January 12, 2010

Tubes Under Sand

By Paul McGuire © 2009

In 2006, Vince held a good job with an insurance company. He had matching 401K, a four-week paid vacation, and drove around in a company car. He also owned a house in the Las Vegas suburbs with a pool, two car garage, and a accompanying family of four. His life seemed almost too perfect until he caught the bug. Once it flowed through his blood stream, he was never the same.

His house, his car, and his two kids slid through his fingers in one disastrous run at the Mirage Casino. Vince lost $345,000 in less than six weeks gambling at the sportsbook. That was his entire life savings and then some. He ran up debts with different loan sharks including one of the members of the Tataglia crew. When one of the goons sliced the tires on his wife's car, she finally kicked him out of the house. She filed for divorce the next day.

Vince had no place to go and ended up in the labyrinth of storm drains beneath Sin City. He once read a story in the newspaper about a group of homeless junkies who lived in the 250-mile drain system. The massive and elaborate tunnel system was cluttered with insane Vietnam vets eating black widow spiders, heroin addicts shooting up in the darkness, and methheads cooking up a new batch of Nazi crank.

When the housing bubble burst, more and more everyday people flocked to the drains to escape the searing heat. When the summer months arrived, entire families evacuated the make-shift tent cities that sprang up around the city. They moved underground into the drainage areas and a few of the more savvy folks rigged up electricity. Vince had no need for those luxuries. He simply wanted a space where he could be left alone and sleep without being beaten down by a bunch of junkies.

Vince slept in the drains. That was his home for a couple of years. He had reduced his entire life to a camper's backpack, a sleeping mat, and a light bag. He hid those items in one of the runoff drains underneath the Sahara casino. He would spend his days sitting inside the air conditioned sportsbook at different casinos. He showered using the sinks in the bathrooms. He would sometimes scam free drinks from the cocktail waitresses. He frequently scored a couple of free buffet coupons each week and panhandled for enough change at stoplights near the highway exits for a couple of more. Sometimes he didn't eat in between buffet trips. When he was broke, he resorted to snagging leftover fast food from different food courts in the casinos. He befriended the crew who worked the graveyard shift at a Krispy Kreme and they gave him boxes of old donuts.

Vince was muscled out of his hideout by a group of homeless tweakers who used the drains to stash stolen items that they acquired during break-ins at condos near the Strip. Vince thought he found a better and more secluded spot and set up his camp. However, mother nature was not on his side when he did failed to predict a high volume of water that rushed through the drain system after a series of rapid forming thunderstorms that dumped several inches of rain on the Las Vegas Valley.

A river quickly formed with water rushing through at 35 mph. The current was too strong and Vince was unable to remain stationary. The water swept away his sleeping gear and limited possessions. He nearly drowned and he suffered a couple of broken ribs and a nasty concussion.

Vince had kept only one picture of his children (taken on Christmas morning several years earlier) which sat inside an old wallet that he hid inside his backpack. He rarely looked at the photo but it was sufficient enough for him to know that he had it somewhere safe. He often wandered what they were up to and if they had a good day at school that day or if they were angry and disappointed on how their father almost ruined their lives. He wondered if they still lived in Nevada or if they returned to California with their mother. He was convinced that she was already remarried and he wondered if the loved their stepfather more than him and called him Dad instead of Rick, or Jim, or Frank.

Vince desperately tried to find his bag which contained the only picture of his children. He eventually gave up hope after searching the drains for five days and nights. The only link to his past vanished. Those memories washed away with the storm. Vince had absolutely nothing except the clothes on his back. He had only one alternative... rob a tourist.

Vince created a shank out of an old butter knife. He wrapped a piece of cloth around the end to create a larger handle. He hid the shank inside his pants pocket. He waited until it got dark and hid out inside the parking lot of Ellis Island until he spotted his mark -- an elderly couple with Arizona plates that looked like they might have a few hundred dollars on them.

Vince wasn't looking for much. He just wanted to be able to buy a new headlamp, a sleeping bag and a sleeping mat at the Army/Navy store downtown. Whatever he had left, he would spend half at the sportsbook and try to roll up a stake. The rest of his money he would invest in a batch of crystal meth and flip it to the kids who worked the valets or illegal Mexican construction workers.

Vince walked over to the 60-something year old couple from Arizona and pretended to ask for directions. The old woman wore an ugly lime-colored track suit and she carried a purse. Vince punched the old man in the face and grabbed the purse but the old woman put up an unexpected struggle. Her husband clamped down on his arm. He was stronger than Vince anticipated. It was evident that Vince was losing the fight against the couple as the woman screamed "Help! Help! Help! Police!"

Vince ended the battle for the purse and resorted to his advanced homemade weaponry. He yanked the shank out his his pocket and didn't hesitate to inflict damage. He lunged at the old man's abdomen and quickly poked him twice. On the third thrust, Vince twisted the shank as blood sprayed all over his hands. The old man finally fell back onto a parked car. Vince whirled around and waved the bloody shank at the old woman. She collapsed to her knees and her purse fell to the ground. Vince rummaged the pockets of the old man and removed his wallet and a cell phone. He picked up the purse and sprinted towards the alley as the sobs of the old woman echoed in the dimness of the parking deck.

Paul McGuire is the author of Lost Vegas.

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