University Plaza, East Tropicana Avenue, Las Vegas
The heat of the concrete sidewalk is searing through the soles of these cheap canvas shoes. I have been walking along East Tropicana Avenue for thirty two minutes. The directions to University Plaza were clear enough, but the presumption was that I would be driving. Now the sweat on my brow has condensed to a dry vapour, and the scent of ammonia is rising from my chest. To the north, a passenger plane appears out of the haze of the horizon, whilst another roars eighty feet over my head in its descent to the runway at McCarran International Airport. There are more landings here than at Heathrow or Charles De Gaulle, and the movement provides a diverting spectacle as I continue walking.
East Tropicana is a tributary of the Strip. It is a functional supply route, an eight-lane thoroughfare that provides a conduit for cheap labour from the suburbs. I arrive at University Plaza, a large parking lot surrounded by drab post-colonial style one-storey commercial units, tan rendered, and scan the perimeter for the object of my destination; the only coin-operated laundrette within a mile of the Strip, and one of the few places where I can wash my clothes before I make the long drive to Los Angeles. I enter and take an unadulterated pause to breathe in the moist processed air, a welcome respite from the arid heat of the street. I investigate the methodology, and make my own arrangements with a washing machine. Luckily, I am not short of quarters, a week on the road has provided well in that department, and soon my own sun-worn clothes are darkening in a pool of warm water, giving up their form to the liquid and rotation of the drum. Las Vegas was built around a desert spring, but the oasis ran dry years ago and the water that feeds the half-million residents of the city is now sourced thirty miles away from Lake Mead, a reservoir of the Colorado River created by the Hoover Dam. This water has taken a path into my own body through the ice in the whisky sodas that I drank last night, and into the sprinkler systems that feed the trees lining the boulevards of modest bungalows that surround the plaza, and now into the fabric of my clothes. Current predictions suppose that the lake might run dry within the next ten years, so a new source will have to be found.
A boy, aged about ten, is sitting on a chair opposite to me. He is rocking his head back and forth and his pupils are lodged at the top of his eyelids. He sees nothing but hears everything; the whirring and sloshing of the machines, the clunk of the coin-machines, the change of air pressure as the door swings open and closed, and the soft chatter of the clientele. I make up my mind that he is a fixture here, that this laundrette provides his sensory world and his daily routine. He cannot be moved by the flashing lights or the post-modern architecture of the Strip, but for him, this small interior space is Las Vegas. The young woman in cut-off jeans, whose teenage son is helping to fold her evening work clothes into a carefully separated pile has a different understanding of the city, as does the middle-aged man whose branded coloured shirts now hang neatly from a mobile rack.
But the blind boy is smiling, he is content here. We are behind the scenes at Las Vegas, and for the first time I feel relaxed in this city.