My dad juggled at the Excalibur my whole childhood. That’s the Sleeping Beauty hotel on the Strip. He’d get up on a cylindrical tube and juggle three objects while balancing a flute on his nose, then throw the objects aside and start playing. Just before one of his more complicated or absurd tricks he’d say, “I just want you all to know that I have a master’s degree…which I’m not currently using.” I loved watching him perform. I was jealous.
It’s true that he had a master’s degree. It was in musicology. He got it in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I was born. His own father was radically unavailable emotionally. I only know him from what I heard and his Wikipedia page. He was a child prodigy who evidently learned to crawl and hold a violin bow at the same time. My great-grandmother was from Bristol in England, a quintessential pageant mom who marketed the little boy and had him playing the vaudeville circuit practically from infancy, executing sophisticated, technically complex music and doing it expressively. He married three times, became the concert master of a symphony orchestra in Japan and wound up teaching at Yale. His wonderful third wife Syoko still teaches the violin there. I studied Japanese partly to better converse with her.
My dad dropped out of high school. He sold flowers in a Boston subway and after his maternal uncle taught him the flute he played in an enlightenment cult that specialized in LSD-induced ecstatic states. Eventually he got it together academically and got his degree. And he married my mom. She was a marine biologist from Puerto Rico who later retrained as an occupational therapist. We all moved out to Salt Lake City, where my dad had been offered the musical directorship of the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Have you seen their reproduction of the Globe? It’s pretty impressive. I saw “Titus Andronicus” there when I was three. Just the thing to guarantee you’ll become a well-rounded person. I remember this girl with no hands and no tongue rolling around and moaning. I loved “The Taming of the Shrew”. In a lot of ways I’ve become Katherine, just as I’ve also become Sally Bowles.
The whole time my dad had this hobby of juggling. He was very ambitious about it. He can master something if he’s interested. He’s very smart. He used to open for the plays and somewhere along the line he was noticed by a scout or entertainment executive from Vegas and they offered him the gig at the Excalibur. In a single bound we went from high art to the depths of kitsch. Vegas is a very tempting place to work. It draws from everywhere and has the greatest concentration of talent on the planet. Plus Vegas paid him way more.
We lived in different places, usually around whatever school I was attending. I’ve had my fair share of meth-addicted, alcoholic, Jerry Springer Show candidates as neighbours, loud and boisterous and inarticulate in their anger. We all have here. There were also stable adults. I can’t comment much on the meaning of that because this is the only place I grew up and I don’t know the national ratios of stable adults to crackheads. I just got on with my own life. I always had something going on. From the age of five or six it was obvious to anyone that I had a strong desire to perform. I saw my dad do exciting things and I wanted to be exciting. I played the piano early – Bach, Telemann, Scarlatti, mostly baroque stuff. I got into being a gymnast in grammar school. I felt very defined by that at the time. I could do hand springs, front and back tucks, little tumbling sequences. I was very hard on myself and so embarrassed if I failed that I’d have to leave the room. I progressed quickly. My parents were very excited by me when I was little and doing these things, but I think for them as my childhood faded so did some of my magic…but maybe not. I’m not sure.
My dad always read to me. They gave me advanced books from a young age, like Bullfinch’s Mythology. I was a Hellenist before I knew what it was. I loved going to Caesar’s Palace to see the talking statues in their robes. Dionysius was very real to me. He was a hero. I had some kind of subliminal instinct for liminality and dichotomies – like with Apollo and Dionysius. Comic books have mythologies that comprise these things. In the nineties they were culturally relevant and innovative. I developed a huge affection for the characters, like Aeon Flux. I was very drawn to the way they struck erotic poses.
It was a Mrs. Harris who taught me to read. She was a wonderful, sweet woman. She had a day care centre at home that I went to. I don’t think about that house much if I can help it because her son molested me there when I was five. It wasn’t just me, it was every kid who went there. She didn’t know anything about it until she came home one day and saw the cop cars out front and us being interviewed.
I was bored with gymnastics by the time I finished eighth grade. It wasn’t quite performance, at least of the kind I was starting to aspire to. I started to pick things up from these amazing people who came to our house – magicians and sword swallowers and fire eaters. They’d bring their toys over and do tricks. I asked them how it worked and they showed me. I learned to do certain bullwhip tricks with targets I was later able to apply as a prostitute. Above all, I wanted to be an acrobat. I tried juggling, but I didn’t have a passion for it. It didn’t have this immediate, otherworldly grace that I saw when I watched an acrobat.
