Conjunctions:48 Faces of Desire

Essay on What Is Want
When my mother and I first moved to the city of Las Vegas, we lived for several weeks at the Budget Suites of America, a low-rise concrete pink motel with AIR COND and WEEKLY RATES and a Burger King next door.

     We started to look for houses in developments called “Provence,” “Tuscany,” and “Bridgeport Landing,” wandering through their model homes on plastic carpet runners.

     In the master bedroom suites there were books displayed, their dust jackets removed, their spines always up, their titles too faint to clearly read at a glance. In the mudrooms there were chalkboards with the reminder Buy milk! Mason jars of pasta in the kitchens neatly spilled. Ceramic white bowls for family pets on the floor. Silk flowers in blue vases on the dining-room tables sparkling with little specks of round plastic morning dew.

     There were terra-cotta tiles, screened-in lanais, entertainment centers in every living room.

     The model called the “Amador” had columns beside its door. The “Palomar” had room for four cars in its garage. And “Versailles,” gleaming white, came with an optional motorized gate.

     In every house were cookies in stainless-steel ovens that were baking golden brown for families never there.

     “All you have to do,” said one hostess in one house, “is pick your model and your lot, and then leave the rest to us.”

     During one of those summer mornings when we first had moved to Las Vegas, my mother and I stood in the dirt of that city while listening to a broker around some wooden stakes and flags, some white-chalked land plots and orange-painted pipes, trying to see what the broker saw as he motioned with his hands, as he motioned with his wrists and wriggly fingers in full circles, motioning before his face, above his head, and to my mom, motioning toward the west, and then to me, and off the lot, then motioning past the stakes, the whipping flags, the lines in sand, beyond to where some pocks of little yucca plants were blooming, their tiny white flowers that never open all the way, their wobbly tall stalks of puffy million-seeded pods, their sword-long fronds that always indicate a desert, fanning out beyond the yellow of the lot in which we stood, fanning north above the shadow cast down by a mountain, fanning up and fanning over, fanning down and fanning out, then fanning off the private acreage that defines Summerlin, the walled and gated community my mother came to live in: orange houses, green parks, a white clock tower at its heart.

     “You gotta imagine the land out here without all these weeds and stuff,” the broker told my mom as he kicked a yucca plant. “You’re on your back lawn, iced tea, easy tunes, maybe a little water feature bubbling in the distance.”

     We stood there on a $100,000 one-eighth-acre lot because Ethan, my mother’s broker, had said that living in this community would be like living in New England, our home for the previous four generations.

     “I like to tell people,” Ethan told us, “that more trees line the sidewalks of Summerlin per capita than any other neighborhood here in Las Vegas,” a fact he was particularly sure of, Ethan said, because the builder of Summerlin, a corporation called “Howard Hughes,” had surveyed the number of trees in the neighborhoods of other builders, divided that by the number of residents in each, then ordered sixteen percent more trees than the highest of those estimates.

     In the Spanish, we were told, las vegas means “the meadows,” a lush haven that was named in 1829 for the “miles of shaded peace it offered early pioneers.”

     That first Spanish scout who wandered into Las Vegas said that it appeared “like a godsend” to him, “a great lie within the desert,” “unbelievable,” “unexpected,” “truly the surest proof that this land is touched by God.”

     We walked through the sand, onto sidewalk again, up the two steps into Ethan’s red Chevy S-10, then drove across the yellow lots of yucca-dotted desert, past gray concrete walls that were still being built, then finished concrete walls being painted closer in, beige concrete walls keeping yuccas off lawns, beige concrete walls lined with saplings, lamps, and shrubs, beige concrete walls with red swing-set tops behind them.

     “This was all green at one point, as far as the eye can see. Meadows ... meadows ... green meadows,” Ethan said. “That’s what Summerlin’s all about, bringing all that nature back.”

     Now, in Las Vegas, there is a Country Club at the Meadows, a Golden Meadows Nursing Home, Meadows Coffee, Meadows Jewelry, Meadows Mortgage, Meadows Glass, Meadows Hospital, Automotive, Alterations, and Pets. The Meadows Country Day School is a private k through six. Meadows’ Women’s Center is in Village Meadows Mall. Meadows Trailer Park has a waiting list for lots. The Meadows Vista Townhomes are apartments near the mall. And the Meadows Church of Light has a Christ on its marquee.

