I was here long before I arrived—a specter buried in the back rooms of after-hours clubs and gambling dens, a haint hidden at the table of steak joints and shake dance spots. I was the last card in the shoe shuffled across the felt in smokey, small-time casinos. Counted among the bodies stashed in the desert, the shape of me, the bones, are only now emerging as the waters of Lake Mead begin to recede.
Like so many Las Vegas tales, this one begins with a father ironically in search of greener pastures. On the heels of the Great Migration, he’d moved his family from the red soil of a small college town in Georgia to parts not much farther north in Virginia, still not quite over the Mason-Dixon. Life was good until the comforts he found—growing business, suburban living, bowling league nights, sandy beach picnics—became as tight about the neck as the many nooses he’d escaped. To slip this yoke meant leaving behind a wife, two stepdaughters, and four-year-old me.
It was 1972. Raquel Welch opened for Elvis at the Las Vegas Hilton. The starlet vamped and shimmied with a cast of Syd and Marty Krofft puppets in a cabaret-style production meant to redeem her reputation after she’d violated her public’s trust amid accusations of TV lip-synching. Tricky Dick was president. And Bill Coulthard, a local attorney, was killed by car bomb in a Las Vegas parking garage, allegedly after having refused to renew the lease on Benny Binion’s Horseshoe Casino.
I can see my father as he was then, a deep-eyed, deep-skinned, welterweight of a man—broad-shouldered and slim in the waist. At least this is how my four-year-old eyes remember and reenact him, sailing Las Vegas Boulevard, the nose of his ’69 Charger cutting through neon, the clamor of sudden jackpots and cocktails a’ripple in his wake. A few years after my father’s arrival, Aaron Spelling would canonize the Strip via Robert Urich in a sexy, detective series local pundits even now credit with opening the torrent of Vegas-based dramas and police procedurals.
In the opening credits of Vega$, Urich’s brooding profile is superimposed over a montage of showgirls and baccarat wheels as he cruises below star-studded marquees of the Stardust, Frontier, the Desert Inn—properties long lost to the more unrelenting wheel of capital’s advance. Picture my father: a sleek-finned Robert Urich, a Detective Dan Tanna on the case. But he is his own missing person. The hot lights of the Strip lap around chrome, pool over the dash, illuminating the tape deck and the open maw of the console where I’d once sat shotgun on the hump, feeding in eight-track cartridges of Roberta Flack and Aretha.
Many of the over forty million annual visitors to this valley—the daytrippers and vagabonds, resident celebrities and magicians, blue-collar and migrant workers, hustlers, survivors, and occasional innocents—come here with a secret desire to be disappeared. The sin in Sin City frees and seduces, induces some to believe they can climb right up and out of their own skins, dissolve into the monatomic particles that fuel this city’s unceasing shimmer.
“Thousands of fugitives,” Adam Goldman reported, in an early iteration of clickbait for CBS News, “have found the end of the road in Las Vegas.” Goldman’s tidy 2003 exposé, “No Place to Hide,” seems an intentional contradiction as he cites the more than six thousand fugitives—“from shady bankers and parole violators to gangsters and murderers,” by Goldman’s count—unearthed on the streets of Las Vegas by the Criminal Apprehension task force between 1992 and 2003. He reminds us that Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, one of America’s first celebrity outlaw duos, fled here to a downtown flophouse on Main Street in 1959, six weeks after they’d invaded the home of the Clutters, a prominent Kansas family whose slaughter would go on to inspire Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Five 9/11 hijackers, including mastermind Mohamed Atta, are said to have visited Olympic Garden, a now defunct gentlemen’s club in an off-the-Strip area of Las Vegas Boulevard known as “The Jungle.” The FBI would later retrace their steps from neighborhood libraries to pizza joints and cyber cafes, as if the hijackers had been determined to first steep and then sate themselves in the mundanity and excess of Americana before unleashing havoc. And my misbegotten childhood idol, Patty Hearst, holed up in a Strip hotel in the aftermath of the Symbionese Liberation Army’s San Francisco bank heist in 1974. Grainy footage of Hearst, in trench coat, sunglasses, and floppy hat—all fashionable silhouette, backing out of the frame—became conflated with images of Faye Dunaway and the sand-blown landscape of Bonnie and Clyde’s Dust Bowl capers long before I ever saw this desert.
