What Happens There
One summer, when sixteen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-foot-high tower of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas, the local city council was considering a bill that would temporarily ban lap dancing in the city’s strip clubs, archaeologists unearthed shards of the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco brand sauce from beneath a parking lot, and a woman from Mississippi beat a chicken named Ginger in a thirty-five-minute-long game of tic-tac-toe.
On the day that Levi Presley died, five others died from two types of cancer, four from heart attacks, three because of strokes.
It was a day of two suicides by gunshot as well.
The day another suicide from falling, too.
At a record 113 degrees, it also happened to be one of that summer’s hottest days—a day that caused the World’s Tallest Thermometer to break, raised the price of bottled water to five dollars for eight ounces, and caused a traffic jam on the north end of the Las Vegas Strip as a tourist family traveled toward downtown Las Vegas, rolled over a broken bottle from a homeless woman’s cart, blew out a back tire, hit a parked car, and stalled outside the entrance of the Stratosphere Hotel when the jack inside the back of their rented Dodge Stratus sank into the heat-softened asphalt of the street.
We therefore know that when Levi Presley jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel at 6:01:43 p.m.—eventually hitting the ground at 6:01:52 p.m.—there were over a hundred tourists in five dozen cars that were honking and bumping and idling and yelling at the base of the Stratosphere tower.
Some of them looked up from the traffic jam that night and briefly saw in the sky something fall from the dark, and then through the palms, and then to the city’s pavement. Some of them left their cars to look down at what had fallen. And six of them gave statements of what they saw to the police.
When I asked the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department whether I could read some of those statements that the witnesses had given, Police Sergeant Steve Barela explained, “You don’t want to read any of that, man. That stuff is just facts. None of this is gonna sound like a Mickey Spillane novel. You know?”
When I asked a woman at Las Vegas Teen Crisis whether suicide is a problem for teenagers in the city, she told me that she preferred I “not write any of that down.”
When I asked Michael Gilmartin, the public relations manager at the Stratosphere Hotel, whether his hotel has a system in place for discouraging people from jumping off his tall tower, Michael Gilmartin first asked if I was kidding, and then Gilmartin said, “Listen, I don’t want to be associated with some piece about a kid who killed himself here, OK?… I mean, really, what’s the upside to that? All I can see is a downside. If you can tell me how this story could benefit the hotel then maybe we could discuss it, but right now I don’t want to be a part of it.”
What I know for certain about Levi Presley is what he looked like, how old he was, what kind of car he drove, what school he attended, what girl he liked and what girl liked him, his favorite outfit, favorite movie, favorite restaurant, favorite band, what level belt he held in Tae Kwon Do, what design he had sketched onto the wall of his bedroom—very lightly, in pencil—and later planned to fill in, which drawings of his from art school he is thought to have been particularly proud of and whether their themes could be said to provide an indication of suicidal “ideation,” the nickname of his car, the two different nicknames his parents had each given him, his answers to the questions on the last pop quiz he took in school—
What is good? What is bad? What does “art” mean to you? Now look at the chair on the table in front of you and describe it in literal terms…
—and of which bottle of cologne among the five Levi kept in the medicine cabinet down the hall his small bedroom still smelled, even after his parents had ripped up its carpeting, thrown out its bed, and emptied its closet of everything but his art, by the time I first visited them, three months after his death.
What I know for certain about Levi Presley, in other words, is whatever Gail, his mom, and Levi Senior, his dad, were willing to say to a person they’d never met before about their sixteen-year-old son, which was, I quickly realized upon meeting them, anything.
“Whatever you want,” they said. “We’ll go on the record about anything.”
But, among those who did not know Levi Presley personally, among those in Las Vegas who only knew of this boy by body or rumor or newscast or name, what officially would be placed on the record about his death, and what officially would be taken off it, and what officially, from the very start, would never be allowed to get anywhere near that record of Levi Presley’s death, would come to contrast so completely the eager openness of Levi’s parents that there appeared at times to exist two entirely different versions of Levi Presley’s suicide. There was the one that happened on a Saturday, July 13, at approximately 6:01 p.m., on the herring-boned brickwork of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino’s north entrance driveway, a hot night, the winds from the east blowing white palls of dust, the stock market low, unemployment rates high, the moon only showing half of itself, and Mars and Jupiter aligned, which isn’t particularly rare, and so there is no phenomenon to which one in desperation might try to attribute the disparity of facts that surround this particular death’s most blunt fact: that Levi Presley’s body had been found “supine” and “damaged” but “relatively intact” on the driveway of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, according to the Coroner of Clark County, Nevada; or that Levi Presley’s body had been found “splattered to a million pieces” on the driveway of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, according to an officer with the Las Vegas Police; or that parts of Levi Presley had been found a day later, sixty feet away and across the street, according to a witness at a nearby motel.
And then there was the death, according to some in Vegas, that simply did not seem to have occurred.
More people kill themselves in Las Vegas every year than in any other place in America.
People kill themselves in Las Vegas so often, in fact, that one has a better chance of killing oneself in Vegas than of being killed there, despite the fact that Las Vegas is also one of the most dangerous cities in which to live, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. In Las Vegas, more people kill themselves than die in car accidents, die of AIDS, die of pneumonia, cirrhosis, or diabetes. Statistically speaking, the only things more likely to kill you in Las Vegas are heart disease, stroke, and a few types of cancer.
Otherwise, in Vegas, you’re going to kill yourself.
Maybe this is why, according to the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Las Vegas also has the highest child abuse death rate for children under the age of five. Or the highest rate of drug use among teenagers in the country. The highest number of American arrests for driving under the influence.
The highest high school dropout rate.
Highest household bankruptcy rate.
And the highest number of divorces nationwide, every year.
According to the Executive Director of Westcare, the city’s only full-time mental healthcare facility, an average of five hundred residents seek psychiatric treatment every single month in Vegas, but an estimated 49 percent of them never receive treatment. Indeed, in a nation in which an average of thirty-three hospital beds for every 100,000 patients are typically devoted to psychiatric care, Las Vegas devotes just four beds out of 100,000 to treat its mentally ill.
