Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Where Am I? Am I Here?

When my family and I went to the Whitney Library on East Tropicana Avenue every Sunday in Las Vegas, when we lived near there nearly two years ago, I always stopped in at the art gallery just off the entrance, which was also where the library's restrooms were. The library was in a somewhat dicey location (though dicey enough for the cops to visit often enough that I always jokingly thought they were avid readers come to pick up another stack of books), and to me, as dingy as the library felt over the year that we visited, as much as it seemed more an escape from the area rather than an adventure into it, the art gallery saved it. There were paintings, and there were 3D graphics on display, and there were photos from various contests.

The latest contest, before we moved to Henderson, I think involved young photographers. There was this one photo, amidst a train and the Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, that I've never forgotten, so much so that I took a photo of it on my cell phone and transferred it to my flash drive. I wrote down the photographer's name and tried to find him online, but no luck. No information. That name is now lost to whatever landfill took in that sheet of paper after I threw it away. I wish I had it now, because that photo embodies the life I like to have. It would seem to be part of a river, but being that a river is generally wider, it looks more like a stream, with slanted banks of grass on both sides (less so on the right, with more bushes without anywhere to sit), and thin-trunk trees on both sides of the stream, leaning into the sky, creating an effect that looks like an A at the far end of it, without the bar that makes it an A.

I thought about this photo on Tuesday while I was talking with the security guard at the Green Valley Library, where I still volunteer twice a week, also on Fridays. I expressed to him my amazement that here we are in the desert, there further down is the Strip with all its casinos and all the reasons that people come to visit, there are all the plants to see all around us, and yet, we think of other places, other things. We don't really study this valley, really get into it, or at least I haven't to a great extent yet.

We talked about his desire to visit his native Philippines again, to go fishing there, to buy an RV and travel around the country, to visit Oregon and the massive redwoods there. Here we were, standing in the lobby of the Green Valley Library, a few people passing by at a time, probably from different states as well, and yet in conversation, we were in the Philippines, where he told me how big the fish are in the rivers, in Oregon, where I could imagine those redwoods, in that RV, me telling him about the cross-country trip we took in five days when we moved from South Florida to Southern California in 2003, and my regret that even though we drove through Louisiana, we couldn't stop in New Orleans because we had two dogs and two birds in the car, and Dad had to get to the Santa Clarita Valley to begin his teaching job at La Mesa Junior High. This was two years before Hurricane Katrina.

I also told him how I wanted to travel throughout New Mexico because of The Secret of Everything by Barbara O'Neal, how evocative she makes it in that novel that makes me want to see it for myself. And yet, we also drove through New Mexico, briefly, during that cross-country trip, and I knew nothing about it then. I don't think I remember anything from that stretch.

To think of other states, other places, instead of right where you are, instead of looking up at that big night sky and connecting it a few miles down to the Strip, it must be all that desert, all that space. The ghosts of the past, the good and the bad, can have immediate room and board there, and while wandering one's own piece of landscape, be it an apartment complex or a sidewalk on the Strip in between a barrage of delights, they come. They remind. They ask you where you are, where you have been, why you are here, out of all the other places you could live in.

Or maybe it's the license plates. Montana, North Carolina, New York, New Mexico, Florida, Arkansas. Southern Nevada, particularly Las Vegas, seems to be the one spot in the nation where you can see all those states on license plates, as well as those who moved here from elsewhere, and then leave again. The transience is staggering. But man, it fits what I've always called this region: America's Waiting Room. Most people here don't necessarily wait, because you can't. You have to do something right away. But they do take time. They move here from whatever didn't suit them, and they spend the first year figuring out if this area is for them, be it in Las Vegas or Henderson. There's the disturbingly barren Pahrump, and Laughlin too, but it takes a special kind of hardened soul to live in either of those places. Clark County is where a great many of the resources are, so the majority live here. Laughlin is considered part of Clark County, but not in the way that we know Clark County. If you want to shop for groceries or do any other kind of shopping there, you have to drive over the border into Bullhead City, Arizona. The traffic over that bridge is terrific.

We did the same thing. We figured out if Las Vegas fit us, and with the high renters' insurance and car insurance, and the dangerous neighborhood we lived in (though it could hardly be considered a neighborhood in the traditional sense because of how everyone shrinks away into their own world there for their own safety), it didn't. We needed to be somewhere else. And now, for nearly a year, we're here in Henderson.

It's not that Henderson lacks interesting sights. Downtown Henderson, also known as Water Street, is one of my dearly favorite places in all of Nevada. Not only is City Hall there, and the surrounding benches and subtle trees that make it so peaceful, but the Henderson Convention Center is the smallest convention center I've ever seen, and perfect for Henderson, because unlike its neighbor down the street, it doesn't strive to be as big and loud. It's a break from Las Vegas, certainly, but less so than when Ventura, Anaheim, Burbank, even Palmdale were breaks from the empty monotony of the Santa Clarita Valley. It's more like recharging for the next experience.