The Horseshoe is at the center of the circuit my father navigated between the Plaza, the Mint, and the El Cortez. The ringmaster-dealer in a game of craps, the stickman handles the dice with the curved end of his stick, presenting a player with a seemingly fated set of numbers, which they must pluck as is from the table and roll. In a town known for rules skewed in favor of the house, my father refused the dice as the stickman set them. His technique was to re-pattern the bones, turn the sixes up, the fives aligned and facing each other. Essentially, reworking his fate.
“You see his face,” he said. “This is my friend. Let this man do as he likes.”
Once, when a dealer at the Horseshoe threatened to eject my father for resetting before the toss, Benny Binion stepped in. My father had been previously introduced to the famed casino-mogul by fellow self-made casino legend Sam Boyd. Draping an arm at his shoulders, Binion walked my father from table to table, dealer to dealer. “You see his face,” he said. “This is my friend. Let this man do as he likes.” This would have been around the time of the Coulthard killing, shortly before or after the explosion, endlessly on repeat and cinematically glorified in modern mob lore. Binion was known to be both charming and ruthless. A self-confessed vindicator, he had no problem dispensing his own brand of frontier justice. He’d been tried on murder charges twice before coming to Las Vegas, and in interviews archived in University of Nevada, Las Vegas’s Oral History Research Center, he does not shy away from divulging his exploits.
With begrudging pride, my father recalls seeing a player approach the cage at the Horseshoe in pursuit of some ill-timed and reckless scheme. Binion and his six-foot-eight enforcer, Gold Dollar—a red-boned, freckled, Afro-Texan rumored to have saved Binion’s life more than once back in Dallas—wrangled the would-be thief into the alley at the rear of the casino, out of which the man failed to return upright and breathing.
My father is reticent. The stories he will share come in precious draughts that can stop as quickly as they start. He has a way of going exactly no further than he wants in conversation. Ending this tale, my father tucks his lips into a sidewise moue that both conceals and offers his satisfaction. “He was a hard hammer,” he says finally of Binion. “But he was never nothing but nice to me.”
My father is not a criminal. But he did elude several laws, actual and karmic. There was no agreement in his leave-taking. No amicable discussion with my mother or deputized bailiff serving divorce papers. There was no poignant moment with me—no mildly gospel, Curtis Mayfield-scored breakup like the one James Earl Jones delivers in the 1974 film Claudine, aiming large, pensive eyes on a passel of common-law children huddled hopeful, yet already jaded, along the bucket seats of his Caddy, and to whom he feels compelled to explain the ABCs of men hitting the road in the face of oppressive societal forces, which include a woman, their mama, who jus’ won’t get off his back. Diahann Carroll, who embodied both the role of widowed nurse raising a son on her own in the groundbreaking NBC series Julia, and the beleaguered but glorious domestic worker who catches the eye of Jones in Claudine, became the model for beating the odds and remaining not only wise but glam and resilient in the face of Black death or abandonment, as if instructing a generation of Black women in exactly how to do it.
The ’70s were filled with such instruction—so that by the time the patriarch in Good Times died in the act of fulfilling his dream of moving his family out of the housing projects and Chicago’s mean streets, back to Mississippi, in a bizarre precognition of our current reverse migration, I had grown irrevocably more familiar with the unfinished equation, more embracing and less afraid of family structures organized much like mine—of toppled heads in no longer existing households evaporating, either ‘cross town shacking with outside families, hobbled in more ways than one by final tours in Vietnam, tragically slain, or imprisoned. My father had not gone the way of the sitcom. He’d simply Houdini-ed. In true Las Vegas fashion, his act was so dazzling, so complete, that I did not see him, hear his voice or his name uttered, for more than a decade.
