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Notes From Underground

An excerpt from 'Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas'

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The catacombs of Rome served as houses of worship for Jews and Christians. The sewers of Paris yielded gold, jewels and relics of the revolution. And thousands of people lived in the subway and train tunnels of New York City.

What secrets do the Las Vegas storm drains keep? What's beneath the neon?

Armed with a flashlight, tape recorder and expandable baton for protection, Las Vegas CityLife news editor and former Tucson Weekly contributing editor Matt O'Brien sought to answer these questions. It all started in the summer of 2002, when he explored five storm drains with CityLife contributor Joshua Ellis. It culminated in the summer of 2004, when O'Brien took a sabbatical from CityLife and explored the flood-control system in full. It continued through 2006, as he returned to the drains for follow-up notes and to explore virgin tunnels.

Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas (Huntington Press)--which is set in the long, hot and lonely summer of '04--chronicles O'Brien's adventures in this uncharted underworld. He follows the footsteps of a psycho killer. He two-steps under the MGM Grand at 3 a.m. He chases the ghosts of Benny Binion, Bugsy Siegel, Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Howard Hughes. He learns how to make meth, that art is most beautiful where it's least expected and that there are no pots of gold under the neon rainbow.


The words leaned and fluttered, as if rearranged by the wind. They formed crooked lines, like jail-cell poetry, and an oddly shaped stanza. Fading and surging on the sun-bleached wall of a channel near Eastern and Tropicana avenues, just beyond the shadows of an 8-by-6 tunnel, they read in block letters:

This place was once my home.
My family once lived here.
I once felt love & safety here
because of the people who surrounded me--
who I considered my true family--
closer than blood.
I now feel alone and betrayed.
It takes mere seconds 4 everyone
to turn their backs on "family."
From the bottom of my heart,
I miss you all
and will love you forever.

Putting on the knit cap and tightening the straps of the backpack, I stared at the words. I pressed "Play" and "Record," then reread them aloud. They were simple, I thought. They were raw. They were beautiful. In a city full of false advertising and industry propaganda--"The Loosest Slots in Vegas" ... "The Hottest Ticket on the Strip" ... "The Sexiest Girls in the World"--they were refreshingly honest. They felt like the first real words I'd read on the signs, billboards and seemingly never-ending walls that line Las Vegas.

Clutching the flashlight, its steel cooling the palm of my hand, I turned toward the tunnel and squinted into the gloom. A cardboard mat sprawled across the floor, surrounded by stiff napkins and faded newspapers. A cushioned chair was pushed against a wall. And a hand mirror hung from a hook in the ceiling, spinning like a disco ball and shooting light in various directions.

"Hello?" I said, stepping into the shadows and snapping on the flashlight.

A breeze followed me into the semidarkness, rustling the newspapers and stirring up the stench of urine. Graffiti--tags, gang names and declarations of love--blistered the walls. Around a bend, a glass pipe and hypodermic needle were wedged between two of the concrete boxes. Farther upstream, beyond couch cushions and garbage bags, the tunnel bled into the darkness.

As (I had entered the tunnel the previous day), two heads poked around the bend. In the strange and hazy half-light, the heads appeared to be floating: One had shaggy light-brown hair and a faint mustache; the other was round and smooth, partially obscured by a bandana and granny glasses.

It turned out the heads belonged to a friendly middle-aged couple, Bob and Jona (pronounced John-a). Bob and Jona told me that they live upstream in an open-air channel and visit the tunnel once or twice a day to get out of the sun and get high. They said that street kids hang out in the area and a disillusioned teenage girl wrote the words at the outlet. The inlet, they explained, is on the other side of Eastern and the channel goes back underground at Spencer Street.

After talking to Bob and Jona for five or 10 minutes, I decided that this stretch of the storm-drain system was definitely worth exploring. However, I was tired and thirsty and had left most of my gear in the car. So, I told Bob and Jona, I'll come back to the tunnel tomorrow afternoon and we can continue our conversation. Sounds good, they said. See you then.

About 15 minutes after I sat on the mat and began flipping through the newspaper, voices drifted into the tunnel through a drop inlet. Footsteps pattered on the roof and a flock of pigeons flew from the south bank of the channel. I lowered the paper, assuming that Bob and Jona had arrived--but a young man with greasy hair and a goatee appeared in the outlet, cradling a roll of carpet. A buttoned-down shirt and blue jeans hung loosely from his wiry frame.

"Hey, man," I said. "How's it going?"

"What's up?" said the young man, ducking into the tunnel and dropping the carpet around the bend.

"Not much," I said. "What's up with you?"

"I'm just rebuilding my house," he said, exiting the tunnel.

