“I'm fifty-nine-years old, man. I never thought my life was going to end up like this.”
The words belong to Steve and they haunt me as I write this, a few short days after I meet him for the first time. We are standing next to Steve's home, a small tent positioned six hundred yards inside a ten foot by ten foot concrete storm drain next to one of the most famous landmarks in Las Vegas, Nevada. Steve has lived here for the past six years. He has bright blue eyes, a neatly trimmed beard and speaks with a soft, articulate desperation. I stand with Matt, my guide to the tunnels, and listen. When I leave, I slip Steve twenty dollars, and while he is grateful, I feel the inadequacy of my gesture. In some ways, I am as much a tourist as the people twenty-five feet above me having their picture taken with Elvis.
Minutes before, I was talking to Steve's neighbour, Michael, as he told me how his descent into the tunnels began with witnessing the woman he loved being killed in front of his eyes by a drunk driver. Death. Loneliness. The fragility of our existence. Never has the phrase 'there but for the grace of God go I' resonated more deeply for this atheist.
I am armed going into the tunnels. I have a big, carbon steel knife with me, sheathed and slung around my neck. The blade is dulled a little by several days use in the high desert of neighbouring Arizona, where I have been living on the land, sleeping under a Juniper tree. There, a knife keeps you alive by carving dead fall traps to trap pack rats and squirrels. Here, it may serve a more direct survival function. People worry me far more than coyotes, or bobcats or packs of wild dogs.
Junkies come down here to get high. Gangs sometimes venture into the tunnels looking for sport, with the homeless as their prey. There is talk of a Wild Man who randomly attacks the tunnel dwellers, descending on them in the darkness. Generally, the Metro police are never seen. There is no cell phone reception. If something happens, Steve tells me, you had best be able to deal with it yourself. He is thinking of getting a gun. Matt and I advise him that in a tunnel like this a gun may not be the best choice.
Despite my initial apprehension, I soon relax as I meet these men. I am old enough, and I have had enough of my own victories and screw-ups, to know that the choices they have made have played a part in their downfall.
They have alcohol issues. They have drug issues. Issues run through them like lettering through seaside rock candy. There is help available to them. Some have gotten out of the tunnels only to come back. Ricky-Lee tells me that he knows sooner or later he will end up back here, 'so why try to leave, man?' He will, in all probability (and the vast wealth of Vegas is premised on the general public's inability to understand that single concept), die here.
After more tunnels, more dragging my boots through dank standing water, past walls plastered with human excrement, and a graffitied quote from Milton's Paradise Lost (see the video), I call it a day.
After many hours, I get back to my hotel room. I strip off my clothes and take a long, hot shower. Looking out my window, twenty-five floors up, the neon signs of the Strip shimmer in the darkness.
In the morning there is an email on my Blackberry, bad news from my agent in New York. I'm facing a hefty cut in my income down the line. I feel deflated. It's a juvenile reaction to something, which is, after all, only business.
At this point, I should think of Steve, and find perspective. But I don't. Back home, I wake jet-lagged, and start to write this blog post. I think about how I can harness all the fear I have about being able to maintain the comfortable life I have built for my family, alongside the residue of emotions and thoughts from my research trip, to inform my central character's interior journey in the new book. It occurs to me that this reaction, this thought process, means I'm still a writer.
Finally, I feel better.