We struggled when he left. Virginia Statute 20-61, established in 1944 and recodified many times over, including in 1972, the year of my father’s unannounced journey West, cautions, “Any spouse who without cause deserts or willfully neglects or refuses or fails to provide for the support and maintenance of his or her spouse, and any parent who deserts or willfully neglects or refuses or fails to provide for the support and maintenance of his or her child under the age of eighteen years of age . . . shall be punished by a fine of not exceeding $500, or confinement in jail not exceeding twelve months, or both, or on work release employment as provided . . . for a period of not less than ninety days nor more than twelve months.” The public housing where my mother initially sought refuge was a hellscape of a place to raise three young daughters alone. I remember playing dress-up while we lived there and unearthing my father’s social security card among my mother’s costume jewelry and half-empty bottles of perfume as though it were the hole card she intended to play. But she never filed against him.
His erasure seemed a more definitive and much sharper tool of correction. It cut both ways. No one knew where he was. And as he’d disappeared, so did I.
No One Flag
Las Vegas is a young city, ridiculed for its lack of history. In Virginia, we pledged allegiance under an original oil painting of Robert E. Lee as I entered grade school, and in early fall took field trips to St. John’s Episcopal, the oldest English-speaking parish in the United States. Draping white butcher’s paper over tombstones going back to the 1600s, we rubbed thick black crayon sidewise over dates of birth and death. During a childhood plagued by melancholy, I walked the cobbled stones of Jamestown, just a bike ride away from the little house my mother was able to purchase after earning her degree in computer science at night and becoming one of the pioneering Black women processing data for the space program at Langley.
Nearly thirty years after our family’s reconciliation, I have only recently dared to ask my father what drew him to Las Vegas.
Astrophysicists describe black holes as sites of present-absence. Large celestial bodies collapse as they fade and die. Already, they are ghosts of our ghosts. By the time we catch a glimpse of the distortions they leave in their wake, they are long gone. Stephen Hawking went one step further to theorize that as black holes themselves evaporate, they destroy all information, all ties to the body that made them. He formulated this idea, known as Hawking’s Black Hole Information Paradox, in 1976. At that point, my father had been gone from us, and born to himself nearly five years in Las Vegas.
Perhaps it was the era itself that accounts for my early fascination with the West. The ’70s loved a fugitive—Billy Jack, Sweetback, Hunter S. Thompson going gonzo. Or perhaps it was an exceptionally mercenary, brilliant trend in marketing, necessary in driving the city’s lifeblood of tourists to the Strip. I had no idea that my father’s existential-sail had launched and landed him there, but all the while, from my solitary perch in Virginia, I took refuge in Harlequin romances framed by distinctly cowboy-gambler themes and was inexplicably drawn to the hyper-pigmented skies of spaghetti Westerns, the jingle of spurs, the flutter of Eastwood’s serapes, the fury of Jerry Lewis’s antics, Sammy Davis’s melophonic stylings, and the purloined hip-thrusts of Elvis. More urgent was the Saturday-night rapture of Lola Falana, flashing uncanny lengths of lash and leg. Always in white, or ablaze in flamingo pink against glistening skin, she was constructed out of a dreamscape that could only exist on the other side of the world, four thousand miles away, outside the lens of any known history.
In defining the undercommons as a psychic space of created and creating identities outside the lines of sanctioned mores, contracts, or constructs—a devising of selves as a response to, and in spite of, the forced imposition of often violent histories—scholars Fred Moten and Stefano Harney seem also to define Las Vegas. Anyone will tell you this town is made up of a citizenry born of no one flag—a territory carved out by and of marginality. “It is to feel at home with the homeless,” Moten and Harney write of the undercommons, “at ease with the fugitive, at peace with the pursued, at rest with the ones who consent not to be one.” Moten was born in Las Vegas, on the Historic Westside, where Black performers like Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., and Lena Horne found safe harbor after long nights performing in segregated hotels on the Strip, singing and dancing where they were not allowed to lay their heads.