Another young man entered the tunnel carrying carpet. He was about 6 feet tall and 175 pounds, shorter but heavier than his companion. He wore a T-shirt, baggy shorts, white socks and black boots. Braids or dreadlocks--I couldn't tell which in the half-light--snaked from underneath his baseball cap and coiled on his shoulders. Struggling with the carpet, he dumped it around the bend.

The young man with the goatee returned, wrestling a twin-sized mattress. I folded the paper and placed it on the floor. "You need some help with that?" I asked him.

"No," he said. "I'm fine." He threw the mattress onto the mound of carpet. It bounced and bounced, then settled, flattening a few of the garbage bags. Breathing heavily, the young men kicked the couch cushions and bags out of the way and began to roll the carpet. I stood and walked toward them, deeper into the shadows.

"Do you all live down here?" I asked the young men.

The young man with the goatee finally answered, "Yeah."

"The reason I'm asking is I'm a reporter. I'm working on a book about the drains and the people who live in them."

The young men continued to roll the carpet. The tunnel fell silent. "Is that what you're doing down here now?" asked the young man with the goatee, who appeared to be about 18 years old.

"Yeah. I was down here yesterday talking to Bob and Jona. I told them that I was going to come back today and talk to them some more."

The young man in the baseball cap stood and stretched his back. He lifted the bottom of his shirt and wiped his brow, which was glistening like a switchblade in an alley. "I can't roll it no more," he said, collapsing against a wall. He pulled down the bill of his cap, covering his eyes.

"It's not good that you're a reporter," said the other young man, continuing to roll the carpet. "We don't want people to know we're down here."

I sat on the arm of the cushioned chair and set the flashlight on the floor, butt end up. "The book won't be published for a while," I said. "Also, I'm being vague about names and locations. I'm only using first names and I'm trying not to give away the exact locations of the drains. For this one, I'll just say something like a tunnel near Eastern and Trop."

"But this is the only tunnel near Eastern and Trop," said the young man.

"There are a few others around here," I said, "and this one's fairly well-concealed."

The young man in the cap lay still against the wall, legs extended and hands behind his head--but he wasn't asleep. I sensed that his eyes were open, that he was listening to every word, that he was considering all options. I assumed that he had a blade on him. Most street kids in Vegas do--if they're smart. Where was it, I wondered? In his sock? His pants pocket? The small of his back? I shifted on the arm of the chair, making sure that my right hand had a clear path to the baton. The young man with the goatee rolled the final piece of carpet, smoothed it out with his hands, then sat on the foot of the mattress.

"So Bob and Jona talked to you, huh?" he said.

"Yeah. I talked to them for five or 10 minutes. They said they live nearby and visit the tunnel once or twice a day to get out of the sun or whatever. They said it's a hangout for street kids, but that nobody lives in here."

"That's bullshit," said the young man, lying on the mattress and staring at the ceiling. He raked his fingers through his hair and rubbed his forehead. He seemed angry, confused, crushed. It was as if my presence had ruined everything, all his grand plans of creating a street-kid kingdom in this dreary 8-by-6 tunnel. "I wish they would've kept their fucking mouths shut," he said, "and I'll tell them that, too."

Suddenly, a shadow rose on the south wall of the tunnel. I flinched, discovering a sweaty balding man standing over my shoulder. He was wearing a striped short-sleeve shirt, black jeans and sneakers. A scratch outlined with dry blood ran down the side of his face.

"Are Bob and Jona down here?" he asked quietly.

"No," said the young man with the goatee.

"How's it going?" I said, looking up at the man.

"All right," he said. "How are you?"

"This is a reporter, John," interrupted the young man.

"Huh?"

"We got a reporter down here," he repeated, as if soliciting advice.

"I'm Matt," I said, extending my hand. "I'm a reporter. I'm working on a book about the drains."

"I'm John," said the man, shaking my hand. "Nice to meet you."

"I was down here yesterday talking to Bob and Jona," I continued. "They said they were going to be around today."

"I'm trying to find them, too," he said. "They haven't been down here, huh?"

"No," I said.

"Well," he said, "I guess I'll go look for them." And just as quickly and quietly as he'd appeared, John disappeared into the blinding sunlight. The young man in the cap rolled onto his side, back turned toward me. The young man with the goatee lay motionless on the mattress. I shifted on the arm of the chair and stared at the floor--playing cards, fast-food wrappers, hypodermic needles. The wind whipped, creating ghostlike clouds of dust in the outlet. The tunnel moaned. A manhole rattled somewhere in the distance.