Some speculate that this shortage of local treatment for the mentally ill has contributed to spikes in the city’s homelessness. According to a 2000 report in the Las Vegas Sun, the homeless rate in Las Vegas nearly quadrupled in the 1990s—from 2,000 people in 1989 to 7,000 people in 1999—an increase that motivated voters in Las Vegas to pass new “quality of life” laws through which dozens of downtown sweeps have since been conducted, citing “jaywalking, sidewalk obstructing, and other violations as an excuse to arrest homeless residents and clean up problem areas,” thus leading the National Coalition for the Homeless to call Las Vegas in 2003 “the meanest city in America.”
Nevertheless, according to the Nevada Development Authority’s Las Vegas Perspective of 2005, an average of 8,000 people move into the city every single month. It is the fastest growing metropolitan area in America. As a result, the Las Vegas Valley’s shortage of land has become so pronounced that a local paper once reported that two new acres of land in Las Vegas are developed every hour, on each of which are squeezed an average of eight three-bedroom homes.
Fortune magazine has called Las Vegas “the best place in the country to have any kind of business.”
Retirement Places Rated has said it’s “the nation’s most desirable retirement community.”
And Time magazine has named Las Vegas “The New All-American City,” the same year in which a study entitled “Social Stress in the US” ranked Las Vegas among the most stressful cities in which to live.
For every five new residents who move to Las Vegas, three natives move out.
I started to volunteer at the Las Vegas Suicide Prevention Center after moving to the city to help my mom out. The center made me sign a “waiver of intent,” make a cash donation of $100, and take a three-week-long course about the city’s suicide problems.
“Some people say it’s drugs, and others say it’s stress, and of course there are always people who blame our suicides on the gambling,” explained Marjorie Westin, the director of the center. “But I’ve been studying this city’s problem for my entire adult life, and none of those theories are right. The truth is that nobody wants to hear the real answer about suicide.”
Marjorie Westin founded the Las Vegas Suicide Prevention Center when she was still a graduate student, thirty-five years ago. There are twenty-three people who volunteer for the center, one of whom is on duty at any given time, receiving calls in his or her own private home. This is a variation on the standard hotline system in which two trained counselors usually answer calls together, providing each other support in a centralized location.
But given the volume of calls that the Vegas center receives, plus the dearth of volunteers who are available to work, the Las Vegas Suicide Prevention Center employs a local answering service to screen its hotline calls, which then forwards the “important” ones to a volunteer on duty.
Sometimes, however, the American Telephone Answering Service itself gets overloaded. Sometimes it asks callers to leave messages for the center. Sometimes refers callers to hotlines out of state. Sometimes doesn’t even manage to answer calls at all. According to a study by the Las Vegas Sun in 2001, in fact, only 55 percent of the paper’s calls ever reached a hotline counselor.
On my first day of class at the Suicide Prevention Center, I drove east down Flamingo Road in search of the hotline’s office, miles away from the Vegas Strip, beneath the many overpasses leading out of town.
For a few more dusty miles I drove south on Sandhill Road, a street so removed from what most visitors ever see that a woman at a bus stop from whom I asked directions shook her head and looked again at my out-of-state license plate.
“No,” she said, turning her head away. “Sorry.”
On the way to the hotline center are nursing homes and trailer parks and the low-rise pink motels that offer rentals by the month. There is Omelet House and Mugshots Lounge and Al Phillips’ Cleaners FLAGS CLEANED HERE FOR FREE. There is an intersection with Desert Inn Road where six different strip malls anchor the roads’ four corners. There is 24-Hour Real Estate—now open 24 hours!—The Helene Talent Agency—free talent consultations—and Jane’s Attractive Birds—buy one get two free. There is Famous Nails, Rapid Medical, and in an otherwise empty parking lot there is a small idle fleet of purple dog-grooming vans.
Sharing a block with the Suicide Prevention Center is an alcohol-free bar called Easy Does It—the doors that god opens no man can close—a card shop that offers HIV testing, and a bike rack with a chain wrapped and padlocked to nothing.
The center itself, it turned out on my arrival, is an unmarked building of one-room offices—a consortium of temp agencies, telemarketers, personal-injury lawyers, and an organization that calls itself Backyards of America, Inc.—all of which share a single bathroom, a single secretary, and a conference table in the middle of the building’s one hallway.
“I wish we had the luxury of an actual phonebank,” said Marjorie. “And if we had the right funding and enough volunteers, of course I would prefer that we have a whole team of people here. But every year, without fail, there are three hundred suicides in the city of Las Vegas. That’s one suicide every twenty-six hours. So if I’ve got twenty-three volunteers taking six-hour shifts, well… you do the math. This is a losing battle.”
In comparison, the Suicide Crisis Call Line in Reno upstate is a twenty-four-hour center with a rotating staff of sixty-five volunteers, each of whom receives fifty-six hours of professional training, and all of whom are certified by the American Association of Suicidology.
“Some people assume the Reno center is better than ours,” said Marjorie. “But their hotline is in a city of 400,000 people, and every year their budget is $100,000. Las Vegas has a population almost five times that size, and a suicide rate that’s six times higher. The most I ever get in funding is $15,000. Reno’s hotline isn’t better. Reno is what’s better. Theirs is a city that cares.”
During my training with two other volunteers, I learned about what Marjorie called “the perfect hotline call.”
“The best call,” she said, “will result in five answers to these five basic questions: First of all, who are they? Obviously, the reason you want to know who a caller is is so that you can use their name in conversation to make them feel more comfortable. Then, what are they planning on doing? Do they just want to chat, or do they have a gun in their hand? Then, where are they? Are they home, in their car, in a public place? We have a lot of hotels in Las Vegas, right? So ‘How to Handle Calls from the Major Hotels’ is the chapter in our manual that will help you with that one. Now, when are they going to do this? There’s a difference, of course, between someone who’s having a bad day, and someone who’s just swallowed a whole bottle of Seconal. And so that brings us to ‘How.’ We’ve talked about guns and we’ve talked about pills, but of course there are many ways that we can kill ourselves. There’s suffocation, there’s cutting, there’s hanging, immolation…”
“What about ‘why’?” I asked during class.
“No,” Marjorie said. “We don’t ever ask ‘why.’”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because ‘why’ is what gets asked in therapy with a counselor. It’s not something we can handle on our hotline, hon. What we offer is information, like where to find a therapist so they can get themselves some help. Asking ‘why’ will open up a whole big can of worms. Trust me, it gets messy. You don’t want to deal with ‘why.’”
