“It is allowed that vocations and employments of least dignity are of the most apparent use; that the meanest artisan or manufacturer contributes more to the accommodation of life than the profound scholar and argumentative theorist; and that the public would suffer less present inconvenience from the banishment of philosophers than from the extinction of any common trade.” – Samuel Johnson
My head throbbed, and I woke, preparing coffee and food. I ate the meal, then prepared for the day, fitting my body into slacks, button-up, and sport-coat. My head throbbed; I gave the cat a kick, and left the Desert Schooner, the final days of calling it home, the final days of relying on a car to get to work. My head throbbed; I moped down the steps, weary and sick, and I told myself I’d teach and come right back. My heavy head suspended like a bobble on my body, eyes eyeing concrete slabs and cracks. My will forced my bobbing head to rise and find the car. “Just teach and come home,” I said to myself. “Just teach and – ” My eyelids shut themselves like large, lethargic, metal doors. I willed myself to blink. What I saw remained. “Not again,” I said. My sad soul sunk and I approached the vehicle as if sliding through sludge or slop. Tired, I eyed the back left tire. As if hoping to change the scenery, I removed my sun-glasses. But nothing changed. I glared disgustingly at another flat tire.
A woman passed and saw the tire. She smiled, and I wearily smiled back but cursed the car, not for the first time. That day, I did not teach. That day I called in sick. I drove my car cautiously, slowly to the gas station, filled up with air, roared to the tire shop, and listened to the diagnosis: “Looks like you’ve got a nail,” the man said. We could both hear the hiss of air leaving the tire. “Oh,” I replied. “Must be all this construction.” He looked me in the eye like a man who had heard this before, like a man who simply knew. He only had to say, “Yeah, man. Vegas roads,” and I knew exactly what he meant.
Road construction in Vegas is unique. But let me first say that road construction reflects the town, generally, and so road construction in any town, or locale, is unique. As a point of reference, consider the road construction south of Des Moines, Iowa on Interstate 35. Now, one who has traveled the road frequently in the past fifteen years or so knows that a perpetual project is underway. What exactly they are fixing is not clear, but one knows they’re working hard. One knows this because it is occurring in Iowa, and if Iowans love to do anything, they love to work. They love to work so much, they will create work if there is none; they will break bridges to build them all over again. So the construction project in Iowa is different than the three or so projects on Interstate 40 between Tucumcari and Kingman. Cones are placed there more as monuments; the people travel west to visit national parks, or historical buildings, and so the road construction in many ways simply blends into the rest of the west’s milieu. It’s why there’s never anyone working. But the road construction project south of Des Moines is a living project. When this world fades away, when that eternal sunset scorches the plains and fields and all is made new, when all bodies burst from their graves, I know that a few good Iowans will rise and return to that very spot. In the twilight of time they will build a road; and they will work on it with the grace and vigor of men perfected in mind, body, and spirit.
In Kansas City roadwork takes on a whole different meaning. The Iowan – so long as he’s working – is really content filling the same pothole several times over. But the resident of Kansas City, the resident of Johnson County specifically, does not deal with trivialities. These men are all about bulldozing, building, expanding the possibilities of roads; these men tear up sidewalks, and lawns, and ditches, and dykes, all for new lanes; these men put up stoplights on a whim, build bridges in their sleep, alter intersections for fun. These men will not rest easy, will not sleep soundly, until they feel every lane, exit, and on-ramp is not just fixed but efficient, not just reconstructed but aesthetic, not just working but perfected. These men will thankfully be out of work in the new world.
The Vegas roads are best observed close up, walking or biking. The walker notices generally – and the biker more so – the mounds of trash, debris, and clutter strewn throughout the streets. Nails, bags, boxes, bottles, boards, wood, cans, cardboard, glass, gloves, wrappers, tissues, shirts, shoes, socks, shorts, paper, food, and, occasionally, humans litter the streets and lanes and cul-de-sacs. When the wind whips itself into a frenzy the litter comes to life – a single Vegas lane looks like the Strip as bags and paper tussle about in the air and boxes and bottles battle below. The Vegas road reflects the Vegas men, whirling and twirling this-way-and-that. The road is a wild zoo on any average day. But on Construction Day, the road rumbles with the march of the war drum.
The cones conquer the town. They are more unruly than any mob, more authoritative than a tyrant. They march, not always uniformly, but they march. In fact, oftentimes, they march more like ants set on fire – down a lane, across the street, through a parking lot, blocking off drive-thru’s and driveways, so the cones march to their own beat. There is rarely, if ever, any warning. Cones creep up on cars quite suddenly. Roads will be silent, still, at rest in the twilight of day; mothers and fathers will put their children to bed, tucking them in and promising them a quick, painless ride to school the next day. Then, like a quiet crescendo, the cones come crashing down upon the streets as we sleep. Like mighty war jets letting men out in random parachutes, here and there and everywhere, so the cones descend upon us. The invasion affects all – drivers, bikers, walkers. A slew of men in cars are strewn across the streets to dodge the barricade of cones crowding it. A man flies down a side street to escape the onslaught, nearly taking out a biker, only to discover the cones have captured that road too. He takes another lane. Then another, sending pedestrians to the sidewalks. Then, just when he believes he’s free of the madness, he finds he’s trapped – cornered by cones. He makes a U-turn only to realize now that he’s led several of his comrades into the cage.
Road construction, I understand, is always an issue. No town is immune. But in other cities I’ve lived in, there was always hope in its purpose. I know now that it served a real purpose in Iowa. Why is that Iowan still filling that pothole? I ask. Why, he fills it because it’s his job; he loves to work, and at night he becomes Mr. Hyde and destroys his work so that he can come back to refill it in the morning. But now why is this laborer in Kansas City still working on this road? Why, he was told to fill a pothole and later decided to widen the lanes, make an exit ramp, and build a cinema. But when I ask why the Vegas cones sit there, glaring at me, marching back and forth as if I’m in a war camp, I am given no answers. No one here knows what they’re working on, why they’re working on it, or where they will begin working next. Sometimes cones pop up just for an afternoon; other times, cones are nearly cemented to their spot for months. Men work; but more often than not, when they are done working, the road is not only unimproved but worse. But a theory has been proposed. A local here has hinted at the horror happening on our streets. It is worse than the worst of nightmares, more terrible than the terror of death. For an English professor explained to me once that the road workers are actually not working on the roads at all; they are improving the wireless internet in the hotels. Well, I suppose this makes the most sense, for the roads, more often than not, are not fixed. This seems to make the most sense, for Vegas seems the perfect city to combine these two evils. I’ve held for some time now that the internet has come to destroy the world. Another wise man said the internal combustion engine came to destroy the world. This may just be their battle. Vegas may just be the town to end all towns; the war between the Devil and his demons has begun.
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
Wednesday, July 13, 2016
Painting: “Construction Work by the Lyric Cinema Seen from Midland Road, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire”
By Thomas Lay,
Oil on board, 1974