Leaving Las Vegas (Part One)

We were somewhere around Spanish Fork leaving the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

I had just taken a Claritin. My allergies were pounding between the late pollen from ragweed and the wild fires raging alongside I-15. We were speeding north towards Salt Lake with nothing but Las Vegas and a couple of years of struggle behind us. I was riding shotgun staring blankly at the fires and questioning why I was even considering moving to Utah. All I knew about Utah was that Fletch stopped over in Provo to investigate Alan Stanwyk, Carl Malone played for the Jazz and they were heavier with Mormons than we were in Vegas. I knew Robert Redford owned a mountain, the Great Salt Lake was filled with dead seagulls and they worshipped something called fry sauce. I was painfully ignorant of the Beehive State and was relishing this early July scouting trip to Northern Utah to see if I was really going to move here.

It was 1998. I was 24-years old and for the first time in a long while, I was scared.

Since graduating college, I had been working as an electrician and spent every spare moment playing rugby for the Las Vegas Blackjacks. Life since leaving UNR hadn’t gone off as well as I had hoped. I was living at my mother’s house, dying a slow death in the brutal heat of the desert trenching parking lot lights and drinking my dinner at night. I was relatively friendless minus a couple of guys on the rugby team and my mother.

And for the record, my mother was my best friends during those years.

It was wage slavery. I fell into electrical work when I showed up to a job site to work what I thought was a couple of labor shifts to offset the fact that I couldn’t find a job in Las Vegas. Funny, for the last 12-years, I have supported myself as a bartender but for what it was worth, I had no desire to shave my beard and go work for one of the hotel/casinos. It felt like a slow death slinging drinks or flipping cards or parking cards. My pride had been wounded leaving college with no prospects—how come nobody ever told me that political science has no real job market out there? I snuck out of Reno and landed on my mother’s couch all of which done with my tail between my legs.

What was supposed to be a weekend movie pipe for Arco Electric turned into my profession at the ripe old age of 22. I underwent a hazing process that would have put any fraternity to shame as I struggled with not just working under the blazing Las Vegas sky and dirty conditions but the racism, bigotry, homophobia and all-around general hatred pervasive on a construction site. Five months earlier, I was tucked away in the back of a student newspaper writing a weekly human interest column and splitting time between the library, rugby pitch and the cherry bartending gig I had at Big Ed’s Alley Inn. Smash cut to being surrounded by tattooed gang-bangers, white supremacist and ex-cons. Most of my co-workers hadn’t picked up a book since the 3rd grade and thought my slim paperback book slipped into my lunch pail to be a calling card to gay bathhouses.

I saw guys get run over with heavy machinery, fall off of scaffolding, get beaten up at roach coaches for cutting in line and get handed a pink slip at the end of a successful job. Tools were stolen, trucks broken into, wages cut and job sites shut down with striking Union workers. All of this under that desert sun which turned any piece of exposed metal into a torch and any breeze into a blast furnace. My supervisors were a combination of alcoholics, PTSD vets from Vietnam and hustling thieves. They came in all shapes and sizes but they shared a vicious streak that didn’t tolerate backtalk or slacking. God forbid they would ever have to put on a tool belt. They were malicious and served at the pleasure of my Molly Mormon employers who were either ignorant of the working conditions or consciously blind to the torments these foremen inflected upon the workers. I don’t believe in God but I do believe in Hell and for 27-months, I was living in it.

Little known fact about commercial and industrial electrical work: most of it is done underground. It’s considerably cheaper to dig trenches and lay PVC than hang EMT above the drop ceilings and behind interior walls. It’s worth pointing this very simple fact out that the best electrical work is not done with a pair of needle nose pliers or a cordless hand drill, it’s done with a shovel. I owned a tool belt filled with linemen, wrenches, every sort of screwdrivers, a Wiggy and waffle-headed hammers but why would my foremen care? All they saw was a young guy with a strong back that spoke a little Spanish and seemed to pretty good at breaking up caliche. I was thrown into a trench with undocumented workers and spent 8-hours a day trailing behind a backhoe removing any rock bigger than a golf ball.

My self-esteem was clearly nonexistent at this point in my life. I remember waking up every morning in the make-shift room at my mother’s house, it used to be my father’s office, and dragging prematurely aging bones to a job site where all I wanted to do was hit my supervisors with the shovel they kept forcing into my hands. The only upside to this work was it was conditioning for rugby. I have never been in that good of shape in my entire life. Between the grueling practices twice a week and the 40+ hours swinging a pick axe, I actually was fit. But to combat this fitness, I drained as many cans of beer down my neck that I could and double-down my consumption after every rugby match.

That guy who was within striking distance of winning ASUN student body president had transformed into a zombie and I think others saw it. The things I was passionate about were slipping out of my hand like sand squeezed from an angry fist and I was miserable. I was driving a Mercury Topaz (a 1989 Mercury Topaz), had absolutely no prospects with the ladies and was chained to my stupid $8 an hour job. I was living at home and was going nowhere with a capital W.

But here I was, sitting in the leather bucket seats of a new Infiniti Q45, watching the mountains burn out of control to the right of me, listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young while we sped north towards Salt Lake City. The Big Gulp we bought in Fillmore was nothing more than ice and I was wondering what I had gotten myself into. The driver wasn’t Charon but a guy named Steve Keyser. He was a rugby player who was about 10-years my senior. Steve’s ability on the pitch had diminished but he was still passionate about the game. He was quick-witted, sardonic and cruel. He was also incredibly funny and very generous.

