Hell is expensive. This is my first thought as my plane lands in Las Vegas. The Luxor hotel's glass pyramid seems dangerously close to the runway's edge, as do its chocolate-and-gold sphinx and rows of shaved palms. I wonder if these rooms tremble when jets land. Behind the Luxor are mountains kissed by dust the hue of bone…to its left lies the Strip where color is so bright it looks like it has died, rotted and come back as a poisonous flower?
I have been forewarned. First, I am told flying in at noon is not the way to enter Vegas. Correct entry is at night. This way I would have the full treatment of neon and glowing sky. As a child, I was taught not to buy into anything at night. The spoiled, chipped or dangerous could be easily disguised. Yet here, in one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, nighttime is the appropriate time to enter.
Exiting is another matter. According to a recent cover story in Time, Las Vegas has the highest per-capita suicide rate in the country. This coincides with its enormous expansion, yet the most talked about suicides -- those of tourists leaping from hotel balconies after losing everything they had -- are dangerous myths for a city poised to become America's newest economic icon. In fact, tourists taking their own lives surrounded by the glamour of the Strip comprise only a small percentage of the fatalities. The bulks are those who moved here for jobs who live just beyond the lights. Eight times as many residents kill themselves here as do visitors.
Second, I am told that in Las Vegas I will feel more alive. Anything can be had here. This is the last place before the millennium where real money can be made. An open season…anything goes like America used to be. My friends in Los Angeles who seem to know such things, say forget about winning. This is the town where you get to stub your cigarettes out in an egg, sunny side up, at four o'clock in the morning -- if you can remember what time it is and you won't -- and then get in your car and drive.
This will happen before I leave. But I will be driving just to clear my head of the suicides and failures. On Paradise Road, near a white asphalt lot filled with empty Boeing 707s, I will sit in my car watching early-morning business flights descend into the starch of a Nevada dawn and I will suddenly see how Las Vegas is our new mirror. Reflecting how things are going to be done. And who will win or lose.
There's a small but steady amount of suicides we call jumpers… states Sgt. Bill Keeton of Metro Police. "They're generally tourists. Some jump off an overpass, even Hoover Dam, but casinos are first choice. Balconies. The hotels wised up. Roofs stay locked."
Las Vegas has other names for its fatalities. Snowbirds are retirees from the Northwest who settle here or come to gamble their pension funds. Down winders are former Utah residents fighting cancer that lived downwind of radioactive breezes in the fifties and sixties. Nuclear testing was only one desert valley away like the airport now. It was so close hotel rooms shook.
"It's not necessarily gamblers," Keeton goes on. "Just people who've planned one last fling. We used to get a lot from Los Angeles. Now it's people from all over the world. We had a young man fly in from Ireland. On his immigration card, it said he seemed either on drugs or depressed. He came here and went to a pistol range, shot targets for a while, then took his gun into a bathroom and killed himself. His family in Ireland kept asking, why Las Vegas? At that same pistol range, a man from Japan shot himself in his shooting stall. It's strange."
I hear other stories. Of a wealthy man from Malibu, in the computer business, who committed suicide with sleeping pills and a plastic bag, in a luxury suite at the Mirage? His body was found next to the room's baby grand piano. He had bad relations with his ex-wife. There was a suicide note, resulting in a family court battle. In Nevada, suicide notes can be interpreted as legal wills. As I listen to the story, I realize it will be told again and often, into the next century. It is part of the city now, part of its dazzle.
"You have to remember, these are the visitors," Keeton says. "Lots of people move here and lose everything. They have to work their way out of town."
Las Vegas considers itself a destination, an extremely lucrative word. It is a destination summing up our desires for this decade. Like 1930s Hollywood and San Francisco in the sixties, Las Vegas is building palaces that will not age well. But the scar under the makeup is that people are moving here not for fame or even a communal sense of idealized youth, but only to survive.