“Why do you feel like the world is going to come to an end?” I later asked a caller my first night of volunteering.
“Because it isn’t going to come to a beginning.”
I was home, at my mom’s, taking the calls that the answering service had forwarded to my cell.
We had the television on.
The cat was on her back.
My mom was beading jewelry to make some extra cash.
One man called to masturbate while he whispered “I’m so lonely.”
A lot of people hung up after silence or just breathing.
One woman called while crying during the local evening news, screaming at me “Whore!” when the weather forecast started.
I sat that night with the manual on my lap for six hours, sometimes opened up to the chapter do’s and don’ts—“Don’t ever dare a caller to ‘go ahead and do it’”—and sometimes to the chapter on suicide facts and fables—“Suicide is believed to be contagious among teens”—and sometimes to the chapter on useful information—“If somebody’s calling you, they probably want your help”—but I could never figure out which information I should use, how much talking I should do, how much listening, be how friendly, exactly how much to feel.
What I realized quickly on the hotline that summer is that I do not know how to fix a problem if that problem is someone’s solution.
People would call the hotline and I would start to understand. Instead of saying “no,” “you’re overreacting,” “everything will be fine,” I would sit sometimes and nod, forgetting that there were answers I was supposed to have to give.
Yet as each new caller reached the line I instinctively still reached out for the hotline’s bulky manual, its lists of things to do, a bag of Swedish Fish, my mother for a stick with an orange feather on it, and my mother’s cat, with just her eyes, for some movement in the air.
It was Saturday and hot and the wind was blowing hard but did not come in the house.
The moon began to show up. Only half of it arrived.
A young boy called briefly, didn’t say very much.
And then my shift continued on through Hitler and the Occult and Trading Spaces: Boston and the local late-night news, on which a white and mottled sheet was shown rumpled on the ground. Blue lights. Someone’s shoes. The red pavilion entry of the Stratosphere Hotel, around which a perimeter with yellow tape was drawn.
It’s estimated that only 40 percent of suicides are the result of chemical imbalance. The remaining 60 percent are caused by “undetermined factors.”
We know that people are four times more likely to kill themselves in a city than any other kind of environment.
We also know, however, that rural can be bad.
As are the hours between noon and six.
Or if you don’t drink coffee your chances of suicide are three times higher than if you did.
Ditto if you are a woman who uses the pill instead of a diaphragm, are a man with tattoos on his neck or lower arms, are a child with green eyes, have any silver fillings.
If you were born under the signs of Aries, Gemini, or Leo: that is bad.
You are more likely to want to kill yourself during a new moon than a full one. More if you don’t have pets, more if you own a gun, more if you earn between $32,000 and $58,000 a year.
More if you’re male.
More if you’re white.
More if you’re over sixty-five.
It helps if you live anywhere in the United States other than Nevada, Wyoming, Alaska, or Montana, although the experts so far can’t figure out why.
Nor have they figured out why Native Americans once tended to kill themselves more often than any other group, but then, fifteen years ago, stopped killing themselves significantly.
They do not know why, generally speaking, white suicide victims tend to shoot themselves, while black suicide victims tend to poison themselves, Hispanics tend to hang themselves, and teens to cut themselves.
Recently, Dr. John Fildes of the University of Nevada’s College of Medicine received $1.5 million from the federal government in order to study the issue of suicide in Las Vegas, which is why, after the death of Levi Presley at the Stratosphere Hotel, his office was the first I called for information about local suicides.
By the time I finally met Dr. Fildes in person, however, our appointment had been rescheduled four times in eight months, his federal grant had long expired, and the most that he’d concluded about the suicides of Las Vegas is that he still did not know what caused them.
It was to Sergeant Tirso Dominguez, therefore, an officer at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s Office of Public Information, that I turned for information about Las Vegas suicides. But “I don’t have a comment about anything like that” is how Sergeant Dominguez responded to my request for information.
It was from Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media and Public Officials, a pamphlet of guidelines developed by the Centers for Disease Control, that I learned that “‘no comment’ is not a productive response to media representatives who are covering a suicide story.”
It was Eric Darensburg, assignments editor at KLAS Channel 8 in Las Vegas, who told me that his station had a policy against recording footage of suicide scenes when I asked to see the footage that his station had recorded of the scene outside the Stratosphere on the evening Levi died. And it was Eric Darensburg who also said, when I provided him with the date on which his station aired that footage, that their film librarian was out of town, that their library was currently very messy, that he wasn’t going to be able to track any footage down.
It was from Bob Gerye, principal of the Las Vegas Academy of International Studies and Performing and Visual Arts, where Levi was a student for two years before he died, that I received no comment in response to my request for his insights about the effect of suicide on his school. But it was Bob Gerye who did say, in response to the teachers and parents and students who requested that a memorial be held at their school, “No.”
“I don’t want,” the principal said, “mass hysteria on my hands.”
And it was an eyewitness to Levi’s death at the Stratosphere Hotel—a man who’d made a statement to the police that same night, plus several informal statements to various TV stations, one local Vegas blogger, and a weekly tabloid paper—who said to me “fuck off” when I asked him for a comment.
“This is a private matter,” said the man, hanging up.
“The only real problem Las Vegas faces,” said cultural critic Hal Rothman, the chair of the Department of History at the University of Nevada, is “people who come from other places who don’t know shit about this town but want to write about it.”
The “people” to whom Rothman was speaking when he said this were fifteen young journalists from Berkeley, California, who had come to Las Vegas, as Rothman suspected, in order to write a series of essays about the place, a project that resulted in a book entitled The Real Las Vegas: Life Beyond the Strip, a collection of hard-hitting cultural criticism that has since been called one of the most insightful portraits of the city since Learning from Las Vegas. It was published around the same time as Rothman’s own study, Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Shed Its Stigma to Become the First City of the Twenty-First Century, a book of conspicuously aggressive boosterism for a work of supposed criticism, a combination of cultural pandering and pro-business rallying from an author who seems never to have met a corporate shark he didn’t like.
Indeed, that “shit about the town” which Rothman insists only locals like himself are allowed to write is seldom actually written about by Las Vegas locals.
