Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thanksgiving in the tunnels: The final chapter

It rained the day before Thanksgiving, and the holiday forecast was bleak, so I was worried our trip into the tunnels was going to be canceled … and I’d be stuck with a year’s supply of canned goods and bottled water. But when I woke Thanksgiving morning, the sidewalk in front of my apartment was dry and the sky was partly cloudy. I geared up, stuffed some final items into the trunk of my car and rendezvoused with my friends Billy, Becky and Denise.

We started at a six-barrel storm drain that burrows under Industrial Road, Interstate 15, Caesars Palace and the Strip and opens at the Imperial Palace. In a side tunnel that runs parallel to I-15, we found a campsite that was home to six or seven people and a cute dog named Blue. We gave out Thanksgiving meals, blankets and winter clothing. Billy, who once lived in the tunnel, brought Blue a can of dog food (filet mignon flavored – the good shit!). We hung out for an hour or so – talking, smoking (no, not the good shit!), watching Blue scurry about in a fashionable headlamp collar – then lugged the few remaining items back to our cars.

Our next stop was a seven-barrel drain that rolls under Arville Street, the Orleans and the Home Depot and opens onto a barren flood plain at the corner of Decatur and Tropicana. I have a history with this drain – eerie shrines, madmen who can see in the dark and even “trolls” – and my stomach was hollow as we ducked into the south tunnel. About a quarter-mile into the tunnel, we stumbled on a man, Charlie, stretched out on a cot, half-asleep. We told him we were giving out food and drinks and he asked, jokingly, for a beer.

“I knew we forgot something,” I said.

We set a Thanksgiving meal on the foot of Charlie’s cot and continued into the darkness. The ceiling dropped. The drain widened. We could see into the parallel tunnels though square cuts in the walls, known as “equalizers.” What’s behind those walls, I wondered? What’s just beyond the range of our flashlights?

Very little, it turned out. We passed a deserted camp, turned around at the flood plain (the sky had darkened) and took the north tunnel back toward the outlet. Arching ceilings black with soot … declarations of love and hate scrawled on the walls … another deserted camp (or was that a collection of debris?).

When we ducked out of the drain, it was raining – and we decided to head home. Good idea. As we climbed in our cars, the sky opened up. It was tough to see beyond the windshield wipers.

We gave Billy, who’s transitioning out of the tunnels and into public housing, some of the remaining food and clothes. A few blankets and short-sleeve shirts are all that remain in my trunk. I’ll drop them off at Goodwill next time I’m in the area.

Thanks to Billy, Becky and Denise for helping prepare the meals, donating items and being good company in those long and lonely corridors. Also, thanks to Aly and Danna for their contributions. Those skinny silhouettes with cigarette-ravaged voices sure seemed to appreciate it.

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