Letter from Las Vegas — From the February 2014 issue

Bad Romance

One genre and a billion happy endings

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Last August 3, in Boulevard, California, a man named James Lee DiMaggio invited his friend’s wife and son to his home, killed them, shot their dog, and rigged incendiary wire on the property to burn when a timer reached zero. Before the house caught fire, he picked up his friend’s daughter, Hannah, and drove off. The car was a blue Nissan Versa.

No one knew where he’d gone. “Basically,” said a San Diego County sheriff’s lieutenant, “the search area is the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The search area is North America.” AMBER Alerts were active in California, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada, but it seemed possible that DiMaggio, known to be a good hiker, had taken Hannah to the woods.

“He must have really had the hots for her,” says the woman behind the counter at the 7-Eleven near Fremont Street, in north Vegas. It’s a season in the news reserved for wildfires and missing hikers, and the DiMaggio story has been on TV, radio, and the Los Angeles Times home page for days. On the LCD billboards over the Las Vegas Expressway, pictures of DiMaggio and Hannah alternate with advertisements. female | age 16 y.o. | blonde hair. “If it was me,” says a goateed man at a restaurant, “I’d switch cars.”

Fremont Street spills off the expressway and runs west for four miles, a straight drive through what Vegas used to be and still is when no one’s looking. There are weekly motels with neon signs and no visitors between ten p.m. and morning, and rooming houses in pastel blues and pinks. The only people walking are those who have nowhere in particular to be: junkies, the homeless, teenagers on summer break, who, if asked, will tell you that when they have money to hang out, they don’t go to the Strip, which is for tourists.

The street’s four westernmost blocks, the Fremont Street Experience, have been covered for eighteen years now by a barrel-vault canopy of white steel strips. It’s like being in a giant church, except you can get ninety-nine-cent margaritas in plastic cups. It is middle- and lower-middle-class Vegas, the Vegas of the two-week vacation. There are T-shirts from other stays: Cabo, Cancún, Puertos Rico and Vallarta. There is every sort of scooter, stroller, and wheelchair. On one, operated by a weather-damaged old woman, a sign says, people steal my money and take adv. of me.

Not only tourists and teenagers but Las Vegans of all ages come to Fremont. On Sunday afternoons, the restaurants serve patrons dressed in church hats and long dresses. Outside, the live acts are not exclusively white but also Mexican — the second-largest ethnicity on the street — and Southeast Asian, and black. A block from the Golden Nugget, a white guy and a black guy dance at each other on the sidewalk while a black band plays “Let’s Stay Together.”

The Golden Nugget, the Four Queens, and the D are the large casino-hotels on Fremont. The Golden Nugget was built fifty years before its counterparts on the Strip, and it has no thirteenth floor. Rooms are inexpensive, and the minimums at blackjack tables are sometimes five dollars or even a buck. In summer the casino is cold and darkly lit. If you wanted to hide out for a while, you’d be better off here than in the woods.

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