     Barefoot, white-ankled, he’s teaching in a meadow.

     When Summerlin was started in 1988, its developer said that it wanted to create “the most successful master-planned community in the United States of America,” and as we entered the town’s center, called the “Town Center at Summerlin,” Ethan explained that the goal of the builder had already been surpassed, even with only two-thirds of the development complete.

     “Someone moves into a new Summerlin home every two hours and twenty-two minutes,” he said.

     We circled in the town center at Summerlin’s parking lot, idled behind a Lexus, beside a fountain, under sun. Then Ethan led us deeper into the center of the town, past Jamba Juice and Quiznos and Starbucks storefronts, past the life-sized bronze statues of a shopping mom and son, and into a green expanse called “Willow Park at Summerlin,” a three-acre fluffy stretch of shrubs and white flowers and a long mattress lawn toward which Ethan spread his arms.

     “This is what living in Summerlin is all about, my friends.”

     Acrobats in sequined shorts flipped backward down the lawn. A mime followed behind a man who licked an ice cream cone. A stilt walker, burger stand, barber-shop quartet. Children chased each other with their faces brightly painted. Dogs chased the children with their eyes as they heeled. Above the park on two white poles two banners stretched and waved:



     “OK,” Ethan said, “I’ll be honest, with ya, right? It won’t be like this every day that you’re living in Las Vegas. But I just wanted to show you how much spirit we all have. You can tell that everyone’s really psyched to be living here, right?”

     Of the 335,000 acres that constitute the Las Vegas valley in Nevada, only 49,000 remain undeveloped. According to the Nevada Development Authority’s Las Vegas Perspective of 2005, 8,500 people move into the valley every single month. It is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in America. As a result, the valley’s shortage of land has become so pronounced that a local paper reported in 1999 that one new acre of land is developed in Las Vegas every hour and fifteen minutes, on each of which are squeezed an average of eight three-bedroom homes.

     Indeed, even as early as 1962, when the population of Las Vegas was one-thirtieth its current size, the natural springs that fed the city’s growing population noticeably began to dry, and then eventually were depleted, and then sank forever after beyond the reach of Las Vegas.

     The city built a pipeline through the desert, therefore, running fifty miles into the city from Lake Mead, the artificial lake that was formed by Hoover Dam, the largest artificial body of water in the world. Today, the pipeline carries ninety percent of all the water that Las Vegas uses, although the lake that it’s been tapping for over sixty-five years is eighty feet below what it normally should be, thirty-five percent beneath its usual capacity, losing about a trillion gallons of water every year.

     During the summer my mother and I first moved to Las Vegas, the lake’s surface reached what was being called locally “a potentially low level,” but which hydrologists elsewhere in the United States were calling “the worst southwestern drought conditions in one hundred years” and “the worst drought conditions in five hundred years” and “not technically a drought according to the data,” as one geologist wrote in 2005, because “the level of precipitation that has made possible the unprecedented growth in that city” has been a “phenomenal fluke,” has been “wholly unnatural,” is “not what a desert would normally be like.”

     “Almost a century and a half ago,” wrote the geologist,
when Las Vegas was discovered, an extraordinary cycle of rainfall was just starting in the area. It eventually would bring an increase in annual precipitation and would cause, among other things ... the appearance of “meadows” in the Las Vegas valley ... But vegetation like that just isn’t indigenous to a desert. What’s indigenous to Las Vegas is sagebrush and creosote and maybe a couple yucca ... [But] Las Vegas residents don’t want to acknowledge that they’re living in the single driest place in America, and this is what has caused in part the problems the city faces.
     In response to the warnings of a drought that summer, the general manager of the Las Vegas Water Authority said that “the notion that we have only a finite amount of water, and that when that water is gone we’ll have to stop our city’s growth, is a notion that belongs in the distant past.”

     And so, we settled in.

     We moved my mother’s cat, her books, her pinball machine, the three floors and five bedrooms of boxes from home. We planted a tomato in a large pot outside, bought green plastic chairs and a table for the deck, hung drapes to frame the view of the fairway in the back, the green promise we couldn’t play on but paid extra to live beside, and took a trip to see the lake that had made that promise possible, the blue shock in yellow rock that attracts more campers and boaters and fishers and swimmers and skiers and hikers and divers and scouts than any other national recreation area—seven million annual visitors on average—an estimate that the National Park Service raised to eight million visitors by the end of that summer, an increase that one ranger tried to explain was not caused by more campers or boaters or fishers or swimmers or skiers or hikers or scouts, but by amateur archaeologists, owners of metal detectors, history buffs, photographers, and those who used to live there.