I was a fearful, introverted child. I was afraid of rollercoasters, cars, animals. Performance was my way of coping with it, of taking risks on my terms. I knew myself and my own body while I had no control over cars and animals. I added new techniques when I was a teenager. Middle school is just a mean, amazingly savage place. Kids at that age have a sense of social hierarchy but no wit or wisdom. There was a short kid named Mikey who used to torture me in P.E. I’d like to see him now so I could rip open his jugular. My strategy then was to pretend I was crazy. I talked to myself and when I talked with others I did it in the voice of a gutter punk. I put unnerving things on my binder. Mikey thought I wanted to kill him.
This was an act, but in fact I wasn’t so well. I had chronically bad dreams that would make me very nervous. I was visited by little impressionistic memories of being held down when I was five by Mrs. Harris’ eldest son. I became loud, vulgar, confrontational. I smoked openly, talked back, sold pot to other students. I realized at fifteen that the movie stories of cowboys and princesses were complete and utter lies. I lived in this seedy city, this cornucopia of bad decisions and raunchy tastes and foul language and failure and I wanted to be seedy myself. I looked for people who were darker, a little less pure, tainted somehow, certainly less cute. I hated cuteness. I kind of took on this debaucherous city’s foibles and ailments and both lived them and eventually performed them. To not do so would amount to putting myself in quarantine in my own city.
I went to high school at the Las Vegas Academy of International Studies and Performing Arts. There were a lot of pills flying around. People wanted to live the Iggy Pop life style. I always knew I was gay and started to come out. It was a performance school, it was pretty gay anyway. I embraced punk rock in tiny venues and hung out with older kids who were squatters or had heroin addictions or been to jail. I was always with older people. Even as a toddler I gravitated to my dad’s friends. My boyfriends too have tended to keep pace with my parents’ age. All in all my behaviour was troublesome and outrageous enough for me to require therapy and to be kicked out of school.
Something changed. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I just know I lost my fear. Something inside me woke up. I graduated high school by testing out of all the requirements and started college at sixteen. A professor published an autobiographical essay I wrote in a textbook called The Red Rock Reader. Performance took a new direction. Once when I went to see my dad perform there was a Mongolian contortionist named Otgo Waller on the stage before him. She was in a duo contortion act where they folded their bodies in half and did one-arm handstand tricks and balanced on each other. I was spellbound. It was just sensational and beautiful and magical to me. They were birdlike. They were also like statues as they turned so magnificently slowly on one arm. Here was that liminality again. There was something post-human about it.
I trained myself in contortion and eventually Otgo became my teacher. My parents supported me in this. I got my first gig at a county fair in Arizona – very exciting, two grand for two weeks. I hung out with very debaucherous magicians twice my age and had my own brief cocaine phase. I enjoyed being the kid. Later I got a gig with Andrew S. and Kelvikta the Blade of the Swing Shift Side Show. They were wild. They swallowed swords and passed all kinds of sharp metal objects through themselves. There was a lot of body modification around them. I met someone who’d implanted horns into his forehead. Both Andrew and Kelvikta had bifurcated tongues. He had an act where he screwed a thick metal coil into one nostril, which then travelled all around his face until it came out of his mouth. It wasn’t quite enough from his point of view so he started doing it with an electric drill. Kelvikta’s specialty was Pussy Darts, where she put a blow gun into her vagina and shot darts out of it.
The first time I ever saw her was at a birthday party where she blew out the candles of a cake that way. It was magical. I rolled around in glass and drove large nails up my nostrils and folded myself into a little plexiglass box. We did a special event in Albuquerque for fetishists and goth-industrial kids. Andrew had the World’s Largest Genital Piercing and put two fists through his scrotum. Kelvikta did her Pussy Darts and Sleaze the Clown did a fire transfer from torch to torch with the end of his penis. The crowd went nuts. They couldn’t even imagine being that happy. Eventually the owner gave us some cash and told us to run for it because the cops were coming.
I loved the flux, where your body is a project, a constantly morphing entity. I put six to eight gauge hooks through my back and was suspended by them over the stage. In the show “Freaks” we did at O’Shea’s on the Strip we pierced live. You can still see the scars. One day after a show my back hurt and I asked my mom to look at it. She said I’d damaged quite a lot of the connective tissue but that it would grow back. It felt like jelly. I had to leave a literature class once because blood was leaking through my bandages.
