Jumpers

By Nicholas Belardes

Memoir

I saw the horrific billboard on Las Vegas Boulevard and instantly pushed it out of my mind.

Riding with John, we drove past, in slow motion. I couldn’t bring myself to mention it. Who could? It was far easier to bring up the porn billboard with the girl on it holding a cupcake saying, “Wanna taste my muffin?”

“Absolutely incredible billboard,” John had said staring up at the cartoon version of a bald cupcake.

Now I was walking toward the Sahara Hotel. Couldn’t get a ride from work. I could handle the walk I told myself. Just had to get over the freeway. Only now I was lost, headed north on Western, having cut under the freeway, past a Metro Police vehicle that pulled into the dirt behind me, just to check me out.

Hoping for a street to slice past the girly joints to Industrial, I had no such luck. I was stuck on an hours-long walk, just to traverse a freeway, and ended up on Wyoming Street and having to double back down Industrial, southward, and into a neighborhood of streets as ugly and lonely as any American island of lost streets could ever get.

Trying for a shortcut somewhere along the way, I took a walk down a sidestreet only to end up circling through past a gym as boxers in full gloves jogged past. They glared like they wished I was twenty years younger. Fresh sparring meat. I ducked tail and pushed back out to the main thoroughfare to search for a way through to the Sahara Hotel, which I hadn’t been able to see since first looking at it from right across the freeway. Now my only landmark was the Stratosphere Tower. And even that I found was now far to the southeast. From where I was originally it stood north and a bit eastward.

I took a long look down West New York Avenue and thought to hell with that. Looked like an endless string of drug deals going down in the dusty dank of the sweaty summer street. I plodded onward to West St. Louis Avenue and found a lonely long walk past a transient in pigtails leaning on a fence. She gave me the eye like she wanted more than a Shirley Temple and a fix of street crack.

I left her to her stares and eventually came up to lines of decrepit apartments, the kind you would find in any small desert town, with clothes strewn over rod-iron balconies, and mamba and cumbias blasting through open windows. Outside, there were kids toys, smoking red-eyed Mexicans in trucker’s caps, and the smell of greasy refried beans made from fresh pintos. Ahh, I told myself, I’d found the dens of the housekeepers, dishwashers and drug dealers of the finest hotels on the Strip.

When I got to Fairfield Avenue I made a right and looked up at the awful towering machinery of the Stratosphere Hotel. Its gargantuan height pushes over the broken industrial cityscape like a rocket ready to blast off into some Eighties-themed casino space station. There, I imagine heavy metal Earth hits rule, and guys Like Reno Romero shred to Alpha Centauri interstellar activists whose pointy ears bleed from amp feedback as they protest the cancellation of intra-celestial Dio tributes.

I walked down Fairfield along the back edge of the tower and kicked up dust as I crossed a gravel lot. In the near distance I saw another row of apartments. Their balconies faced the tower, and pot-bellied men, down to their last greedy nickel, eyed me and the tower through drunken eyes, as if we both held some kind of secrets they considered pulling a gun to find the answers to.

As I passed there was a scream. A long howling scream. One that was both terrifying and death defying at the same time. I’d heard a few in the distance, but this was closer, and I found it odd as I eyed the men on the balcony watch me suddenly look up at the jumper falling in full sprawl from the dizzying heights of the tower.

I rounded a corner, still within eyeshot of the derelict apartment behind the tower, and walked on a cracked sidewalk that looked like it hadn’t been repaired for sixty years. Just across the street was a bright green strip of grass. That surrounded a brand new condo that jutted upward into a shiny steel tower. A woman walked nervously on the grass as her little white Maltese sniffed around prudishly. I sensed the woman knew it was dusk, about the time those pot-bellied men creep from their rusted balconies, looking for wallets to lift and little dogs to kidnap and sell for easy Sports Book cash.

Soon I found my tired way to Sahara Avenue. A security guard on a bicycle pedaled past, heading toward the freeway overpass that I tried to find a shortcut around. Maybe he worked at the Palace Station, or some girly joint along the way.

I crossed Las Vegas Boulevard and was nearing a McDonalds when I heard a faint scream and saw a young couple looking up. The girl held a pink camera that surely couldn’t capture the person leaping off the edge of the tower.