     For what attracted the extra million visitors to Lake Mead that year was not the usual lure of the lake’s artificial beauty, nor its recreational usefulness, nor even just the novelty that such a lake could exist, but rather the simple fact that the lake was slowly dying, that as the city quickly drained it, the lake’s level lowered, and there slowly reemerged from its sinking blue surface the far distant past of the city of Las Vegas:
a chimney stack from a concrete plant, poking higher and higher above the water every day, a giant complex of mixing vats and grinders that was built in the thirties to help pour Hoover Dam, and then closed once the lake that the dam formed rose;

the B-29 bomber that crashed into Lake Mead, the gray one from the forties that was left there by the air force, fifty feet below at the time of the crash, now twenty feet below, its tail fin just ten;

the sundae shop, the baker’s shop, the grocery store, the bank;

the wooden Mormon temple, the Gentry Mining Inn;

the 233 crosses and stones, the crypts and the clothing, the necklaces and rings and nail frames around bones: every deceased resident of St. Thomas, Nevada, exhumed and zip-locked and reburied upriver, six days before the lake would swallow the town whole.
Even a five thousand–year-old city reemerged, the ancient Indian settlement called “the Anasazi Lost City,” a name it didn’t receive because the city had been misplaced, but rather because the city—up until that dry summer—had remained one of the country’s only pre-Columbian listings to be cataloged as “submerged” on the National Register of Historic Places.

     “We may not have a history that’s as rich as other cities,” said a megaphoned voice in Summerlin that day, “and we may not be the biggest in America yet, but, ladies and gentlemen, do you know what we are?”

     What? yelled the park.

     “We are the city of big spirit!”

     Some dogs barked, the park clapped, Ethan cheered, and then he hooed. It was noon and a stilt-walker’s legs were on the ground, heat was sweating lines down the faces of some clowns, dogs were lapping ice cream off the bushes in the park, and the megaphoned voice said, “All right, now, let’s go!”

     He assembled us into groups around the edges of the park, made a countdown, a joke, then fired a starting gun.

     This was a city, it was suggested that morning, that often came together in community spirit. Earlier, the city had come together to watch the old Dunes Hotel be imploded in a gray cloud of smoke in twelve seconds. It had come together before to watch the Sands, Hacienda, and Landmark be imploded. And it came together at 2:30 one recent Vegas morning, in an estimated crowd of twenty thousand people, in order to watch the old Aladdin Hotel be imploded, an event that attracted three TV news copters, two dozen articles in local newspapers, special rates for hotel rooms overlooking the implosion, a six-course Implosion Dinner for Two, and 19,462 more people than the 538 Summerlin neighbors who convened on a morning with sun in a park to prove that Las Vegas had community spirit, an effort that they made on behalf of the city, but without the news copters or dinners for two or the 363 extra group huggers that they needed to unseat the current record-holding huggers, the nine hundred employees of Goldman Sachs in New York.

     “That’s OK,” yelled the voice. “That’s all right, it’s all right. We have a contingency plan here. Hold on, folks.”

     We milled.

     It was noon still, or later.

     Someone’s cell phone started ringing.

     Ethan took his shirt off and wrapped its sleeves around his head.

     “I’ll get you back to the hotel real soon,” he said. “Promise.”

     I heard two strollers on the asphalt of a path emit two screams without a response.

     I watched a teenage boy try to walk out of the park, but a clipboarded woman at the edge sent him back.

     “If I could get some assistance from the band,” said the voice.

     And then the band began to play “The Hokey Pokey Song.”

     We stood there, five hundred, for about the length of a verse.

     “You put your right foot in,” sang the megaphoned voice, “you put your right foot out, you put your right foot in, and you shake it all about.”

     A woman behind Ethan said, “What the fuck?” and walked away. A group of several children beside my mom collapsed to the grass. Other kids were crying, rubbing paint from their eyes.

     “We’re almost there!” yelled the voice. “You won’t regret it!

     One more verse! The World’s Largest Hokey Pokey right here in Las Vegas!”

John D’Agata’s work includes On Knowing & Not, a collaboration with the Belgian painter Jean-Baptiste Bernadet. He teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa, where he directs the nonfiction writing program.