“Can this being together in homelessness,” Moten and Harney offer, as they try to explain the rootedness many of the fugitive find, paradoxically, in being uprooted, “this interplay of the refusal of what has been refused, this undercommon appositionality, be a place from which emerges neither self-consciousness nor knowledge of the other but an improvisation that proceeds from somewhere on the other side of an unasked question? Not simply to be among his own, the ones who have nothing and who, in having nothing, have everything. This is the sound of an unasked question.”
What was the sound of my father’s asking as he pulled out of the drive of our upscale Glen Gardens apartment complex in Virginia, leaving behind summer pools and tennis courts, shag rugs, a mirrored cocktail bar, and a freezer full of burgers to spoil in the roadside stand he’d been so proud to acquire? Was it the languid interrogative of Aretha on the eight-track, the fire and brimstone of the Hammond organ as she declares “Ain’t No Way”?
Nearly thirty years after our family’s reconciliation, I have only recently dared to ask my father what drew him to Las Vegas. This is as close as I will ever get to the real ask of what would compel a man to up and leave a wife, two growing daughters on the cusp of becoming teens, and a child not yet five who’d breathed only when he’d breathed.
“I didn’t intend to stay here that long, you know. Thought I’d come out here for just a short while. One or two weeks,” he offers, as we prepare breakfast for him and my mother in the kitchen we all share in our suburban Las Vegas home. Our banter comes easy, as it did on the morning shortly before his eighty-fifth birthday when I’d first noticed his responses beginning to break and slow, the rhythm of his drawl beginning to warp. We had been here in this space, engaged in the same ritual, plotting out the summer days between teaching and other projects when I might escort him on a flight down to Georgia to visit his six remaining sisters, and extended clan of nieces, great-nieces, and nephews, who lovingly call him “Unc.”
“Pop,” is as close as I will ever come to the small girl who had once believed in “Daddy.” Even now it is near impossible to hold such a word, or to write it. “Pop,” I’d called to him on that day, as I saw the color shift like mercury under the sharp planes of his face, the deep eyes, the outcropping of brow and cheek, graying. “Pop,” as his legs began to buckle, and I slid a kitchen chair up and under him just in time to catch his fall. The moment spilled open, speeding forward, then back. I dialed 911. His eyes dulled, his jaw listed open.
I yelled for my sons, two beautifully growing young men born unexpectedly to this desert. They held their grandfather steady on either side as I compressed his chest, gripped his face in my hands. I called to him—Pop. While he deepened into a place I could not go, I fought the urge to throw back my head and howl. Not here. Not now. How far had we come? How many dimensions had we crossed to get to this?
Black holes are remnants. Their absence creates unfathomable weight, an unbearable gravitational beam, where no-thing can exist or escape. It is the uncreated space, where what was can never be again.
I visited Las Vegas for the first time the summer of 1985—my ticket a high school graduation gift from the man I’d been born to but did not know. We’d had one-word conversations in the months leading up to the trip. I was always surprised by the cool of my mother as she handed me the phone. His voice was small, the barest pulse over a distance of years and miles.
He picked me up at McCarran in a bottle-green Geo Tracker. Canvas top rolled back, the lights of the Strip pouring over our heads, he took the long way up, driving the length of Las Vegas Boulevard from the south end, heading north. There were sites along that drive that had not yet been filled in. The black glass pyramid and Third Eye beam of the Luxor had not yet erupted out of its dark stretch of desert. The Hacienda Hotel, the only legacy Strip property briefly owned by a woman, had not yet given way to the behemoth of Mandalay Bay and its own horror-filled legacy of October 1.
