I moved to Las Vegas in 2001. Things were good then. All of my friends had jobs, and some of them were buying homes during the property scramble. But my first year was rough. I was kicking myself for leaving San Diego to come to what I thought was a culturally bankrupt city. I couldn’t care less about the local politics and was having a hard time finding an artistic stride. I was living in the land of caviar and dirt. A few years later I was in the thick of it; I couldn’t imagine moving back to California. I finally conceded and surrendered my California driver’s license to become an official resident. Las Vegas, I came to understand, is teeming with a bizarre energy, and I’d found my place documenting it.
People constantly ask me what it’s like to live here. Do we have slot machines in our bedrooms? I tell them it’s unlike any city in the country and list the reasons why. But one day I found myself citing a different list of “achievements,” one that seemed to creep up out of nowhere. Suddenly, Nevada was No. 1 in bankruptcies, foreclosures and unemployment. We had three neighborhoods in the top 10 most dangerous in the country; a few days ago, I heard shots fired 100 yards from my house. The educational system is one of the worst in the country and stress levels are through the roof, a byproduct of the state’s instability.
This is historic, and not in a good way. This is affecting people, killing people. I decided to document this period of our state’s history with a photo series, depicting the people who lived through it while maintaining a sense of artistic dignity. Rather than give in, these people fought to ensure that while their jobs, homes and savings may be gone, their love and passion for what they do would remain.
Inspired by Richard Avedon’s photographs and Stud Terkel’s book Working, I spent six sweltering months in my studio photographing lost souls for this ongoing project. Some of them were friends, but most of them were just strangers with a story to tell.
John “Zeke” Brumage, 68
I met Brumage in Pure Nightclub at 3:30 one morning two years ago while taking photos. In a sea of half-conscious, intoxicated women surrounded by a pack of jocks in Affliction shirts, I spied Brumage dressed in a blinding silver shirt and Santa hat, dancing provocatively and without regard for anyone else. He was the only positive element in the room. We shook hands, shouted some ideas back and forth and two weeks later I was directing a short documentary about the 66-year-old “disco legend.”
Brumage lives downtown with his girlfriend, Ellen—she’s also his ex-wife—in a house that will soon belong to the bank. The $200,000 he owes on the property is a problem he can’t fix with his dance moves. By the looks of the interior of the house, Brumage’s world may be crumbling.
“Worst-case scenario, I slit my wrists and let Ellen collect my life insurance to pay for the house,” he says. “Or we move to Arizona.”
He has tried in vain to battle the Great Recession with an interesting variety of entrepreneurial occupations. For years, he made money providing Internet and phone services from his home, but the business proved unprofitable with the advent of broadband. So he turned to porn, directing videos with a direct tie-in to his “disco legend” persona. That didn’t last either.
But he still finds happiness and satisfaction in dancing. It’s his medication. He treats dancing like most people treat Yoga. He’s well known in club circles; door keepers lift velvet ropes for him at many of Las Vegas’ most-popular clubs. He seems content trading in his worries for the dance floor.
“The fact that the girls are all over me isn’t on the minus side,” he says.
Then next time you run into Brumage at a club, ask him to do his infamous “happy sperm” dance. Thank me later.
Regan Blayne, 30
“I sell oxygen for a living.”
I met Blayne a few years ago. Given the social and financial crisis affecting Nevada at the time, her occupation seemed not only fitting, but poetic.
She works full-time at an oxygen bar curing people of hangovers and offering shoulder and neck massages to the weary. In 2006, her salary was more than $80,000 a year. By 2009, she was making less than $30,000 annually.
“The thought of having no money at all is a really scary thought,” she says. “When you’re living in that kind of fear, you’ll do anything to comfort yourself. My worst-case battle plan is something I don’t even want to talk about.”
Before the recession, she started producing My Favorite Coloring Book. Currently a three-volume collection, her coloring books are simple-but-altruistic in their design. Stripped bare of the pop-culture distractions used to entice children into being productive, they’re unlike anything you’ll find at Toys “R” Us.
“The books are not based on a storyline or centralized main character,” she says. “They’re based on images that kids like to color, stars, hearts, bears. … It’s the regular stuff that you and I grew up on. The book is designed around the idea that coloring is fun. You can color the same page a million different times, a million different ways.”
As her savings dwindled, Blayne focused on drawing. By the time the business end of things needed tending to, she was out of money. Last year, she published the first two volumes using every available dollar in her savings account.
