A little love from the Times

Eric Lichtblau, a Pulitzer Prize winner with the New York Times, wrote a story about violence against the homeless and what some people are doing to try to prevent it. Toward the end of the piece, he mentions that homeless live in the underground flood channels of Las Vegas and he quotes your favorite (wink, wink) storm-drain chronicler.

It’s a good story, I think, about a really important subject:


Story collection update

As some of you know, I’ve been working on a literary journalism (or creative nonfiction) collection for a year and a half or so. Just wanted to update you all on that. I recently finished a 3,800-word story about the Diplomat, a historic apartment complex in the shadow of the Strip – and my home for the last four years. Now I’m working on a story about the Blue Angel, a weekly motel on East Fremont Street – and my home for seven days in late May.

The Blue Angel story, tentatively titled “My Week at the Blue Angel,” will be about 15,000 words and, I assume, the centerpiece of the collection. I have some solid material to work with: poetic color, conversations with the tenants, an interview with Betty Willis (who designed the Blue Angel sign and sculpture). I’m really excited about this story.

Anyway, I hope to finish the story and collection in the next few months. Then I’ll continue to shop it around.

I’ll keep you all updated.

Shine a Light update

No one died during Shine a Light’s first trip into the tunnels, so we’re considering it a success.

Seriously, we accomplished at least a few things. Two groups went in five or six tunnels and got acquainted with the terrain and the people who live down there. Kristi found a kitten in an open-air channel and helped reunite it with its mom. My group, which included David, Lacey and Macheo, helped Brian – who lives deep in a tunnel near the Rio – get treatment for an abscess on his stomach. (Brian could’ve stayed in the program and gotten off the streets, but chose to return to the underworld.)

Of the 35 to 40 people we talked to in the tunnels, only a handful expressed interest in getting out. Obviously, this is going to be a challenge. But we’re forming relationships and we hope to nurture them.

We were short on bottled water and canned goods – and the homeless always appreciate nice, comfortable socks. If you can spare any of these items, please contact Fuilala Riley of HELP of Southern Nevada at 702-369-4357 ext. 238 or friley@helpsonv.org.

With a little HELP from my friends

“May the Good Lord shine a light on you,
Make every song your favorite tune.
May the Good Lord shine a light on you,
Warm like the evening sun.”
“Shine a Light”
The Rolling Stones

I’ve started an organization to help the hundreds of men and women living in the underground flood channels of Las Vegas.

With apologies to the Stones, Shine a Light is a collaboration between me, HELP of Southern Nevada and its affiliated organizations. I’ll escort drug counselors, caseworkers, social workers and other specialists into the tunnels twice a month. We’ll offer water, food, clothes, blankets and other items, when available, to the people we encounter – but more importantly, we’ll offer services, including housing, drug, medical and mental-health counseling, case management and referrals.

Founded in 1969, HELP of Southern Nevada is a charitable organization that helps families and individuals overcome barriers and attain self-sufficiency through services, training and referrals to community resources. For more information on HELP, call 702-369-4357 or visit www.helpsonv.org. To volunteer or donate money or items (water, canned goods, clothes, blankets, toiletries, etc.) to HELP, contact Fuilala Riley at 702-369-4357 ext. 238 or friley@helpsonv.org.

Lost in translation

The German news magazine Der Spiegel published a story about Beneath the Neon and the underground flood channels of Las Vegas – apparently. See, the story is in German and I’m having little luck with online translators (unless, indeed, it’s written at a first-grade level and contains several non sequiturs). So I’m posting this one for my German-speaking friends. Maybe they can read the story and let me know if the writer, Hilmar Schmundt, shit-talked me or not.


Another Las Vegas Advisor question

I answered another storm drain-related question for the Las Vegas Advisor, the newsletter put out by Huntington Press (which published Beneath the Neon). The question was, “The Las Vegas Valley is prone to flash floods. Have there been instances where transients were washed out of or drowned in the elaborate storm-drain system?”

Here’s my answer:

Located in the heart of the Mojave Desert, Las Vegas averages only about 4.5 inches of rain a year – but it seems to all fall at once. Indeed, the resort city has a long and ugly history of flooding. In July 1905, two months after Las Vegas was founded, a thunderstorm soaked the dirt roads and wooden storefronts and sprawling ranches. (Minimal damage was done, as there was little developed property around at the time.) A series of floods swamped stores and homes, shorted out phone and power lines and shut down roads and railroads in the summer of 1955. And a July 1975 flood swept hundreds of cars from the parking lot of Caesars Palace, closed down a section of the Strip and claimed at least two lives.

