The summer of 2010 was the first I spent with out my dad. After he died I amped up the mission to check off more on my "places I always wanted to see list". My son and I had a day in Vegas before picking up the car that would take us to the breathtaking Zion Canyon and other surrounding Canyons so amazing; they are among the Wonders of the World. No cell phones, or Internet, no texting or TV, these are usually the rules of our adventures. The plan is to limit distractions so our small family of two can reconnect to the sacredness of real life, to allow us to be awed by nature and not fall into the haze of lethargy that increases in opacity as the landscape of America is homogenized. My son was 16 then and each year this was becoming more difficult. Even sentences like that one that I just wrote were harder for him to hear. I became more frightened and urgent that he would loose his soul to the new way. He became more convinced that I was paranoid and old. I worried more as technology began to make fun efficient and sanitary. Real is difficult, messy and unpredictable. A person who has the heart for real is of good character. This was the moral battlefield upon which I fought for the soul of my only child. My dad was our patron saint of real and when he passed, it was another enormously sad reminder that the age of real is nearing its end. My dad, who nicknamed himself Fast Eddie was a beautiful fatalist who instead of reliving his high school glory days, told tales of being the last one picked when sides were being divvied up for doge ball and being terrified of barrack inspections when he was in service because, he said he was "all thumbs" when it came to squaring his sea bag. His mother a strict Irish Catholic from the early 1900's lulled him to sleep with the threat of Hellfire and woke him up to the promise of redemption at 7:00 A.M. mass. By the time Fast Eddie quit high school to joint the Coast Guard, he was already a full-blown manic-depressive with an addictive personality. According to Eddie, he spent time in the service, "drinkin, gamblin and chasin". Catholicism made Eddie a compulsive gambler of the fiercest variety. He figured out early on that even when you win, there is no staying on top, as every day alive is one closer to cashing in your chips for eternity. Eddie had the beginning and the end figured out and this freed him up to play the game by his rules, since the in between, Eddie said "is the only thing you have control over". Playing by his own rules was the guiding force in Eddie's life up until the end, when he may have lived a little longer if he had stayed at the adult home, not sneaked cigarettes next to his oxygen tank and did what his doctors determined was best for him. But he left, got his own apartment, went on manic binges and tried to lure the night nurse from the home to come and party with him. Eddie had always said that he would be terrified if he won big, because it might make him go crazy... "This time for real" he would say. But win or not, he needed the action of just being in the game.
I inherited my work ethic and capacity for long suffering from my mother's side of the family. I got my emotional esthetic from my dad. I've tried to pass both of these on to my son. I grew restless a couple hours into our big night in Vegas. I felt patronized by hotel replicas of tourist attractions and wanted my son to be able to add Nevada to our ongoing survey of the Fifty States. I was directed to a part of downtown and was told that there I would find the Old Vegas and maybe a leftover bit of the spirit of individuality that lured folks West in the early days. Freemont Street used to be just that, a street with sidewalks for people, not the sprawling highways with pedestrian overpasses that herd tourists through mega lobbies from The Bellagio to MGM Grand. Freemont was a 3o minute bus ride down the strip and each block seemed to take me back a couple years in time as the buildings appeared to be renovated according to their proximity with big name hotels on the strip. We reached Freemont Street and found that it had become a tourist friendly mall -like promenade complete with piped in Classic Rock music and laser light shows on what the announcer boasted as "the world's largest out door canopy". Disappointed, I kept walking and as the music faded I took a seat at a picnic table next to a lone truck selling tacos. I finally felt like I somewhere. Across the street in a landscape where all else had been leveled, sat a huge box of a building that took up a city block. The Western Hotel and Casino was the most intriguing place I had seen since I arrived in town. I wanted to go in but was afraid of becoming obsessed. I am a photographer, but I never take my camera on vacation. When a guy from The Western came over for a taco and asked to share the table with us, I was thrilled. He kept apologizing for him self, not for anything in particular but mainly just for his existence. He said that The Western was kind of dead that night. But tomorrow it would be crazy as it was the 3rd of the month. Government check day; Social Security, Disability, Public Assistance. This was the economy that my dad had traded in and I knew that I had to visit The Western if only to pay homage to him. Our dinner companion took us in through the back door and I immediately recognized everyone in the place. Their fatal flaws openly and refreshingly displayed, took the place of small talk and just like with my dad the conversation cut right to the chase. It was as if by walking in through the doors of The Western you were acknowledging that you were hip to the fact that no one in life gets out alive. The question of what it all means hangs in the air and the repetition and the numbers are comforting answers, open to interpretation by mystics and skeptics alike. And the answer "absolutely nothing" is perfectly acceptable to both. I did become obsessed and some how I got me and my camera invited back.
After hiking the big canyons, in November 2010, I spent ten days photographing and filming at The Western Hotel and Casino- and previously the world's largest bingo hall. I was a guest of the new owners The Tamares Group and in exchange for photographing the renovations at one of their sister hotels, I was given free reign to document The Western as I wished. The owners said there were no plans to close the place. The faithful still came to suspend the long hours of their retirement inside deep pockets of hope and anticipation- the jackpot itself is another day done. Even though it was said that the Western still turned a profit, there was an uneasy feeling that the score would have to be settled for cheating time.
I took what I had and vowed to go back. I made a short film and then was unwilling or unable to find a news hook to pin it on. It was suggested that I should re-edit to address social issues in my little movie; nutrition, public health, alcoholism or addiction. Then there came the branding of our struggling economy, "Main Street" or "The 99%" are bumper stickers I am not ready to display. So my pictures of The Western remain a souvenir of a place that was comforting, like curling up in my daddy's lap. But my daddy is gone and now so is The Western. It closed on January 16th, 2012. So now there is a news hook. Now there is a social issue. Now there is a metaphor for our failed social contract. The patrons poured money into The Western's slots in the hopes that it would be there in the future when there was no place else for them to go. Now it is gone...The Last Nights at The Western - Time
© Copyright 1989 - Brenda Kenneally. All rights reserved.