My father squired me about as if I were the prodigal, the wayward child who’d carelessly wandered off and by grace or providence returned. There were comped meals at the top of the Plaza, cold hands of shrimp served in large cocktail glasses, live jazz, and the clamor of coins filling my ears as we looped through hidden back entries. Doormen and valets, floormen and dealers took my hand as if they knew me. As if the flood of lights, this disconnected buzz, these gambled promises, were my birthright.
The Many Deaths of Las Vegas
I take to recording my father’s voice in the weeks after his stroke. In the early morning before his walk, I slice peaches, dab unsalted butter onto hominy grits, grill sausages switched out to turkey rather than pork. I have been married once, and twice divorced in this desert, become a mother, a friend, a writer, and a mourner. I lost a sister here. Her ashes sit at a dedicated altar on our mantle. My mother has grayed and threatens to fade into this desert. She talks often of going back home to Virginia. At some point, a threshold was crossed when she’d realized she has now lived longer with this man than she has without him. She cannot forgive him for it.
As if the flood of lights, this disconnected buzz, these gambled promises, were my birthright.
“A lot of people seem to think so, but I was not a bad man,” my father tells me, as he forks through grits, plies toast with jam that I will not tell him is unsugared. “But they knew me when they saw me in the Horseshoe, the Golden Gate, the Union Plaza. Everybody knew everybody and I knew the right people.”
Sam Boyd died in his golden years, after a long illness in 1993. Benny Binion was felled by heart attack at eighty-six on Christmas Day of ’89; his son, Teddy, my father’s favorite, was drugged in a murder scheme allegedly orchestrated by a longtime girlfriend in ’98. The new crop of young Turks are actually corporations. They rule at a distance. They are Legion. They are faceless.
Many versions of this city have died. Not yet of legal age at the time of my first visits, my common-law stepsister and I gained passage in and out of downtown lounges to sip virgin cocktails and dance to live music. We’d end our evenings on the Strip under the palm-filled atrium at the Mirage, where the house band offered up funk-laden versions of pop, jazz, and R & B. The impromptu riff of the keyboard and the driving knell of the bass have since been replaced by the prerecorded soundtrack, the mix board, the synth—a takeover of automatons that music-writer Janis McKay, in her book Played Out on the Strip: The Rise and Fall of Las Vegas Casino Bands, traces back to the Corporate Gaming Act of 1967. Allowing corporations to become casino owners forever altered the symbiosis between legacy families, the mob, artists on the Strip, and blue-collar mobility. Even now we are experiencing the late death of our American dream, as a housing market that once made it possible for a change girl or valet to own a home and truly settle in this desert becomes a city that recently saw a 25–40 percent increase in median rent and now boasts one of the nation’s highest eviction rates.
Invited to tour the Mob Museum recently with its director, I pause at a display of cowboy boots, the toe box and vamp gleaming like new money. Encased alongside are the badge, hat, saddle, and gun of Sheriff Ralph Lamb. Credited for having merged the Clark County Sheriff’s department with Las Vegas Police to form Metro, he was also known for having been indicted for tax evasion.
As I come back bearing souvenirs of where I’ve been, my father sits at his place in the kitchen to tell me the stories not told in the display. He asks if I know the old icehouse on Main. One of the few facilities in the West to make, receive, and store much needed ice in the early 1900s, in the age before refrigeration, it shuttered its doors in ’83, burned to the ground in ’88, and was reborn as The Ice House Lounge in 2003. Chris Webber of the Sacramento Kings hosted an All-Stars Weekend celebration there in 2007; I recall walking in to the thump of canned hip-hop and the pulse of gyrating bodies. “. . . Po’lice used to take a lot of Black people out behind there. . .” my father purses into the half-grin, half-scowl, I now know holds equal measures of self-deprecation, equal measures of grief, “. . . sometimes you would not see them again. I shiver sometimes to think—I should’a been shot in this town.”