In June 2007, Matthew O’Brien published his book Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas, which documents his adventures in the underground flood channels of the city and the conversations he had with the people down there.
Recently, he has been interviewing people who used to live in the drains, many of whom find their way to these clandestine communities as a way to exist on the fringes of society. He asks them about their childhood, what it’s like living there, how they got out and what they are doing now, among other questions. He hopes eventually to present fragments of the interviews in a book—an oral account of surviving the Vegas storm drains.
O’Brien felt Beneath the Neon was somewhat dark and depressing, and he wants the follow-up to be educational and inspirational. So far he’s interviewed around 20 people. Their roller-coaster rides are all riveting, yet one story stands out: Paul’s. Younger than most of O’Brien’s interviewees, Paul fell really far down—both literally and figuratively. Now he has risen to dizzying—and ironic—heights. This is an edited version of O’Brien’s interview, presented as a monologue in Paul’s voice.
Street name: Shaggy
Years in the drains: 2011-2014
Drug of choice: Heroin
Waking up in the middle of the night in Arizona. I think it was Phoenix. I was in kindergarten or first grade. My mom told me to grab what I could, that we were leaving. That was a constant for me and my mom. She was a crack addict and we moved from place to place.
I also remember living with different families. In fifth grade, I lived with one of the better families I had. They’re the closest thing I ever had to real foster parents. They’re just a couple that took me in for a year, and I have nothing but good memories from that time. A lot of the principles and morals I have I got from them.
I got into the performing arts school, the Las Vegas Academy, as a theater major. They took me in and protected me. School was always an escape for me. I never dreaded it. I looked forward to it, because I always got to get away from where I was or who I was with. It was the only constant in my life.
At the Academy, you would do theater every day for an hour and a half, and I threw myself into it and succeeded. I actually wrote and produced my own show and, when all was said and done, they let me perform it.
Now they have a student-performed and -directed show every year. I was the first student to do it.
My favorite show was The Laramie Project. I played Russell Henderson, one of the guys who murdered Matthew Shepard. That was the role I dove into the most as far as character development and research. I really locked into it. It was originally scheduled to run for like six nights and we did it for 15, and in front of an audience that came down from Laramie. That was an honor.
I had a 2.73 GPA and I wasn’t even trying in most classes. I graduated in 2005.
I was in a downward spiral. I had already burned most of the bridges with my family because I was so upset with them and the way things had gone. It got to the point where they didn’t want to tell me what was going on with my mother because it was all bad.
I was living in a place we dubbed the Clown House. We called it that because I juggled for a short period of time. Seven or eight of us lived there together from the age of 17 to 20. It started with a core group from the Academy and spread from there. It was very communal—and complete and utter chaos. I started doing heroin there. A girl I knew introduced me to it. At first it didn’t take. In fact, I withdrew from it twice without even knowing it.
But eventually it got hold of me.
I got into the performing arts school, the Las Vegas Academy, as a theater major. They took me in and protected me. School was always an escape for me. … It was the only constant in my life.
Discovering the Drains
Around 2010 and 2011, I was going back and forth by bus between Summerlin and Henderson. It’d take about three hours. I’d panhandle and make about 100 bucks a day, and I kept my backpack and sleeping bag on me and I’d crash wherever I landed. Eventually a few guys from the tunnels saw me panhandling near Eastern and the 215. They actually challenged me. They tried to get me to move from my spot. They said my time was up, but I didn’t leave. Later that day they sought me out and said, “Hey, man. You got heart. You should come down with us, where you’re safe and out of the way.”
Part of me didn’t want to go, because I had this image of it in my mind. I was debating whether I should live behind a dumpster or underground. I eventually went down there and checked it out, and there were couches and battery-powered lights and fire pits and food. The way it was designed was appealing. Everybody was welcoming and they set up a nice little spot for me. I had a mat, so I wasn’t on the concrete. They all had mattresses and coffee tables and stuff like that, and I remember thinking that I was going to build up my camp.
It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It was away from the world and these guys were cool and they explained the rules to me and who was welcome and who was not. They made me feel at home.
One rule is you don’t touch anyone else’s camp. You get caught in someone’s spot and it’s all bad. There was also a call to come in. Ours was the old punk-rock word “Oi.” If you didn’t say it and get the call back, you were entering unprotected.
Life in the Drains
There were 15 to 20 of us down there at any given time. There was a 16-year-old female runaway, all the way up to “Baldy,” one of the guys who invited me down there, who was 47.