Since I have been in Las Vegas I have not seen clouds. I am beginning to doubt their existence. Driving east on Las Vegas Boulevard toward Nellis Air Force Base, the sky gets bigger the poorer the road gets. I look up. It is a radiant, pure aqua.
Trailer parks are haphazardly formed on desert lots without paved roads or streetlights. Here, the desert nights must shimmer. Cement-block houses without floors or windows have children running past Harley-Davidsons. I see dented Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals from the early seventies parked in front of tents.
These cars were our grandparents' idea of elegance. Now they transport families, sleep children in the backseat, with pots and pans in the trunk, and if you can keep gas in the tank, they'll get you across the country. I also notice none of these cars have Nevada plates.
On the other side of town, Flamingo and Sahara roads splay out from the Strip into the suburbs of Desert Shores, the Lakes and Spring Valley. Here family lifestyle communities are walled and gated and built on a massive scale. They differ slightly in both size and price from country club lifestyle communities like Los Prados and the Legacy which have golf courses and ponds with bought, recirculated water. Real estate in 1994 is no longer a bargain. It is now comparable to Orange County or Scottsdale, Arizona. I reason the most original thing Nevada has ever had is Las Vegas Boulevard. Respectability could mean a small death to Las Vegas.
"Not so," argues Mark Moreno, a lawyer and longtime Las Vegas resident. "The position of Las Vegas as a family-entertainment destination is best for gaming right now. There are three men responsible for the new Las Vegas. Bill Bennett from Circus, Kirk Kerkorian with the MGM Grand, and Steve Wynn with the Mirage."
I imagine asking these three wise kings about the suicides in their hotels. The suicides of their employees in tract apartments and trailer parks facing Desert Mountains. The MGM Grand employs over eight thousand people on any given day. Circus Circus owns the Luxor. Circus Circus is where I try my first slot machine. The casino is a silvery pink outside, like foil wrapping for cheap candy. It is a color children will remember and they run through its gardens and circus exhibits and play centers. Their parents gamble in the main casino. And I wonder who is responsible for the flip side of myth?
"Something's missing here. I don't know how to describe it. But something's wrong." In a Chinese restaurant on Flamingo, Allison, a stout young woman wearing eyeliner to make her eyes look oriental, shuffles her weight from one leg to another in front of my table. We are discussing Las Vegas. Why she came here.
"What's missing?" I ask. "I don't know. I have two boys, one girl. We moved here for a fresh start, me and the kids. No man at all. Everything's cool. We got a nice condo we rent at Rock Springs Vista. I tried for the Grand but it was already filled up, so I work here. We like Lake Mead. And snow in the mountains. But the kids want to move on. So do I."
"Why?" My voice is low. Confiding. Allison walks over to an air-conditioning unit hidden behind a carved gold panel and turns it up higher so we can both hear only air. She begins to whisper.
"I just want to get the hell out of Las Vegas. Anywhere." She pauses to pour my lukewarm jasmine tea. "Here you hate the word money. I can't save any money. The city eats it up. Somehow, every quarter and nickel. I work steady, and where does it go?"
It is over eighty-five degrees on the third day of March. The coroner's office is located in a dusty white cement-block building with candy-apple-red trim. Inside, the friendly staff files everything there is to know about murder, suicide and death in Clark County, Nevada. Coroner Ron Flud's office is filled with trophies, plants, and photographs, not unlike a career counselor's at a small-town college. Flud clasps his hands, studying me and begins.
"First, gambling suicides in Las Vegas are minimal. It's one or two every ten years. Residents form the highest core group. And it's almost always from alienation in a relationship. Or career. Las Vegas is not always what they imagined."
I think of Allison, working her way out of town. She is not alone. As a young man, serial killer John Wayne Gacy worked his way out of Las Vegas by being a pallbearer at over seventy-five funerals at a local mortuary. In his last interview, Gacy remarked that being in prison was like "being in Las Vegas, where you're gambling and you don't know what's going on outside."