“All of a sudden I’m forced with having to choose which bills I could afford to pay. Do I pay my credit card or my mortgage? The game plan for 2011 is to get my money back.”
Regan recently printed her third volume, It’s a Zoo Out There, managing to poetically analogize Nevada’s situation. See Regan’s books at MyFavoriteColoringBook.com.
Tama MacDonald, 50
Tama MacDonald responded almost instantly to a posting I put on Craigslist seeking participants for my recession-based photo project. When she walked into my studio, she brought decades worth of incredible stories and 45 minutes of pain-filled tears.
“I think I had 45 cents in my checking account the day I met you.”
MacDonald was married and had started a business with her husband. She owned a condo and a Corvette; life as a cocktail waitress was paying off. But then came divorce.
“The recession hit at the same time my life was crumbling,” she says. “If it weren’t for my kids you wouldn’t be talking to me right now. I’m out there scared to death, just trying to survive.”
At 50, she had to move back in with her mom. To find work, she had to drive on a revoked license. “I was so successful and so proud, and I’m coming back, but I’m still way down.”
She stayed in contact with me after our photo shoot. One night I got an e-mail laden with exclamation marks and capital letters. A local golf course hired her as their “in-house photographer.” Her job was to shoot the patrons at the first hole and have the prints ready by the time they were on the 18th. She was ecstatic, and I could tell she was crying when she wrote the e-mail.
MacDonald was working with people again, something she cherished as a cocktail waitress. She’s now leading the golf course in photo sales. When we last met, she cried happy tears for 45 minutes straight.
Andrew Shows, 32
Shows gets paid for doing harmful things to his body. He rewards his audience by astounding them, or making them nauseous.
In 2008, he and his girlfriend, Kelvikta the Blade, were on The Gong Show. Kelvitka used her vagina to pop balloons taped to Show’s bare chest. Less than a year later, he and his crew, the SwingShift SideShow, caught the attention of producer Anthony Cools and Freaks was born.
In December 2009, Freaks was one of five shows on the Strip to close in one-week period. It was briefly resurrected when DJ Skribble opened Freakshow at Studio 54, but the show was canceled. Without the backing of a big-name producer, Shows is “working on working.” And other things.
“While I’ve been out of work, I’ve been breaking world records. I recently lifted 110 pounds with my eye sockets. The previous record was 100 pounds, held by a kung fu master in China.” In Show’s business, this is résumé fodder.
“What I’ve noticed a lot in my circle of friends is that everybody is really down to help each other out, despite knowing that nobody has any money.”
Shows is trying to capitalize on what he sees as the commercialization of “sideshow.” Touring tops the list. Next, having mastered the art of performance, he needs to master the art of business. “There are these sideshow businessmen that used to be performers,” he says. “I’m still a performer who is trying to learn to be a business man.”
Brendan Scholz, 24
Father of three, godfather of rock
Scholz spent the opening hours of 2011 in the emergency room. He had no health insurance and an infected wisdom tooth. While staring at the walls in pain, he thought up his game plan for 2011: Get paid.
As the lead singer/guitarist for the local rock band Lydia Vance, a full-time Cowtown Guitar employee and the father of three kids, he didn’t need a recession to make things harder.
“I’m trying to be an everyday Robin Hood for my family. As for the band, it’s not about Corvettes and private jets for bands like us. It’s about having a meal every day.
Without a keyboard or a DJ, Vegas doesn’t facilitate. You can play a show for 100 people, but half of them are on their iPhones.”
Having recently recorded their first full-length album at Hurley Studios in Costa Mesa, Calif., the band is entering the nerve-wracking final stages of going from local act to touring outfit. This has been four aggravating years in the making but Scholz doesn’t seem the least bit nervous about their chances of pulling through.
“We’re mixing now and shopping the album in February. By March, we’re hoping to have a label. My ultimate worst-case scenario would be joining a cover band. Drunk, fat guys from Iowa yelling out ‘Freebird.’ No thanks.”
Lydia Vance shows are a spectacle, even by Vegas standards: Blood, spit and nudity are always prevalent. The band offers something for everyone in attendance whether it’s their good looks—girls love this band—or their musical prowess. It’s not uncommon to hear local musicians praising Scholz’s guitar skills.
For three years I’ve directed Scholz’s music videos and stood in awe as he’s reared back and smashed his head into the microphone during live shows. I don’t have to wonder anymore why he is so frustrated.
