The sun was breaking through the desert sky when I started putting away my tools.
For the last eight hours, I was alone in the C Terminal at McCarran Airport with two other electricians. We were installing new fire alarms and strobe lights along the walls and into the ceiling. The airport was a ghost town. The normal traffic you’re accustomed to while boarding or leaving the plane was gone. There were a handful of custodians cleaning the rigid chairs and wiping down the walls but the only activity was me and my foremen hailing EMT pipes, fitting and fixtures as we made our way down the terminal.
It was a sweet job minus the hours. We had to do the work at night as not to disturb the regular traffic of the airport. There was classic rock blasting on the boom box as we tried to run as much as pipe as possible in our narrow window of time.
It was a nice departure from my normal responsibilities at Arco Electric. Most of the time I was in a trench with day laborers and racists breaking up rock and running 4” PVC piping for commercial sites. The sun would beat me down by 10 in the morning and I was begging to die by the afternoon. Las Vegas is a hot mess in the middle of the summer and I felt like I was working under a microscope. My bosses were sadomasochists who relished in pushing and tormenting the “college kid” who preferred reading books at break and played rugby in his off time. Unable to share sexual conquest stories and living with my mother made me an easy target for the harden bigots. I could have easily verbal jousted them into the ground but I feared the repercussions of calling them on their myopic and terrifying logic.
They were tough, self-hating drunks who savored intimidating underlings that didn’t tolerate backtalk or comprehend that toiling under the sun might require frequent water breaks or moments under the shade. What I wouldn’t have given to for an iPod…
When I was asked if I was interested in working at the airport at night, I jumped at the opportunity. Arco received the contract to pull low-voltage wiring for the fire suppression system and they needed three guys to refit the entire C Terminal. Not only would I be working indoors with the only two guys that I could tolerate in the company, I was also getting a major bump in pay. I went from $12 swinging a pick axe in the desert heat to $38 an hour hauling pipe around the climate controlled airport.
The job lasted for three months. At this time, I had been talking with Steve Keyser about moving from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City. We were gearing up to visit Utah during the Fourth of July and we were powwowing about whether I should leave Las Vegas or not. Had I still be working in the trenches, I would have accepted any lifeline to get the Hell out of town but I was on a job that made more money than I have ever seen. Steve was emphatic that I should finish the contract before moving and to sock away as much cash as possible. It was probably the second best thing he ever did for me.
During the contract, I visited SLC and I knew that I was going to be moving there. To facilitate this I would need a bankroll and this prevalent wage job was the ticket. I made every adjustment to my schedule to grind through the nights, saved as much cash as possible and started packing my meager possessions for the move to Salt Lake. It was a weird time. I was excited about getting out of town but I was still apprehensive about going to a state that I had more than a few prejudices and a lot of misinformation. My only knowledge of Utah was from the movie Fletch and a ski trip to Brianhead when I was in 8th grade. I knew there were a ton of Mormons but I also had a great time during my visit. Throwing caution to the wayside, I committed to moving with Steve and participating on his new venture.
More importantly, I was nervous about leaving my mother alone. There is a sweet spot in life where you become a peer of your parents and Mom and I had become even better friends during my time in Las Vegas. We hung out a lot, did projects around her house and had a good relationship. She was supportive about me leaving but I could tell that this was going to be difficult for both of us. You get into routines and having Mom around was an important part of my life. Short of my family, there was nothing keeping me in Las Vegas but leaving a partnership that became an important part of my life was hard. Nonetheless, things were being set into motion that was getting me out of the Silver State and into the Beehive.
My last day as a commercial electrician found me at the airport putting the final touches on the fire suppression system. We had finished out contract at the airport and we were spending the last hour or so milking the clock and that beautiful $38 an hour. We had already loaded up the truck parked on the tarmac with all the gear and material and we were drinking coffee talking about our next job. My co-workers were returning to some sort of Hellhole at some God forsaken job site in the valley while I was heading to Salt Lake. I wish I could remember their names because they were good guys. They defended having me on the job and in the process made me thousands of dollars. They were my nest egg.