I hit a real low point when I broke up with a professor of mine at college. My tendency has been to date career-obsessed, emotionally unavailable men. Maybe I think I’m going to be them when I grow up. I was so in love, it was the first time, and when he left me I became violently depressed. I wound up in Los Angeles with a glass of milk, a bunch of pills and a plastic bag to suffocate myself with. I pulled myself out of that, but I was still shaky. I was looked after by my parents for a while. I wrote furiously about all the things that happened to me in so short a time. It was a slow process. I’d had a huge mental breakdown. I got a little stronger then and got a very dull job writing business plans. Something like that just couldn’t work on its own. I missed feeling interesting, to have adventures and something to say every day, like when we were chased out of Albuquerque or I was flying over the stage on hooks. I felt the need to be on stage somewhere crude. I’d worked for a while in a tranny hooker bar over in Commercial Center on Sahara serving cocktails. A waiter I slept with got me the job. He told me I’d have to wear almost nothing. “Even better,” I said. That was a time when there was a lot going on. The cast of “Freaks” used to come in. The staff loved them, especially Little Miss Firefly, the World’s Tiniest Female Performer. People used to slap my ass and grab my balls. I took it a step further and started stripping – one of those staple entertainment industry jobs here in Vegas. I was an immediate hit. I had a shaved head, a strip of coloured hair and this jaded look. I did contortion tricks and had this acrobat/slut/erudite personality. I was way more raunchy than the Ken doll dancers around me. I’d rub my crotch like Madonna in the nineties. There was a Champagne Room for private lap dances. I could dance all over them or else just sit spread-eagled on the couch, touching myself and talking about Fauvist colour theory. There was a certain strain of customer who really got a kick out of that. They felt special because they thought I was special.
One night a man at the club asked me to come to his hotel room and strip for him. I said no, but one of the regulars had heard this and said, “Come with me,” and doubled the price. I just decided to do it. I went back to this palace he lived in and fucked him. He wanted me the next day and I did it again for a large sum of money. I played waltzes and mazurkas for him naked while he kissed my neck. I started doing it regularly then. It became my gig. I’d go to a bar, look for someone ordering top shelf liquor, someone who wanted to be seen to be spending. I’d get into a conversation. Even as far back as high school I was alert to the subliminal, non-verbal waves in an encounter. I would tune in, invade a person psychologically, make up a kind of dossier on them with multiple scenarios and then steer them in some direction. If I could see them becoming interested in me and were about to make a proposition I’d mention some radio programme or newspaper article about sex workers I’d say I’d read, just to see how they’d react. Then there would be some process until we would, or wouldn’t, arrive at a business arrangement.
I certainly never felt myself to be a victim. In Vegas prostitution is not slavery, it’s a vocational decision. The predator/victim scenario is the other way around. We’re in their heads and they’re never in ours – that is, if you’re any good. You seem sentimental, but never are. You seem close and affected and in love, or whatever they want, but you never are. Of course you do meet a fair complement of utterly intolerable, narcissistic and neurotic men with unlimited petulance and who are arrogant about their wealth. I was with one for two days in Los Angeles who started screaming at me in a club because I talked casually with a few other people while he was doing the same. He threw my phone across the hotel room later and spent the night pouting, and in the morning it was me who apologized. That’s somewhere in the fine print of the job description.
Las Vegas is very futurist, in the ways it embodies speed and dynamism and technology and the violence inherent in the city’s own break-neck evolution. We build things we know we will get rid of. They’re like stage sets. Nothing lasts – jobs, buildings, relationships, families. Everything has a fly’s lifespan. Flies live and die so quickly they don’t even realize they are themselves. Vegas taught me a lot about the importance and limitations of speed. It taught me about self-awareness, mostly by observing people who don’t have any. This is the city where it’s okay to be vain, it’s okay to have nothing to say, to be unoriginal and derivative, a complete victim of somebody else’s marketing ploy of what you should be and how you should behave. It’s okay to be a drone, and you might be really successful at it. It’s the city of quick fixes. You get disillusioned with one franchise, just re-illusion yourself into another. You learn to be interesting. I learned. Of course everything is insubstantial. You get a gimmick. “I’m not the computer itself, I’m just a cool feature.” You are utterly the sum of your parts. I was a fun little trick – he’s young and vulgar, but educated and musical and also into sado-masochism and swallows swords, etc. Vegas taught me that performance is not just something that happens on stage. Performance happens every minute. It is every interaction you ever have with anybody, it’s the awareness that somebody else is the audience to what you project. You can’t survive here and look for substance or be sensitive. It’s not allowed. You become detached. I want to be the camera, like Isherwood. It’s living in this environment so long that made it easier for me to be a prostitute.
