Can a suburbanite feel welcome?

Testing the Downtown waters

Helpful signage.
Photo: Ryan Olbrysh

I’ll readily admit it; i just haven’t spent that much time Downtown. The last time I spent any quality time there was a few years ago, when my wife’s mother and two sisters came to visit. It did not end well—as we left the friendly confines of the Fremont Street Experience, trying to find our parking garage on some less-than-well-lit streets, a fight broke out between what appeared to be a tourist and a scantily clad woman accompanied by a burly guy—in other words, not tourists. It ended with the words, “Bring it on, BITCH!!!” and my red-faced wife and I wordlessly decided this was not likely be a future destination for anyone visiting—even the visitors we didn’t like.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s not that I’m afraid of bodily harm; I just feel out of place there. As my friends and co-workers have pointed out, I look like a cop—just too clean-cut to really blend in to areas where the character is a little, shall we say, dicey.

But I hear from those same friends and coworkers how cool the area is, and that everyone, even an out-of-Downtowner like me, can find something to enjoy and appreciate. So out I went to experience Downtown one more time, although this time my goal was a bit simpler: Find a smile, and maybe, just maybe, feel welcome.

Picking where to park is relatively easy—I just look for the first sign that says “free parking!” In this case, that ends up being the Western Hotel parking lot off Fremont Street, which is mostly empty.

I travel west in the direction of Fremont Street Experience, and am immediately greeted by a huge belch and a smirk from a Hispanic dude walking toward me as I approach the “Downtowner Motel” sign. (Maybe that’s Downtown for “Welcome!”) At any rate, this wasn’t quite the smile I was looking for.

A big part of feeling welcome anywhere is being able to easily strike up conversations, but it proves a bit trickier than I expected here. Everyone is walking far faster than me, and I’ve got a pretty solid gait. As I cross 8th Street, a guy with a buzz cut and wearing a backpack is suddenly keeping pace with me. Anyone looking in our direction would assume we’re together. I want to turn to him and say something, but the preoccupied look on his face suggests rethinking that notion. We stop at the light at 7th Street, and I decide to say “screw it” to that little voice in my head and talk to him, but the light changes, and he’s off like a shot. Shit.

As I stop to make out a marquee at the El Cortez Hotel—it says “Free See’s Candy”—I inadvertently initiate a minor traffic jam, causing a guy with a walker to stop for a guy stumbling to my right. I get a look from both of them, not of annoyance, but almost as if they are completely unaware of my presence until just that moment.

It’s right here I notice the first nice gesture of the afternoon—a wave, courtesy of a security guard in front of the El Cortez. Friendly guy—bald and red as blazes from the sun, his name is Gordon Grove, and he’s celebrating one year with the property. He’s polite, talking up the area—“Downtown has a real faithful following. They’re quite loyal”—but clams up when asked to share war stories. “Really can’t talk much about any of that.”

I decide a guy paid to stand in one spot can’t exactly avoid people who want to talk to him, so this human contact doesn’t really count. And with a handshake, off I go.

Detouring into the Dollar Store, it’s hard not to notice a big sign in one of the aisles: “SHOPLIFTING IS A CRIME.” (As opposed to ...?) After noticing some things are upwards of $29.99 (is “false advertising” a crime too?), coupled with the unwelcoming, air-piercing sounds of a baby crying, I exit quickly.

As I proceed east, I’m watched carefully by a woman sitting in the alcove of a shuttered business, her hands covering everything but her eyes. As I keep watching her, I hear a loud “Shhhhh!” aimed my way by a large group of kids who notice my notepad. Suddenly feeling the exact opposite of welcome ...

Reaching Las Vegas Boulevard, the delicious smells of fried food from the Fremont Street Experience hit me full in the nose, but I’ve got a job to do, so I cross Fremont to go back from whence I came. I notice an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair about a block up. I turn briefly to make note of where I am, and no sooner do I turn back than the guy is there. This must be the fastest wheelchair I’ve ever seen. No wonder the guy’s dog is on his lap—poor thing wouldn’t have been able to keep up! As I wait for the green at the next light, I notice the guy is coming back. He seems to have no agenda—he just loves the speed of that thing. Can’t say I blame him. And a lot of people seem to know him, most waving or pointing. Must be nice, I think.

I hightail it into the Fremont Market to grab a bottle of water. There’s a long line at the counter and a very quiet staff behind it, with the only break in the silence being, “Next!” A guy at the deli counter orders something with mortadella, spouting, “You ought to be No. 1 in the submarine-sandwich department!”

I’m paying so much attention to this positive reinforcement I almost don’t notice the guy standing at my elbow. “Excuse me, please,” he says, in the most polite tone possible, to get through and pick up his order. And again I feel completely in the way. But I’m thirsty, so I stay in line, giving the woman at the counter a buck for the water and putting the change in the previously empty plastic dish.

And there it is: the first genuine smile of the afternoon. Too bad there was money involved, but hey, it wasn’t much.

As I exit the store, I hear, “Ain’t you got no puppies?” a guy asking of another guy walking a pit bull past Mamacita’s Restaurant, which is nearly packed. The pit bull owner turns and grins, shaking his head.

As I again approach 7th street, an extremely old man in army fatigues passes me as if I’m standing still. I later see him walking back the other way. Perhaps he’s got a meeting with the guy in the jet-powered wheelchair ...

It’s then that I make my first genuine contact Downtown—Demetrius Goudy, although he claims his street name is “Red,” who asks me for a light. I can’t oblige, but he wants to talk to me anyway—about how the Western and the Golden Spike are the cheapest places to eat, about how the best food in the area is at a hostel (“They got the BEST pizza!”), and how he’s lived here nine years, moving from Iowa (“So I’m educated!”)

We’re quickly joined by his buddy, Carl Smith—“the guy to know around here,” according to Red. Suddenly we’re the ones everyone else seems to be watching, Red and Carl waving and pointing to whoever cares. Smith offers what he considers the best advice to out-of-Downtowners: “Stay on Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard.” That and the fact that he can point you to the cheapest prime rib and breakfasts in town. Red is more philosophic about the area: “Nowhere else but here. Anything you want. Any drugs, any fetish, it’s right here, right now.”

I thank both gentlemen for their time, my goal accomplished. Then I’m promptly asked by Red if the interview carries a cash value …

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Ken Miller is the editor of Las Vegas Magazine, having previously served as associate editor at Las Vegas Weekly, assistant ...

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