As the airport slowly started filling up with people getting ready to depart like me, we heard a commotion at the slot machines. Las Vegas is nothing but one huge casino. There are video poker machines everywhere except libraries and mortuaries. We saw a crowd of people surrounding a portly middle-aged man who was jumping up in the air pumping his hands. Joining the crowd, my jaw hit the floor when I saw that he hit one of the Megabucks. Playing the Wheel of Fortune slot machine, he hit the jackpot and won over $7-million dollars.
Even though moments ago I was earning $38 an hour drinking coffee, it was hard not to feel envious of the guy. He was a frantic mess and I will never forget what he was yelling in an almost manic-mantra: “I don’t have to go to work tomorrow! I don’t have to go to work tomorrow!” It was the only time I’ve see a spectacle like that before.
We drove back to the shop on the tarmac and out of the security gate. I thanked my employers for both the employment and the torment they put me through. As I left, I made a vow that I would never find myself in a trench again and the only tools I would pick up would be to help friends and family. So far, I’ve kept that promise.
I spent the next week packing, sitting by my mother’s swimming pool and packing up my stuff. I went out to dinner with my mom, spent time with my brother and worked the travel arrangements out with Steve. He and his girlfriend, Suzy, were going to take a U-Haul up to SLC and I was going to join them a couple of weeks later. I was going to fly up to Utah, leaving my turkey of car, a 1988 Mercury Topaz, in Vegas because Steve was going to let me drive his 1998 Infiniti Q45. It was a step-up to say the least.
Steve and Suzy grabbed my meager collection of boxes filled with books and clothes. It was stunning to think that at 25-years of age I owned barely enough possessions to fill a duffel bag. It was a mixed blessing in that I didn’t need to worry about leaving anything of value in Vegas. The decision to move was more than going to Salt Lake. It was a statement that I wasn’t going to be coming back.
My last night in Las Vegas was bittersweet. Mom and I went out to dinner at my favorite Mexican restaurant, Macayo’s, to eat my favorite dish on the planet, the Steak Cortez. It’s essentially a poorly grilled piece of flank steak covered in mushrooms and Velveeta cheese. We drank margaritas, talked about her coming to visit and what she was going to do when I left. Mom pushed the conversation more to what I was going to do when I got up to Salt Lake. Neither one of us had an answer. I was escaping Nevada in hopes of being able to focus on writing and attending graduate school. I had hopes of going to law school and maybe a change of scenery would be good for me. These were the great hopes Utah had to offer.
The next day, Mom drove me to the airport and we said goodbye.
Walking through the security checkpoint, I headed back to my old haunt of the C Terminal. I was flying Southwest to Salt Lake and had 20-minutes to kill. I walked the hall looking at my handiwork and taking the last mental images of the Las Vegas skyline. For the better part of two decades, looking out into the night meant the eerie glow of the casinos in the darkness of the desert. I grew up with Las Vegas. The city expanded ten-fold in the time I was in high school. It was a stark community where one triangulated their position via the Black Mountains and Bob Stupak’s Stratosphere. It was hot, dangerous, in constant motion and always evolving. Like a parasite, it grew with no concern of a future and stopped at nothing to consume everything in it’s path. It was unhealthy, dirty and generic. It was also home and I was turning my back on it, leaving on the next flight.
I was a Nevadan going abroad, probably never to return.
Walking to my gate, I noticed the machine that generated that Megabuck win was vacant. I put $20 into the machine and played my last game before leaving. Each spin came up empty and left $20 poorer and forced to go to work. I didn’t know what I was going to do but the adventure was a foot. Steve and Suzy waited for me on the other side of that plane ride and I looked forward to the opportunity to the challenges of starting over in a new state.
The flight was a blur. I don’t think I finished my Miller Lite before we started our decent along the Wasatch Front. The reality of leaving Las Vegas was setting in and I knew when the cabin doors opened, my life was going to change forever. I left a part of me in Nevada and it was time to fill that void with whatever Utah had to offer.
Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturday. Follow or unfollow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. Check out his podcast, SLC PubCast, on iTunes. The table is set for the fourth chapter of Leaving Las Vegas. This is where he brings the funny.