The city’s most destructive modern-day flood occurred in July 1999, when three inches of rain fell in 90 minutes. The Las Vegas and Clark County fire departments performed more than 200 swift-water rescues and the water caused about $20 million in property damage. A week after the flood, President Clinton declared the county a disaster area.

Since 1982, more than 20 people have died in flash floods in Las Vegas. A handful of them lived in the city’s underground flood channels, or “storm drains,” which now span more than 300 miles and are home to hundreds of people.

It usually happens like this: A homeless man is drunk, high or asleep in a storm drain. Thunderclouds creep over the mountains and dump more than a half-inch of rain. A wall of water ambushes the man. If he’s lucky, he grabs his valued possessions – a duffel bag, clothes, his wallet – and fights his way out of the drain or finds refuge in a manhole shaft. If he’s unlucky, he’s swept away and drowns. Randy John Northrup was unlucky. A few days after a November 2002 rainstorm, his body was discovered half-buried in the Las Vegas Wash. He was 47 years old.

Most people I’ve met in the drains have a flood-survival story. On a cold and rainy Christmas morning, Jim got washed under the Orleans hotel-casino on his mattress. Firefighters rescued Mike hundreds of feet into a four-tunnel drain … just before he was swept under New York-New York and the MGM Grand. During the July 1999 flood, Ernie was trapped in a lateral pipe under I-15 for three days without food or drinking water.

“I’ve been lucky,” Ernie told me. “I’ve been real lucky. I’ve been through three of the big ones [floods] in here. I’ve been trapped in here for days when the rain got too rowdy. I’ll tell you what, Matt. I’ve seen God. Me and God have had some long talks, buddy.”

The lucky ones live to share their stories on the street. The unlucky ones are mentioned in news briefs buried deep in the morning paper, lowered into unmarked graves in downtown cemeteries and unknown to the millions of tourists who visit the Green Felt Jungle each year.

Thanksgiving in the tunnels: The final chapter

It rained the day before Thanksgiving, and the holiday forecast was bleak, so I was worried our trip into the tunnels was going to be canceled … and I’d be stuck with a year’s supply of canned goods and bottled water. But when I woke Thanksgiving morning, the sidewalk in front of my apartment was dry and the sky was partly cloudy. I geared up, stuffed some final items into the trunk of my car and rendezvoused with my friends Billy, Becky and Denise.

We started at a six-barrel storm drain that burrows under Industrial Road, Interstate 15, Caesars Palace and the Strip and opens at the Imperial Palace. In a side tunnel that runs parallel to I-15, we found a campsite that was home to six or seven people and a cute dog named Blue. We gave out Thanksgiving meals, blankets and winter clothing. Billy, who once lived in the tunnel, brought Blue a can of dog food (filet mignon flavored – the good shit!). We hung out for an hour or so – talking, smoking (no, not the good shit!), watching Blue scurry about in a fashionable headlamp collar – then lugged the few remaining items back to our cars.

Our next stop was a seven-barrel drain that rolls under Arville Street, the Orleans and the Home Depot and opens onto a barren flood plain at the corner of Decatur and Tropicana. I have a history with this drain – eerie shrines, madmen who can see in the dark and even “trolls” – and my stomach was hollow as we ducked into the south tunnel. About a quarter-mile into the tunnel, we stumbled on a man, Charlie, stretched out on a cot, half-asleep. We told him we were giving out food and drinks and he asked, jokingly, for a beer.

“I knew we forgot something,” I said.

We set a Thanksgiving meal on the foot of Charlie’s cot and continued into the darkness. The ceiling dropped. The drain widened. We could see into the parallel tunnels though square cuts in the walls, known as “equalizers.” What’s behind those walls, I wondered? What’s just beyond the range of our flashlights?

Very little, it turned out. We passed a deserted camp, turned around at the flood plain (the sky had darkened) and took the north tunnel back toward the outlet. Arching ceilings black with soot … declarations of love and hate scrawled on the walls … another deserted camp (or was that a collection of debris?).

When we ducked out of the drain, it was raining – and we decided to head home. Good idea. As we climbed in our cars, the sky opened up. It was tough to see beyond the windshield wipers.

We gave Billy, who’s transitioning out of the tunnels and into public housing, some of the remaining food and clothes. A few blankets and short-sleeve shirts are all that remain in my trunk. I’ll drop them off at Goodwill next time I’m in the area.

Thanks to Billy, Becky and Denise for helping prepare the meals, donating items and being good company in those long and lonely corridors. Also, thanks to Aly and Danna for their contributions. Those skinny silhouettes with cigarette-ravaged voices sure seemed to appreciate it.