From the 18b arts district to Fremont East, downtown teems with activity and commerce. In the daytime hours, businesses, restaurants and art galleries are populated by people eager to be part of the economic and cultural resurgence. As the sun sets, however, a shift change takes place. When the techies, developers, lawyers and members of the arts community, each in their easy-to-spot respective fashions, make their exit, the theater of after-hours street life enters its first act.
As the restaurants and bars begin their happy hour specials, a set of people with their own dress codes takes to the streets. These are the people who call downtown home at night. They make their living in a variety of ways — some legally and others by any means within their particular skill set. Grown men on BMX bikes, oddly mismatched-looking couples and heavily loaded shopping carts are the usual markers of people living these lifestyles. To be sure, prostitution and drug-dealing are commonplace. But this story references these activities only as they affect the lives of people who prefer to get by without committing felonies on a regular basis. People such as Paul, a clean-cut man in his late 30s who also goes by “Lefty.”
Paul makes his living scavenging a span of the city within a mile or so radius of Fremont and Maryland Parkway. He prefers the dumpsters behind the law offices and business near the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, a few blocks east of Las Vegas Boulevard. In the cool early morning hours following a long night of treasure-hunting, Paul is laying low in front of a vacant building behind the Walgreen’s on Las Vegas Boulevard and Charleston. He says the area around Fremont and 11th can be a bountiful marketplace as far as street life goes, but when he senses things are getting too hot in the way of dangerous drug dealers or police officers riled up in the high-crime area, he heads south to the edges of historic neighborhoods, such as Huntridge and John S. Park. There he can stash a loaded shopping cart. His cart is full of food items and things he can sell, give away to friends to strengthen relationships or trade for clothing and other necessities.
Paul has lived in Las Vegas since the late ’80s. Construction work brought him here, he says, and when that dried up it wasn’t long till he found himself homeless, which he’s remained for the past three years. He describes his personal ethos as defined by standards of cleanliness, making himself useful to those who are kind to him and an absolute abhorrence of thievery. “I’m on dope,” he readily admits, “but there are a lot of motherfuckers on dope around here that don’t have no morals. I won’t steal from no one. I don’t care if I haven’t eaten in three days.”
He elaborates. “If I’m spending time in an area, I’ll take a whole day and clean the place up. And if there’s a gang or whoever, they won’t mess with me. I keep my nose to the ground. I don’t care what nobody is doing. Just leave me the fuck alone. Don’t be trying to slow me down. I did 10 months last year because a motherfucker tried to slow me down.”
He describes a situation in which he had a storage unit full of scavenged goods that he needed help moving out of. He asked a stranger he met on the street for help, but, he says, “He [the stranger] got in there and sabotaged me. He kept swooping up behind me.”
Paul didn’t feel his storage unit was safe so he slept in it and was caught the next morning by property management, who called the police. These are the ups and downs of a life like his.
Midway through telling this story, he is distracted by a pigeon. “Hey what are you doing? Give me one of your feathers. I want one of your feathers,” he says as he makes a brief chase before giving up.
“Every day something happens to keep me on the street,” he says. “I’m just trying to do this really nice, you know? I got skills, man.” He claims to have blacked out half of San Diego when he was in 11th grade by overloading a transformer with a device he fashioned out of metal washers and fishing line. Paul uses his self-taught engineering skills on the objects he scavenges from dumpsters. He employs a mystical method of reading signs and ambient vibrations to find electronics or furniture he can fix and then sell to friends or shops downtown. “I can tell just by feeling the outside of a garbage bin if there is something good for me inside. I don’t even have to look, and it works every time.”
It is now just after midnight on a chilly Friday. In front of the Emergency Arts building there is a man panhandling. He stands near a group of tourists who discuss the best toppings for the gourmet franks they are about to order from a specialty hot-dog stand in front of a café that just locked its doors for the evening. His name is Nathaniel. He is an African-American man in his early 60s and in failing health. Nathaniel has lived in Las Vegas for 30 years. A tax-return check for $500 first brought him here from his native Florida. Drinking a can of Newcastle Ale a passing hipster had given him, he explains that he would prefer a half-pint of liquor instead. He says the cops don’t bother him much, that they are mainly looking to bust the drug dealers and people who are causing real trouble. As an Metro cruiser drives by, he says, “But if they think we look suspicious talking to each other like we is, they’ll pull over and run our names.”
They drive on and as we talk, a large man decked out in hip-hop gear walks by and discreetly says “party favors” before strutting off when no one takes him up on the offer.
Nathaniel says he used to panhandle on the Strip but that people are much nicer downtown. “They movin’ too fast on the Strip,” he says. “Here they stop and talk to you.”
Addressing the state of his life he says, “I’m on my last leg. I mean, I’m all messed up. If I don’t get myself straight I’m going to be dead.” Unlike many people on the street, Nathaniel’s problems are not due to drug addiction but to a medical condition he has thus far been unable to get medical help for. “Man, I signed the wrong paper. They say I refused treatment so they kicked me out. I messed up and I wake up and say, ‘What the hell I done done?’ Now I gotta find a back way get medication.” He says he is willing to work, but without improving his health work really isn’t an option. After scoring a few more bucks from passersby, Nathaniel is ready to move on to the liquor store for that half-pint.
About a hundred yards away, street musician Marc Drama leans against a light pole at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont. With a disarming yet world-weary countenance, the light-skinned bluesman is holding an audience of half a dozen with his raspy voice and acoustic six-string. Drama prefers this area to farther up Fremont, under the bedazzled canopy, where he says police check for permits and there is more competition.
Drama was born in Santa Monica and tells how he was educated at the California Recording Institute in San Francisco. He’s been in Vegas for seven years, worked construction, sold human growth hormone and has taken gigs as a greeter. “Now here I am busking on the street. I was doing it on the Strip, but I got a couple of tickets, and that left a bad taste in my mouth.” Drama says he loves the rawness and authenticity of being face-to-face with his audience. He looks forward to playing in the new downtown clubs if he can land some gigs but enjoys playing on the street well enough to have left his day job for it.
On an average night, he brings in $20 to $50, and when there are special events or holidays he can take in more than $300. Drama is not homeless, but he does spend a lot of time in what many would consider a humble position as a street musician. Like Paul and Nathaniel, there is an optimistic sturdiness that colors his demeanor and perspective.
These people have their ups and downs like everyone else, and like the lawyers, techies and hipsters they share downtown with, the level of enjoyment they get from their lives is much affected by how they choose to perceive them.
As Drama sings in his autobiographical song “Mr. Lucky”: “They call me Mr. Lucky/Man, I hardly ever lose/They call me Mr. Lucky/I love my rhythm and blues/Spend my days and my nights flipping dollars outta dimes.”
The way he strums out the tune, beaming a big smile to his audience, one might guess that at this moment, Drama is enjoying his life among the fringe community, as much as anyone downtown, day or night.