New sergeant in town

Independent American Party patriarch Christopher Hansen, dressed in an American flag shirt, working up a sweat talking about the Communist Manifesto and silver coins. Personal injury attorney Richard Harris telling me about his Ticket Busters business. PRmeister and b-baller George McCabe showing up with his little boy Casey.

Yes, my book signing Aug. 11 at Barnes & Noble had some highlights. There were also lowlights.

Some half-blind woman, mistaking me for a B&N employee, asking me where she could find the calendars. Ten-minute stretches of no one dropping by the table. Rereading my book for the millionth time. (Nice pictures, Danny!)

Indeed, four hours may be a bit long for a book signing. Another lesson learned.

Note to authors: If you want to do a book signing, you should contact Community Relations Manager Tracy Shouse at the West Charleston Barnes & Noble. She’s remarkably professional. Promotional posters and newsletters, great table placement and presentation, attentiveness to the author – Tracy does it all.

The slow moments on Saturday weren’t her or the bookstore’s fault.

Finally, congrats to cop-poet Harry Fagel. He showed up Saturday, flashing a new sergeant’s badge.

Now if we can just get him to run for sheriff.

R-J commentary

The Las Vegas Review-Journal published a commentary I wrote about flood season and life in the storm drains. Here’s the commentary, which is a combination of stuff from Beneath the Neon, the media materials and original writing:

It’s flood season in Las Vegas, the time of year when sidewalks become streams, streets rivers and intersections lakes.

Despite its aridity – only 4.5 inches of rain a year – Las Vegas has a long and ugly history of flooding. In July 1905, two months after the city was founded, a thunderstorm soaked the dirt roads and wooden storefronts and sprawling ranches. 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.

Between 1982 and 2002, at least 19 lives were lost to floods in Las Vegas.

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

An August 2003 flood crippled northwest Vegas, causing millions of dollars of damage.

But when the lightning flashes, the thunder volleys and the rain begins to fall this flood season, I won’t be thinking about street closures and property damage. I’ll be thinking about Lawrence, Eddie, Ernie, Mike, Harold, Gary and the hundreds of other people who live in the storm drains.
Armed with a flashlight, tape recorder and expandable baton for protection, I’ve been exploring the storm drains for more than five years. It all started in the summer of 2002, when I explored a handful of drains with freelance writer Joshua Ellis. It culminated in the summer of 2004, when I surveyed the system in full. It continues today, as I return to explore virgin tunnels and escort friends and journalists through the black maze.

In the system – an intricate web that spans from mountain range to mountain range – I’ve discovered art, architecture and wildlife (crawfish, mosquito fish, stray cats and dogs). I’ve discovered access to the hotel-casinos and airports. And I’ve discovered a bunch of weird miscellaneous items, including a bowling bowl, safe and burned-out car.

But the most surprising thing I’ve discovered in the storm drains are people.

Lawrence, a Vietnam vet with a harelip and lisp, lived in a wet drain south of the Tropicana hotel-casino. Supported by bungee cords and baling wire, his camp was suspended at least 3 feet above a stream of urban runoff. He told me he lived in the drain because he enjoyed his privacy.

A former jockey with ears as big as detention basins, Ernie lived in a 3-feet-in-diameter lateral pipe for 11 years. He slept in the midsection of the pipe and painted it beige, so he could detect black widows (which really give him the creeps). A piece of cardboard served as his mattress, a candle as his reading light. When I met him, he was washing a T-shirt in a stream of runoff.

Bob and Jona (pronounced John-a), married 17 years and hopelessly addicted to heroin, lived in an open-air channel near Tropicana and Eastern avenues in the saddest little home I’d seen in my life. A box spring served as the outside wall and a bedsheet, weighed down by books, as the roof. A piece of cardboard somehow pinned the sheet against the channel wall. Garbage bags bulging with food, clothing, books, toiletries and trash surrounded the hut, like rusted cars around a mobile home.

And there are many others. Teens, baby boomers and senior citizens. Poets, artists and madmen. Hustlers, whores and Vietnam vets. Most addicted to alcohol, drugs or gambling. Some dying of diseases, including cancer and AIDS. All in danger of getting washed away during the next flood.

One of the reasons I explored the storm drains was to draw attention to the plight of the people living in them and get them some help. I hoped Metro would sweep the drains. The city and county would make outreach workers available to the displaced. And they would be placed in hospitals, rehab centers, temporary or permanent housing, whatever’s appropriate.

But, of course, things are never that simple in Las Vegas. Metro barely has the staff to investigate murder cases thoroughly, so sweeping the storm drains isn’t a priority. The city and county don’t have enough outreach workers to handle the aboveground homeless – much less the additional 200 to 300 people in the drains. There’s a shortage of hospital, rehab center and shelter beds. Affordable housing? Maybe five years ago … in Pahrump, Mesquite or Laughlin.