“Another sign of how much America’s fastest growing city has become hostage to the corporate lords of gambling,” Sally Denton wrote in a December 2000 article in the Columbia Journalism Review. “This situation seems borne out by the number of local reporters who, like elected politicians and public officials, tend to end up on the public relations staffs of [Las Vegas] casinos.”
In 1983, for example, when Las Vegas casino owner Steve Wynn decided to apply for a gaming license in Britain, the Independent of London reported that an investigation by Scotland Yard drew links between Wynn and the Genovese crime family, an investigation that subsequently was referred to in advertisements by the publisher of a new book about Steve Wynn, Running Scared: The Life and Treacherous Times of Las Vegas Casino King Steve Wynn. However, even though the Independent’s report was never challenged, Wynn still sued the publisher of Running Scared for what he considered “libelous statements,” winning $3 million in a Nevada state court, bankrupting the publisher of the biography in question, and somehow winning support from Las Vegas journalists, such that the allegations that initiated his suit were covered by the daily Las Vegas Review-Journal—arguably the most influential paper in the state—for only one day, in only one article, on page five, section B, under the quarter-inch-high headline “Wynn Sues Local Writer.”
In contrast, the Las Vegas Review-Journal provided several weeks worth of coverage for Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman when he threatened to sue a writer named James McManus, an Illinois reporter whose popular memoir, Positively Fifth Street, falsely alleged the Mayor’s participation in planning the assassination of a local judge:
With Jimmy Chagra on trial in Texas for heroin trafficking, Jack, Ted, and Benny Binion convened in booth no. 1 of the Horseshoe Coffee Shop with Oscar Goodman, the hyperaggressive young attorney representing the accused. The upshot of that meeting was a $50,000 contract for Charles Harrelson, actor Woody’s father, to assassinate U.S. District Judge John Wood—or so the lore has had it.
While the lore surrounding Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman has always had it that actor Woody’s father was indeed once hired, that Judge John Wood was indeed once murdered, that Mayor Oscar Goodman did indeed defend Chagra, and indeed that his defense of other Las Vegas figures whom residents widely recognize as members of the mob were the kind of close relationships that helped employ the mayor before his election, that meeting at the Horseshoe as described by McManus could not be proven as having ever taken place, which is why, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote about the suit, “the Mayor took offense at this besmirching of his rep,” and which is why, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal subsequently wrote, “Mayor Oscar Goodman may have defended reputed mobsters, but that doesn’t mean he is one,” and which is why, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal also later wrote, “ironies abound in Goodman’s life… here’s a man who freely admits his acquaintance with casino Black Book members and crime family capos… [and] here’s a man who demands respect,” and which is why, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal finally explained, “not only was the allegation that Goodman was included in a criminal conspiracy without factual basis, it wasn’t the only error in the paragraph. The dominant subject of the paragraph, Jimmy Chagra, was called a heroin trafficker, but in reality he worked with cocaine.…”
In the end, this was local coverage that so triumphantly succeeded for Mayor Oscar Goodman that within a few weeks, in the New York Times Book Review, a full-page ad appeared with a letter of apology addressed to Mayor Goodman, signed by the publisher of McManus’s book. It was accompanied by a photograph featuring Mayor Goodman, arms folded, face smiling, legs spread and firmly braced beneath the shiny glass hull of the Stratosphere Hotel.
“We don’t want anything in our city that might upset the tourist,” State Senator Dina Titus has said about her district, the seventh precinct of Clark County, Las Vegas, Nevada. “So if it’s a touch of reality that isn’t pretty, then we want to get rid of it. You don’t want to come in contact with reality when you’re here for a fantasy.”
“Well of course people are paranoid about suicide here,” Ron Flud explained in his County Coroner’s Office. “I mean, it’s in business, it needs tourists. Every resident’s bread and butter is based on this city’s image. And suicide doesn’t sell.”
Indeed, Ron Flud was the only official in greater Las Vegas who agreed to talk about suicide.
“I’m a finder of facts,” he said, “that’s my job, it’s what I do. I don’t see the point of concealing information.”
The Coroner’s Office in Las Vegas is tan and stuccoed and flat-roofed and small and wedged within a district of attorneys’ offices and accountants’ offices and psychiatrists’ offices and banks. Inside it are no blood-spotted sheets covering bodies in the lobby or tumblers lying around full of cloudy yellow liquids, no people in the hallways wearing black rubber aprons or walking to and fro wielding shiny silver tools. In fact, the only indications that his office is responsible for determining the cause of death of nearly everyone in Vegas is a small sign in the lobby—attention funeral directors—a plaque from Nellis Air Force Base—in gratitude for your service—and someone’s remark to a secretary as he passed her in a rush—“Thank you for the chocolate coffin, Pam.”
“I think everyone’s a lot more comfortable,” Ron said, “if we keep a low profile here. Suicide is the most threatening thing that we can encounter as a culture. It’s a manifestation of doubt, the ultimate unknowable. A suicide by someone we know—or even by someone we don’t know—is an ugly reminder that none of us has the answers. So apply that to a city with the nation’s most frequent suicides and you might start to understand this city’s reluctance to talk about it.”
In 533, at the second Council of Orleans, Catholic cardinals actually voted to “outlaw” suicide.
The Talmud forbids even mourning its victims.
And before one can ponder Islam’s ancient question—“What ought one think of suicide?”—the Koran quickly answers, “It is much worse than homicide.”
Hindus condemn it, the Buddha always forbade it, and in Zurich there was an ordinance once on the city’s books that condemned all suicides to burials beneath a mountain.
“So that their souls,” read the law, “may eternally be suppressed.”
Psychologists were still debating the criminality of suicide as late as the 1970s, claiming that women who kill themselves after committing adultery—or, in the professional terminology at the time, “morally fallen women”—will usually commit suicide by jumping from a window. That gay men who feel ashamed of being “sexually penetrated” will stab themselves repeatedly until they are dead. Or that anyone who is maddened by “poisonous thoughts” will likely succumb to gas.
“I’d say the taboo surrounding suicide is the number one reason I get sued,” Ron said.
Earlier in the week, Ron had been in court for a trial in which a suicide victim’s family had sued him in order to change his classification of their only daughter’s death.
