“Shapeshifters,” says the missionary. He’s dressed in a grey suit and grey-checkered tie. He’s black. Looks like he’s in his mid sixties. He sits back in his chair a bit and laughs confidently. The old black dress shoes on his feet he plants firmly on the floor. There’s a Bible in front of him opened to some book of the New Testament.

A large black Rastafarian cuts him off. “What kind of god could make a serpent talk to someone?” he asks. He sits across from the missionary. His large round beret reminds me of the top of the Downtown Transit Center, minus the casino lights.

They look like they just met.

The missionary’s feet don’t budge. I mean, how could he be afraid talking to this giant of a stranger? The entire station is crawling with Jehovah’s Witness missionaries. This is their front line: just off the edge of Fremont Street. A ledge hewn in the chasm. Near rock bottom. A holler or two past the digital bells of cartoon slots and Wheel of Fortune games.

Outside the station, papers and bibles lay scattered on tables in front of transients.

Here on the inside, the missionary smiles at the Rastafarian and his idea of a talking serpent. “The same kind of god that can make a block of wood talk to someone. It’s called a ventriloquist,” he says.

I’ve seen a lot of well-dressed missionaries around the station. This guy wears a yellow shirt. It’s clean. Pressed. White paper napkins stuffed in his coat pocket poke out like a silk hanky. He wears glasses. I see his Bible opened to Luke. There’s a small stack of papers on the table in front of him. I see the word “watchtower.”

“I guarantee if you eat a pomegranate you’re not going to go, ‘Ahh!’” the Rastafarian says. His dreads poke from beneath his beret. He has a pointy beard and yellow eyes.

“It wasn’t a pomegranate from that tree. That was a special tree,” the missionary laughs.

The Rastafarian starts to get up then sits back down. “All pomegranates should have been descendents from that tree,” he says. “They should all be magical. But they’re not. What about the chariot that came down and picked up Elijah?”

“That was a dream. A vision,” the missionary says.

“Can a dead man come back to life? What bones can bring a person to life?” the Rastafarian’s voice booms. Not a single transient nearby stirs.

“It was an unusual occurrence,” the missionary says.

“An unusual occurrence? You don’t have an answer, do you? You don’t want to accept?”

“Accept what? What do you want me to accept? Son, what do you want me to do about that?”

A nearby drunk jumps into the conversation. His words slur. He looks like he’s spent at least forty days downtown on Las Vegas streets. “You have to go back to the beginning. They’ve been arguing this since the beginning of time. Nobody ever noticed that one lady, whatchamacallit. That Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ girlfriend. She the one come down from the cave…”

“No, that’s not right.” The Rastafarian looks at the bum and laughs. “You know what that proves? You just proved that nobody was there.” He laughs again and turns to the missionary. “What kind of man walks on water?”

“A God who walks on water.”

The Rastafarian stands up and sits back down. He changes the subject. “How come these other people John baptized didn’t get godly powers?”

The missionary is soft spoken. “John didn’t even want to baptize Jesus. He said ‘I’m not worthy.’”

The Rastafarian gets up, turns his back. He has an I-can’t-take-this-shit look on his face, then sits back down while the missionary reads some verses from the gospel of Luke.

When the missionary finishes reading, the Rastafarian laughs. “You would tell Jesus how his own life was. You would do that wouldn’t you if you met him?” He wants to leave but then thinks up another question. “What about the darkness? According to the Bible there was darkness. Where did all that come from?”

“It didn’t come from anyplace.”

“Ain’t that something? So it was always just there. So he was just sitting in the darkness by himself?”

“He was part of the darkness. He could change it. He created it. He said, ‘I’m sitting here alone in the darkness, by myself. I’m lonely.’ So then he created Jesus Christ, I mean, Michael.”

A little black lady walks up to the table as if out of nowhere. She tells the missionary to ask the Rastafarian about wisdom.

“Are you finding any wisdom, any laws in what we’re discussing?” the missionary says. “Or is this just a conversation?”

The Rastafarian ignores the question. “Can you tell me how much the planet weighs?”

“I used to know.”

“Can you tell me how much badlands and good lands there is?”

“You can look it up.”

“What color is topsoil?”

“Dark brown.”

“No. It’s black. There are some things you know and some things you don’t know. I’m just checking. Tell me, what type of guy would have red eyes?”

The missionary thinks for a moment. “Albinos?”

“No, animals.”