Additionally, politicians and hotel-casino executives don’t seem to want to acknowledge the problem.

So when the lightning flashes, the thunder volleys and the rain begins to fall on Las Vegas, I’m going to have to settle for thinking about the people in the storm drains. And hope that eventually someone else will think about them, too.

Book signing

If you live on the west side – or you need to make a Whole Foods run – drop by the West Charleston Barnes & Noble and say hello. From 12 p.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 11, I’ll be signing copies of Beneath the Neon at the bookstore, which is located at 8915 W. Charleston Blvd. 12 p.m.-4 p.m. seems like a long time. But that’s what they suggested, so someone please bring me a snack. Also, don’t feel obligated to buy my book. Just do what Las Vegans do best: hang out and look pretty. Plus, if you’re one of the five people in the world who hasn’t bought Harry Potter and the Deathly Halitosis, you’ll most certainly want to do that.

Thanks, Yo!

I’ve tried to stay away from acknowledging or posting reviews and stories about Beneath the Neon on this website. It just seems a little gratuitous. And if I acknowledge or post one, I’d feel obligated to acknowledge or post them all. Plus, Huntington Press keeps track of that stuff on its website,

But I want to thank Yolanda Smith, secretary of the Wild Bunch bowling league at Sam’s Town, for recommending the book in the league’s newsletter. In the newsletter, Yolanda called the book a “must read.” She went on to say it would make a “great gift” for any bookworms on your Christmas list – and it’s never too early to start shopping for Christmas.

Also in the newsletter: “Big Bob” bowled a 252 to win the first game of league play the week of July 24. “Shaggy” won game two, with a respectable 249.

I wonder if Josh still has that bowling ball we found in the depths of the Cappadocia Drain. If so, we may have to head out to Sam’s Town and show the Wild Bunch what’s up.

Summer and fall schedule

Here’s a rundown of my summer and fall book schedule. I may be adding a few things here or there, but it’s pretty much set. If any of the dates, times and locations work for you, come by and say hello.

• Book signing from 12 p.m.-4 p.m. Aug. 11 at Barnes & Noble (8915 W. Charleston Blvd.)

• Decatur (Ga.) Book Festival from Aug. 31-Sept. 2 on and around the town square

• Book signing from 1 p.m.-3 p.m. Sept. 15 at Barnes & Noble (567 N. Stephanie St.)

• Book signing from 2 p.m.-4 p.m. Sept. 29 at Sundance Bookstore (in Reno)

• Book signing from 7:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Oct. 11 at the Reading Room (in Mandalay Place)

• Book fair from 1 p.m.-3 p.m. Oct. 27 at the Clark County Library (1401 E. Flamingo Rd.)

• Vegas Valley Book Festival on Nov. 2 and 3 in downtown Las Vegas (tentative)

• Book signing from 1 p.m.- 3 p.m. Nov. 17 at B. Dalton (in the Galleria Mall)

Second press run

I didn’t really have any goals when I began researching and writing Beneath the Neon — well, other than emerging from the drains with at least three of my four limbs. I did, however, hope the book would have a second press run. Thanks to you, it will.

Sales have been steady and we need more copies of the book. So I turned a corrected copy into Huntington Press, Editor Deke Castleman looked over the changes and Production Coordinator Laurie Shaw made the changes to the master copy. It’ll be sent to the printer soon and, hopefully, be back in a few weeks.

This isn’t officially a second edition; it won’t include a foreword by a famous author or any other major additions. It’s a reprint. However, it will be cleaner and leaner than the first print run.

And it will sit proudly on my bookshelf for many years to come.

What I Learned in the Las Vegas Storm Drains

High Country News, a respected environmental paper based in Paonia, Co., published an essay of mine about my experiences in the Las Vegas storm drains. Here’s the original version of the essay, for the initiated, which is a combination of stuff from Beneath the Neon, the media materials and original writing:

The catacombs of ancient Rome served as houses of worship for Jews and Christians. When surveyed by Pierre-Emmanuel Bruneseau in the early 1800s, the sewers of Paris yielded gold, jewels and relics of the revolution. And thousands of people lived in the subway and train tunnels of New York City in the 1980s and ’90s.

What secrets do the Las Vegas storm drains keep? What discoveries wait in the dark? What’s beneath the neon?

Armed with a flashlight, tape recorder and expandable baton for protection, I sought to answer these questions.

It all started in the summer of 2002, when I explored five storm drains with freelance writer Joshua Ellis. It culminated in the summer of 2004, when I explored the flood-control system in full. It continued through 2006, as I returned to the drains for follow-up notes and to explore virgin tunnels.