“Apparently, when I called it a ‘suicide’ I prevented her from going to heaven.”
He scratched his beard and looked away.
“And I understand their motivation, as silly as it seems. The whole cultural psychology of this city is obsessed with convincing ourselves that this is a place of leisure, that no one can get hurt here. But this is a city just like any other city. We don’t live in the hotels, we don’t eat dinner at the buffets, our wives and daughters aren’t all feather dancers at lounges on the Strip. Las Vegas is a town. And it can be wonderful and it can be fun, but it’s also a place with more suicides than anywhere else in America. Now, obviously, I understand why the city doesn’t include that in any of its brochures, but my point is that we can’t fix the problem if we don’t actually start acknowledging it.”
Behind Ron Flud in his downtown office was a portrait of George Washington mounted on a horse. A thin brown folder was on his wide polished desk. Inside it, the cause of Levi Presley’s death—“multiple head and body traumas”—was typed into the box that was labeled body in his four-page Coroner’s Report.
“Anyway,” Ron said. “Guess we should move on to why you’re really here.”
He opened and closed the folder intermittently as we talked, massaging out of it facts before then molding them into stories.
He said, for example, after glancing at a photograph of Levi’s body after falling, that the worst damage done to a body like this is “internal, not external… hard to believe, eh?”
He said, “Did you know there’s a maximum air speed our bodies will reach, no matter how high we jump from or how heavy we are?”
He told me a story about a woman in New Zealand who fell out of an airplane on a flight over mountains.
“She fell 20,000 feet into a pile of snow, and survived without major damage.”
But he did not say that afternoon in his office, even after I asked him two or three times, whether it is likely to lose consciousness in a fall.
He did not say, as a nineteenth-century geologist who studied mountain climbers once did, that there is “no anxiety, no trace of despair, no pain, no regret, nor any sadness as one falls…. Instead, the person who is falling often hears beautiful music while surrounded by a superbly blue heaven that is filled with roseate clouds… and then, suddenly, and painlessly, all sensations are extinguished immediately from the body at the exact moment that the body makes contact with the ground.”
In other words, Ron Flud did not explain how it was that Levi’s sneakers in the Polaroid he showed me, lying twenty feet on the brick pavement from his body, were knocked off at the moment that his body hit the ground, even though his sneakers look unscuffed in the photo, unstained, still laced, and even double-knotted.
“I wanted to leave my mark on this city,” casino owner Bob Stupak once said about his Stratosphere, the tallest American building west of the Mississippi. “What I wanted to do for Vegas is what the Eiffel Tower did for Paris, or what the Empire State Building did for New York…. I wanted my building to be a symbol, to be synonymous with Vegas itself.”
“Indeed,” said Dave Hickey, an art critic at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. “He definitely created a new symbol for Las Vegas. But that still begs the question: What does the symbol mean?”
Dave Hickey has been called the city’s resident art historian, an ambassador for Las Vegas to the rest of the world.
“You know why I like it here?” he said. “Because everything in this city is economically driven. And that’s the only true democracy there is in this country. That’s why I like teaching art students in Vegas. None of them are fucking wimps.”
We met one morning before nine o’clock at a bar on the Strip called the Fireside Lounge, a room of red couches, octagonal tables, a neon strip of blue surrounding pit fires, and mirrors on every wall, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall.
Three men in black suits were drunk on one couch, a couple on the next was making-out with loud moans, a woman on another was alone with a Bloody Mary, and Dave at the bar in black cowboy boots was funneling a free bowl of peanuts to his mouth.
“Sure,” he said, “the Stratosphere’s the tallest dick in Las Vegas, that’s true, and when you have the biggest dick you get some respect. But I also think the fact that the building is so fucking big is why it’s also had so much trouble in this town. Las Vegas architecture is about commerce, and commerce is about flexibility. There’s absolutely no gap here between a thought and an act. This city prides itself on its ability to follow the whims of tourism, because that way, if something doesn’t work, you’re better equipped to try something else. If you build something and it fails, you just blow it up. Buildings, neighborhoods, politicians… whatever. This city doesn’t assume that anything’s permanent. But the Stratosphere can only be exactly what it is. I mean, that thing’s there to stay. And that’s what’s wrong with it. The Stratosphere’s trapped being ‘The Stratosphere’ forever.”
In 1996, just after the Stratosphere opened its doors, experts were consulted about how it could be demolished.
“That’s a good question,” said the Stratosphere’s contractor.
While most buildings in Las Vegas are chicken wire, stucco, and steel support beams, the Stratosphere is made of several hundred thousand cubic feet of concrete.
“Basically, you’d have to fell it like a giant tree,” said Mark Loizeaux, an implosion expert who’s overseen the demolition of several famous Las Vegas resorts. “You’d incline it in one direction by tilting it explosively, and then you’d explode all the rest of it while it was falling to the ground. Basically, you’d want to turn the whole thing into gravel while it was still in mid-air, pieces the size of your living-room couch. The biggest problem with doing that, though, is that you’d need to have an area to do this in that was as wide as the building is tall.”
In other words, an area of land on the Las Vegas Strip that was a quarter-mile-long, and vacant.
“Plus,” he added, “there’s the issue of cost, because you’d probably end up spending more to take this thing down than it actually cost to build.”
Approximately a billion dollars.
“So I’d say it’s there to stay,” said Loizeaux.
“It’s just not what people come to Vegas for,” said Dave. “This isn’t New York, this isn’t Chicago, we’re not a city of great buildings. We’re the city of schtick and gimmick, the place that you come to when you need to escape.”
“From what do you think?” said Dave.
He called a waitress over, asked for more peanuts.
