“There is a therapeutic aspect to reporting what few like to admit. What is a reporter except a kind of house detective, scavenging through the bureau drawers of men’s lives, searching for the minor vice, the half–forgotten lapse that is stored away like a dirty pair of drawers. Reporting anesthetizes one’s own problems. There is always someone in deeper emotional drift, even grift, than you, someone to whom you can ladle out understanding as if it were a charitable contribution, one free meal from the psychic soup kitchen, just that one, no more, any more would entail responsibility, and responsibility is what one is trying to avoid in the first place.”
This from John Gregory Dunne’s 1974 book Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season, written after what he describes as a “nervous breakdown and then seeing a billboard with the legend, “VISIT LAS VEGAS BEFORE YOUR NUMBERS [sic] UP.” Dunne, brother to celebrity chronicler Dominick, was married to Joan Didion, author of Salvador, The White Album, etc. John Gregory Dunne, also a novelist and author of such works as True Confessions, Playland, and Red White and Blue, died December 30, 2003. Years earlier he set out to Vegas, not unlike Hunter S. Thompson, and within a year or so of that gonzo writer’s famous excursion there and acted “as if.” That is, he acted as if he had some kind of assignment and “hung” with and recorded interviews with a variety of random people, from bail bondsmen and private detectives to prostitutes.
On a much smaller scale, and with an 800-word ceiling, I set out from my hotel armed with the question, “What’s the biggest problem you’ve got going in your life today?”
Downtown, on Sixth near C Street, is the Stout Pub, a public house with a very across-the-pond feel to it, without being a theme park. Thirty-four-year-old barman Carl (just Carl) subscribes to Dunne’s observation that “There is always someone in deeper emotional drift.” Polishing a glass, Carl says, “I don’t whine.”
“Can’t you? Just a little? Just this once? Something must be going badly.”
“Hey, I’m not in Japan, you know? I don’t have cancer.”
I should have known better — and I mean this lovingly (some of my best friends, you know) — than to ask an Irishman. A late friend of mine, Gerald Duran Bowes, once told me, “An Irishman can live his whole life with something fundamentally wrong with it and be at home more or less.”
“When I think about some people,” Carl shakes his head, “I’ve got no right to be whining.”
Miguel Martinez, the 29-year-old proprietor of Jugo De La Fuente, at Seventh and C, along with his father, also Miguel. Miguel the younger comments, “Being a business owner, right now the biggest thing is money. This economy is a problem, sure, but the media doesn’t help anything. Something bad happens, and they put it on YouTube, and it scares people like the end of the world’s coming, something like that. Television, the same. Things are maybe not great, but they’re not that bad. The media is to blame for a lot of my problems right now. They exaggerate. People have more time now, and they listen and get scared and they’re afraid to go out, especially to spend money.”
Kyle Davis, 54, squats alongside the 7-Eleven on the next block. It’s clear his most immediate concern is spare change. He, too, lists the economy as a major problem in his life. Regarding the media, “It’s the other way around. They whitewash the whole thing. Like, unemployment rates? They list stats like 10 or 12 percent, when you know it’s really twice that. Everyone I know, just about, is out of work — perfectly employable people, I’m talking about. I’m an I.T., a technical support engineer on computers. I had to sell my own computer after I got laid-off. They got some kid now. Even just calling it a recession, even the Great Recession, is a cover-up for what is clearly another depression. The only difference is more of the rich are managing to stay rich this time.”
Forty-year-old Artis is the manager of a downtown hotel and has to think for a moment about my question. He comes up with a peeve, not really a problem. “The National Football League,” he says. “All these rich guys dictating the way football is going to be, without a thought to us out here buying the tickets, the jerseys — the fans, in other words. It’s ridiculous. Yeah. The NFL.”
Tim King, 56, boards the trolley at Santa Fe station in his motorized wheelchair. He has been without legs or a left arm since birth, and his immediate concern is Medicare’s failure to provide a manual wheelchair. “I need the exercise for my heart,” he says evenly.