I realize everyone even remotely connected to suicide here takes great pains to assure me it does not happen from gambling. One does not kill the golden calf in Clark County. It is axiomatic that relationships disintegrate due to money problems. In Las Vegas and its suburbs, a primary cause for personal financial stress is gambling. Its influence is a perennial one, a perfume in full bloom. There are slot machines in supermarkets in Green Valley and Henderson, in gas stations right off the freeway. It is easy to cash a paycheck at a local’s casino like the Silver Nugget and get free drink tickets. This does not happen in a bank.
Even the language here, somewhere between cowboy and psychopath, has an optimistic inflection, still entirely Old West, the subtext being that here you can get something for nothing. This has always been a lie. People are moving to Las Vegas at the rate of six thousand a month. They hear the words no taxes, jobs, good weather. They have come to make money for a year, then leave. Many wind up unable to make rent.
"There's a sense of anonymity and transience here," notes Flud. "If someone dies and we have an address over two years old, we'll have to question its accuracy. That's how often Las Vegans move."
Statistics show the most popular form of self-inflicted death in Las Vegas is by gunshot using a handgun. Second is by hanging, third is by lethal ingestion of drugs, often mixed with alcohol. In Ron Flud's office, I see how creative desperation can be. His files document death by carbon-monoxide inhalation, cutting and stabbing wounds, jumping from heights, electrocution, a plastic bag over the head, asphyxia from charcoal fire, self-immolation with gasoline, deliberate car wrecks, cyanide and industrial poisons, self-set residential fires, decapitation by train, even lethal amounts of dirt and grass forced into the mouth, as achieved in a 1991 Las Vegas suicide.
"Being a gaming town, there's a lot of Russian roulette. It's a mistake to think it's a game. It's a very successful form of suicide," says Flud calmly.
This simple connection chills my arms. I think of a gun being passed around. A trigger being pulled. Laughter. Deliberate prayers whispered as sprinklers water brown desert lawns. I think how, downtown on Fremont, where white neon lights never dim, there is no music…only silence. And in that silence, someone in the city is lifting a loaded gun, emptying a prescription, or eating dirt until his heart convulses.
The big suicide months are December and January. The group with the highest suicide rate are those between the ages of 30 and 39. After the age of 50, the numbers drop significantly. Nearly five times as many men kill themselves as do women.
Systematic and severe depression is not unique to Las Vegas. The difference here is the postcard in the background. Neon lights. The smell of money. And the sense of a soul's exhaustion, ready to pass through those neon lights.
I realize Las Vegas is a silent city because all the action is inside. When we kill ourselves, our plans succeed because they are secret. As a vindictive act, suicide's damage is permanent. And the question of why cannot be answered by anyone alive.
"Why is the word," Flud stresses quietly. "Why would a man and woman from Southern California drive across the state line into Nevada, park just over the border, and shoot themselves to death in the front seat of their car? Why would a man in bed with a woman in a hotel on Fremont say something like, 'I'm going to teach you a lesson,' and then blow his brains out on top of her? This woman wound up severely traumatized. Why would someone do this?"
Because they're working their way out of town, I think. Because something is missing. In the late eighties, a young man shot himself to death at Lake Mead. He had a tattoo of a heart on his chest and that's where he pointed the gun. Underneath the tattoo was a date, freshly inked, on his skin. When his ex-wife called the coroner to find out the details of his death, she gasped. The date under his heart, shy of a close-range bullet wound, was the day, month, and year their divorce became final.
Sometimes they are criminals, attracted to the glamour of not going back. Judge John C. Fairbanks, 70, of New Hampshire, stole $1.8 million from his law clients, disappeared on December 28, 1989, the day after he was indicted, and hid out for years. On Thursday, March 24, 1994, Fairbanks checked into the MGM Grand under an assumed name. On Sunday, he was found dead.
Judge John C. Fairbanks was not a casual man. He succeeded at everything he set out to do. His suicide note, written to his son, was taped to the mirror. This means Fairbanks got to take a good look at himself before he went.