“Look at the most successful hotels in this town,” he said. “What do they got in common? They’re all ceilings and floors and no fucking walls. Casino designers know that people don’t like gambling with a lot of space above them. So when you look at a place like the Bellagio, which is the most successful hotel this city’s ever seen, it’s got this giant open floor plan of 80,000 square feet, but it’s all underneath a really low ceiling. It’s multilayered, if you look at it. You’ve got the main ceiling above everything, and then that steps down to a lower level, and then there’s a hood that hangs under that, and then an awning under that. So what you end up with is a twenty-foot-high ceiling that’s got nine feet of head room. Why? Because the hotel knows that the reason people come here is to be protected from God. I’m serious. No one’s consciously thinking about this, but that’s why they’re here. They want as much space between them and Jesus Christ as they can get while they’re fucking around. That’s why hotels that emphasize their heights don’t really do well here. I mean, you’ve got the Luxor, right, with its light that shoots into space. That opened up in the mid-’90s as a luxury hotel, but ten years later they’ve got some of the lowest room rates on the Strip. Rooms at the Paris Hotel are usually discounted too, despite the fact that it cost them a billion dollars to build it. It’s just not a welcoming place. It’s got tons of tiny windows built into its facade that create a huge towering sense of height over the viewer. People don’t want to be looking up while they’re visiting this city. No one comes to Vegas to pray.”
Initially, Bob Stupak envisioned that the Stratosphere would be the tallest sign in the world. It would stand beside the low-rise facade of his hotel, Bob Stupak’s Vegas World, a twenty-story structure whose theme—“The Sky’s the Limit”—would be written vertically in neon up the length of a rocket ship that would stand 1,000 feet high. At that time, it would have been the tenth tallest structure on Earth.
“But around that time my daughter was living in Australia, and I went to visit her,” he said. “We had lunch at the Sydney Tower, which is a thousand feet high and has a revolving restaurant at its top. I saw people standing in line for an hour just to pay for a ride in an elevator to get to its observation deck. And I suddenly had an idea. I was only trying to build a sign in Las Vegas, but what if I put an observation deck on the top of my sign? People would come from all over the country just to stand up there and look. And then at some point I asked, ‘Well, why can’t it go higher?’ Which is when I decided to make the sign 1,149 feet high, instead of just 1,000 feet high, because that seemed like a more scientific number. And then that’s when the whole idea of building the world’s tallest sign stopped being our main concern, because we realized that that’s what we were already doing. The very structure itself would be an advertisement.”
Since 1996, the Stratosphere Hotel has received seven awards from the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s annual readers’ poll, including “Ugliest Las Vegas Building,” “Trashiest Place in Vegas,” “Hotel Most Deserving of Being Imploded,” and a special commendation for Bob Stupak himself: “Most Embarrassing Thing About Las Vegas.”
There have also been eight fires at the Stratosphere Hotel, three of which occurred before the hotel even opened, and one of which broke out during its opening celebration.
There has been one guest strangled to death in his hotel room by strangers, a machine gun fired in its parking garage, and a lawsuit involving over 18,000 plaintiffs.
There was the Federal Aviation Administration’s warning that the architect’s plan for the 1,000-foot-high tower was 600 feet over airport regulations. And then there was the response from the Mayor of Las Vegas that “it’s [the F.A.A.’s] job to make planes safe for Vegas… it’s not the other way around.”
There was, for a long time, when construction on it began, the rumor of an anomaly that locals called a “kink,” a bend in one of the tower’s three 800-foot-high legs, which the Stratosphere’s contractor assured city residents was not a significant structural defect, but which some months later, on an early desert morning, disappeared after it was spray-filled with Styrofoam and painted.
There was, before its opening, the hotel’s stock price of $14.
And then, once it opened, its price of 2¢.
There was the $67 million that it was supposed to cost to build, the $500 million that it actually cost to build, and the $800 million that it accumulated in debt.
There was the hotel’s bankruptcy.
There was the man from Utah who jumped off in 2000.
The man from Britain who jumped off after that.
The jump by the producer of Las Vegas Elvis, a local reality television show about one of the city’s official Elvis Presley impersonators, who said to reporters, when he heard of the jump, “Now whenever I see it, the Stratosphere is going to be my heartbreak hotel.”
There is its appearance from a schoolyard trampoline: alone in the sky on the long brown horizon.
There is its appearance from a nursing home window: alone in the sky above the treeline.
And when coming into the city on 95 from the north or 15 from the south or 93 from the east, there are the five or the sixteen or the twenty-one miles during which the Stratosphere stands alone in the distance, alone over the valley’s high rim of black mountains, alone at the middle of the Las Vegas Strip, alone at the end of a bridge called Poet’s Bridge, a few blocks from the tower, in a rough part of town, upon which someone has written with black magic marker—over the concrete verses that are inscribed on the bridge—You wonder what you’ll do when you reach the edge of the map, out there on the horizon, all that neon beckoning you in from the dark.
After that first evening on the suicide hotline, I called around to find out who Levi Presley was.
I tried to call his parents, but their number wasn’t listed.
I tried to go to his funeral, but his service wasn’t public.
I even called an ad that I had found in the yellow pages: Venus Investigations—a private investigation firm for “unusual and difficult cases.”
Venus had a smoker’s voice, a barking dog and screaming kids and Jeopardy on in the background.
Four hundred dollars cash, she said. For “vital information.”
I sent the money wired.
Five days later Venus called with Levi’s middle name. Told me Levi’s parents had first met in Arizona. Told me Levi hadn’t ever committed any crimes. Told me where they lived, and then she said, “And there’s a tape.”
“A tape?” I asked.
“A security tape.”
Every incident in a hotel in the city of Las Vegas is recorded by thousands of cameras that are embedded in the ceilings.
“So if someone’s cheating at cards,” Venus said over the phone, “or if there’s a fight somewhere, a murder, any kind of shit, the hotel can edit together all the relevant footage and send it to the Vegas police. It limits their liability.”
“And they made one of these of Levi?”
“That’s what I’m hearing, man. Yeah.”
“I wonder if I could see it.”
“Now why the fuck would you want that?”
Levi liked going to Applebees.
A place that’s now out of business.
He wore a lot of white.
Sometimes a silver chain.
And purple-tinted glasses.
He liked a girl named Mary.
Was called by his mom “my little booper.”
His Chrysler LeBaron was “Goose.”
He said that he was sad.
I asked about what.
He said some stuff.
I asked like what.
I sat beside the Presleys on a green leather La-Z-Boy sectional recliner with the ceramic black urn of Levi’s ashes in my lap.
We were beneath their cathedral ceiling.
We were watching TV Land.
We had nuts and we had Triscuits and we had spinach dip and Coke.
We ate soup and then a salad and then chicken and then brownies.