Half of me is what it is because of Vegas, and the other half despite Vegas. I’ve become de-sensitized because of Vegas, angry, competitive, dissatisfied and rough around the edges because of Vegas. But I’ve also become honest and curious despite Vegas. I’ve observed and seen what I had to transcend. This is not a curious city. It wouldn’t work. It’s predicated on anaesthesia. It requires a compliant, innocuous, non-resisting populace. Just look at what arrives by the planeload every day, almost every one of them with a sense of entitlement because of what the city says it is. An asshole comes to Vegas and thinks he has the right to act like an asshole. Some of them might even think it’s a duty. To be a woman in Vegas is kind of like being Penelope when she’s on her own and defenceless and dealing with all the aggressive, predatory, entitlement-minded suitors. The city will find these people’s neuroses, their insecurities, whatever they’re susceptible to, and get them to spend money to advance those insecurities and in doing so to advance Vegas. And all the rest of us that make up the populace here spend all our time serving them. The most surprising thing about me in Vegas is not that I swung on hooks or stripped or became a prostitute, but rather that I like to talk about James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, that I like to sit down and write or to compose waltzes that juxtapose nineteenth-century melodies with post-Schoenberg forms reminiscent of Bella Bartok. That’s the shocker. This isn’t a city about people or ideas, it’s about how the room is. I’ve seen attempts here to create a counter-culture, some kind of reaction to the mainstream media and the ideas entangled with them. Whenever something authentic begins to grow the city comes in and puts its brand on it. I’ve seen attempts to create an arts scene, like our First Fridays downtown in our tiny, anaemic arts district with homeless people as far as the eye can see. People go because the galleries offer free Sangria. I’ve seen bands come and go. I’ve been in a few myself. Realistically if you want to be in a band you’ll be playing covers of Journey songs in a casino lounge. I once had an offer to be in a Bruce Springsteen cover band, but I said, “No, sir, I’m too good for that. I’m going to keep stripping.”
I got caught in various of the proffered vices here, but never gambling. I got cured of that early, when I was sixteen. I had a gig at a Volvo convention at the Venetian. I was walking through the casino pushing a cart with the little box I folded myself into and my hand-balancing canes and I stopped dead in my tracks. I see this woman at a slot machine smoking a cigarette, occasionally sipping at a cocktail while she fed in her coins, completely magnetized. Now that’s not normally a sight that would make you pause for thought in a casino, but the fact that she was in her wedding dress….I mean, Happy Honeymoon, doll. That just sold me on the idea that I’d never gamble. It wasn’t the guy who lost his house, it was the bitch in the wedding dress.
What do I think will happen? I think that Vegas will survive, and there will be something inherently sad in this. It will stubbornly persist in what it is. It will steadily become an old woman, withered and broken and severely weathered who just can’t seem to die, like my grandmother. Everything about it will lose function except for the actual presence of life. Vegas is a zombie and it will keep going because zombies don’t die.
I like a lot of what Vegas has done to me. I don’t wish I had a simpler life. I don’t wish I came from a middle-class family in the Midwest, thriving on ideas I’d got from the Disney Channel. I enjoy being a bookish version of Courtney Love. I’ve aged prematurely, but I’m happy with that.
Christopher Erle was twenty-three and a student in his final year at UNLV by the time all the things he recounts here had happened. He graduated with an exemplary record. Shortly afterwards he was raped at gunpoint in his own home by an assailant high on crystal meth. Later that year a man with whom he was involved was shot dead in a Las Vegas bar by an ex-boyfriend. It took him, he says, around a year to recover from these events. Early in 2013 he moved to Atlanta, Georgia to begin a new life. He got a job in advertising, sang Serge Gainsbourg songs in a bar in the evenings and began writing a novel. He was very pleased to no longer be living in Las Vegas. But in the summer of 2014, traumatized, perhaps, by the loss of his job, he jumped from a balcony in an attempt to kill himself. He is back in Las Vegas being looked after by his parents, who hope he will recover from the brain damage which has impaired both his memory and his speech. His progress, so far, has been good. He is reading, reacquainting himself with his past, writing and hoping to go into a PhD. programme in English literature.
This is an excerpt from Children of Las Vegas by Timothy O’Grady, with photographs by Steve Pyke, published on 16 June by Unbound (www.unbound.co.uk)