Wandering the Desert

People who can pop their ears are blessed. Some have told me to chew gum, but nothing really works well so I always get off a plane with a vice crushing my head. The Las Vegas airport had all the same shit every other has: bad carpet, over-priced-microwave-meal restaurants, and bathrooms wherein diarrhea despair and cleaning agents dance unhindered. If you’re itching to lose money just off the plane, you’re in luck, because slot machines are littered across the airport, where you’ll see the soulless cloudy eyes of addicts spending their days making the offspring of some Mafia crime boss or Mormon tons of money. But the first thing that struck me about Vegas wasn’t the airport, it was the dry desert heat slapping my teeth as I crossed the sliding-door exit.

I lived in a three bedroom apartment that at any given time held up to ten guys. I slept on a used three-cushion tan couch in the living room, next to another that looked like it came from a discount Sears warehouse from 1989. We had a bulky black stereo, which rested on a table next to a balcony that smelled like shit. The apartment was always pre-heating because it was three floors up, directly under the sun. The general aesthetic of our place was like everything else in Vegas, beige, and littered with holes, stains, and burn marks we hid with inspirational quote posters and flags from the countries we visited. And as a bonus for us who didn’t own cars, the church we used as a base of operations was right across the street.

At the giant old church we rented I sat my half-empty coffee mug next to a dozen others on my particle board desk, when sirens blared through the window above me. I made my usual rounds down the long dark halls, making sure everyone was gone and checking the locks. As I came to the entrance I saw red and blue slicing through the silvery panes around the door. I locked up and stepped out into the ray from a helicopter directly over me. Several men near a SWAT van readied their weapons. I froze and finally a man in the distance brought his hand up and waved come on and I proceeded as if I were walking the plank. This was the first time, but I got used to these SWAT situations.

All I had after I graduated high school was $900, a cheap red car, and a shit job digging holes for rich guy with whom I shared a pew. He and many others from that church paid for my entire stay in Vegas. Food, cigarettes, a gym membership, rent, a one month stay in Myanmar, Thailand, two months in Sri Lanka, and two weeks touring Italy from Tuscany down to Sicily, all for the cause of God. I had a friend group who really helped me through senior year. Of that group, Scott discovered Youth With A Mission the same way everyone seemed to: through a friend who’d bragged about traveling the world. Scott was always in trouble with church leadership for smoking or listening to secular music and chose Vegas just to quietly piss in everyone’s faces while they all coughed up money for his Discipleship Training School. It’s not so much a school as it is an entrance class you take to start working with the organization. It consists of three months lecture and two months hands-on training overseas. Scott went to Egypt. He came back, helped me raise money and we both went to Las Vegas, myself as a student, him as staff.

When you fly into Vegas at night, the white phosphorus light is magnetic, like the fire that draws a moth. But the eyes adjust quickly, and if you’re in the right state of mind you might catch a glimpse of the homeless who wander the streets, the countless throngs of middle aged men seeking cheap teen sex at 2 AM, and the thin husks that remain from those who only knew how to fill their wallets. It’s a tall flame. But if you’re one of lucky ones standing above it on any of the sandstone peaks that surround the city, you can look down at dusk and watch a dark cloud settle like an Old Testament plague.

Our base director–Dick, we’ll call him–claimed he was friends with Bono while U2 were there performing. He said he’d call him and get us all tickets. He never got back to us and we never bothered asking him about it because we’d assumed it was bullshit. Even if they did share a hallway in an apartment building 30 years ago, that doesn’t mean you can just call someone and expect free stuff. But he was just another busted bulb in a fixture of desperate superficiality. Lies and facades weren’t just accepted, they were expected. Pop-up mansions and neon glam—if you didn’t have them, then you didn’t have anything. That’s how Dick and others handled their general affairs, asking for handouts. Fund raising. Some of the staff had done this for so long they had condos, cars, and money left over to fly to abroad on a whim.

The organization used a strange economic model–it wasn’t quite a pyramid scheme. We couldn’t work. Everything we did was funded by someone from church who was willing to give. Only in exceptional situations could one get a normal job. Every month we all paid $110 in staff-fees that covered our apartment and utilities. Any money made over that bought food and whatever else you wanted.