We looked for several minutes at his art in their new den.
We drove across the valley to Tae Kwon Do for Kids, the studio Levi practiced at and coached others after school.
In his studies, the ancient Korean prince who invented Tae Kwon Do thrust long silver needles into the bodies of his slaves, systematically mapping their most vulnerable parts. Gradually, throughout his life, the prince learned that some thrusts could cause unbearable pain, that others caused paralysis, and that sometimes with the right thrust the prince could kill a slave.
“But Tae Kwon Do isn’t about killing,” said Levi’s coach. “It’s about possessing the knowledge to do something and then restraining yourself from it.”
We were sitting in his office among piles of trophy pieces, helping the coach prepare for a new tournament coming up by screwing tiny kickers into braided sequined pillars and then dark wooden bases that read achievement on their plaques.
I learned that night that Tae Kwon Do only has nine levels—there is white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, red, and brown, and then a whole separate series of advanced black belts, each with its own complexity of reticulated levels, nine tiers of nine grades in nine stages without end—because Korean culture does not believe we can be perfect.
All of us that night inside the coach’s office agreed this was significant because he fell for nine seconds.
Then later I learned that the ninth order of heaven is where the angels live.
That before he could receive the secret meaning of runes, Odin had to hang for nine days on a tree.
That there are always nine Muses alive at any time.
Always nine Maidens in ancient Celtic myths.
Always nine floors in sacred Buddhist temples.
If a servant finds nine peas in a pod and places that pod on the floor of her kitchen, the first man who comes in and tramples that pod will be the man she marries.
Possession, they say, is nine-tenths of the law.
To look nine ways is to squint one’s eyes.
To be right as ninepence is to be doing very well.
To be dressed to the nines is to be looking great.
And to be on cloud nine is to be feeling high, a phrase that originated, folklorists say, when the United States weather bureau divided all clouds into nine different levels, the highest of which, at thirty thousand feet, are called cumulonimbus. These are the fluffy ones, the mountainous ones, the ones usually seen on sunny summer days, and which also are the cause of storms.
I think we knew, however, that he really fell for eight.
Drove back to where they lived.
Made plans for dinner soon.
Kissed and hugged and waved goodbye and said we’d be in touch.
I left Las Vegas five months after Levi Presley died.
At some point it came clear while I was visiting the Presleys that in fact I had not spoken to their son the night he died.
It was clear as I left Vegas that some other boy had called.
Clear that if I point to something seeming like significance there is the possibility that nothing real is there.
Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.
Sometimes our wisdom, too, in pursuit of what’s called knowledge.
Levi came home at 2:00 a.m., or he came home at 2:30 a.m. But neither Gail, his mom, nor Levi Senior, his dad, can remember exactly which. This doesn’t matter, though, they both say, because his curfew was 11:00. “We didn’t say anything immediately because he had a tournament the next day, and we knew he needed his sleep,” Gail says. Levi slept for five hours or he slept for four-and-a-half hours, then he woke, showered, dressed, ate nothing, drove to his tournament, stretched, cheered, competed, lost, drove back home, slammed the car door, slammed the front door, slammed his room door, and stayed there. “He was probably in there two hours,” Gail says. Is that unusual? “That’s not unusual,” she says, “but after a tournament I guess it’d be a little unusual, because he really liked to talk about his meets when he came home.” After another hour Gail says she and her husband called Levi into their bedroom and told him that he was grounded for staying out past his curfew and for being at a party to which, they suspected, other kids had brought drugs. Gail says she heard ecstasy. Levi Senior says pot. Levi said fine, threw his cell phone on their bed and told them that they might as well take that too. He slammed their bedroom door, slammed the front door, slammed his car door, and drove away. Is that unusual? “That’s not unusual, he’s a teenager,” says Gail. “But then again we had just grounded him.” Levi drove east down Pleasant Plains Way, turned right onto Rainy River, left onto Joe Michael, right onto Shermcreft, right onto Gowan, left onto Rainbow, right onto Cheyenne, south onto Interstate 15 past two exits, then left onto Sahara, left onto Vegas, left onto Baltimore, and right into the parking garage at the Stratosphere Hotel. He found a space on the fifth level, the blue level, three spaces away from the elevator. It was 5:18 p.m. Levi then either walked down two flights of stairs to the third level of the garage, the orange level of the garage, where a skywalk connects parking to the hotel’s registration. Or, he may have waited there to take the elevator. This was Saturday, however, and in the early evening hours on Saturdays in Vegas the elevators everywhere are slow. Once inside the casino, Levi walked down its red carpeted staircase and passed the Group Tours reception desk on his right side and Roxy’s Diner on his left, where a disk jockey plays ’50s rock and the waitstaff sings. Because it was a Saturday and early evening at Roxy’s “the place definitely would have been hopping,” said their featured waiter, Johnny Pot Roast, who thinks he was on duty that night, he said. “And who knows, I was probably singing ‘Greased Lightning,’ ’cause it’s a high energy number and that’s what we want on a Saturday night.” When Johnny starts singing the waitresses pull microphones from the pouches of their aprons and jump onto the partitions between the diner’s booths. They wave their order pads in the air and shimmy in place while diners lift forkfuls of potatoes to their mouths and Johnny jumps high and lands on his knees and holds his eyes shut as he holds the long ing in the long final high note in “lightning.” Levi then walked past the casino’s forty-eight card tables and 1,200 slot machines, some of which are named after popular American television shows—I DREAM OF JEANNIE, WHEEL OF FORTUNE, HOGAN’S HEROES—and some of which are named after popular American merchandise—SPAM, HARLEY-DAVIDSON, the board game battleship—and some of which are not named after anything at all—MONEY TO BURN, THE NICKEL GAME, PUSH IT PUSH IT PUSH IT—and then Levi walked toward the woman at the foot of the escalator who sells cigarettes and cigars and battery-operated necklaces from a small tray that hangs from her shoulders below her breasts. There is a blue star necklace and a red orb necklace and a yellow cross necklace available for sale, each of which glows steadily or flickers randomly or even can be programmed “to reflect your own mood!” Amy, who was on duty that night, knows Levi didn’t buy anything because she would have remembered