Another Day on Paradise

Thoughts, observations and confessions from a low-rent apartment in the shadow of the Strip

This story is excerpted from Las Vegas author Matthew O’Brien’s new book, My Week at the Blue Angel: And Other Stories From the Storm Drains, Strip Clubs, and Trailer Parks of Las Vegas (Huntington Press, $15), released Nov. 1. O’Brien will be a panelist at the Storytelling in the Modern Southwest discussion for the Vegas Valley Book Festival at 1:45 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Historic Fifth Street School.

It was a swath of desert a half-mile east of the Strip, wedged between a trailer park and driving range. Power lines threaded the sky. Chain-link fences and cinder-block walls (“The Ridgecrest Boyz Wuz Here!”) formed its border. It was littered with syringes, paper cups, plastic bags and glass.

It was a no-man’s land. Scorched earth. A real estate developer’s worst nightmare. It was also, over the years, home to hundreds of people.

They lived in camps, from sheet tents to plywood mansions, camouflaged in the creosote and high grass. They cooked on makeshift grills. At night, they sat on cardboard mats, got high and stared at the Strip—MGM Grand, Excalibur, Luxor, Mandalay Bay—and thought about getting off the junk, getting off the streets and getting a job. Buzzed by planes taking off from McCarran International Airport, they thought about going home, reuniting with their families, maybe starting families of their own.

It was known as the “Field of Dreams.”

For three years, I’ve had my own Field of Dreams. A half-mile east of the Strip. Bordered by chain-link fences and cinder-block walls (“Fuck the Pigz!”). At night, I stare at the Strip—the Wynn, Treasure Island, The Mirage, the Venetian—and think about writing a best-seller, moving into a downtown condo and buying a new car. As the planes bank east and west, I think about going home to Atlanta, to San Francisco, to Europe.

The Diplomat apartments.

When my girlfriend and I broke up, I had to find a place to live—fast. My first choice was a two-bedroom condo for rent in a neighborhood east of UNLV, populated by coeds who ride retro bikes to class and read Neruda while sunbathing at the pool (or so I imagined). My backup was a loft at the Diplomat.

The Diplomat apartments sit on six and a half acres at the southeast corner of Paradise Road and Sierra Vista Drive, just south of Desert Inn Road. In the 1950s, Nevada Supreme Court justice Frank McNamee owned the land. In April 1959, he sold it to Wilbur Clark, frontman of the Desert Inn hotel-casino.

Clark hired Hugh E. Taylor (who designed the Desert Inn) to design the apartments, originally named the Palm House.

“I went over to the Desert Inn one afternoon with the bill to see if Wilbur was around,” said Taylor. “Sure enough, he was at a table with these other fellows. I went up to him when there was a break in the conversation and said, ‘I have a bill here for the Palm House apartments. The plans are complete and have been delivered to the builder.’ He had a cocktail in front of him and he just took the napkin out from under it, turned it over, and wrote ‘Pay Bearer Ten Thousand Dollars.’ Then he signed it and said, ‘Take this to the casino cage.’ I did and they counted out the money—no questions asked. I was amazed.”

In December 1959, Clark sold the project to Wilton Construction Co. and the name of the apartments was changed. The Diplomat debuted in 1960, featuring a porte cochere, football-field-size courtyard, and bow-tie-shaped pool. (The building and lobby are also shaped like a bow tie.) It had 70 units—20 one-bedroom, 40 two-bedroom, 10 three-bedroom—all draped, carpeted and fully furnished. One-bedroom apartments started at $200, two-bedroom $275, and three-bedroom $325 (including utilities).

Behind the DI and within a mile of the Riviera, Stardust, Thunderbird and Sahara, the Diplomat was home to actors, showgirls, mobsters, magicians, casino executives, comedians, lounge singers and showroom stars. Judy Garland lived in apartment 125, according to property managers Jan and O.J. Hasner. (The apartment features decorative doors, custom shelves, and a 10-foot-wide and three-foot-high living-room mirror.) Betty Grable lived in 132, said fan and friend Bob Isoz. Dean Martin in 139.

When I moved in, the Diplomat—like many Las Vegas headliners—was past its prime. The stucco and wood-frame building was dingy, its trim faded. There were no showgirls (or coeds) by the pool. It was home to cabbies, construction workers, card dealers, bartenders, truckers, front-desk clerks, punk rockers and retirees.

I found a crack pipe (not a headdress or sequined jacket) in the closet.

