I have this picture hanging above my writing desk. It’s a reprint from the book Las Vegas and Clark County Memories A Photographic History of the 1940s-1960s. The caption below it says: “Two girls with their pony in front of a neon sign for the Swanky Club on Boulder Highway, 1963.” When I first came across the picture, a recognition ran through me, even though the picture was taken fourteen years before I was born. Two young girls, stand in front of a sign for a bar they aren’t old enough to enter, the look in their eyes is an emptiness, a look of not yet having the notion that they are part of something absurd and persistent. They live inside an idea, inside sensation, an experience someone decided to sell to tourists. Their innocence captured amongst the spectacle, this was the recognition. Place is a powerful element in writing. It should serve as more than just a setting for a story. Place is an active character, changing form as the speaker’s perspective evolves or devolves. Place, beyond the imagistic initiation, makes the mood or tone by way of intentional language.
For me, Boulder Highway, and many of the streets and neighborhoods in the Valley which appear in my writing, have preserved in them a kind of wisdom energy that a writer or artist can pull from. Joan Didion said “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” Is there a place for you that conjures the primitive intensity of Didion’s words? These are where some of the best poems and stories begin.
The Mojave has so many untold tales aching to become alive inside an artist. I truly believe that. Returning to a place where an event happened to me as a younger self is full of purpose that I am aware of, but until the words are put to paper, the meaning remains unknown to me. If I am curious and I pay attention (and always bring my notebook) the story will reveal itself to me. Sometimes we only leave with scraps and the story takes years to make its way to the surface. There is plenty of irony in this picture. The word “Swanky” means “stylishly luxurious and expensive”, but Boulder Highway couldn’t convey a swankiness if it tried, and it’s never tried; the honesty and struggle is all right there, and it’s there in the eyes of the girls, who remind me of my sister and I, or the young girls who I played in the desert with, who I grew up alongside. The ones whose families worked in housekeeping, valet, or as swing shift casino cage girls. It seemed everyones’ parents were operating the levers and pulleys of the Strip, and the kids were totally clueless that they were growing up on the hem of Sin City’s dazzling gown.
Where the Swanky Club once was turned into Joker’s Wild in the 1980’s. The street that runs behind that hotel is Pabco Road, where often, when I was a teenager, I laid in the back of a pickup truck with other Vegas adolescence and went in search of the Pabco monster, a Vegas urban legend. The pony in this picture reminds me that the story is in the details. I keep this picture above my writing desk to remind me that I am part of something larger, a collective history, one filled with trauma, resilience, hidden monsters in the Mojave, or if you look close enough, its soft underbelly— love.