“Would you?” I asked the man as I passed.

He looked at me with red eyes that could barely focus from a face of sunburnt skin. His hair was a greasy mess. “Already have,” he said.

I continued past, thinking of the terrible billboards advertising JUMPERS, and knowing full well, that some idiots on 9/11 would be up there, pretending they were in some virtual reality where nothing but smoke and flames would determine their final path through life, a long leap into the acrid air.

*NOTE: This piece was written entirely on an iPhone.

Image by Nick Belardes

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NICK BELARDES is illustrator of NYT Best-Selling Novel by Jonathan Evison West of Here (2011), author of Random Obsessions (2009), Lords (2005), and the first literary Twitter novel: Small Places (2010). An author, poet, and screenwriter for Hectic Films, Belardes turned TV/online journalist overnight after blogging his way to success. His articles and essays have appeared on the homepage of CNN.com and other news sites across America. You can find Nick on Facebook and Twitter.

40 responses to “Jumpers”

  1. Connie says:

    Nick,

    When I saw “jumper” I was afraid you meant suicide jumpers and the despair of the characters you met seemed to be leading to the jumpers of the Market crash of old. I was pleasantly surprised that it was a thrill experience instead.

    • The terrible sadness is that such bungee jumping was advertised as “Jumpers” which I instantly think of as 9/11 tragedy. I really am appalled at such advertising.

      But then I suppose, and I almost added to the piece, that kids pretend they are World War Two and Vietnam soldiers in video games, as they obtain the fake thrill of CGI warfare. But then, these “jumpers” are playing off the subconsciousness in a really low way.

  2. Connie says:

    I no more understand bungee jumping than I understand jumping out of a perfectly good plane. Altho I really suppose your piece is more about desperation and poverty, subjects that are only one paycheck away from most Americans.

    • Yeah. As a struggling writer, I guess I sometimes feel caught between those people, and the real world of fast-moving corporate dreams. You always get me pretty well in my pieces.

      I suppose I’d been burning about this issue for some time and felt today was the right day to do it. In an odd sidenote, I realized I published this at exactly 9:11 a.m. Weird synchronicity.

      • James D. Irwin says:

        that’s freaky— the 9.11am thing.

        I don’t get jumping from high places for fun.

        • Now if they would have advertised “bungee jumping” that would be one thing. But we’re talking about a tower that people have committed suicide from. Perhaps I have it all wrong and the Stratosphere Tower is mocking those who “jumpers” who have leapt off the building, including one man, who was oddly dressed as a pirate.

  3. Connie says:

    Marketing is all about hitting the sub-conscience.

  4. I’ll stand up for bungee jumping… I did it once (was forced into it) and really enjoyed myself.

    Of course, that’s hardly the issue… The advert sounds atrocious. Really, really bad taste. Not as bad taste as burning Korans or railing against Muslims, but still bad taste.

  5. Connie says:

    Burning Korans is whack-o and dangerous. I sympathize with those who do not want a mosque built on the 9-11 site but then again, someone should have built some kind of memorial by now!! and then this would not have been an issue.

    • No kidding. There could have already been a strip mall, two massage parlors and several fast-food joints built there. And people would have flocked for the souvenir cups.

      Seriously, even the idea of burning the Quran is really dumb. It’s that same philosophy sparks idiocy and world wars. dumb.

  6. Richard Cox says:

    Another well written piece. Lots of great lines like:

    “Their balconies faced the tower, and pot-bellied men, down to their last greedy nickel, eyed me and the tower through drunken eyes, as if we both held some kind of secrets they considered pulling a gun to find the answers to.”

    Great stuff, man.

    I’m one of those people who hates most marketing, even though in my career (both personal writing and professional) I’ve been forced to do it. There are acceptable and creative ways to market, but often they are washed out by the dark brilliance of the kind of advertising you write about here.

    As far as bungee jumping from the Stratosphere, I would totally do it. When I skydived I didn’t think about plane crashes or anything like that. But I think I wouldn’t do it today, on the anniversary of September 11th, and if I managed the Stratosphere we’d use different marketing. In any case we’d take it down in early September.

    • Agreed: “There are acceptable and creative ways to market.” I work in a marketing department again. Or wait, if we’re promoting books we’re always doing some form of marketing.

