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Notes on truth, fact and reality in the story of a guy who dumped all of his junk on the Strip



WHEN I TELL PEOPLE I lived in Las Vegas, I get the usual questions best answered with a bleak smile. Yes, people actually live in Las Vegas. Yes, I gambled, some.

And I did win big — once. My wife and I bought a house in November 2001 and sold it in October 2006. We waited about six months too long, or we might have doubled our investment, but we still cashed out huge.

We beat the house.

Those of you reading this in houses that have beaten you — I know. I feel a little like one of those folks who hit the Megabucks and sit there with goofy grins and maybe ask for a hot dog while casino PR people shoot photos. It coulda been us, and it was.

Then there’s U-Haul Man.

He appeared this spring in online videos, tossing the contents of his rented truck onto Las Vegas Boulevard, across from the Bellagio — chairs, cabinets, house stuff. I can’t help imagining that’s where it all came from, a house, lost or abandoned. U-Haul Man was toting those clothes and mirrors and tables to a reduced state — Mom and Dad’s spare room in Phoenix, a crappy rental in 89101, a Motel 6 — and he couldn’t do it. Waiting for the light while the fountains gushed and twirled and Frank Sinatra belted “That’s Life,” right there at a plausible epicenter of everything Las Vegas is and isn’t and he said, here, house, you win. It’s yours. Go furnish yourself.

You can watch from a variety of viewpoints. He’s stopped near the median and cars churn past, some drivers rubber-necking, a few shooting. So most videos show the offloading from a remove, accented with OMG commentary. Cheers go up for large items that smash resoundingly. Occasionally, U-Haul Man retreats into his load, either readying the next batch or, maybe, trying to get a grip and failing? Some people slip through traffic for closer shots, but the distance makes the event a show, a concert doc shot from numerous angles.

The video I saw first, posted on Facebook, covers the event patiently for more than 10 minutes. At the 7:35 point, just as U-Haul Man finishes pushing out a soft mattress, sirens arise. U-Haul Man shoves out a shelving unit, then a billboard truck pulls to a stop, nearly blocking the shot: “Hot Babes Direct to You!” People angle around it for position. Just as the billboard truck rolls away, a Metro officer strides up to the U-Haul and hops in, as U-Haul Man pitches one more item. The officer drags him off the truck and tussles with him a bit until three other officers arrive and get him on the ground. Eventually, to cheers, they stand him and lead him to a squad car next to the median.

He’s biting a dog, in journalism’s enduring cliché. But no one’s practicing journalism here. Go ahead, Google: “u-haul vegas strip.” My first hit was a KTNV Channel 13 account “created” by Matt Mayhood on May 22, 2012. You can’t get much more reduced than this 53-word, probably 20-second, story:

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police have cited a driver who they described as being agitated and “down on his luck” after he unloaded a U-Haul truck on the Las Vegas Strip Sunday morning.

Metro police charged the man with disturbing the peace and resisting arrest. The man was taken to the hospital for treatment.

Let’s start with “Who.” No, don’t name him in the lead, but — not at all? “Down on his luck”? In Las Vegas, imagine. What kind of “treatment”? Does “the hospital” have a name?

I could go on, but at least KTNV reported the story. The rest of those hits were blogs and forums with embedded videos, and sometimes amusing, sometimes vile commentary about U-Haul Man’s colorful issues and things staying in Vegas. Speculation expands like a gas: marital and sexual failures, gambling losses and foreclosure. One poster sniffs a stunt — it took too long for Metro to arrive. Another says he can’t find anything about it; surely “the news” covered it. Well, as I said, KTNV did.

If you’re in the mood for armchair analysis, though, there’s plenty to go around. Through several pages of Google hits, you find eventually you are recycling the same linked videos, but the commentary — on video or blog or forum — never improves. And no one troubles to ID U-Haul Man, or learn what happened to him. He frets briefly on the world stage — not even 15 minutes — then struts off.

Why haven’t I uncovered U-Haul Man? I tried. I called and e-mailed Metro over several weeks. I’d go in person, cop-shop style, press card in hatband, but I live in North Carolina.

At some point, too, I began to wonder if indeed it mattered. What news consumer needs the name of the person who bit the dog or hit the Megabucks or careened into an abutment? Do we remember them? Politicians and criminals, sure, especially those who are both. But for most random events that rise into News, what counts is not who but what they did or endured.

It does matter, though. Actually reporting news helps reduce the likelihood any of us will be disappeared if we do something inconvenient. Not caring is symptomatic of a society in which, if you’re not careful, your only trace is a social-media meme.

And if there is a chance of becoming that, you are in a society in which experience is a variety revue whose performers’ feats are colorfully reviewed in forums and Facebook feeds. You don’t need to know who U-Haul Man is, or what happened to him, because you know what he represents in that moment’s morality play or burlesque. He’s U-Haul Man, cuckolded, impotent, busted flat in Bellagio. As they say, whatever.

I had my go at him earlier, though, didn’t I? I have no idea if Sinatra was wailing “That’s Life” while U-Haul Man stewed at the light. That would have been great, and were this a film script you’d expect it. But I said I was imagining. Some writers do not trifle with disclaimers, though. In 2012’s The Lifespan of a Fact, creative essayist John D’Agata argues that facts must not get in the way of a good story, while fact-checker Jim Fingal, who had to verify an article by D’Agata — about Las Vegas, natch — defends authentic reporting. But authenticity serves D’Agata as well as a ruler might have Monet. He invents to evoke. No surprise that David Shields references D’Agata in his 2010 book, Reality Hunger, a pastiche of musings, original and appropriated, that champions the lyrical over the literal. Shields invites the reader to cut away pages of attribution his publisher’s lawyers forced him to include. His ethic culminates a century of aggregation, combination and collage. Only the experience matters, not how it was made or by whom. Nor, by extension, if it is fact or fiction.

As a writer, I get it: There are facts, and there is Truth. And it’s True that the real-estate collapse created U-Haul People — especially in Las Vegas, a city built on gambling that found itself busted by a bigger house. In the right hands, maybe, U-Haul Man’s story is Beauty courting Truth. But it is endlessly malleable, a set of facts shaped into a textured screenplay. Or twisted into a quick joke. Or turned into a campaign commercial: “This man had a home, until liberal policies destroyed the housing market.” Somehow, that 30-second ad is easier to imagine than one pointing out nobody has yet been prosecuted for the financial fraud that brought down U-Haul Man’s house.

We’ve just finished an election that was a fact-checker’s festival — not that it mattered. Democrats congratulate themselves that Big Money could not unseat President Obama with its mélange of misinformation, but his campaign played the same game. Its strategy branded Mitt Romney as Clueless Aristocrat early and often — and Romney helpfully obliged. Maybe facts mattered in micro-targeted levels of the campaign, but TV ads from both sides inferred elaborate narratives from isolated truths. Much like I did with U-Haul Man.

Yes, I know, politics has always been thus. We’ve survived 60 years of television’s political reality show and a dozen or so of the Internet’s delusory perversion of it. And yes, we’re emotional creatures, prone to persuasion by narrative. But it feels like we’ve entered a new era of DIY narrative, much like electronic games with multiple options for passage from level to level. Truth itself is not optional, but endless options have unmoored it from fact.

I’m glad Obama won, but he did so by narrowly branding himself for slivers of that left-center “coalition” — by deftly thumbing his way to another level of Simulated Reality II.

The right fringe petitions for secession, certain he has secreted the jackbooted thugs until his second term. Would it be too much to expect he’s been waiting, instead, to go after the bankers and arbitragers who nearly destroyed the economy? U-Haul Man isn’t holding his breath.