There were 177 units—101 one-bedroom, 54 two-bedroom, four three-bedroom, 18 lofts—all unfurnished. One-bedroom apartments started at $500, two-bedroom $875, three-bedroom $1,075, and lofts $725 (including utilities).

The neighborhood—bordered by Paradise, Desert Inn, Maryland Parkway and Flamingo Road—had also deteriorated. Called the “most desirable apartment area in Las Vegas” in a 1963 business proposal, it was deemed the “worst neighborhood in the city” by the Las Vegas Weekly in 2005. Residents nicknamed it “Crack Alley” and the “Ho Stroll.” Caution tape decorated the parking lots, sidewalks and streets.

I knew the neighborhood was rough—I lived on its north border for three and a half years—but I was drawn to the Diplomat. It was central and between two of my favorite areas, downtown and UNLV. The courtyard was green and shaded by palm, olive and mulberry trees. Featuring cathedral ceilings, hidden staircases and lofted bedrooms, the floor plans were unique. And the price was right.

I signed a six-month lease, figuring that would give me time to get over my ex-girlfriend, save some money and find a more permanent place to live. Three years later, I’m still here (and I’m not planning to move anytime soon).

My friends thought I was crazy to live at the Diplomat—and I had my own concerns—but I became more and more comfortable with the complex. It’s convenient; I can walk to the Strip and to bars, restaurants and coffee shops on Paradise. It’s safe and well-maintained. The residents are friendly and eccentric.

My next-door neighbor Valentino Santiago is a stylist and fashion designer who’s worked for Jubilee, Siegfried & Roy and Celine Dion’s A New Day. Born in Philadelphia and raised in the Bronx, he’s lived at the Diplomat since 1996.

“I don’t know who lived in my apartment before me, but I’m dying to find out if they were famous,” said Santiago, whose loft is cluttered with vases, sculptures, mannequins, Renaissance paintings, suits of armor and sewing machines. “I believe in my heart they were famous, because so many celebrities lived here and this apartment has such great energy. Maybe Desi Arnaz or Lucille Ball lived here. Maybe Dean Martin. Maybe Siegfried and Roy. I don’t know, but I do know the Diplomat’s been a blessing to me. I have a lot of beautiful memories here. It’s come to mean home.”

I also became more comfortable with the neighborhood. Though old, crowded and crumbling, it’s not as hellish as the headlines suggest. Most of the crimes are committed on four or five blocks, which I avoid at night. Since 2005, because Metro has focused on the area, murders, sexual assaults, car burglaries and car thefts have decreased. Prostitutes stand under streetlights and drug dealers make eye contact with motorists—but most of the residents are law-abiding and hardworking and just trying to survive … and one layoff, injury or addiction away from the streets.

In 2006, a developer bought the Field of Dreams and it was cleared and fenced. A time-share now occupies the land. When will a developer buy the Diplomat, my neighbors and I wonder? When will it be cleared and fenced? When will a time-share, hotel-casino or high-rise condo occupy the land?

Not anytime soon, said Sean Hay of Emser International, which has owned the Diplomat since 1991. But my neighbors and I are leery. We’ve seen too many apartment complexes in the neighborhood sold to developers or the Las Vegas Convention Center … and boarded up, wrapped in caution tape and bulldozed.

They keep paving Paradise (and Sierra Vista) and putting up parking lots.

“When they tear this place down, which could happen any day now, I don’t know where I’ll go,” said Phyllis Watson, a retired office clerk who’s lived at the Diplomat since 1987. “I won’t find anyplace cheaper than this in town. I may move to St. George, Utah; I have a friend there. I may move to Iowa, where my brother and sister live, but it’s so cold.

“I don’t know. I guess I’ll just sit here until they tell me they’re going to tear it down and then figure it out from there.”

I’ll do the same. Then I’ll pack up my books, laptop and steno pads full of thoughts and move on to the next place.

Standing in the courtyard of the Diplomat, I close my eyes and try to picture the complex 45 years ago. The building is bright white, its trim rich brown. Showgirls—topless and stretched on chaise longues—surround the pool, Dino the only man among them. Judy Garland stares blankly out the window of apartment 125, stirring vodka into a glass of orange juice with her finger.

* * *

In the summer, cicadas—ignoring Aesop’s advice—sing in the courtyard trees. In the winter, the courtyard is quiet and dry shells cling to the bark.

Standing on my patio staring at the shells, I think about all the people who’ve shed their skin in L.A., San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, Cleveland and Kansas City, flown away and landed in Las Vegas. How many of them lived at the Diplomat? How many of them lived in my apartment? Did they ever find what they were looking for?