      Thanks for the compliment. You’re way braver than me. I just look up and get vertigo!

  7. Joyce Kennedy says:

    You always make the ugly seem uglier. That’s good writing. Sometimes I hate the ugly things you write about, but I also have to agree you do it well. My sister commented on my new insight to be more detailed in my observations. Guess who I have to thank for that. So THANK YOU, Nick.

    • Your compliment goes a long way with me, because I know it’s hard for you to read some of my pieces. So, I really appreciate when you do.

      Oh Joyce, your words melt me. Thanks to you and your sister for all the hard work in writing that you do. You know you are a treasure in my heart. Thank you.

  8. Jan Fulton says:

    Nick, your descriptions of the Vegas I never see or look away from is haunting. I can never go there again without these images floating before me. Great work – and on an iphone no less!

    • Jan, as always, I continue to write because of comments like yours that I use as energy to fuel myself to write more pieces.

      Vegas can still be a really fun place. So, enjoy yourself when you do go. But I am glad I can make the town a little more alive for you.

  9. JM Blaine says:

    Bald cupcakes?
    Ah Vegas.

    Someone sent me a You Tube
    link that said Quran Quran
    & sigh,
    like I could even click that.

  10. Charlene Keeler says:

    I went bungee jumping once and threw up on the way down. It was everywhere. It was like 9/11, minus the buildings and flames and terrorists.

  11. Erika Rae says:

    Ugh – I was terrified throughout this whole post that you had witnessed a suicide off this tower. And now that I get it, I’m just as appalled. Excellent writing as always. Potbellied men, fresh pintos and pink cameras…ah, Vegas.

    • Mission accomplished then. You totally got what I was trying to do: build a sense of desperation and thoughts of suicide jumpers.

      I’m still mad that they would even hold bungee jumping off a tower where people HAVE jumped to their deaths. Terrible.

  12. Since our craft and writing-on-the-phone conversation, I’ve tried it. I ended up writing a grocery list. Ugh. I think the problem is I have a Blackberry. So, my hats off to you for another wonderful piece accomplished in a format that’s kicking my butt! And making me shop for avocados and wheat germ!

    Also … right after 9/11 (I lived in NY at the time, so not sure if this was just there or everywhere else) there was such a sensitivity to this sort of thing that people went overboard in policing imagery and language. Now, it’s gone completely the other way. Sad. And strange.

    • I agree. It’s so strange that it’s gone completely the other way. Bizarre, sad, blasphemous and strange.

      Oh gosh, a Blackberry? I hate Blackberry phones. I need more simplicity. That’s why iPhones are great. They’re designed for idiots like me to use. Bigger buttons. Simple directions. I don’t even drool too much when using it.

      Still thinking about Caffeine Superman. You always make me laugh right when I need to.

  13. Zara Potts says:

    I love your Vegas pieces, Nick. They’re so full of colour and sound and scent.
    This piece reminds me of when Simon Smithson jumped from the sky tower here in Auckland. He is a brave, brave man…

    • I remember reading Simon’s inspirational post and getting clammy hands while soaking up every terrifying word. Anyone who skydives or bungee jumps has guts that I don’t have.

      Thank you for your compliment. I sometimes feel my pieces are too dull to the senses. So thank you.

  14. Simon Smithson says:

    Having done that jump, man… I can commiserate with the screaming. It’s exhilarating, but before that sensation is just pure fear and terror.

    Your pictures of Vegas, captured on your phone, no less, paint a far realer image of the city than the adverts ever will, Nick.

    • Your ability to overcome that fear and terror, and to push yourself to leap off a high structure is amazing. I’m a thrill seeker in a way. Just not from high places. That’s a whole other level that will take lifetimes for me to attain.

      Thanks for your kind words. As you can see, I’m trying to put together a whole “Written on the iPhone” series. Why? I have no idea. Just fun to push myself and encourage others to do the same I guess…

  15. Slade Ham says:

    I would totally jump. If I ever make it to Vegas, which never seems to happen ever, or hasn’t yet anyway, I’m doing it first. Before I do anything else.

    That you wrote this on your iPhone is awesome. Seven years ago I still had a pager. Can’t wait to see where all this tech stuff goes from here.

