Monday, February 11, 2013

The Power of Imagination Under Fire

In my mind, I can, and have, sat in the Nevada Room of the Boulder City Library, with only the lights in that room on and all the other lights off.

I have walked back and forth through the half-bowl-shaped park beneath the Bureau of Reclamation building in Boulder City during the day, at sunset, and well into the night.

I have walked the UNLV campus many times and have gotten lost at least twice. I keep forgetting which way the bookstore is.

I have walked all around the Fashion Outlets of Las Vegas in Primm, on the exact state line between California and Nevada, when it's completely empty. I've played Galaga in the small arcade tucked away from the food court, which was also totally empty.

I have found where the pigeons of Las Vegas go at night, and have talked with them about their lives here, as well as asking if they have any cousins in New York City, and if they ever have the chance to compare notes.

I can change things in my imagination. That's the whole point of being a writer. I can do in my mind what I can't do in my life. I don't think I could speak pigeon well enough. But what's most frustrating to me is when something is totally immovable, when nothing I think about can turn it into its original spirit, before it became what it is. Some things don't have an original spirit. What they are is what they always have been and that's never going to change.

I have an odd interest in business, and maybe that's because I'm not in business. I'm not part of a corporation, or a growing company, and I don't know any corporatespeak. I don't know how to shift a paradigm, nor would I want to learn. I'm happy as I am. Yet I'm always curious about business trips, what's involved in them, who those people are that take them, what in their lives is interrupted when they take them, or if their jobs are their lives. Part of it is indeed inspired by watching Up in the Air, starring George Clooney, but the rest is wondering about how various businesses operate, how they approach various situations every day. Is there still humanity inside some of those businesses or has it been snuffed out by corporate monoliths that are so sure that the bottom line is the only line? Moreover, who are the people in these businesses? Where did they come from? Did they want to do anything else before they came to the business world or were they the kind so organized in elementary school, so good and quick with numbers, and later so full of ideas to further interests outside of their own that the business world just seemed natural? I'm tempted to read Bloomberg Businessweek once in a great while to see what those people in business are like. Back in Florida and California, my dad was a middle school business education teacher, so while I didn't pay a great deal of attention to his work because I was either also in school or pursuing other ventures, some of it seeped in. I don't like the sterileness of OfficeMax and Staples and Office Depot, but I do like standing in front of legal pads and binders and pens and paper clips and other business products, happy that they're useful to someone. I don't like how some businesses can destroy lives, can widen the gap between rich and poor, can harm the environment, but I'm still curious. I'm not as interested in the top as I am in the inside, those who work on the lower levels of a company to make it look impressive to investors and the media and others.

I bring all this up because last Friday morning, I was sitting in a wide room, at a large round table, one of many large round tables that clustered together in the length of the room, listening to the head of substitute services of the Clark County School District tell us what we needed to know. I kind of understand making meeting rooms bland because you don't want to emphasize one thing over another and therefore run the risk of offending everyone and making business life even more difficult.

This particular room, inside the Curriculum and Development Building on Pecos and Flamingo, off the main entrance, has a slightly raised platform, demonstrating why substitute services uses this to introduce new substitutes to how the SmartFind job system works, what the pay rates are, what you should do when you arrive on the job, etc. The head of substitute services seemed aware of how plain the room is, and in introducing herself, immediately made herself more personable by giving a few details of her life, including being an enormous fan of the University of Alabama football team. She had obviously done this orientation so many times before because she stuck to the serious details, while handing off other matters, including discounts offered in Las Vegas by having a CCSD ID card, to another woman in her department, whose name I unfortunately forgot. Both made an admirable tag team for giving the necessary information.

But the room, oh that room. I got a Brave New World/1984 vibe. While I listened to what Dr. Byrd told us that we needed to know, graciously scaling some of it back since much of it we had already picked up from the online training, I also looked at the dais she was on, the podium on which she had her papers and her bell to get our attention at the beginning of the orientation and after the break we got in the middle, the screen on the left, the screen on the right, and the two projectors embedded in the ceiling, pointing at both screens, showing Dr. Byrd's PowerPoint presentation.

