Margaret and the Art of Contentment

On growing old in a central Las Vegas apartment

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Here we are in this tiny studio apartment, me and my friend Margaret. She’s 72, stands 4-foot-11 and weighs 84 pounds. When I hug her, it feels like her little frame will crumble. But I know better—she’s a spartan of sorts, living here near Fremont and Eastern, sleeping on a daybed she inherited when a neighbor four doors down died—a bed with no sheets, but at least she has a red Station Casinos blanket.

She’s been here for more than a year, and when she tells me it’s better than the last place, I totally agree. Her last apartment shared a bathroom with the man from the adjacent unit—a stranger who happened to be a pimp—and shared a kitchen with three other units. It had mold crawling up the wall. Here, instead, the wall has a 2011 picture of then-Mayor Oscar Goodman, shot when he was making the rounds with Meals on Wheels. Under that are her oxygen bottles, and across the vinyl floor is a TV tray with her extra-long Misty cigarettes and an ashtray. Sometimes she wears a $10 amplifier on her ear that looks like a Bluetooth device but functions as a cheap hearing aid. Other times, she can barely hear me.

“I love Las Vegas,” she says, adjusting the big, crooked eyeglasses on her nose. “There isn’t one place I’d rather be.”

Outside, a guy’s digging through the Dumpster for cans, and a younger guy is talking smack on a cellphone in the parking lot in which two beat-up charcoal barbecues are parked.

“I like the people, the food is excellent, the sights are pretty and there’s a lot of interesting artifacts—like the old casino signs,” she says.

When she’s feeling restless, which is frequent, she makes her way to the bus stop and heads to one of the casinos on Boulder Highway to play bingo. When I ask if she wins anything, she waves a dismissive little hand at me and says, “Hell yeah, I win. You should meet me there sometime.”

But this is the place I like to meet Margaret—in a nest of relentless positivity, in a place that, although some of the neighbors’ windows are broken and boarded up, doesn’t have bedbugs. I like to meet Margaret in this place that, although swathed in the aroma of feral cats, doesn’t require sharing a toilet and shower with the pimp next door.

Margaret crochets booties while watching Jeopardy! and sells them from a Hefty sack in the corner of this tiny, forgotten apartment—I’ve bought a few pairs; they’re quality work. Last year I gave them as Christmas gifts.

I met her through happenstance several years ago; we had a mutual friend. Now, I occasionally drop in to say hello, or we go to Blueberry Hill for lunch. I pry. Why’d you move here? What’s your story? She gives up tale after well-told tale, each punctuated by the widening of her eyes and a pause, the flipping of her dismissive hand, but never the whole story. There were jobs—Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr.—who needs it? There were men—it didn’t work out; she’s better off. There was New York; there was California.

But there’s no place like Vegas. “I love it here.”