Desert Oasis or Roadside Toilet?
Gleaming neon, dazzling lights; glamorous yet slightly seedy, Las Vegas is the glittering rest stop on the otherwise lonely desert highway west.
Like it’s upscale and more mature big sister, Hollywood; Las Vegas attracts millions of visitors each year. Many of these visitors come seeking fame and fortune. Unlike the more illustrious fantasies of super-stardom on the silver screen and streets paved with gold, even the “Las Vegas dream” has a harder edge.
‘Easy money’ is the lure of the city; but instead of striking it big, many of the fame seekers find themselves in the shady world of drugs, prostitution, porn or living on the streets..
While Hollywood may be the birthplace of such romanticized tales of stripping and prostitution, ala “Striptease,” “Indecent Proposal” and “Pretty Woman” in real-life there are few happy endings for all the runaway erstwhile Julia Roberts.
As illustrated in the 1990’s novel (and film), “Leaving Las Vegas” even survival in Sin City is a mark of success.
Broken promises, forgotten youth
They are running from something; abusive or neglectful homes, impoverished or alcoholic families or perhaps something even darker, but today I am too disheartened to ask the specifics.
The four young adults are outside a casino, quiet, friendly and polite when I approach. But their youth is almost an accusation against this modern world that has no place for them, outside of the gutters and the trash of our glaringly tacky, frantic shopping spree, free-for-all that has become the American economy.
Angelica Gaskins, 20 wears a Pikachu cap and a brown hoodie. Originally from Anaheim, California, she and her husband, Robert, along with the remaining members of the group narrowly avoid homelessness by panhandling during the day and sharing a tiny room in a cheap hotel. She explains their signs by saying, “We used to earn money by entertaining people with our signs, but now we aren’t allowed.” New ordinances aimed at controlling the increasing number of homeless in Las Vegas have Angelica upset.
Andrian Wack, a twenty year old girl from northeast Ohio, whose pixie-ish freckles and fair complexion are marred by multiple facial piercings, fang-shaped incisors and skateboarder style shares this sentiment.
Robert Gaskins, 23 from upstate New York is pleasant but more subdued; only speaking up when introduced by his wife, whose face is shining with pride. He stands close to her; giving support and protection from the unnamed demons she is running from.
At first glance, they seem an unlikely pairing but after a moment’s reflection – a good match, supporting each other. It’s hard not to look at them, with a bit of painful cynicism brought on by maturity and experience. What chance do they have to stay together, with all the obstacles they face? One can only hope, for their sake, that “love is enough” since they don’t have much else.
Ritchie Cunningham, 23, “Yes, I swear that’s my name,” is an engaging young man with a shy smile, in a camouflage jacket. He catches sight of my camera and readily recruits his friends; posing kneeling near the ground. Unlike the others, he offers little information about his past, instead focusing the conversation on the future saying, “I want to get my GED soon.”
Walking away from this foursome, I can’t help but think about these damaged children.
The American Dream vs. “The Running Man”
It’ s no longer the ‘American dream’, it has degenerated into a winner-takes-all, survival-of-the-fittest endurance contest just to survive. Now our younger generation has inherited our financial messes, our love of excess and fierce competitiveness and too many of them are just like Angelica, Andrian, Robert and Ritchie: shunted to the sidelines and pushed out of the game.
No job, no education, no future
In my own immediate family, my mother was the first to go to college. Her father was a successful business man from the “School of Hard Knocks” and their family was solidly middle class, if at the lower end.
No more dreams of success for future generations – just survival
When it came to the American dream, my in-laws are a typical portrait of America’s past.
While my father-in-law had limited education, and the family (of nine) often struggled to make ends meet – there was always hot food on the table, clothes on their backs and a roof over their head. But that was in the aftermath of the second world war, and as an honorably discharged veteran, and skilled craftsman, there were always employers looking for someone willing to work hard.
It might have been the same for my husband, who was a modern-day version of the Loretta Lynn story. After leaving high school at the age of 16 to work full-time in the local gold mine, he could have easily become an educational footnote – but still, the jobs were there; with decent wages and benefits for hard-working men with GEDs in hand**. Luckily, he used his GED and the gold mine as part of his stepping stone to community college, university and eventually, a master’s degree..
But the path to success based on hard work, long hours and sheer effort no longer exists.
Unable to compete
In a generation of lowered expectations and easy A’ s which make a post-secondary education more obtainable (but even more expensive), and where even 10 dollar an hour jobs often require college educations – what will happen to people like Angelina and Andrian?
When “Do you want fries with that?” is no longer an option
What will happen to all of those who have been marginalized by their families and society for their entire lives? Now that even the fast food industry is shunning them, it seems that the ‘working class’ / blue-collar life is out of reach.
Whatever the answer is – it’s not on a cardboard sign.. Good luck kids.. and good luck to everyone else out there..
** Of course, this all changed in the late 80’s and early 90’s as the mines closed, along with factories and plants across the United States as companies moved their workforces overseas, setting the foundation for today’s employment landscape.