a boy buying a necklace, she said. “Usually the guys who buy stuff are buying stuff for raves, and I always ask them where they’re going ’cause I’m a raver, too.” Then he went up the escalator. Levi would have stood in line at the hotel’s ticket booth in order to buy a ticket to the top of the hotel’s tower. Because it was Saturday and early evening, however, there would have been a long line at the hotel ticket booth. Levi would have stood between the fanny packs and the midriffs and the open containers and the flip-flops and noticed the backlit advertisements behind the hotel’s ticket booth for the upcoming Billy Ray Cyrus concert in September or the Women’s Boxing Tournament in November or the Stratosphere’s New Guaranteed Refund Slot Program, which pays players back 15 percent of what they’ve lost, and then he would have purchased his ticket from one of the three ticket booth attendants for four dollars rather than six, because he was a Las Vegas resident, and finally he would have begun to walk toward the tower’s elevator at the other end of the Stratosphere’s Tower of Shops Mall. Past Flagmania. Past Alpaca Pete’s. Past the Fabulous Las Vegas Magic Shop and the Great Wall of Magnets and Goldfather’s, a kiosk that sells gold chains by the yard. Levi walked past Aqua Massage. Häagen Dazs. Temporary Henna Airbrush Tattoo. Past Perfumania, Leather Land, Gifts Plus, Arcade. Past COMING SOON TO THIS LOCATION ANOTHER EXCITING SHOP. Past the Stitch It On’s hat embroidery kiosk. Past Vegas Candle’s huge blowout sale! Past Wetzel’s Prezels, Cleo’s Fine Jewelers, and CJ’s Casino Emporium, which sells “vintage 1991” slot machines for $4,995. Levi walked past Breathe, an oxygen bar, where you can “revive your body, renew your spirit, relax your mind, and feel more alive” for fifteen dollars per fifteen-minute dose, which includes your choice of one of eighteen complimentary oxygen aromas, such as Nirvana, Watermelon, Clarity, Peach, Sublime, Cappuccino, Synergy, Dream, Chocolate, Eclipse, Revitalize, or Tangerine. The girls at Breathe don’t remember Levi stopping by the bar that evening, but they do recall hearing about his jump once it occurred. “All I want to say,” said Jenny, who manages the bar, “is that it’s awful that it happened, but I know for a fact that he wasn’t on O2 when he did it.” Then Levi reached the end of the mall and walked down a ramp to wait in the next line. Because it was Saturday and early evening, however, there would have been a long line wrapping around the roped corrals four or five times and stretching back into the mall. Harold, a security guard, eventually would have asked Levi if he had any metal in his pockets, and, because he did, Levi would have emptied his car keys into a white Stratosphere slot machine coin bucket, walked through the metal detector, picked up his keys, and walked into a narrow hallway to wait for the elevator to the tower. Because it was Saturday and early evening, however, the group with which Levi had waited in line would have had to wait in that hallway even longer. It would have been crowded and hot and yellow-lit that night, and for the long meanwhile during which Levi waited he might have glanced over the railing and seen below him the Stratosphere’s amusement area that’s called Strat-O-Fair, a passageway of carnival games beside the hotel’s pool. There is the softball-throwing game called “Cat Splat” and the ring-throwing game called “Orb-a-Toss” and the ride-at-your-own-risk mechanical bull that’s called “Vegas Cowboy”: “Warning! This mechanical bull is designed to simulate the motion of a live bull. Therefore, there is a high probability that the rider will be thrown from, and/or struck by, this mechanical bull. This mechanical bull is a heavy duty machine that will violently, erratically, and unpredictably spin and rotate the rider at high speeds. You must be at least thirteen years old to ride this bull!” Then he entered the elevator. Inside, Levi would have been greeted by a young woman, perhaps Caroline, who would have worn black pants and a pink-and-teal Stratosphere polo shirt, and who would have announced, once the doors had closed, that Levi and the elevator’s other twenty-five-maximum occupants that night would soon be traveling 1,800-feet-per-minute to the top of the Stratosphere tower, even though they would only be traveling 857 feet to the top of the Stratosphere tower, together, in a double-decker elevator in which they would have been so closely arranged that it would have been impossible for them to have counted themselves, some of whom might have been drunk, some of whom might have been talking over the elevator operator’s narrative of their ascent, and some of whom might have interrupted the operator to ask her, several times, on the same trip, while giggling, how many times each day she goes up and down the shaft. Then Levi would have exited and walked into the blue-lit hallway of the first level of the tower’s two-level observation deck, past a closed gift shop, past a closed snack bar, past the picture-paned radio station that had broadcast nothing for years, and into the carpeted round enclosure of the deck, whose floor-to-ceiling windows slant inward toward the ground so that visitors, while looking down at Las Vegas, toe-to-pane at the windows, might experience what pre-opening hotel press releases called, in 1994, “free-fall.” Then he walked upstairs, outside. It was Saturday and early evening and there were many people around. Some kids running around the paved deck of the tower. Some adults looking through the coin-operated telescopes, making sure they wouldn’t work before first depositing a coin. Some older people holding onto the inside chain-link fence of the deck, readjusting their grips each time a copter flew by. Levi walked left, east, away from where the sun had begun its own decline, and leaned briefly against the four-foot-high-railinged fence of the deck while a bride and groom took photographs of each other and then of the view and then of the last three hundred feet of the tower above. Then Levi climbed over the four-foot-high-railinged fence, stepped into what Stratosphere security calls “the moat,” a six-foot-wide concrete paved space between the four-foot-high fence on the deck’s inside perimeter and the ten-foot-high fence at the very edge of the perimeter, and then Levi climbed over the ten-foot-high fence and sat down. It was Saturday and early evening and an alarm was ringing in the hotel’s security office. Levi sat on the ledge for forty-eight seconds before anyone on the deck walked by. Now the sun was gone. Saturday was night. And the valley in which Levi had grown up became bright, and it stayed bright, all the way to the invisible black mountains around it, the wall that would keep the city forever the shape it now was. Security officer Frank then approached Levi from the left, the east, and said “Hey,” or he said “Hey, kid,” or he said “Kid, no,” or he said nothing, and it was his presence alone that caused Levi to turn his head to the left, stand up on the ledge, wave to the security officer, who does not appear on the screen of the video on which Levi is waving, and jump.