By Ron Murdock
‘The drawback of living here is that I can get depressed and I’ll sit here for a week and not leave. I fight mental depression sometimes. I’m a Vietnam Vet. I won’t go any further than that but sometimes I just get tired of it all. Then I tell myself; Ok either put or shut up. Let’s get going.’ – Lawrence, resident of the tunnels underneath Las Vegas.
Imagine living underground without the benefits of direct sunshine, fresh air among other things that surface dwellers take for granted. Dwelling under the cement means dealing with rancid water, breathing stale air, rats, cockroaches, bed bugs, flash floods and who knows what else. All this underneath a city with all the glitz and excess a person could experience in one place. People from all around the world come to Las Vegas to watch the various stage acts with all the bells and whistles imaginable. Others lose thousands of dollars at any number of the casinos and still say they had fun. Yet others live in poverty, making ends meet in whatever way they can. Anyway one looks at it living underground isn’t for the faint of heart or those afraid of the dark.
Matthew O’Brien, a writer and editor for a Las Vegas weekly, took on the adventure of exploring the Las Vegas underground system for over four years. The first person O’Brien met up with was David who claimed to be living underground for little over three months. David was hustling for whatever he could get after losing 43 thousand dollars inheritance money in forty days.
The homeless are not just misfits who don’t want to fit into conventional society or addicts who spend all their cash on their addictions of choice. War vets, newcomers to town, working poor families, those with pets, particularly dogs, live underground. I guess many buildings have a no pet policy. Others have little in the way low cost housing; high rents are squeezing out those who do work and putting them on the streets. A lot of work is part time menial dead end type of work. So what does a person do under these circumstances other than see what possibilities are elsewhere?
Centuries ago Christians, in what is now central Turkey, dug cites that went several levels underground connected by tunnels all with the same amenities as above ground living. All in the name of possible religious persecution by the Romans. Today underground dwellers are there for similar reasons whether it is just to drop out of mainstream society or to avoid ‘The Man’ whoever it may be.
I guess once underground one has to be careful on who they are dealing with and what they say and how they say it. O’Brien and photographer Danny Mollohan met up with two underground dwellers named Ron and John, who said they were living underground for 15 months. They said Metro checked up on them every so often and warned them of any potential flash floods. They told O’Brien and Mollohan of another underground dweller by the name of Troll who lived further down the drain tunnel. Apparently Troll had a long beard and was armed with a crowbar that he swung at people.
Like many surface people, some living underground are doing what they can to improve their lot in life. Sometimes you get what you want, other times all you get is a pile of dust. We all eat, sleep, think, dream, doubt or despair. Yet no matter how many toys one accumulates on this plane of existence we all die to find out what exactly what happens after the moment of death. Homeless people have become invisible, embarrassed by their current situation. Or they fear their children will be taken away from them. Others don’t want to be pushed from one place to another. All this was mentioned in the book Beneath The Neon.
A definite solution is to establish more low cost and affordable housing especially for those working. What they need most is a safe place permanent address so their belongings are safe when they are at work. Plus having their own washroom is beneficial so a person has privacy.
‘It’s just so dark down here sometimes. I mean every night is pitch black. You can’t see anything but you swear to God that you see things reaching out from the walls and trying to grab you. Or you think you see something running across the tunnel or jumping in front of you and trying to hide or get out of your way.’ – Gary, Las Vegas underground dweller.
Some have said the tunnels are haunted. Las Vegas has been rumored to be the place where reality ends and fantasy begins. O’Brien was told by several people that they heard strange sounds during the late night hours, even claim to see apparitions melt into the concrete walls. What the truth is may be another matter. Stories get twisted around depending how long it has been making the circuit and how many mouths have told it.
How much have those living underground in Las Vegas been helped? O’Brien wrote that Metro is so understaffed that they can barely keep up with what is happening above ground, so dealing with underground matters isn’t a priority with them. Social outreach workers may find it difficult to deal with those who don’t want or need to be helped or the homeless may not want to deal with the bureaucratic paperwork that comes with public assistance.
A similar book to read is ‘The Mole People’ by Jennifer Toth who wrote about those who live in New York City’s subway system.