Visitors to Las Vegas may not be aware that a  part of their number are the truly indigent–the down and outer. You won’t bump into them on the bus, train, or plane, or on your arrival at McCarran International Airport. Just when they do  arrive in Vegas, and what their means of transport might be, often remains a mystery. But arrive  they do, and many become full-time residents.

Let’s be clear who I’m talking about. These are not  gamblers who  find themselves suddenly broke; they are the ragged, the unbathed, the often quarrelsome folks who have lived like this for months or years on end – those who have found themselves taking up space on Earth without  a means of  support. More than a few are obvious mental cases, thrown to the elements by some governmental authority that closed the facility where they were housed.

Why do such people choose Vegas? Think about it…it’s warm here nearly the whole year round, it’s got thousands upon thousands of monied tourists to hit up for a handout, and even more interesting, it’s got a county and city police  trained to humanely handle the indigent and steer them to shelters–steer them, that is, if they will go. Many won’t, and end up establishing residence in the flash-flood drain pipes under the Strip casinos and the downtown casino and commercial area.

Clark County drain pipe bums were recently featured on a Sunday morning TV network show. The existence of vagrants in this hidden network of  pipes came as a surprise to me. I visit Vegas more often than most, but these huge conduits for flash-flood waters are not something most of us would ever have cause to search out. The TV show was not helpful in pinpointing exact locations, but it was obvious that hundreds of vagrants call these dry drainage pipes home. God help them when infrequent  desert rains set off  flash-floods, a certainty several times a year. Cruel as it seems, their few belongings will be destroyed, along with the  food and bedding  they have squirreled away in these lonely steel tubes. The drainage pipes become the  scene of chaos, heartbreak, and – most probably – death for some.

Roaming Fremont Street (downtown Vegas) you’ve probably noticed uniformed, helmeted cops, dressed in black uniforms, patrolling (the touristy part under the Fremont Experience light show canopy) on speedy  two-wheeler Segways and bicycles. In conversations with several of these cops I found that the bums roaming the downtown area are a major source of concern to the police department – and why would they not be? In addition to breaking up fights amongst the indigent, the police do their best to separate  them from the  gaze of tourists. One city policeman told me that Medicare and the ACLU are active in legally and medically  sheltering any Vegas vagrant seeking help. Numerous vagrants claim they are subject to “depredations and acts of cruelty” at the hands of the Las Vegas and Clark County police – sour grapes on both sides. Take a look at what I’ve observed while strolling downtown Las Vegas:

MOUNTED BUMS:  vagrants on battery operated senior citizen scooters. They’re not racing around out of control – the cops see to that. Only a few bums have managed to set themselves up this regally. One even carries a pet dog  in a  satchel, a Pomeranian! A favorite hangout for this particular bum is the bandstand plaza  west of the Fremont hotel and casino.

SUN-SOAKER BUMS:  love to crouch against the east wall of the Four Queens hotel/casino (far enough off Fremont so that you don’t quite see them) and, as the name applies, soak up the sun like lizards. If they have imbibed or shot up  a bit too much they may spread out lifeless, there at the foot of the wall, face-up on the narrow sidewalk…a group obviously near the end of their rope.

SPITTING-ANGRY BUMS: I caught half a dozen of this variety hunched against the 3rd Street (east) wall of the Fremont Hotel and Casino about 6:00 a.m. one morning. That wall apparently retains heat from the prior day’s sun. A bicycle cop had politely asked them to move out before morning  tourists began to fill the plaza beneath the Fremont Street Experience. One rose and defiantly told the cop where to go. To his credit, the officer maintained his cool. I gently inquired of the bum where he hailed from and received a string of epithets and spit that would have cowed Arnold Schwarzenegger. I quickly found myself in sympathy with the cop.

ELITE BUMS: This is a very different  bum, a gaily costumed type who will be a close (or proximal) facial match for the celebrity impersonated. A favorite  is “Elvis” and his companion “The Showgirl.”  Neither sings nor dances, they simply pose in the evening for photos, when the light show attracts thousands. This couple is young, the girl most attractive, well-coiffured and costumed – although Elvis would do himself a favor in losing a good fifty pounds. They probably make a fair living out of their dress-up.

Perhaps the most amazing of the elite is the “living statue”, clothed in a greenish, gold-spangled set of tails and top hat. His skin is rubbed with a non-reflective cream-colored compound which leads you to believe he’s inert. When a tourist draws closer to examine the statue, it wordlessly – ever so slightly – moves. Then stops! This performance goes on for hours, attracting entranced viewer after viewer. Tip money flows generously to this incredible poseur.

On another night, twenty feet from Fitzgeralds’ main entrance, I caught a striking black girl in a statuesque pose. Tall and slim, with the striking build and facial features of a New York high-fashion model, she was scrupulously dressed in a white wool pullover sweater, tight green skirt, and black stiletto heels. She too was immobile, but so shocking was the vision she presented (for Vegas, that’s a real statement!) that she actually caused the crowd to part around her. I watched for fifteen minutes:  no money changed hands; no one spoke to her; she spoke to no one. Was this a prostitute?..a mental case?..a classy vagrant with a bad formula?  Dunno, but I had to give up typing that one. Such elite bums mean you no harm; they are simply trying to survive in their own inventive way.

STRIP BUMS: Most generally found on the crossover walkways above and alongside the busy Strip traffic lanes. They are of  three types: WATER-SALESMEN BUMS, COLLAPSED BUMS, and SMUT BUMS. The water-sellers hold out $1 clear plastic bottles of water (God only knows what’s in them, or where the bottles came from) and keep pulling bottles from scarred foam coolers as quickly as tourists totally parched by the desert heat chug down the contents. The mode of salesmanship is rude and crude, delivered as you might to a prisoner about to be guillotined.  Out there on the strip, the collapsed bums are truly collapsed: they’re sun-baked all colors of a roasted chicken; they can be found not only sprawled dead-center on crossovers but sometimes on the floor of the senior citizen elevators at either end.  Smut bums sell nothing directly. They are paid to dish out promotional brochures chock full-o-sexy young gals and phone numbers. I am told that the services offered by the young ladies pictured consist largely of a con-job. If you want to be party to an elaborate and expensive sexual scam, accept one of the brochures and start dialing.

Aren’t you pleased to have learned a bit more about what awaits you in Las Vegas? And aren’t you very glad that what happens in Las Vegas, manages to stay in Las Vegas?

2 Responses to “BUMS OF LAS VEGAS…”

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  2. Shaunta Kelemen Says:

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