Old downtown. Las Vegas.
Words and photos (via cell phone) by Brian Krans
Look at Las Vegas and you’ll see a love affair with neon lights, disgustingly large hotels, promises of loose slot machines and even looser women.
Stare deeper into the traditional Vegas landscape and you’ll see nothing but a void of originality, personality and hospitality. They want your money. Then they want you to leave, perpetuating a cycle of anonymity and promiscuity.
That’s not why I chose to tag along with Dante Muse and Josh Ray on a six-day venture out to Vegas. We all wanted the non-Vegas Vegas. We wanted a city rife with skate parks, a vast utopia of unforgiving steel and concrete set in an even more unforgiving desert.
Josh Ray and Dante Muse in the desert.
When we left Des Moines on Sunday, the temp was eight degrees. Landing in Vegas, with Des Moines native Brett Walters and his roommate Tony Rivituso waiting at the airport, we were welcomed by 50-degree temps and growling stomachs.
The first stop was In & Out Burger. It’s simple menu of burgers and fries but a staple wherever the franchise is set up. Tony clued me into the off-the-menu animal-style fries, which include fresh-cut fries doused in cheese, onions and Thousand Island dressing. Contrary to popular belief, Elvis is still alive, performing in seedy clubs and living off these fries.
In and Out burger.
We then set out to conquer as many skate parks as possible. I was basically useless because of my body’s hatred for airplanes, but Tony, Brett, Josh, Dante and pals killed the concrete beauty, especially the sub off a gnarly wedge. Dante — first try — laced his picturesque AO top acid up there while Tony was rocking 270 backside backslides to top porns. Solid, and oh-so pretty.
Once we were warmed up, we moved onto another park. Then some sleep. The next day, we tackled Red Rock. That was another kind of experience, crawling, climbing and traversing the steep walls of the natural beauty. Dante could have easily doubled for Tom Cruise in the opening scene of “Mission: Impossible II.”
Dante getting his Tom Cruise on.
About a half mile up, gazing through the gorges and yelling profanities that echoed along the walls, it was impossible to see Vegas — the lights, the people, the cheapness — as a destination rather than something to look at as you drive by. After the climb down and throwing rocks at each other, we were hungry again.
Tony Rivituso and Brett Walters.
Enter Capriotti’s. I can’t write about it without salivating about their gastronomically perfect sandwiches. That and In & Out were the two places Tony and Brett take every tourist staying with them. That was where Josh and Dante had the fiercest game of air hockey I’ve ever seen.
Brett at Capriotti’s.
Then more parks, some food, more parks and so on and so on. I lost count somewhere, but I think we hit about eight or nine parks, each one with its own character, challenging obstacles, razor-edged boxes and slippery surfaces.
Vegas has been called an adult’s playground. It is, but far away from the glitz and glamour, it’s also a skater’s playground.
At one of the many Vegas skate parks.
What I learned through over all the parks was that Tony should be sponsored, Brett locks — I mean locks — anything alley-oop, Dante owns every park and Josh can find the most unexpected tricks in the most unexpected places.
The skating tour with locals is the side of Vegas few will see. Instead of diving into the ever-Christmas light show of the Strip, every night we were joined by other Vegas residents. It was my first time meeting anyone out there, even Brett. Each one has a story of how they ended up there from Iowa, Los Angeles, even Minnesota. Some are laid off from construction jobs, victim to the boom of Vegas that halted recently. Jeremy Cloe — Tony and Brett’s roommate — is studying film. Like Iowa, Vegas skaters gather quickly to skate and are friendly to outsiders. Crazy friendly.
Tony and Brett at yet another skatepark.
While it wasn’t the reason for the trip, the Strip and the faded older downtown beckoned us. Somewhere in the ball-and-string that is civilization, the powers that be decided that denying oneself certain indulgences made for a better life. Vegas is the remedy to that insanity. Sex, gambling, over-indulgences, porn in skin, drink and food form.
On the Strip and downtown, it’s clear the glitz failed to turn to glitter. Far from anything unique, there’s the faux Paris, Rome and New York toured by the same khaki and running shoe-wearing crowd you’d find any Sunday at a post-church rendezvous at Denny’s.
We roamed around without purpose or reason snatching up hooker calling cards while guys passed them to us in bundles.
“Titties, titties, chicks with dicks,” they said.
Guarded by a giant Trojan horse, there was FAO Schwartz. Talk about being a kid again.
Dante enjoying the toys.
Vegas is built on regrets. “I wish I wouldn’t have given that hooker my credit card,” “I wish I would have bet more,” etc. My only regret is not snatching up the Smurfette figurine where she’s wearing rollerblades. Damn it. The Elvis shades made me feel better about it.
Krans has left the building.
Since I’m a bit of a food geek, I could easily tell you about the food we ate than what tricks everyone pulled without taking notes.
A hop over a wall from Brett, Tony and Jeremy’s apartment is the tiny, four-table Vit’s Pizza. It’s a must for any Iowan. Tell the people there — a family-run joint — where you’re from and they’ll love you instantly. They’re all originally from Council Bluffs and used to run a place called Veto’s there.
Besides the hospitality and the banter, there’s the pizza. Oh, the pizza. Crispy, chewy crust and oozing with Wisconsin cheese. Then they’ll shove a tray of some kind of Oreo and frosting concoction that’ll rot your teeth and melt your heart. The mother, a gentile frail woman who considers every hungry boy her son, told me that everything from their kitchen is made from the heart.
“Well, then your heart must taste delicious,” I said right back to her.
The boys at Vit’s.
Vegas might have the flash and catchy slogans, but plop Iowans there and they’re still Iowans. Whether the people of Vit’s or Brett and friends, look away from the lights of Vegas and you’ll see an unexpectedly tender heart that beats congeniality and camaraderie.
Visit and you’ll have to fight the urge to grab a change of address card.