In the old and crumbling border city of Nogales, Mexico, a storm drain sits at the end of a dry arroyo. The drain, composed of two 14-by-7 tunnels, is dark and dusty. ... It's eerily quiet and choked with debris. ... It's long--several miles long, in fact--and suffocating. The drain, which empties in sister city Nogales, Ariz., is also the only hope some Mexicans have of entering the United States.

As migrant workers, smugglers and families desperate for a better life shuffle into the storm drain--with money and drugs and all their personal possessions--they are greeted by gangs of street kids. The kids, high on marijuana and paint fumes, offer to escort the illegals (known as pollos) through the darkness for a couple hundred pesos (about $20). Once in the depths of the drain, the pollos are jumped and robbed. They're then forced to exit on the U.S. side, bloody and naked, where they're greeted by the Border Patrol and loaded into a transport van. Welcome to America. We hope you enjoyed your stay.

Looking around the 8-by-6 tunnel--the graffiti, the drug paraphernalia, the street kids in baggy clothes--I couldn't help feeling a little bit like a pollo. I couldn't help feeling that something bad was about to go down.

The young man in the baseball cap farted, pulling me from my thoughts. He then began to laugh, loudly. The young man with the goatee groaned and rolled onto his side.

"You better get your ass out of my tunnel, dude," he said. He was facing his companion, but I sensed that the words were directed at me.

"I was saving that one," said the young man in the cap.

"Man, I got to find me another roommate. If you fart again, I'm going to kick your ass."

The young man in the cap farted again.

"You motherfucker," said the young man with the goatee. "I'm going to beat your ass."

The young man in the cap curled into a fetal position on the floor and laughed uncontrollably. The young man with the goatee squirmed on the mattress, then laughed along with his companion. They gasped and snorted. They panted, sniffled and damn near convulsed. Their eyes were wet. Their stomach muscles must've been sore.

Finally, the laughter faded. The young man with the goatee sat on the foot of the mattress and looked up at me.

"So you're going to wait here for Bob and Jona?" he said.

"I was planning to, but you guys are obviously not comfortable with that."

"Ah, dude," said the young man. "I didn't want to tell you this, but I really don't want you down here. I want you to leave--like right now."

"All right," I said, scooping the flashlight from the floor and rising from the arm of the chair. "That's cool."

"Fucking Bob," he muttered, falling back onto the mattress. "I'm going to get his ass."

"I think I'll go out this way," I said, starting upstream.

"Good luck getting through there," said the young man in the cap.

"Does it get low?" I asked.

"Yeah," said the young man with the goatee, "and there's a whole bunch of spiders down there."

Weaving around the couch cushions and garbage bags, I watched the young men closely. I was waiting for one of them to reach for a shank and come charging at me, but they lay as still as the graffiti. They just wanted me to leave, I finally realized. The sooner, the better. The same way that I'd want a nosy and uninvited guest to get the hell out of my house. Actually, I was surprised that I didn't get this same cold reception from more of the inhabitants. I was, after all, entering their homes and asking them very personal questions--and I wasn't offering them money, drugs, or even a sip from my bottle of water. The only thing I offered them was an ear, an opportunity for their low and raspy voices to be heard amid the din of slot machines, Convention Authority ads and posturing politicians.

Beyond the couch cushions and plastic bags, the tunnel went dark. I cut on the flashlight, discovering more graffiti and a sharp turn to the west. Around the bend, which was lined with newspapers, the tunnel narrowed to 6 feet and straightened toward two rectangles of light in the distance. I hurried up the straightaway, occasionally glancing over my shoulder. The backlight had faded, and I couldn't see a damn thing, but I heard debris rustling and the young men laughing. I assumed that they were continuing to build their camp, playing a spirited game of grab-ass or doing whatever young men who live in drainage tunnels do on cloudless summer afternoons in Las Vegas.

At the end of the straightaway, the tunnel rolled up a ramp and split into two 5-by-3 tunnels--the eye sockets of this concrete skull--which were each about 150 feet long. Spider webs screened the south tunnel. I tried to enter the north tunnel sideways, but the ceiling forced me to my hands and knees. Head down and back arched, I began crawling toward the light. The flashlight clanked against the floor. The grainy concrete, which I scanned for spiders and hypodermic needles, gnawed at my hands and knees. I felt like a pollo groveling for the promised land.

Sensing the light and hearing the cars overhead on Eastern, I lifted my head. The last box of the tunnel cradled a pool of cloudy water buzzing with mosquitoes. I turned sideways, placed my right hand on the wall and slid through the water. Then I staggered into the sunlight and stood upright, imprisoned by the walls of a rectangular channel. The sun glared down at me like a Border Patrol agent in a watchtower. The heat rivaled the Sonoran Desert.

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