When I came up with the idea of exploring the storm drains, after reading about a fugitive who used a drain to elude the police, I didn’t consider that they might be inhabited. I couldn’t make that connection; it was too remote for a boy from the middle-class South. I expected to find concrete, darkness and water – miscellaneous items (a wallet or a wig – ha, ha, ha), graffiti and maybe a stray animal. But I did not expect to find people. People sleep in houses, condos and apartments. They sleep in hotels, motels and – a local favorite – trailers. They sleep in shelters, parks and under bridges.

But they do not sleep in dark concrete boxes that run for miles and miles. They do not sleep in concrete boxes that fill with floodwater.

Exploring the storm drains with Josh, I found out that they do. And as we interviewed the inhabitants, it almost began to make sense. The drains are ready-made reliable shanties – a floor, two walls and a ceiling. They provide shelter from the intense Mojave heat and wind. (Remember, most desert animals live underground.) Some of the drains are dry for weeks, even months. And cops, security guards and business owners don’t dare roust anyone beyond the shade line.

But ultimately, the drains are deathtraps. They’re disorienting and sometimes dangerously long. Many of them run under streets and contain pockets of carbon monoxide. They can be difficult to exit, particularly in a hurry. They’re not patrolled. (Who would work that beat for $50,000 a year?) They’re not monitored. There are no rules. There are no heroes. And, oh yeah, they can fill a foot per minute with floodwater.

Walking into a storm drain is like walking into a casino: You never know what’s going to happen, but chances are it isn’t going to be good.

But the flood-control system wasn’t all bad. I learned a lot about Las Vegas, Las Vegans and myself down there in the dark. While walking straightaways that felt like concrete treadmills, I thought about the ephemeral nature of Vegas: old bungalows being bulldozed; friends who appear, then disappear; the Dunes, Sands and Desert Inn collapsing in clouds of dust. This city eats its children, I thought. Everything here is as disposable as a razor blade – except for the storm drains. They’re our preservation areas. Our art galleries. Our time capsules.

For me, they were also a classroom.

I followed the footsteps of a psycho killer. I two-stepped under the MGM Grand at 3 in the morning. I chased the ghosts of Benny Binion, Bugsy Siegel, Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Howard Hughes.

I discovered that a manhole can feel a lot like heaven. That in some ways, I prefer underground Las Vegas to aboveground Vegas: It’s cooler, quieter and there’s a hell of a lot less traffic. That maybe the afterlife is just a matter of trading in your body for a new-and-improved model.

I learned how to make meth. That art is most beautiful where it’s least expected. And that there are no pots of gold under the neon rainbow.

Coming home

It’s official. I’m taking part in the Decatur (Ga.) Book Festival, which will be held Aug. 31-Sept. 2 on and around the town square. I’ll participate in a panel discussion from 1:15 p.m-2 p.m. on Sept. 2 and sign copies of Beneath the Neon immediately afterward.

If you’re in the Atlanta area that weekend, drop by the festival and say hello. Also, please spread the word to anyone else who may be interested in attending. (Sandwiches on me at Sensational Subs – or has it closed, too?)

For more info on the Decatur Book Festival, visit

Summer reading

Local glossy 944 included Beneath the Neon in its summer reading list. Very cool and very much appreciated.

But the most interesting thing about the list, in my opinion, was the photo that accompanied it: a model in a bikini and Jackie O. shades tanning by a pool, reading Beneath the Neon. It’s a jarring image, really, and wet with irony. I couldn’t help but wonder if this seemingly oblivious beauty was at the Hard Rock pool, above its triple-barrel storm drain – one of the meanest skid rows in town. Or at the MGM Grand pool, above madmen roaming in the dark with no light sources.

Unfortunately, 944’s website is somewhat sparse and doesn’t appear to include the summer reading list and photo. But if you live in Las Vegas, pick up a copy. The photo alone will be worth it, I think.


The last two weeks have been insane, with the book-launch party and all. I finally have a few minutes to blog about the party. Yes, a few minutes.

The party went really, really well. A lot of close friends and family members showed up. Deke Castleman, who edited Beneath the Neon, flew in from the Reno area and the designer Kat Topaz flew in from Portland, Ore., with her baby girl Odessa. Very cool.

Also, a lot of local writers attended: John L. Smith, Joshua Ellis, Brian Rouff, Cathy Scott, Bill Branon, H. Lee Barnes, Chip Mosher, Andrew Kiraly and others. Yes, very cool.

I want to thank Becki Davis of Huntington Press, Evette Jensen of the Arts Factory and Paymon Raouf of Paymon’s Mediterranean Café for helping make the party happen. Thanks, y’all!

Finally, some of Danny Mollohan’s black-and-white prints are left over from the party. If anyone wants a print, contact Danny at 702-807-9386 or He can make prints of any photos from the book or from his page,

Check ’em out!