Could anything else be made out of this room? What about a play? Unfortunately, Glengarry Glen Ross was the only one that came to mind, a more low-budget version.

Maybe improv comedy classes. The dais was low enough to at least be accessible. Dr. Byrd may have been taller than us during that orientation, but she was with us. She was there to help us.

I then thought about those trust exercises I've heard about in meetings, in retreats. That seemed to be the only other thing this room could become. Even the cabinets in this room looked plain. But even so, I still wondered about the history of this building. Does it only exist because the Clark County School District wanted a separate location for curriculum and development? Certainly I understand that because the main district office is its own maze, but doesn't have a great deal of room. There, you do what you can with what you have and it works. You also get great exercise from walking throughout it, which was ok with me when I went to get the TB test done, give the money order for the background check, get my photo taken for my ID card, and get my fingerprinting done. Unless you're working there, it's not the kind of building you spend a lot of time in.

Later on, as we reached the end of the orientation, I got a slightly different vibe. Former medical building? Maybe this room had been a meeting place for an HMO company that previously occupied this building? Probably not, because when you walk to the Pecos/Flamingo intersection from the building, as I did after the orientation was over, and cross to Flamingo and begin walking toward the Strip, to the Clark County Library, for example, you pass by medical row, which includes a few buildings stocked with medical practices and dentists, as well as Desert Springs Hospital. Just like car lots gather close, so do medical facilities.

Give me a scuff mark, a discolored tile that Maintenance will soon replace, a chip in a doorframe, something to show me that there is life in a building. Or even a shine to a floor that hasn't seen a shine in a while, almost a mirror that reflects the back door when it opens and closes. But I think there is life to the Curriculum and Development Building in a different way. When tourists come to Las Vegas, if they're first-timers, they think that the Strip is all that there is. I did, but then learned otherwise very quickly. Or if they're coming back for a third or fourth or 583rd time, either they do want to explore the rest of this valley or they never want to know the valley, only in Las Vegas for their favorite hotel, their favorite restaurant, their favorite show, their favorite nightclub. But this building, this is us. We live in Las Vegas. We love and hate and fight and strive and work and do all the things that anyone does in any other city. This building, invisible to you unless you either work there or need to go there as I did, is part of the fabric of this city. We have a school district. We have hospitals. We have restaurants that aren't on the Strip, and we have supermarkets, libraries, gas stations, and movie theaters, all part of what helps us live however we want to live every day. We do have a lopsided reputation because of what the rest of the nation thinks about us or how they use us, but this is us. Every building is important. Everything we do contributes to the present and the past. We walk into Sam's Town to gamble, or go to the bowling alley, and we follow those who came before, but we also can see artifacts under glass from the life of Sam Boyd, whose Sam's Town was but one casino in his portfolio.

The Curriculum and Development Building, in the context of contributions, does the same thing. We new substitutes follow those who came before. And we fan out to our different schools and meet new people and students and get acclimated to these schools and know which ones we want to sub at more than others, but it all started in that Curriculum and Development Building. That is its contribution to our city's history. A school district grows because of it. Yes, Dr. Byrd has a great hand in it, being the head of substitute services and knowing exactly what we're thinking and the questions we have by the experience she has had in guiding so many of these orientations before ours, but this building had to be there in order for this to happen.

History isn't readily apparent in Las Vegas, but it can be found and it is available. It's in books in libraries, it's in museums, and you can even find a little bit of it on the Strip with the Mob Museum at the Tropicana. To some, we are America's Playground, but away from the Strip, we're living day-to-day like anyone else. Even though it was hard to imagine anything of that room other than what it is, other than how plain it was, it's still part of this city, still doing what it can to contribute to what makes us Las Vegas. I like that, at least. It's difficult at times for me to understand that not every building can feel comfortable or allow me to use my imagination to consider it differently, but I am proud of what we can do. That's good enough for me, to feel that after nine years of feeling nothing. I'm home.