This is almost myth. Fairbanks's actions say to the desperate. I had the thrill of stealing millions. I had the thrill of never going back. If you're going to check out, do it in the city of instant gratification, in the biggest hotel in the world. Do it in Las Vegas.
The reality is that Judge John C. Fairbanks killed himself by putting a hotel shoe bag over his head. The bag was plastic, with a drawstring, the kind normally hung outside a room and filled with a pair of shoes that need polishing. He used rubber bands around his neck to attach the bag securely. It was an off-white color and presumably he could see neither light nor dark as parts of the bag slid into his mouth, toward his throat and up into his nasal cavities. Perhaps children were running down the hall outside his room as he suffocated. Perhaps their parents were arguing over lost money in the casino. Judge John C.
Fairbanks died in silence. Alone. It is 9:15 p.m. and the Congo Theater of the Sahara Hotel is dark. Kenny Kerr is between shows of his female impersonation revue, Boy-lesque. I am ushered into a beige dressing room.
Kerr, sans wig but in flawless woman's makeup, is smoking Marlboro cigarettes in a glittery caftan. "The first rule in Las Vegas: If you work here, don't drink and don't gamble. And you have to have a sense of humor and remember where you've come from."
I explain to Kerr about the suicide rate in Las Vegas. He taps his nails on the edge of his leather recliner and continues. "I'm not surprised. It gets real heavy here. I've put friends through rehab for drugs and alcohol. I do it because I care. See, honey, here, if the devil isn't staring you right in the face, then he's just around the corner."
Little Lil, the show's three-hundred-fifty-pound comedy drag, agrees with Kerr. "I got lots of stories on the devil in Las Vegas. I helped a friend once who lost everything in a casino. House, bank account, car, the works. He was high as a kite on the Flamingo Overpass, ready to jump. I got him down."
I drive to the Flamingo Overpass. The lights of Las Vegas are a fuzzy blue; below, cars on the freeway sound like slot machines in the night wind. It is a sound I cannot escape and it is twenty-four hours a day. This ramp has signs that read no entry, and I think of mirrors with bad lighting in Las Vegas hotels. They murmur, You've gotten old, you're going to fail.
Because you came to Las Vegas to lose. I am sitting poolside at the Sahara Hotel with Jackie, a receptionist at Mark Moreno's office. She called me earlier with the information that her husband had shot himself to death three months ago. She tells me she writes poetry and keeps a journal. She says it keeps her alive.
The gardens surrounding the pool are sleepy and shaded. The only noise comes from mockingbirds hopping through olive trees. Jackie has soft red hair and green eyes. She is 31 years old. Jackie quietly shows me pictures of her two sons, Matt and Chris, aged ten and eight, respectively.
"David and I got married in 1981. He was a captain in the U.S. Army. We did a lot of traveling like army families do. You make your home where you hang your hat. We used to say that. Then David was affected by the military cutbacks in 1991.
He was passed over for major and then the army sort of let him go. He was devastated. This happened in Pittsburg, Kansas."
Jackie lights a cigarette and puts on her sunglasses. "We had been here on a trip and thought it was paradise. So first my mom and sister moved to Las Vegas and then I sold the house in Pittsburg and moved the boys and myself out here. David was in Germany, teaching. We got an apartment at Desert Shores. The boys couldn't wait for their dad to come back. You know, David was an extremely confident man."
Jackie lowers her sunglasses and looks at me. "I'm sure he was very confident. He was an army man," I say. "Exactly. I got a job teaching, but it wasn't much pay. When David came home he thought a job would be a piece of cake.
First, David had a job working on commission for an insurance firm. A sales-and-suit job, he called it. It didn't work out. David came home from a military physical in 1993 with a note saying he was severely depressed. He threw it down on the kitchen counter and laughed. I didn't pay any attention. Jesus. David wound up working as a security guard, the night shift and he hated it. Can you imagine? A captain? He had become so horribly . . . disappointed."
"You had no idea?" I asked.
