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Letters at 3AM

The Devil's Five Seconds

By Michael Ventura, December 23, 2005, Columns

What was I doing in Las Vegas in a Fremont Street strip joint on Christmas Eve? I called it "research." I intended a trilogy of novels set in Vegas: The Death of Frank Sinatra (written and published), One Marilyn Too Many (written and rejected), and Las Vegas Knows My Name (as yet unwritten). They would be metaphysical explorations in the guise of detective novels, a fictional autobiography of my spiritual quest which, like all quests, succeeds or fails in a world of suffering and evil. I chose Las Vegas because historically it is the last world-renowned city to be purely a creation of Western civilization. America's first important cities, Boston and Philadelphia, were founded upon dedication to God. That our last city should be openly dedicated to pursuits of the Devil, set in a desert as fierce as the desert that birthed our religions, seemed an excellent though obvious theological in-joke. As a novelist, I sought to explore the darker aspects of that joke.

My protagonist, a detective named Mike Rose, was the son of a Mafia thug and a mother who ran a strip joint on Fremont. I'm Sicilian by descent, and "Mafia" is the only word of my Sicilian ancestors to enter the world's vocabulary. Its meaning in the Americas, China, and Russia is the same: a secret brotherhood of crime. In the U.S., the Mafia was given power by women: They got the vote, and their vote was largely instrumental in initiating Prohibition, which created an era in which the Mafia thrived. Organized crime supplies to mostly law-abiding people what the law forbids: alcohol then, drugs now, gambling, whores, and the giving of loans to people the banks won't back. In its heyday, savvy Mafia murderers ran or created cities. Al Capone was 27 when he bossed Chicago – read his statements and see the thoughts of a viciously intelligent youth. Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Davey Berman, and Bugsy Siegel were relatively young men when they created Las Vegas, a city hellbent on giving Americans what they pretend not to want but in fact crave desperately. It is no small thing to create a city. It is, in fact, the very basis of civilization. A close reading of history will show that most cities are created by thugs. My character Mike Rose is a child of city-builders – or rather, of their servants.

Like many of us, Mike Rose decides not to be like his parents: He does not lie and will not kill. He does not lie but he also does not tell the truth; then he breaks his code and murders. He doesn't believe God – that is, he believes in but doesn't agree with God. God has created an unjust universe, an offense for which Mike Rose will not forgive God. After Rose murders, he knows God also will not forgive him. He secretly likes that, for to Mike Rose this means that God has taken an interest in him. The New Testament says (somewhere in Hebrews) it is "a fearful thing" to awaken God's interest, a fearful thing to realize in the starkest possible terms that one might have a soul after all. Rose realizes he might have a soul in the very act of losing that soul. He takes secret delight in being damned, because to be damned means God cares for you – cares enough to banish you, for, as they teach in Catholic school, "Hell is the absence of God." Mike Rose is pleased to be damned, because to be damned is evidence that God knows him, even if he doesn't know God. He is only certain of God's reality after he murders. (This may be the motive of many murders: to find God through God's damnation. Maybe to be damned by God is better than not knowing God at all.)

But my story wouldn't ring true unless my Las Vegas was meticulously detailed. I devoted several years to knowing Vegas intimately – which, Vegas being Vegas, is also to know the city dangerously. For Vegas is never passive. If you look at it, it will look at you.

I desired to research Vegas on Christmas Eve. Put another way: What are the Devil's preoccupations on the eve of the birth of Christ? I found that the Devil knows that Christ will not substantially change the world; Christ will only make it more complicated. Two thousand years since the Crucifixion have proved the Devil correct. But to go on with the story ...

On the one hand, strip clubs are brutally uncomplicated: Beautiful wild women extract money from men who cannot otherwise hope to enjoy concourse with beautiful wild women. On the other hand, strip clubs are wonderfully complicated: A complex female beauty, in the service of thugs, overwhelms the dull sensibilities of dulled men, everybody is degraded, yet when all is said and done the beautiful retains that which makes it beautiful – so beauty is proven to be irreducible. One is forced to think of Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats. Pound: Till change hath broken down/All things save Beauty alone. Yeats: Only God, my dear, could love you for yourself alone,/And not your golden hair.

That Christmas Eve the strippers wore Santa hats. No redemption was expected; just presents. I sat at the bar while pole dancers gyrated and I pushed fives and tens into their G-strings and between their breasts. They liked that. They told their friends. All the pretty ladies wanted to dance for Mike Rose. I was working, observing, so I drank only Cokes and club sodas. And I was talking. Asking questions. These ladies are rarely spoken to seriously and with respect, and they responded generously to my questions. One said something so brilliant I had to whip out my notebook and write it down (yes, I get all the phallic metaphors in this). I knew how stupid that was. In Vegas, you're always on camera. In such a place, a notebook is noticed. But what she said was too good to lose. (Her words became a telling line in The Death of Frank Sinatra.) Would I have let the line go by if I'd known I was risking my life?

A dancer sat next to me. She said her name was "Whitney," coffee-colored, very bright, wearing almost nothing. I suspect now that she'd been selected because she was so bright – she would have interested me in any circumstances. We talked. We really talked. (Whitney also has a line in my novel.) Amidst stupid music and many nakednesses, we talked. I remember saying that maybe Christmas is such a manic time because we know the journey of this infant Jesus, so we know he will end on the horrible cross, and we are uncertain that we deserve such a sacrifice. Many of us, even believers, do not feel redeemed, and the world 2,000 years later is still a cross – by any standard that's not much of a track record, not for Jesus, not for us. Finally Whitney asked to be excused. I can still see her walking away, in only a G-string, her beauty glowing in spite of itself and in spite of the setting – for beauty is itself, no matter what purpose beauty is put to. Beauty shines with something other, something that we ever long for and never comprehend. Even on Fremont Street in the Devil's lair.

And then I could not feel my feet. I could not feel my legs.

The Devil gives you maybe five seconds. Sometimes less. Rarely more.

Bright, beautiful, astute Whitney had slipped a drug into my soda. Somebody wanted to read my notebook. And somebody probably wanted to "interview" me, and none too gently.

But ... I grew up on mean streets, I'm street smart. "Street smart" isn't special knowledge of scams. Street smart is knowing that safety is temporary but danger is absolute. Within any temporary safety is the presence of danger. There are two responses to danger: instant, or too late. An instant response might not save you, but you have a chance. People who believe that safety is their natural habit react to danger with disbelief: "This can't be happening, maybe it was something I ate." All that distinguishes the street-wise is knowing that it damn well is happening, right now, to you. If you don't dig that, you lose the five seconds and maybe lots more.

I couldn't feel my feet but I could feel my hands. I gripped the bar and made my legs move using the bar for balance. The exit was maybe 10 yards away. I launched myself toward that door and tumbled out into the street before anyone could grab me. Whoever had ordered me drugged could have gone after me but didn't – probably didn't want to be seen dragging a helpless man back into their lair. I kept on my feet by leaning on the vending machines that lined the sidewalk – machines offering ads for "private dancers." Pushing off one machine and grabbing another, I stumbled up the street.

The Devil gives you five seconds. God gives you none at all. To be close to one is to be close to the other, for even damnation can be a blessing. And you never know whom beauty serves. end story

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