As a teenager, growing up in Las Vegas was like Pinocchio growing up on Pleasure Island. If you weren’t careful and partied too much you could end up being a donkey sold by The Coachman.
Donkeys are known for carrying a heavy load and sometimes, being obstinate. That could mean addiction to drugs, booze, gambling, in jail, or a life of ill repute. For me it was more like being too stubborn to leave my familiar world and to stay working in a casino for the rest of my life (which I don’t knock at all — my parents did.)
That’s the part where I say I came out of Vegas relatively unscathed and I know many people who did the same, so I don’t want to oversimplify a childhood there. There are a lot of things that other kids did with more structure and educational value but it required a parent, capital and time. This proud latchkey kid didn’t have all that.
When we didn’t go to parties, my friends and I went to the movies or bowling — oooh that’s life on the edge! What a lot of people don’t know is many of the entertainment venues for kids are inside — you guessed it — casinos! So to get to the bowling alley, you have to walk through a casino. To get to a movie theater, go through the casino. Cheap food? Go through the casino.
With so much attached to gaming and booze you meet the range of baddies in Pinocchio: Lampwicks, Honest Johns, Gideons and Monstros. Lampwick is Pinocchio’s friend who turns into a donkey and Honest John is the sly fox who sells Pinocchio to Stromboli (the evil puppeteer who wants Pinocchio to perform for him indefinitely and against his will) and then again to the Coachman who takes the boys to Pleasure Island.
The names are not lost on me: a lamp’s wick will burn out eventually and must also have fuel. Honest John — is a misnomer full of irony. His sidekick, Gideon, with a biblical name, is also far from having moral value. Mostly he is there for the free booze. Monstro — he is a whale who can eat you whole.
While everyone was partying hard, I was ditching school so I could customize my time. By this I mean, I went unsupervised — a lot but I did what I wanted to do.
I could dedicate my ditch days to playing Super Mario Bros, eating junk food, watching cartoons or often going to a 24/7 dining place for 99cent wings or steak and eggs for $1.99 and meeting up with other ditchmates.
I am not recommending this at all as it did weigh in on what level classes I was able to get into in 9th grade and there is a cap on absences. Once you pass the cap, you’re truancy officer fodder.
A little older, I was curious to the point that I could have gotten into deeper trouble. I called this getting in to a little “semi-trouble,” which I encourage everyone to do so as much as possible (but that’s for another article.)
Nothing like being in a wee bit precarious situation trains you to appreciate the more mundane things in life like having all your limbs. (Yes I’ve scaled walls when the police showed up at parties that got dispersed and yeet there’s a Rottweiler in the neighbor’s yard!) Back then parties were about noise complaints, underage booze and “scammin” boys. That didn’t mean literally scamming them out of money it was teenspeak for making out.
Hanging out with the the characters of Pleasure Island was both good in that it opened me up to all kinds of people, all different backgrounds and learning so many lessons from them and bad because sometimes they turned out to be unsavory and exploitive characters which had their own lessons, so could still be good?
Pinocchio does this exact thing. He wants to have the whole human experience. He is curious and on a quest for his identity. He seeks out what it means to be alive, to be a “real boy” with his clunky wooden self often not knowing how close he gets to being tossed in a fire.
Enough about the seedy characters in Pinocchio. They’re everywhere not just in Pleasure Island. Not just in Las Vegas.
There are also Geppettos — kind and loving. I was lucky to have my BFF’s dad Les. Stable job, did his best as a single Dad to provide a safe space for his daughter to thrive. When the pesky friend from two houses down came over, (me) she was always heard and fed and given access to a much needed computer!
In many ways Les was also the Blue Fairy. (Sorry Les! But you did have her magical fix it properties!) Les could make pizza come any day of the week, wave his entertainment wand and make movies and video games appear. He was a former soccer dad who actually took the time to talk to us about certain things like why it was important to wax your car and measure things. As an aerospace/aeronautical engineer, I loved asking him about UFOs. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” was his favorite reply. He used vocabulary words I’d never heard of and would excuse himself to go upstairs to pass gas — something that you definitely would not see happen at my house.
He also made sure we didn’t get into too much trouble, which in turn made sure he didn’t get into too much trouble. (Like when we took Grandma Chief’s Monte Carlo out for a spin at 13 and he called the cops not because he wanted us arrested but because he understood liability). It was like a financial literacy lesson and slap in the face all at once… and boy we needed it.
Let’s not forget Jiminy Cricket! This is what us kids would be to each other. Us little quasi hooligans were always looking at each other with “yeah I don’t know about that” eyes when we had friends slipping through the cracks. We were that proverbial angel on the shoulder for each other when we needed it. At Pleasure Island, if you didn’t come as an ass you surely had the right environment to become one, so you were blessed to have any amount of crickets at any time chirping in your ear. I still have some of my crickets, and I’m that cricket to others depending on whether they’re feeling like brushing me off their shoulders that day or not (kids, mostly). Either way, I keep chirping along.