Monday, September 05, 2016

What it was Like to Grow up in Old Las Vegas

Once upon a time, I lived in a city full of mobsters, entertainers, cowboys, colorful gamblers, and an abundance of open desert. It's a time that's passed into a kind of mythological status, so it's only natural that one of the most common questions I get is: “What was it like to grow up in Las Vegas?”

We used to get started gambling early around here
(I'm kidding, of course)
This question is almost always posed with wide eyes and, I think, the hope that I have something  juicy to share, like a mobster dad or a mother who was an exotic dancer.

In my case, my dad was a bartender and my mom was an accountant.

My parents moved here around 1960. When I was born, Dad was working at the Flamingo. Over four decades he worked as a bartender or food and beverage manager at a whole bunch of legendary Vegas places that no longer exist, like the Aladdin and the recently imploded Riviera.

Here Dad is hanging out after work (notice no tie) at what looks like a pool bar. Once he was done with his shift, he usually went off to visit one (or more) of his bartender (or dealer or waitress or entertainer) buddies, which appears to be the case in this photo. This was probably taken around the time he worked at the Flamingo in the early 1960s.

Dad was, to my mom's great irritation, that guy who always “knew a guy.” And that guy never showed up when he was supposed to, nor did he ever do what he said he would. Take, for instance, the "painter" who painted my parent's bedroom with an earthy shade of exterior house paint that looked terrible and made the room feel like a cave. Dad was pleased, but Mom not so much. (In later years, Dad hired another guy he knew to do paneling on one of the walls, which took twice as long and cost twice as much as originally quoted, and did not improve the cave-like feeling.)

My mom worked mostly as an accountant, but she also sold flight insurance at McCarran for a while, as evidenced by this picture. Mom's the one with the lei. She also happened to be gorgeous, as you can see.

Mom once told me a story about the day she was out shopping with her hair up in curlers when she ran into Della Reese. She spotted Della, whom she knew (remember, it was a small town), and tried to duck out of sight because she was embarrassed. “Here I am in curlers, and there she was, all beautifully done up,” was kind of how Mom described it to me. I think Mom may have said a brief hello, but she scooted out of the store without stopping to chat.

Later that night, when Della saw my Dad (I’m guessing at work), she told him, “Your wife is stuck up.” Mom told me she was horrified when Dad told her (I bet he laughed), and I’m not sure how that perception was corrected, if ever.

We went to a lot of shows and restaurants, most of which my parents never paid for—unless you counted the generous tips paid to the maitre ‘d, the cocktail waitress, the waiter, and so on. Mostly, these were people my dad knew, who returned the favor when he comped them at his bar when he was working. It was an unwritten rule that if you weren’t paying for the meal or the show, you’d better be tipping well.

It wasn’t all shows and glamour, of course. We had a pretty regular family routine, although life with two partiers (as we would call them today) had its ups and downs. But they bequeathed me a huge supply of great stories, which is a good thing for a writer.

When I was a teenager and finding things to do without my parents, Las Vegas was still largely rural on the outskirts. I went to gymkhanas and off-roaded with my friends. The Red Rock Loop was a two-way road, and it didn't take long to drive out of town. Seeing the Milky Way required only about a two-hour drive… if that.

In some ways, getting used to the city-fication of Las Vegas has been harder than adjusting to the changes on the Strip. Gone are the ranches and the wide open desert I remember. Most of the places from my childhood are gone or irrevocably changed.

Still, I find the city fascinating and the desert alluring.

My son has grown up in an entirely different Las Vegas, a place that's far more urban than when I was a kid. He's rather blasé about his famous hometown, and while he still has some distinctly Vegas Native tendencies (like never taking anything someone hands you on the Strip and a love of vast, wild places), his experience growing up in Vegas is almost as if he didn't grow up in the same city that I did at all.

Are you a Vegas Native? Leave your story, please!

In August 2016, Vegas Girl celebrated its 10th anniversary. This post is a part of three-part series revisiting some of Vegas Girl's most notable stories.

All pictures from the giant family photo collection of Terrisa Meeks.

No comments: