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Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: We might not be ready for the truly nontraditional

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Chinese medicine specialist Tom Haskins is ready to call it quits in Las Vegas.

There’s no guarantee that once someone is “in” Downtown, access to Tony Hsieh’s pot of gold becomes a given. But just try coming to Downtown Las Vegas blind—without the benefit of a Tony hookup, without the right look, without an app pitch in your back pocket or the right Millennial bona fides.

I call them “the unseen.”

Tom Haskins, now 57, moved to Las Vegas from Seattle some 15 months ago. He did his research first and was thrilled to read about “Return on Community” and Downtown Project’s promise to do things differently, potentially creating an ecosystem supportive of unconventional ideas.

Haskins had lived in the conventional world and attained the kind of middle-class wealth and status many of Downtown’s techies and startup founders aspire to. He didn’t much like it.

“I was a douchebag,” he says. “You wouldn’t have liked me.”

After graduating in accounting from Northern Illinois University, he passed the certified public accountant test, then earned a master’s in computer science. He got a job that paid nicely with Arthur Andersen accounting firm and worked there for six years. Then he spent another four at Quaker Oats.

What’d he do?

“A bunch of crap,” he groans, sitting at the Gold Spike, where he eats almost every day. He wears a frayed brown cap with a Smoky Mountains logo, a black long-sleeved shirt and khaki shorts. Cottony white hair protrudes from the back of the cap.

“All our expenses were paid, we ate at five-star restaurants. I had the corporate girlfriend. I’d drink like we all did Saturday nights.”

Before long, he had accumulated $200,000. And it wasn’t so much that he hated his work; he simply became numb. Then he began going to this little yoga studio. He loved it. Eventually, he quit his job, mastered yoga and became an instructor. Then he got into Chinese medicine, training with people you’d call masters if you knew what that meant. He earned another degree in Chinese medicine from the Seattle Institute of Oriental Medicine in 1997. Twelve years later, he finally came here.

From what Haskins had read, Downtown appeared the open-minded kind of place willing to try Chinese medicine. He taught a few Chinese medicine classes in the Learning Village, but they weren’t really promoted in any way. Attendance was tiny, and after a handful of classes, they ended.

Haskin’s eyes tear up in frustration as he espouses the benefits Chinese medicine provides and explains how difficult it is to gain a foothold. I can’t say I was the most supportive. Chinese medicine? I was a skeptic.

Was.

I’ve been suffering from allergies this spring, and Haskins offered to treat me. Standing at the Beat, he felt the air around my body to sense heat. Then he pinched a spot between my thumb and forefinger—lightly, but it hurt like hell. Two days later, my allergy symptoms were gone.

A few weeks ago, I complained about my shoulder, wrecked from a struggle through an obstacle course, and he did the heat thing over my hand. Found a spot, rubbed it. It was like someone shot my shoulder with steroids. The pain disappeared.

"Wow," I said, "maybe there’s something to this stuff."

“Of course there’s something to it,” he revved up. “It’s been around for thousands of years.”

Haskins, however, is tapped out. He’s finally out of money and expects to leave Las Vegas in a few weeks.

“Good riddance,” I can hear people saying about his departure.

He won’t say the same thing about Las Vegas. Though his view of the city has changed over time, he’s finally at peace with it. Last weekend, he says, as he walked through Container Park, he was surprised at the bucolic scene of laughing families and kids enjoying the playground.

“As I was leaving, I said to myself, ‘I don’t know people. I don’t know anything. This place is a hit and I had thought it was a colossal mistake.’ I changed my mind. I change my mind all the time.”

The great promise of Tony’s Downtown was that his move would usher in business, but also a supportive “ecosystem” for people with unconventional ideas.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Downtown might not be ready for the truly nontraditional. I wonder how many Haskins we’ll lose before it gets there.

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