Excerpt

Editor’s Note
by Scott Dickensheets

I’m tempted to call it the Fremont Shuffle: the painfully slow,
extra-careful, eyes-down shamble of the old boozer I’m watching
as he makes his way along East Fremont Street. The sidewalk
isn’t crowded, and amid the striders are some people as aimless
as he is, but everyone still has to flow around him. He doesn’t
look like most of the other barely functioning drunks I’ve seen
around here—the khakis bagging around his negligible waist
appear freshly washed, and his pink shirt is neatly tucked in.
But the walk? I’ve seen it, or a version, up and down this street.
It’s not like the lurching Drunken Tourist Tango you see on
the Strip. That’s the product of a weekend bender and poor
impulse control. No, for this guy, alcohol has probably been the
organizing fact of his life for a long time, something he lives
with, has accommodated. Okay, I’m shamelessly speculating; my
bad. No doubt it’s me who has accommodation issues. But he’s
clearly pickled right now; you can almost see the smell of booze
on him as he hugs the shade and inches along … so … slowly,
eyes never leaving his feet, as though he has to deliberately
and separately engage every muscle required to take a step. He
doesn’t even look up when he crosses the street. It’s a summer
morning, just after seven.

I’m writing this in The Beat coffee shop, Fremont and Sixth,
where I’ve come to think about decay, so I really ought to thank
the old man for his well-timed cameo. Instead, I sip $4 worth
of chocolate coffee as the morning in all its glory eases past
the big, street-view windows. I should also thank whoever put
Empire Burlesque on The Beat’s record player—you can always
count on Dylan to soundtrack the moment:

Only yesterday I know that you’ve been flirting/
With disaster that you managed to escape …

As Bob is my witness, this is an excellent vantage point from
which to ponder decay, and not merely because of the free-range
alcoholics. Downtown Las Vegas is old, and getting younger.
Space by space along East Fremont, new bars, lounges and social
spaces are reclaiming the neglect and urban decay. A storefront
that’s abandoned and graffiti-marred this morning might see
new life as a grog shop or ethnic restaurant before I visit again.

The Beat itself, and the building it’s in—Emergency Arts—came
about in precisely that way, wrestled by hand out of the ruins of
an old medical facility. Still, around the street are other empty,
aging buildings, some haloed by escort ads on the sidewalks,
spray paint on their walls.

In the unpredictable way that memory works, this streetscape
reminds me of a trip to Dublin, Ireland, where I was blown away
at how easily the modern and the ancient sit side-by-side. In
the midst of that city’s contemporary urban bustle, I descended
into the subterranean burial galleries of St. Michan’s cathedral,
where some natural trick of the air arrests decay and preserves
bodies—you can see four preserved corpses, hundreds of years
old, their features, their skin, cuticles.

If East Fremont is considerably less ancient (though, given
our history, who knows how many bodies are in its basements),
you can see a similar toggling between old and new, actually
note the staggering, wobbly path of progress, a still-early draft
of downtown’s urban-renewal narrative. That might be the real
Fremont Shuffle.

Approached to edit this collection and advised of the theme,
“Decay,” I had my doubts. How many abandoned buildings do I
want to read about? Also: Sounds depressing! But a little thought
revealed the obvious: there are many flavors of decay, and—
especially when juxtaposed against the eye-candy surfaces and
forever-young mojo of Las Vegas—most tap into important,
long-term themes. So, yes, writers Matthew O’Brien and Andrew
Kiraly do write about old buildings and crumbling physical infrastructure,
but their pieces are also about, respectively, notions
of home and growing up. Art critic Danielle Kelly writes about
the old Vegas signs in the Neon Boneyard, but somehow makes
it a tender meditation on the human face, art, mold, and love.

As I watch the old guy ease past the window, I have to wonder
about the arc of a life that led him here—what tangled skein of
personal choices and economic or social forces left him wandering
these entropic streets on a Wednesday morning? I have a
better sense after reading Lynnette Curtis’s vignettes of life in
downtown’s homeless corridor.

Decay also affects our bodies, so it was interesting to see two
very different writers, novelist Deborah Coonts and essayist
Stacy J. Willis, address aging (in utterly dissimilar ways), while
scholar Stephen Bates writes about (among other things) death.
You want spiritual decay? Jarret Keene writes about that. Civic
and moral decay? Steve Sebelius and Rick Lax.

I was wrong about this book being depressing, too. There’s a
surprising amount of comic zest here—I’m thinking specifically of
Coonts, Kiraly, and Keene—along with plenty of deep thinking,
careful analysis, generous humanity, a couple of fierce moments,
and even—if you know Sebelius, you aren’t surprised—an oldfashioned
jeremiad.

The thing about decay is not simply that it’s unavoidable—
everything fades, sags, or crumbles. It’s that it’s necessary, and
I don’t even mean in a cycle-of-life, nourishing-the-soil kind
of way, although there is that. Decay is critical to our modern
notions of who we are and what we want. Take aging: If you
have some light cosmetic surgery to ward off late middle age,
no biggie. It’s a harmless indulgence of vanity. Have too much,
though, and it’s downright creepy, signaling a desperate unwillingness
to accept your fate with grace.

Or look out these windows, here at The Beat. The persistence
of decay is crucial to the urban aesthetic that gives this area its
vigor—it’s what keeps it from becoming Summerlin. It’s from
the juxtaposition of the eyesore and the restored, the battered
and the newly built, that a narrative of civic change and an aura
of authenticity arise. That’s what attracts us to these areas—they
aren’t sterile. This isn’t just me riffing, by the way; according
to a study cited by the Las Vegas Sun, eighty percent of young
homebuyers would prefer an urban to a suburban lifestyle.

Of course, the upside of decay is usually less apparent. Later,
when I leave here, I’ll take a quick left and find myself on Ogden,
passing the useless husk of Neonopolis, and then another plainly
vacant downtown building. Soon, a right will put me on City
Parkway. There, idling at its intersection with Bonanza—across
from the homeless shelter—I’ll briefly observe a homeless man
sitting in a thin strip of shade, shirtless, all gristle and rind, eyes
glowering at nothing in particular. Left onto Bonanza, and to
my right is the forlorn wreck of the historic Moulin Rouge site,
the city’s first black-oriented casino. Just a few miles, yet so much
that’s falling apart, while around us spins a valley throttled by job
loss and foreclosure, and a nation racked by poisonous politics,
the chaotic EKG of Wall Street’s plunges and gains, the sour
fumes of our stalled economy.

Take it away, Bob:

I saw thousands who could have overcome the darkness/
For the love of a lousy buck I’ve watched them die …

But that’s later. At the moment, it’s 7:30, the morning is
bright and filled with potential, and I still have a half-hour of
free, meterless parking. So I’ll just sit here by these windows
for a while, thank you, and watch the Fremont Shuffle in all
its varieties.

Comments are closed.