Fremont Street Cowboy (Photo credit: Wade Brooks)
As soon as the bus left Los Angeles I felt freer, like I could breathe more easily. I leaned my head against the window and watched the landscape change as we drove east. Miles of desert were punctuated with dry brush and trees. Hills made of red and brown rocks rose out of the dirt at intervals, casting shadows over the freeway. The air beyond the mountains looked orange- blue and dusty. When the freeway narrowed to two lanes we slowed, inching along behind a string of red taillights. The mood in the bus changed from excitement to frustration. “We need to get there and lose some money!” Someone joked and everyone laughed.
As we exited the freeway, I pressed my palm against the window to see if I could feel the desert heat through the glass.
From the outside, the Las Vegas greyhound station looked magical. The walls above the greyhound logo were paneled with large shimmery gold tiles which reflected the buildings across the street. Later I would discover that the exterior walls of many buildings in Las Vegas were covered with gold and silver tiles, and the windows were all reflective glass so that at night every light was multiplied, shimmering into each mirror and glass and creating an infinite recursion of neon and electricity. The desert stars blanketing the more remote areas could not compete.
But the inside of the terminal was crowded and dirty. There were lines of tired, sad faces waiting to buy tickets and bodies sleeping under blankets on the floor, heads covered with newspapers. I walked outside into the hot, still air and joined a group of tourists walking north on Main Street. I was wearing a pair of big dark sunglasses I had bought from a street vendor in Hollywood, but I still needed to use my hand as a visor against the brightness and the heat on my face. Everything was hot and blurry and dull, and I felt the lump in my throat again, and the sudden longing to go home.
We turned onto Fremont Street, a pedestrian walkway lined with famous casinos: Golden Nugget, Golden Gate, Fremont, Binions, Four Queens. A canopy stretched above the street, providing an artificial sky above the casinos and shelter from the intensity of the sun.
“At night this lights up with millions of light bulbs and they play rocknroll.” It was a voice raspy from too much smoking and alcohol. I looked up. The man was probably in his mid-forties, balding, overweight. He was holding a drink in one hand and a plastic bucket full of quarters in the other. I smiled and took off my glasses.
“Are you winning, darlin?” He asked, returning my smile.
“Not yet,” I said, “how about you?”
“I’m about even,” he said, then: “Who am I kidding, I’m down. But I’m keeping the hope alive!” He jostled me with his elbow and laughed. We were next to Binion’s. The marquee read: “FREE! Take your picture with $1,000,000. FREE!”
“They used to call this street Glitter Gulch,” the man said. I looked at the giant neon cowboy next to the Pioneer Club. He was smiling with a cigarette in his mouth and he seemed familiar to me in his jeans and red checked shirt. His illuminated outline was muted in the daylight, blurrier and softer. One blue neon finger pointed downward to a sign reading “Souvenirs, Gifts, T-Shirts.”
“Well I’m gonna try my luck over here,” he said, turning towards the Golden Nugget. He paused under the giant golden awning and looked back at me and winked. “Good luck, sweetheart.”
“You too,” I said, and I stopped to watch as the automatic doors opened for him. A cacophony of sounds escaped: bells, sirens, the clang of coins hitting metal, faint laughter, loud talking; and cold air laced with cigarette smoke. I watched as he was swallowed up by darkness and flashing lights in the distance. The doors closed behind him and it was hot and dull again, the sun’s brilliance muted by the mesh canopy above me.
I walked back and forth on Fremont Street for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until I stopped to buy a coke and a woman dressed as a mermaid came over to put a string of plastic beads around my neck that I realized the lump in my throat was gone.