In 2002, Matthew O’Brien was managing editor of CityLife — a Las Vegas alt-weekly that has since folded — where he co-wrote a series on the homeless population of Sin City who live in its storm drains. Their work became his 2007 book, Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels. In his follow up book, Dark Days, Bright Nights: Surviving the Las Vegas Storm Drains, O’Brien re-introduces us to the storm drains of Las Vegas — a system of underground flood channels designed to mitigate potentially extensive damage from a rare downpour in the Mojave Desert — and the people who live in them.
Even for those unfamiliar with the first book (like this reviewer), the follow up is an accessible glimpse at the lives of these storm drain dwellers. The intimate look at their lives, struggles and moments of joy gives readers a front row seat of a largely forgotten part of American society.
People like Shaggy, who resolved he would die in the tunnels with a needle in his arm. Or even Shaggy’s mom, One-Shoe Sue, who “lived in a different drain at a different time.”
Then there’s Kat and Pretty-Boy Steve — a pair of credit hustlers constantly upgrading the interior design of their “living-room area” — and Half Pint, who shares the horrors and violence of life below the Vegas strip.
The people interviewed by O’Brien each have extraordinary tales — often of gambling or substance abuse, with occasional adventures sprinkled throughout.
Impressively, Dark Days builds a story well beyond these gripping anecdotes. Amplifying a bigger story about “a tourist town that has criminalized homelessness” where “the tunnel residents remain largely out of sight and out of mind.”
O’Brien explores not only the daily grind of life inside the tunnels, but the pasts and life-paths of the interviewees.
Starting with childhood memories, the tunnel residents guide us through the traumas, missteps and decisions that led them to the sprawling, largely unseen concrete tunnels and the recurring “Roadblocks” and “Lessons Learned” along their “Road To Redemption.”
By examining the patterns of addiction and bad breaks in a city that encourages consuming all sorts of potentially addictive substances and glamorizes risky behavior, the interviews become less fantastic and increasingly relatable. It’s easy to imagine the debilitating self doubt that can arise from sudden job loss and housing precarity.
Using a more personal than structural analysis, Dark Days, Bright Nights ultimately gets us to recognize a population down on their luck, the situation they’re in, how they got there and to appreciate how easy it would be to find oneself in a similar situation.
There’s a lot of wisdom to be gained from those who have lived in the storm drains of Las Vegas, but, perhaps, the best takeaway comes from Cyndi, who survived the tunnels.
“Treat the homeless like people, not subhumans,” Cyndi says in Dark Days, Bright Nights, “Give ‘em a sandwich, a bottle of water, a dollar. Talk to ‘em. Tell ‘em not to give up. Give ‘em some hope. That’s what I was given.”
Matthew O’Brien’s Dark Days, Bright Nights: Surviving the Las Vegas Storm Drains was published by Central Recovery Press in late 2020. It’s as timely and relevant as ever.