I think it's an overall combination of the above. I do like it here, and I especially love nighttime when I'm walking the dogs, how the stars sparkle even more down here in our part of this apartment complex, where there's some light, but not as much in other sections. I've never seen a sky this big in Florida and California. I don't think of myself as a mere speck in the universe when I look up, but rather where I can go in this sky that gives weighty pause. Not only under it, but through it, at least in my imagination. What can I explore? What can I write about? What can I write about that would be inspired by this sky? There's so much that's possible, and even with the summer's rentless heat (being landlocked, it's much hotter), I don't mind it because of those moments at night when I look up and just float. I've looked up at those enormously, shapely clouds at night whenever they drop by, and I want to write exactly like those clouds are. I will some day.

I can't help thinking about other cities, other towns, other landscapes because this is what Southern Nevada has become, what it might always have been. People come from all over the country, as tourists and as residents, and they're always welcome. Some of them leave too quickly for my liking, but that's the nature of this region. People figure out where they want to be, if it's here, and if so, they stay here, or they go elsewhere. But in a way, I think Southern Nevada provides a rest for them, like a waiting room does. We won't be entirely disappointed if they leave, maybe just a little bit or more if we know them well enough in the time that they're here, but we want them to know what they truly want, what would make them truly happy. It's a hard valley, not only in weather, but in making our lives work here, but that's what life is. It embodies life in that way, but it also gives us options to turn away from the hardships for a while, to indulge in our individual pleasures, and they certainly can be found here, or they can arrive by mail. Our bases here may be solid when we arrive, or shaky, but we work at them to whatever we desire and hope that it works. Sometimes it works, and so we stay, or it's so unworkable that we have to go somewhere else that works for us. It's not the kind of region you can go to and feel at home right away, unlike other historically-laden areas or neighborhoods that have been around for decades. You have to work at it, and yourself, from the start. I remember a tenant further down, where I walk the dogs, who seemed to be the only one who lived in an apartment that's near the end of our parking lot, facing Green Valley Parkway, which is still further down (we're set far enough back from the traffic that we can't hear it, and it's wonderful). I saw him a few times, always when he was walking into his apartment in the evening. Now, he's gone. Last night, I saw that the lights in the apartment were on, a ladder in the middle of the living room, the maintenance guys having left everything as is. Maybe one or two of them were coming back later in the night to do more work, but more likely, they just left it for the next day.

That guy's gone. He's wherever he wanted to be next, wherever he felt life would be better. I wonder where he's living now, if he thinks about what he left behind here, if he thinks about that apartment being empty, if he figures that that apartment is still empty, or even if he cares about it at all anymore. Probably not, because he didn't like whatever was here for him, whatever he was while he was here, and he moved on.

Things change more quickly here than anywhere else I've lived. That's not just the Strip talking, but all the people moving in and out. Possibly there are less vacancies in our apartment complex than there have been in the last two months (the upstairs apartment on the right, in the building directly across from our front door, has new occupants), but consider that one side of our apartment building, the side containing my window and my sister's window, was painted a milk chocolate shade of brown to see what color the owners of the complex might want to paint the entire property next. I think it should be left the off-white it always has been. Sure parts of it look aged with the dirt that's there, from wind and occasional rain, and sprinklers at ground level, but the way it is now shows that this property lasts. It's not trying to cover up something unsavory. It has been here, and no matter how many people move in and out, it will still be here, still decently maintained. It tries in the midst of constant upheaval.

Ultimately, I think that's why, even though there's much to see here, and much to do, I think about the photo of that stream with those trees over it, wanting to be on the bank of it, just sitting there, looking at and listening to that burbling water, and developing an interest in rivers that I'll pursue with books that I can find on the subject. It's not that I don't want to be here. I am here and I like it here.

It's not that I read about New Mexico and Florida and am working on a few writing projects set in the parts of California I lived in and visited (I also have a few writing projects set in Vegas and here) because I want to be in those places instead of here. I like it here, and besides, I'm not widely-traveled, not least because I don't have that kind of money, and I'm not sure I'd spend it on that first and foremost if I did.

It's because with all the relative instability I see around me, with people moving in and out, with different license plates seen all the time, with the face of the apartment probably changing (it's the first time that something's changed while I've lived somewhere. Usually it happens after we leave), I need stability from elsewhere. I take some of it from downtown Henderson, and from the elegant, quietly ritzy sections of the hotel lobby at Green Valley Ranch, and sections near the rooms, but I also take it from what I've known before, what I still want to know, what I want to explore more. I only think of other places to shield myself more against the transience, to not be as surprised and somewhat disheartened by it. It helps, and even so, the variety of people here also helps, especially those I help when I volunteer at the Green Valley Library. Where else can I help a new medical career arrival from Kentucky, a retired Air Force officer, a Paris enthusiast, and a seasoned traveler who wanted the huge books of maps, likely to plan out the next leg of his trip, Henderson being a stop along the way? There's that too which ironically produces stability, interesting people you come across who you want to know more about, and probably won't, which is where imagination comes in. It's where writing comes in. I'm here, and yet I'm everywhere.


  1. Maybe the cops wanted book to pass the time instead of eating donuts.


    1. If only. The homeless also stayed there during the day, and some of them got pretty belligerent, so I'm sure that library was part of their rounds.

    2. Unavoidable fact of life in that part of Las Vegas.