Hockey in the Desert – 4 February 10, 2016
From what we’d heard, the Las Vegas express bus took you on a jaunt down the Strip, then swerved into real life. We decided to ride it to Old Vegas, to Fremont Street, where after all the glitz and hollowness of the mile-long casinos, we were promised a little honest tackiness.
We picked up passes at a machine on the Strip, and soon after hopping on board, I realized I could have ridden that bus for hours, chatting with other passengers and staring out the window at the unscrolling decrepitude. We passed low-slung adobe law offices every few blocks, and the barred windows of bail bondsmen. Here, a clapboard wedding chapel. There, a dusty vacant lot where a homeless person had pitched her camp. Another lot, another camp, another and another, and to one side, a blown-up plastic rat, an empty casino prepped for demolition, a junk store, a liquor store, a barefoot woman looking permanently lost.
On the way downtown, my friend Yvonne talked a man on disability who said he was HIV positive and en route to the Internal Revenue Service, where he planned to change his name after six years spent battling identity theft. On the way back, she chatted with another disabled man who said he was born in São Paulo and battling black lung disease, which had started in the pollution of Brazil and got worse when he was mining.
As she did, the rest of us spoke to three pretty tough-looking working men who talked for a long time about what we ought to do in Vegas, wracking their brains as they tried to be helpful. One said we should go to the bar where his ex-wife worked, a woman named Lindsay who was a nice person, blond, tall, big (he curved his hands out in front of him); a real nice person, he insisted when his friends rolled their eyes, except to him, and if we tipped her well she would ensure we got well and truly ripped.
As this guy spoke, a genial transit cop stood nearby joining in and joking, possibly keeping us from getting assaulted, saying he came from Pennsylvania originally so he knew what we were about in Canada. He knew snow.
Meanwhile, the oldest of the three told me he was from Erie, outside Buffalo. He grew up on a farm, where the snow was so bad the school bus often couldn’t get down the lane, not that he minded.
“Do you still play hockey?” he asked, then turned sad. “I probably couldn’t even skate no more.”
Afterwards he pointed to a tower which he said was the local suicide jumpers’ spot, its victims having included a Hollywood producer who got so fat she couldn’t get a boyfriend and decided it was time to end it all.
This caused the third of the three, who looked like a young Eminem, to point to a double-decker tourist bus and reminisce about the woman in the upper deck who’d stood up at the wrong moment to take a picture and was killed by a low-hanging overpass sign, an unfortunately incident which caused a new law to be passed that raised the signs all over Vegas. Eminem wanted to move to Canada, although we didn’t learn why, just that one of us should pack him in her hockey bag, although he agreed that after three games that was probably inadvisable.
Meanwhile, Buffalo Man mourned the end of the pirate show at the hotel opposite, saying the new owners had changed it even though it was always popular, but then some guys jumped over a dollar to get a dime.
Afterwards, a distraction. We passed a fountain where a man was wading shin-high in what had to be pretty cold water to pick up the coins people had thrown in for luck, which made all three of the bus guys indignant.
That was somebody’s job. The casino paid a guy to collect the coins so they could be donated to charity. Wading Man was taking somebody’s job. He’s taking somebody’s job.
From something he dropped, I figured Lindsay’s ex was in construction, at least when he worked. The others didn’t indicate.
Anyway, that was there and back. In between, we took a stroll down Fremont Street, now a pedestrian mall covered with a steely mesh for four city blocks between the older casinos and their jumble of neon signs. It was populated by stands of cheap souvenirs and buskers working their lack of magic. One man did card tricks, another smirked at his dummy in a ventriloquist’s act, while a nearby woman who might once have hoped to be the next Janis Joplin belted out songs through a portable amp.
Wandering among them was a man dressed in nothing but an oversize diaper, saying “Ma, Ma,” as he busked for dollars, wanting tourists to take his picture. An Elvis impersonator drove down the side street in a finned pink Cadillac. My friends played the slots a little, Kate ending up with a cash-out certificate worth four cents, five cents Canadian. Inside one of the casinos was a case with “the largest, natural solid gold nugget on public display in the world.” Shoved into a corner of the case was the second biggest nugget, which a sign said was formerly the first.
Eight dollars for a 24-hour bus pass, $11 Canadian. That night, Cirque de Soleil would ask twenty times that for its aquatic show, O, which was worth it. But if you’re broke, try taking the bus. It’s sad, it’s human, it’s the freak show, and if you’re a female hockey player in Vegas, you’re one of the freaks.
“You still play hockey?” Buffalo Man asked, and I can still hear the astonishment in his voice as he said it.