    • Like Simon, you’re nuts Slade. But in a very brave way. I think it’s awesome you have that kind of guts. I get queasy just looking up at a sparrow. Ok, not that bad, but almost!

      A pager! What the heck is that?!

      j/k

  16. Matt says:

    I think this – with the possible exception of the mystery room – is my favorite of your Vegas pieces thus far. Love the imagery at work here.

    I went bungee jumping and skydiving when I turned 18. I’d do skydiving again, for sure, but I think I’ve gotten bungee jumping out of my system. If I hadn’t, though, I probably would jump from that tower. I go cliff jumping from time-to-time.

    As tacky as it may seem, ‘jumpers’ is a term used by some of the bungee/cliff/base jumping crowd to describe themselves. Dunno about that ad, though.

    • Matt, if I’m improving that makes me happy. I was worried about this piece because of its lack of dialogue, and I have been trying to focus lately on lots of dialogue in my posts.

      You already know I think you’re the bravest mofo on TNB. No need for me to say it. Though I think I just said it again.

      Do you think then that 9/11 warped the original meaning for jumpers and transformed it into this negative term that makes people like me think of those leaping to their deaths? Maybe the word goes farther back in time to people jumping out of castles or off burning ships or something. I have no idea. Just curious as to your thoughts.

      • Matt says:

        Not everything needs dialog. This is a mood piece, and I think it very much captures that feeling that comes with being lost and wandering in an unfamliar city. I always go on a wander like this whenever I move to a new city, because it gives me a greater feel for the place than being locked in a cocoon of glass and steel ever can.

        I’m not sure if it was 9/11 any more than the stock market crash of ’29 that helped coin the meaning of “jumpers” as suicides. The word’s been used in that context as long as I can remember, and I think many modern police departments have been using it as the term for a jumping suicide for several decades. I think – and I’m by no means an expert on this – the ‘jumper’ thrillseeker subculture are deliberately attempting to subvert that particular meaning of the word, since most people tend to treat them like they’ve got desh wishes anyway.

  17. Robin says:

    I just can’t understand why people would be willing to spend so much money to fall freely down out of the sky and then jump back up. It just doesn’t make sense. I wouldn’t do it, because it doesn’t make any logical sense to me. However, if one of my friends told me I couldn’t do it or that I didn’t have the guts to do it, I would feel compelled to do it in order to prove a point. I lack the fear of death, so I’d probably be dumb enough to go through with it. But my friends, thankfully, are not dumb enough to think about stupid things like that, so I don’t have to worry about it.

    The thrill of jumping, I imagine, is like when you’re a tiny child jumping from the top of the jungle gym all the way down to the ground beneath your feet. It’s obviously far more intense as an adult jumping from a building or whatever, but it brought back memories to the first grade when I would climb up high and try to convince myself that I could make the jump. Fun memories. It seemed so very high up there at the time.

    As for that long walk through the big city that you took…wow. That sounds absolutely terrifying. So scary.

    • I tell you, though. I’d rather walk through a city than jump off a tower tied to a rubber rope! I can’t handle the thought of that!

      OK, I dare you to do it.

      • Robin says:

        Ahahaha! Dude, I KNEW you were going to say that!

        But you see, Nick, I didn’t say anything about a dare. I said that if one of my friends were to tell me I couldn’t do it or that I didn’t have the guts to do it I’d feel compelled to prove a point and do it. You didn’t read my words carefully enough and missed your chance. 🙂 Besides, it doesn’t count when you’re the writer of this story and you’re daring your commenter to jump. Ha ha! You crack me up.

        Tell you what, Nick. The day that YOU agree to jump, we can do it together. Until then, my friend, I don’t feel that I have a valid reason to even consider doing it.

        It would probably be harder for me to take that walk that you described that it would be for me to jump, although it doesn’t sound particularly fun the way you describe it as a tower with a rubber rope. Lacking any city experience, having the appearance of a 16-year-old girl and walking all alone could only lead to trouble for me. Scary trouble.

  18. Matt Munoz says:

    Cool story, and then…

    “*NOTE: This piece was written entirely on an iPhone.”

    NICCCCCCKKKKKKKKKKK!!!!!!!!

    Miss you brotha! 😀

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