CrowdRise or otherwise, please know that your contributions have provided shelter for a broken man and will assure that Sharon gets a proper sendoff. Thanks again for your generosity!

Posted: 7/25/2016 at 11:58:00 AM | Updated: 7/25/2016 at 12:03:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options

Flood death



The coroner hasn’t spoken, but the streets have. RIP, Sharon.

Posted: 7/25/2016 at 11:58:00 AM | Updated: 7/25/2016 at 12:01:00 PM | Add Comments | More Options