“Jabber Jaw” had been there 15 years. He’s a good guy, but he’s everything about the tunnels incarnate. Friendly but unforgiving. Nice but ruthless.
My hustle, at first, was panhandling, and I did quite well. I started out making $100 a day, but there were days I made $400 or $500. I think it was because of the improvisation I had learned in high school. Depending on who I was talking to, I would have different stories as to why I was there. It also had to do with longevity. I was known in the area.
Eventually I sold drugs out of the tunnels. There are little drainage ditches and metal grates in the parking lots. I would ride the tunnels on a bike with a light and an Obama phone, and I would sell drugs through the grates above me. I would tell the buyer to act like they were tying their shoe while they pass the money and take the product. I never made money doing it, but I got my drugs for free.
Living down there was fun. In retrospect, it was one of the best times of my life. We used to get pallets and build these big bonfires and, depending on which way the wind was blowing, the smoke would just leave. There was enough ventilation and a lot of camaraderie.
I had resolved that this was it. I was going to die in the tunnels with a needle in my arm. I was accepting of that. I didn’t care.
Around that same time, my girlfriend pulled a knife on me because I was dope sick and didn’t want to get any more drugs. I was fed up with what we were doing. She had only been down there six or seven months. I was coming up on three years. I told her I was done with the tunnels. She said, “OK. We’ll figure it out in the morning.”
I always say that two cops and a cricket saved my life.
I was sitting on my bed, wearing a headlamp, and had my stuff spread out on my lap and I was preparing to shoot up, and this big black cricket bounced into my line of sight. I looked at the cricket and said, “Don’t do it!” Sure enough, it flies up at me and I drop everything I had on my lap.
I tried to catch that cricket for two hours until I found myself lit up by a bright flashlight. It was two cops. I told them my name and Social Security number and, because I had a warrant, they asked how long it would take for me to get my stuff together. I said, “Two minutes.” They said, “All right. Meet us outside the tunnel.”
I woke up my girlfriend and grabbed my stuff, and we ran out the other end of the tunnel. All I needed was a cigarette and soda. I got them, then waited for the cops in the parking lot.
I got a public defender I’d had before. I had asked him to help me get jail time on the weekends, which you can do in certain situations, and he did, but I blew it off. The first thing he said to me this time around was, “You couldn’t make the weekends, huh?” Then he said, “How about trying the drug-court program?”
For a long time, my mom, who also spent time on the streets and in the tunnels, was an example of why recovery doesn’t work. But when I got into drug court, she’d been sober for two and a half years. She became an example that it could work.
I ended up doing really well in the program. I got MVP and a job at the car wash right next to the tunnel entrance. I worked there from four months of sobriety to 22 months. I saw the people I’d lived with, and did what I could to help them with kind words and a few dollars here or there. I ended up being a supervisor at the car wash, and they all watched me grow out of that stage of my life.
I was living in a place we dubbed the Clown House. We called it that because I juggled for a short period of time. … It was very communal—and complete and utter chaos. I started doing heroin there. A girl I knew introduced me to it. At first it didn’t take. In fact, I withdrew from it twice without even knowing it.
After I graduated from the drug-court program, Freedom House opened a new inpatient treatment center and I got in at the right time. I ended up being the lead case manager there. We work with clients who come straight out of jail with prison sentences hanging over their heads; this is their last chance to get on their feet.
We help them get IDs, birth certificates and Social Security cards. We get them enrolled in school if they need a GED as part of their parole conditions. We get them food stamps. We help them transition back into the real world.
I’ve gone back to the tunnels twice. Once because it was raining and I helped them save some stuff. The second time, about two years ago, was because we have what we called “graveyards”—old campsites, because the rule is you’re not supposed to touch them. I wanted to see if my camp was still there, and it was: the bed, magazine pictures of Eminem and Metallica, remnants of things I had. I stood there for 10 or 15 minutes and it was all positive. It was one of the most spiritual moments of my life.
I met my wife in a 12-step program, and we dated for quite some time and ended up getting married and having a son. We’ve had a house for two months.
I have a fire pit out back and I go out there and start bonfires. That’s as close as I get to the tunnels nowadays. Almost every night I’m back there burning wood and just standing there watching it.
Matthew O’Brien hopes his prospective book, tentatively titled Out of the Dark: Survival Stories From the Las Vegas Storm Drains, will raise money for his community project Shine a Light, which strives to help those still stuck in the drains.
For more on the work combating homelessness, check out vegasseven.com/homelessyouth to learn about the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth’s center.