“I thought you were talking about humans?” Even the missionary is growing tired. I can hear it in his whispers.

“No, I do mean what type of person. You see them at night. They glow.”

The missionary thinks again. “Someone genetically predisposed. Which way is up?”

The Rastafarian laughs. “Whichever way my head is.”

“The way your head is pointed?”

“No, whichever way my head is. I have two heads. One up here and one down low.”

“I can’t believe you went there,” the missionary laughs. He laughs deeply then gets up. “That puts an end to this conversation.”

The Rastafarian laughs too. He also stands up. “Alright Gerald. I’ll see you on Monday,” he says and walks out the door.










“The hotel isn’t in operation,” says the Binions Casino pit man.

I’m led past tired chain smokers watching video slot machines spin into green aliens and cartoon sharks. We pass the café. I see cooks scrambling eggs as if I’ve never seen such magic before.

We stop in an alcove just past the empty check-in. He points to where I would have to pay for Internet service.

“I’m looking for free wifi,” I want to say. Instead I just shrug. He walks away.

A poker tournament is underway in the nearly empty back of the casino. I sit in a chair against a gift shop wall and look out at empty blackjack tables creeping in on the casino like a tide of driftwood. I imagine all the empty rooms above. The lost jobs. The ghosts of casino bellhops and Filipina housekeepers.

I pull out my laptop hoping for free wifi. But there’s nothing. The economy in downtown Las Vegas is a money grab from many hotels seeking fees everywhere from $5.99 an hour to $12.99 a night.

My family is far away. Hundreds of miles. Though I’m the one who moved away, even my Facebook feels like it’s been shipped to a Martian desert along with my kids.

A few nights later I’m on a padded bench in the smoky Main Street Station where wifi is free for customers. I get up and go to where the men’s room urinal is a slice of the graffiti-covered Berlin wall. Toilets poke from the colorful tagging. The vibe is piss on Communism. Piss on the East. Piss on Europe. Piss on taggers. Piss on the neo-Euros.

I want to take a Twitpic while I piss but hold myself back.

I return to the bench and reboot my laptop. Close by, a woman with smoke-stained hair, wearing glasses and a green and blue Hawaiian shirt, talks as if every breath is a struggle. I catch that she was born and raised in New York. She says so. But she didn’t have to. She’s clearly an East Coast smokestack. Perfectly transported to the Las Vegas industrial wasteland where she can croak words as if she’s in Times Square pissing off some cabbie while sucking the butt end of a filtered Marlboro.

She works the counter of a rental car company. Her loudspeaker voice wheezes. “My husband was the first drive-thru customer of the Dunkin’ Donuts on Gibson.”

I have no idea where Gibson is.

She’s talking to a young couple. Both hotel guests clearly work for Dunkin’ Donuts.

“He got a year’s supply of coffee,” she says. “Oh, and a coffee mug.” She goes on as if questioning her own husband’s taste in beverages. “But he does not drink coffee?” Her voice is like sandpaper worked through a taffy machine. “Does David still work with you?”

I can’t believe she and the donut people know someone in common.

“Yeah. Crazy David,” the man says. He’s looks half Filipino, half Latino. Their conversation ends there.

David’s insanity is a mystery.

Somehow they get on the subject that at one time pizza could be ordered in Dunkin’ Donuts. The rental car lady doesn’t hold back. “Putting pizza in a donut shop is sacrilegious,” she says.

“It’s not like that anymore. You can come back,” the man’s female partner says. She’s fair skinned. Auburn hair.

“Oh I get the coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s the best coffee anywhere. I just don’t think pizza and donuts go together. I can’t do that,” the rental car lady says.

“We don’t do that anymore.”

“Dunkin’ does make a great cup of coffee. There’s no doubt about it.” The rental car lady pauses for a moment as if experiencing a great epiphany. “I do tell people to go to Dunkin’ and not Krispy Kreme.”

That night I’m at Krispy Kreme on Fremont Street. It’s loud. An 80s glam rock cover band belts out the horrid hits of yesteryear. I turn on my laptop and connect to the free wifi the donut shop offers. Down the street is Dunkin’ Donuts. There’s no free wifi there.

A few minutes later there’s a crash as a drifter at the next table spills his beer. He doesn’t say a word. But I can smell his anger streaming through the tiles. He dips his head and tries to sleep.

He peeks up when I eventually slip back through the gate.

Photo by Nick Belardes