He was returning home. Steve was from Salt Lake and had decided that he had had enough of Las Vegas. He had made a fortune working in the stock market and wanted to return to the Beehive State. I befriended him on the many rugby tours and shared a room with him. He looked after me, picked up the lion’s share of tabs and was unwavering in his support for me to stop working as an electrician. He approached me out of nowhere at the end of the rugby season and asked if I would be interested in moving to Utah. I was stunned. Leaving Nevada had never been an option to me before and he was offering to put me up at his house in exchange that I got my life back on track. He was offering to patronize me with the understanding that I was to pursue graduate school or at least start working towards a career that didn’t involve Neanderthals screaming which direction I was supposed to dig.

Not wanting to throw me to the wolves, he said that he is heading north to check out a house he had bought on-line and wanted somebody to drive with him. I agreed and there I was in the late evening hurtling past the Point of the Mountain towards a very uncertain future. As the all too familiar skyline came into view, he said we will be making a pit stop to look at a piece of property he had bought in Olympus Cove to make sure the raging wildfires hadn’t destroyed his newly acquired patch of scrub oak. He bombed along the Wasatch Front, got off on 3300 South and made our way east up mountain.

I’ve made the observation that Reno and Salt Lake are a lot alike with the exception that Reno has less Mormons and more casinos. I was familiar with mountains with the trips I’ve made to Lake Tahoe through the Sierra Nevada but this was different. We were driving into a wall of smoke and glowing ambers to a lot that was at the top of Olympus Cove. This was a residential neighborhood that mimicked Mount Rose Highway. Today, I know how folks from the Midwest feel about the mountains that surround the city because of that first night. We finally got to his lot and could see the wall of flames 10-miles south from us. Feeling secure that the place wasn’t going to be razed that night, we headed to his new house on Mohawk Way high above Foothill Drive.

The home was a split-level rambler with all of the chic of the 1970s plus a sweeping view of the mountains. We unloaded his car, paused for a moment and hit the town. I wish I could remember more of that first evening but I do recall having a $40 bar tab at Port ‘o Call, hooking up with a girl and waking up with a crippling hangover. Already in one night, I had more fun in the previous 2-years in Las Vegas. Steve had a baker’s dozen worth of errands to run that day and I sat dutifully in his car, praying for the pounding in my head to subside and waiting for us to get to a bar. He did me one better—he drove us up to Park City.

I know now that the LDS faith prohibits celebration on Sundays but Park City doesn’t fall victim to these pressures. We blazed up Parley’s and into Park City which was in full swing for a rocking 4th of July celebration. For a moment, I thought I had stepped back into the time of my Uncle Pat’s early 1970s. Any pre-conceived notions that Utah was uptight was quickly erased when I saw beautiful girls wandering around in bikini tops, beer trucks at every corner and some of the coolest bars I have ever been too. Best of all, there was a rugby tournament being played at the bottom of Main Street. Between time at O’Shucks and the rugby pitch, I had made up my mind. I was moving to Utah.

In fact, I was kicking myself for not having discovered Utah earlier. I knew at that moment what Robert Redford felt when he first found his way into Utah. It was picturesque and peaceful. People were cool and there was no shortage of booze to be had. It felt like home even though I was only passing through at this time. I didn’t know what Utah was but I knew what it wasn’t—it wasn’t a team of racists telling me to dig faster or being forced to live at home. It wasn’t a place where people judged you by your car, clothing or watch. It was a normal place and how can you fault me for believing this? I grew up in Las Vegas, for Christ sake.

The icing on the cake was watching the Park City fireworks show on top of the Main Street Post Office. A bunch of bar customers and I climbed up a chain-link fence and watched the sky come alive. No matter what happens in this life, I will always remember that moment.

Little did I know that Salt Lake City isn’t Park City on the 4th of July but it was too late. I had already made up my mind and was already trying to figure out how I was going to pack up my meager possessions and make it to SLC. We drove back to SLC late and crashed out. We woke up around noon and headed back to Las Vegas where I was rehearsing the speech that I was going to give my mother. Steve had a heavy foot and we barreled down I-15 as fast as we headed north.

Along the way home, two magical things occurred. One, the wildfire along the Wasatch had been put out. There was the smoldering smoke turning the evening sun into a gorgeous sunset with colors reserved for artists and dreamers. My head pressed against the window gazed at the setting sun and marveled at the absolute beauty of Northern Utah and gleefully planned my return to Salt Lake. The second was more sublime. Because devote LDS communities waited until the 5th to ignite their communities firework shows, we were privy to not just one but three firework displays as we drove back to Las Vegas. I remember settling deep into Steve’s leather chairs, listening to soft music on the local radio and gazing at the explosions resulting in fiery sky glitter and hoping my return would be sooner than later.

Steve pulled into my mother’s cul-de-sac after midnight. We shook hands and promised to talk shortly to coordinate my move to Utah. I snuck quietly into my mom’s house not wanting to wake her or my brother and passed out from excitement in my bed.

This is how I came to Utah. I moved a month later to Steve’s home on Mohawk Way and made the slow transformation from Nevadan to Utahn. I will always be from Nevada but that exploratory trip was the first step in many for me to start viewing Salt Lake as home. We talk about regrets in life but that trip with Steve was never one. Moving to Utah was the beginning of the second act of my life and for better or worse, I have Steve to thank for that.

Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. Check out his podcast, SLC PubCast, on iTunes. Trust me, he will be posting a new podcast very shortly.

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