Have you ever read a book that changed your opinion totally. I just finished such a new book, Dark Days, Bright Nights: Surviving the Las Vegas Storm Drains by Matthew O’Brien. I will never look at homeless Las Vegans the same again.
O’Brien is noted for writing about the folks who live in Las Vegas storm drains, called by many the “tunnels”. His first book, Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas (2007) was generally well received. In this new book, involving interviews from 2017 to 2019, the author talked with 36 people who have lived in the Las Vegas tunnels, some of whom are still there, some of whom have transitioned out. His conversations were in depth, focusing on early lives, reasons for trouble, experience in the tunnels, regrets, advice and hopes for the future.
The first part of the book, admittedly, is disturbing. Reading about the 36 lives left me wondering how some part of society can be so damaged. At the same time, I felt fortunate that in my own life. I have always had a home; I had a job before retirement; I have a bank account…all things that seem just a dream to many of the book’s characters. Only near the last third of the book do we hear how a number of the interviewed subjects turned their lives around. The humanity of every one of the book’s subjects comes through loud and clear — and the reader cares.
O’Brien organized the book along the questions he asked, so we don’t read one person’s story straight through, but we pick up bits and pieces with each question asked. Here is one story from a chapter on discovering the drains.
“In 2010 when my Mom passed away, we took all our stuff to my friend’s place and moved in with him. He was like a brother to me. A stand-up guy. The first night Cyndi and I went out to party we came back to an empty apartment. He had rented a moving truck and stole everything we owned. He also called the cops and said the place was in his name and that we had to go.
“We had one bicycle and two backpacks between us and were put out on the street. The police were cracking down on the homeless in the area, and we walked around for a few days, trying to find a place to lay down. I literally stopped to tie my shoe and a cop yelled over his PA system, ‘Keep moving or you’re going to jail!’
“Cyndi said we need to get out of sight and get some rest and come up with a plan. She said let’s go to that tunnel you were telling me about where your friend TK is staying. We can sit down for a minute and get some sleep.”
Living in the tunnels is described in detail. Some residents set up mini-bedrooms. Some residents steal from others; some residents become friends. The tunnels are dark and the threat of floods is always present.
And yet, some tunnel residents, many of whom are addicts, turn their lives around. The advice below is from the recovery section:
“When you’re in recovery don’t get down on yourself for making a mistake. Addiction is a motherfucker. It’s not easy to get it right on the first try. I didn’t. I got thrown out thirty-four days into a thirty-five-day program….. Quitters are the ones who end up back in the tunnels and pale, with a needle hangin’ from their arm.”
The author’s last advice was particularly meaningful to me personally.
“I once assumed it took thousands of dollars to help a homeless person. What I’ve learned through Shine a Light (the author’s community project to help people in the drains) and these interviews is that small things can have a big impact on the homeless. Introduce yourself, shake their hand no matter how dirty it is, ask how their day is going. Don’t lecture them; they’ve heard enough of that from friends, family, police and politicians. Don’t bullshit them; their detectors are fine tuned. Don’t give them money; that’s lazy and impersonal and it may feed an addiction. Be positive. Encourage them. Buy them a nonalcoholic drink, a meal or flowers. Keep bottled water, snacks, socks and underwear in your car and offer them those, The homeless are uniquely appreciative and I’ve seen small acts such as these lift their spirits and bolster their confidence. They can even inspire them to make a change.”
I now have several unopened bottles of water, two small containers of peanut butter and my large collection of hotel soaps in my car.