During that time, a movie played in my head, between all the thinking that gets a person through the day, of an unstoppable desert and a beckoning whisper from the line of the horizon. God had brought me to the wild west, and that’s how I wound up momentarily sharing a sauna with a sperm whale of a man rubbing baby oil on my back. Toward the end of my stay in Nevada money began to dry up. When this first became noticeable our leadership patched it by letting “qualified people” who didn’t have anything to do with our cause, stay in our apartments and help with rent. One such fellow was only interested in body-building, guns, and looking professionally young. I expressed to him an interest in broadening my rail-thin body and he took me to the gym–that was the only time I worked out with him because we had almost nothing in common. I began to exercise throughout the week, always ending my workout in the sauna. That particular night the giant was there, and told me the oil was good for my muscles and I thought, sounds legit. I was very innocent then and hadn’t the slightest idea that he wanted to have sex until he insisted on rubbing oil on other parts of me. I politely declined. He started looking around the cloudy, suffocating room like things were gonna get rapey. I reached for my bag, which contained a knife that probably wasn’t even big enough to scrape him. He awkwardly paced around and finally sat, sloshing his ass into the corner as I took my stuff and burst out the door.

Our smelly balcony was a sacred space. It had two faded plastic chairs, which managed to keep their shape under a sun persistent on turning everything to dust and tumbleweeds. It’s a wonder anyone manages to stay composed. If you’re not in a building then you’re probably building up skin cancer merits. But, and despite everyone’s disapproval, we were building up lung cancer merits, sharing smokes on our porch throughout the day—burnt offerings we laughed off, with youthful irreverence to our bodies. It’s a good thing we weren’t the gambling type. We had a small green stereo we kept tucked under a chair, with an overstuffed ashtray and a vase Scott was trying to fill with cigarette ashes. We played songs from the Verve or Oasis long into the night when temperatures cooled to the mid-eighties and talked about whatever came to mind. Everyone else stayed away (which is why it was so special) because smoking is evil and smells like shit.

Christmas was just after my lecture phase, two weeks before I left for Myanmar. My parents really wanted me to visit them in southern Texas, but we didn’t have much money, so I took Grey Hound. I enjoyed a warm holiday and boarded the bus back to Vegas with a matching sky-blue backpack and duffel-bag stuffed with gifts. Two hours later, the engine came to grinding halt, and 26 hours later I peeled myself from the sweat of a thousand previous backs and drug myself off the bus. My luggage was lost.

The unforeseen stop in Texas put us so far off schedule that we reached Vegas around 1 AM, long after my ride home had given up and gone to bed. None of us had phones, even at the apartment. I sank into a worn bench beneath a set of fluorescent bulbs, when a police officer swung around the corner. Can you help me, I asked him. I explained everything that had happened and he told me he really wasn’t supposed to, but he’d give me a ride. We were speeding down a highway when a red corvette cut us off in the middle lane. He said that’s not good and ran the plate. The car came up stolen and he told me I had to get out now. I wandered around the middle of Vegas for about two hours looking for familiar signs before stopping at a gas station where I asked the attendant for help. He told me to call a cab. I told him I had no money. He said, call this cab, pointing at the number in the phone book. Minutes later a taxi driver picked me up, figured out where I lived (which wasn’t easy because I didn’t know the address, just the street name, Mohave Road), and when we finally pulled into the church parking lot, the meter said I owed about $36. I gave him a five and he gave me three dollars change, and told me to buy myself a doughnut.

Dick put together a huge dinner to try to raise money for the base. People were starting to see we didn’t do much, and bills add up. A few people did do incredibly great things, but a lot of the time we just fucked around. All we really had to do was tell our supporters we were helping the homeless and telling people about Jesus, which we did do from time to time, but there’s a lot of hours in a day. So, we decorated the entire church, bought nice food, and invited a bunch of rich, boring, god-fearing men out in hopes they would keep funding a bunch of bullshit. At the end of the night, as one of the wealthier pastors was on his way out, I pulled my pants down and swung my bright white ass at him. Scott had dared me to moon him, and I wasn’t one to pass up an opportunity to make someone feel very uncomfortable. Dick called me into his office the next day to give me one of his “I love you, but…” talks he gave everyone who let him down. I agreed to refrain from exposing my ass and focused my antics toward other things.

I wasn’t trying to be lazy or rebellious, it was simply a byproduct of aimlessness. We did lose money after that dinner, but my butt was not to blame. Scott left a few months later because it was the end of this two-year term, and he was bored. New staff members took over his old job running an after-school program, so he started cleaning and organizing the base—it took months, nobody really thanked him, and he went home. It’s a good thing he straightened everything up, because after he left we had to sell and store everything because we could no longer afford rent.

I wrote a letter to base leadership about what a shit job they were all doing. They didn’t care, and it wasn’t the kind of letter you could just give all your bosses and then keep on like it didn’t happen. I broke my term and left for home a few weeks after I got back from Italy in the fall of 2005. The new staff members envied my freedom, and the old ones flashed me their usual smiles and distant good-byes. We were all in the habit of letting people get just so close because of the frequency with which many of us moved in and out of each others lives. One second you might be on top, and the next you’re spiraling down to regularity—life without God’s wallet.

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