* * *

It’s 1:22 a.m. and I’m as lonely as Macbeth in his castle. Cats tiptoe across the roof. A faucet drips. How can an apartment so close to the Strip and Paradise Road be so quiet?

I surfed the Net, read a chapter of a book and watched a movie, but I can’t fall asleep. Tonight, the silence is too loud. I splash water on my face and throw on a T-shirt, cargo pants and sneakers. Downstairs at the bar, I stuff my driver’s license and $10 (coffee and dessert) into one back pocket and my notepad into the other. I exit the apartment and start south on Paradise.

The Strip struts across the horizon. Exhaust fumes foul the air. Above the rush of traffic, I hear the click-click-click of the monorail.

As panhandlers raise their Starbucks cups, prostitutes pirouette on the street corners and credit hustlers weave in and out of the casinos, I reach for the notepad.

* * *

Strange sight of the day: a man standing on the corner of Sierra Vista and Swenson with his shirt tied around his waist and his pants draped over his shoulders, caution tape strung through the belt loops.

* * *

They buy a one-way ticket to Vegas, park their rental car in the Stratosphere’s garage and stuff a note into their pocket: “There are no answers.” They leave the car keys at the front desk, pose for a souvenir photo and take the elevator to the 109th floor. Lightheaded, they spin through the revolving door and spill onto the observation deck. It’s not as cold or windy as they expected. What a beautiful day to die!

They climb the guard rails, balance on the ledge and survey the Valley: mountains, Spanish-tile roofs, golf courses, McCarran airport, the Strip. They’re surprised there are so many trees. They’re surprised, 1,000 feet above Las Vegas Boulevard, they can hear sirens and see people standing on street corners and distinguish the make and model of cars.

The city looks even less real from up here, they think.

When the security guard arrives, out of breath, they’re gone. Tourists on the deck are looking down, wide-eyed, hands covering their mouths—and those on the thrill rides are screaming.

* * *

Vegas Rule 284: If you circled job ads in the classified section of the morning paper, don’t circle football bets in the sports section.

* * *

I watched The Truman Show last night and woke this morning wondering if my life, like Truman Burbank’s, is a reality TV show. Is Las Vegas, like Seahaven, a domed studio? Are my friends actors? Is every action—a come-out roll at 3:30 a.m. in a downtown casino—choreographed by a director?

If so, that would explain a lot.

Rolling over in bed, I imagine realizing something is wrong and wanting to escape the city. I climb into my car and—despite traffic jams, a flat tire and a dust storm—access a mountain road. Suddenly, I crash into the studio wall. I spill out of the car, stagger up some stairs and open an exit door.


I turn around. No one’s there.

“You can speak,” says a voice from above. “I can hear you.”

“Who are you?” I ask.

“I’m the creator of a television show that gives hope and joy and inspiration to millions.”

“Then who am I?”

“You’re the star.”

I pause. “Was nothing real?”

“You were real. That’s what made you so good to watch.”

I drop my head and turn toward the exit.

“Listen to me, Matt. There’s no more truth out there than in the world I created for you. Same lies. Same deceit. But in my world you have nothing to fear. I know you better than you know yourself.”

I stop.

“You’re afraid. That’s why you can’t leave. It’s OK, Matt. I understand. You belong here with me. Talk to me. Say something. Say something, goddammit! You’re on television! You’re live to the whole world!”

I turn around and stare into the camera. “In case I don’t see you: Good afternoon, good evening and good night!”

I bow, then exit into a black void.

* * *

Jan Hasner said former tenants visit the Diplomat to walk the courtyard and reminisce. What do they think about, I wonder? An addiction? A lost love? Visits from the grandchildren? If I move away and visit, what will I think about? My ex-girlfriend? The books I wrote? The women in maid uniforms and name tags, shuffling toward the mailbox, too tired to smile?

* * *

The earth moves and my apartment shakes. Is this a dream? No. An earthquake? Maybe an 8.0. The chandeliers swing. The window shades rattle. The floorboards moan. In bed, I curl into the fetal position and close my eyes. Ten seconds later, when the apartment stops shaking, I open them. The closet-door mirrors come into focus. The alarm clock reads 2:33 a.m. On the horizon, a plume of dust and smoke rises where the Stardust stood for nearly 50 years.

* * *

Epitaphs for the Diplomat: “Home of the Stars … and the Formerly Homeless,” “There’s No Place Like Home” and “It Wasn’t Much, But It Beat the Streets.”