Hank Golack, 65
Unemployed voice artist
In Nevada’s unemployment abyss, Hank Golack is the voice of the starving artists.
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., and the father of two, he is gifted with a deep baritone voice, the kind you hear highlighting the plot of that new summertime romantic comedy. He’s a big man, and years ago before coming to Las Vegas, he had big dreams.
“My primary goal was to be the voice of something. But now, I’m losing jobs to mainstream actors. They want that Morgan Freeman ‘Visa card’ voice. More legitimate actors have gone into voice work. They’ve discovered how lucrative and steady it is.”
But simultaneous bankruptcy and divorce saw Golack leave Los Angeles a year ago to find work in Las Vegas.
“I went from living on an expense account and being a high-roller, to eating two-for-one for grilled cheese sandwiches. The American dream of retiring to play golf and fish every day is never-never land. I’ll work until I die, no question about it.”
He gets by on Social Security, constantly auditioning for voice and acting roles, or even as a model. He’s worked with HBO, MTV and the Discovery Channel. In 2006, he posed as one of the fully nude, distressed characters in David La Chappelle’s re-creation of Michelangelo’s The Deluge.
“That’s the crazy shit I had do to make a living. But I got some international exposure. Excuse the pun.”
Golack spends his days poring over local Craigslist postings searching for work and trying to remain “cautiously optimistic.” In the interim, he maintains his website, VoiceofBuffalo.com.
John Baniqued, 70
In 2005, I was introduced to John Baniqued by Underground Vegas Film president Aaron Ross. I was professionally attracted to him immediately. He’s quiet and thoughtful, speaking carefully considered words. He’ll hate me for writing this, but he resembles a Zen Monopoly Man.
Acting is Baniqued’s passion. But it took three heart attacks and a forced retirement to get him to discover it.
In 1995, Baniqued was working for days on end without sleep, programming the computer elements for the Voyager spacecraft. Ultimately, his body called it quits and he was forced to resign.
“They cut my Social Security in half, so now I need to think about where I’m going and what I’m doing. Maybe I’m old-fashioned and I believe in an easy-going, laid-back environment, but it’s not that in Vegas anymore. It’s all hustle. If you can’t get it legally, get it illegally. You got to hurt somebody? Tough. That’s not me.
“There’s strong potential for a revolution. I saw the handwriting on the wall years ago. No major civilization has ever truly survived. Look at the Aztecs, the Romans. I thought I would die before this happened, now I’m thinking that might not be the case.”
That’s the Zen Monopoly Man speaking.
Almost a decade after leaving his job, Baniqued came across an ad seeking extras for a project. Now he’s acting in award-winning short films, notably Kelly Schwarze’s 2010 comedy You People, which he also helped finance.
Casting him in a film brings benefits. While his skills as an actor are impressive, it’s his personality and wisdom on and off the set that make him invaluable. There isn’t a filmmaker in Vegas who can’t attest to that simple fact.
James Lee, 29
James Lee has labored in the building trades for 12 years. He expects to be a statistic in Nevada’s unemployment rate soon.
“As much as I disliked George Bush, at least I always had a job while he was in office. This ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ you know, I didn’t hope that I would change into an unemployed person. It’s crazy to go from not having enough people to do the work to not enough work for the people.”
The new McCarran International Airport terminal will most likely be his last bit of construction work. But 12 years of helping build the Las Vegas boom is overshadowed by a more menacing passion.
“I’d like to focus more on my paintings,” Lee says. “This recession could end up being a good thing.”
Lee has been a musician and an artist since he was in his teens. I met him in 2001 and can only describe him as a blue-collar genius. There’s something impressive about a man who breaks his back all day and manages to come home and create thought-provoking art.
His canvases are massive and his messages are ominous, as if he’s captured the moments immediately following the decline of American civilization. In one painting, a gruesome train wreck smolders in the background while a woman, writhing in a wheelchair, mutters her last words: “Walmart.” In another, enraged businessmen in ski masks wield crowbars and an emaciated teen, surrounded by howling monkeys, holds two upside down American flags.
Lee has little interest in selling his work at shows; convincing him to sell his work is impossible. I’ve always felt like Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting trying to convince Matt Damon that he has a gift and to pursue it. I think this movie is going to end the same way.
Want to tell your story about getting by in Las Vegas? Contact McPherson at StabthePrincess.com.