"None. David killed himself on December 7. Just like that. The boys and David and I were playing a family card game in the kitchen before they had to go to school. It was David's day off and he had a new-job interview late that afternoon, so I asked my mom, Jean, to babysit the boys. I remember David made a big point of walking me to the front door and kissing me when I left for work. Then he tried calling me at work but I couldn't talk. I was busy."
Jackie goes on to explain they'd had an eviction notice delivered that day, the second in a month. David had planned his suicide for at least three months. Jackie remembers wearing a red dress and red shoes to work. She came home from work to be met by her mother, who was running late. The boys were at a neighbor's house. On the front door was a letter addressed to Jackie's mother. It was in David's handwriting. The first sentence read, "Dear Jean, please don't be angry with me but I have taken my life."
Jackie says there was a moment that was indescribable. As Jean continued to read the letter, Jackie became hysterical. Jean called 911. In the letter, David detailed exactly where his body would be found: on a corner lot of Charleston and Apple, not two blocks from their home. And about two hundred yards in from the street. Jackie also discovered David had left her a letter, a letter to each of their sons, and a videotape.
"David shot himself through the head with a pistol, military style, pointing the gun up, at an angle beneath his right ear. He knew what he was doing. It was a neat, clean shot. We were able to show the body at the reception."
Jackie's voice begins to crack. She lights another cigarette. I notice she has two wedding rings, theirs, molded together on a gold chain around her neck.
"With his left hand he was holding a picture of the boys and a picture of him and me in dressy clothes. I was in a white dress.
We were going to renew our vows in a wedding chapel on the Strip in February 1994. . . . He killed himself at sunset, facing Red Rock Canyon. He loved Red Rock."
Jackie remembers running from the apartment those two blocks, seeing the police helicopter with its searchlights, seeing the body bag being put into the coroner's wagon, and thinking, "This has got to be some kind of joke." She remembers screaming at a policewoman who made a disparaging remark and that her mother had to hold her back.
"Then I had to go home and tell my sons. You try telling two young boys their father has just shot himself through the head. You damn well try that on for size."
Jackie begins to cry. She buries her head in her hands. I excuse myself, telling her I need to use the rest room, and she nods her head knowingly. Inside the men's room at the Sahara Hotel, halfway between a pool and a casino, with a Las Vegas widow outside, I turn toward the mirror to connect, however briefly, with myself, but the mirrors have been removed. I begin to shake and hold onto the sink. I don't cry. There is no point.
It is dusk. Jackie lights one more cigarette as I sit down. Her eyes are dry, focusing on the now-lit pool. "It's pretty here," she says quietly. The Sahara sign begins its blue and white blink. All the false moons are lighting the sky over Las Vegas.
"I'll tell you who I blame. I blame the army for turning men into officers. And Las Vegas. What a joke." She shakes her head. "I'm moving the boys and me to Pittsburg in May."
This conversation takes place on the third of March, 1994. A Thursday evening. Tonight, my last night in Las Vegas, I will not be able to sleep, and at four o'clock in the morning, I will begin to drive.
In Los Angeles, several months later, I call Jackie's apartment. A man answers the phone. I sound bewildered. Jackie, he states, is getting the boys ready and packed, the apartment cleaned out, she's still working at the law office and she’s busy. When I ask this man who he is, he laughs.
"Who, me? Friend, I'm the new husband."
Jackie waves to me as she pulls her car onto Las Vegas Boulevard. The slot machines inside the Sahara's casino are chattering like drugged children. I feel unclean, as though I have been bitten by something contagious. At the casino's doors I turn and look at the city beyond. It burns a blue not unlike a gas cooking-flame turned down, barely touching its own air, until it is only a hiss.
This Las Vegas blue is the neon of the Stardust Hotel lit each evening. It is the blue of the darkened Congo Theater before Kenny Kerr performs, and the blue leftovers of sunsets that attend suicides. It is how poverty creates its own blue skies, hoping God will be kind in a town leaving nothing to chance. It is the whispered question before the trigger is pulled, the last blue moment when all we can ask is why.
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