Lady Luck Meets the Shady Lady: …In Las Vegas

The Seattle Times
August 28, 2002
By Alex Tizon

LAS VEGAS — Before reaching this city of illusion in the desert, before stopping at the Shady Lady Ranch where hookers mingled with peacocks in a lush green garden, we met a woman who had fallen asleep at the wheel. Lori Atkins is 53 and lucky to be going on 54. It turns out we were four minutes behind her on Highway 305, south of Battle Mountain. We spotted the skid marks stretching across both lanes and into an open field. The car lay on its roof.

Atkins had crawled out unhurt and was circling the car as we approached. Celine Dion was blaring from the stereo. The windshield had been crushed to within inches of the steering wheel. The trunk had popped open and spilled its guts: luggage, a block of cheese, two plastic dumbbells and an Ab Roller.

“I rolled the Saturn. It’s totaled,” she said into a cellphone, pacing, slapping dust off her face, and seemingly unappreciative of the fact that she was alive. White crosses along the highway bore witness to what might easily have happened to her. She looked more angry than grateful. But something like gratitude embraced her a bit later. “That’s what I get for trying to get there in 12 hours,” she continued on the cellphone.

The person on the other end was her husband, Frank, and “there” was Las Vegas. She’d been visiting family in Oregon, was heading home and, unwittingly, perilously, provided a metaphor for what happened to Las Vegas after Sept. 11: It took a tumble but survived intact.

Atkins was born and raised in Oregon, then spent two decades as a sales rep in California before retiring with her husband to Las Vegas. Not the Vegas of a hundred shades of neon and a million slot machines jingling into the night, not the place of showgirls and high rollers and minicities made of plaster. The Atkinses moved into the Other Vegas, the city of new Spanish-tile subdivisions and strip malls that could pass as Anyplace, USA. The corner of Nevada not often heard of except as part of the fastest-growing region in the country.

In 1990, the population of Las Vegas roughly equaled that of Seattle’s: a half-million, give or take. Today, Vegas has an estimated population of 1.7 million. Every week, a thousand new people move here. Besides the 321 days a year of sunshine, what’s the draw? Jobs, fancy new homes that don’t cost a fortune, a relatively low cost of living and a booming economy. At least these were the draws before Sept. 11.

Tourist-dependent cities like Las Vegas and Honolulu suffered most from the new fear of flying. The state’s Gaming Control Board reported last week that Nevada’s casinos saw the worst drop on record in gaming revenue this past year, a 7 percent decrease on the Strip and a 4 percent dip statewide. This translates into total winnings this year of $9.3 billion compared with $9.7 billion last year.

As dramatic as that might seem to Nevada’s number-crunchers, the real-life effect has been negligible to the average Las Vegan. The first two months after the terrorist attacks, tourism slowed to a trickle by Las Vegas standards, but one person’s trickle is another’s torrent.

Since then, the parking lots and casinos haven’t been as crowded, the strip hasn’t been as teeming, but they are still plenty packed by almost any other standard. Eighty-five percent hotel occupancy seems low when you’ve grown accustomed to 95.

In any case, business appears to be slowly picking back up to teeming levels. So said Elvis impersonator Ron Hertel, a regular schmoozer at Caesars Palace. Hertel is one of a colony of Elvi in the city, and one of only a handful who work regularly. “The people are coming back, the city’s coming back,” he said, curling his lip in that oh-so-sexy way. If you don’t believe Elvis, you might ask the city’s tourism officials, who’ve been quoted in local newspapers saying essentially the same thing.

Nevada has the added buffer of having certain business sectors unaffected, even bolstered, by jetliners crashing into faraway skyscrapers and other upheavals.

The Shady Lady Ranch is one of 30 legal brothels in Nevada. It’s a one-story ranch house painted sunflower yellow with bright red trim. A lush green lawn surrounds the house, and a dozen or so pet peacocks stroll the premises along with five certified prostitutes.

Inside the faux-French Provincial parlor, a crystal trophy announces that the ranch was recently awarded “Small brothel of the year” by an association that calls itself the Cyber Whore Mongers Club. Although it has been a typically slow August, business, according to the shady lady herself, owner and madam Bobbi Davis, has been better than average since Sept. 11.

“We did a heck of a good business right after, and it’s been good on and off ever since,” says Davis, a full-figured woman of 48 in bare feet and looking like a suburban housewife (denim shorts, striped short-sleeve shirt) roused from a weekend nap.

“I hate to say it,” she says, “but when times get bad, business always seems to go up. It’s a time when people need human contact.”

Outside, her husband, looking equally domestic, tended the plants and watered the lawn, which appeared so even and green as to look fake. Peacocks cleared a path as he walked around with his garden hose, barely acknowledging us as we passed him. The brothel sits off Highway 305, just down the road from where Lori Atkins rolled her Saturn earlier in the day.

Back to Atkins’ story: We waited with her in the field for an hour until a state patrol officer arrived. During that hour, she lapsed into a glassy-eyed calm. She became mute. She had methodically retrieved items from the car and set them together by the highway, ready to load into the tow truck that would eventually come. Celine Dion wailed into the desert afternoon.

Almost every passerby who stopped told her how lucky she was. The roadside was littered with boulders and gouged with deep ravines that might have swallowed her.

“God was smiling on you,” said a snaggled-toothed old man named Steve, who had driven up in a jalopy van. He walked out to the field with his mangy black lab, Sheba. Sheba was 12 years old and probably did not have too many years left. Steve and Sheba were going to camp at some remote lake and look for UFOs.

“Oh, yeah, God was smiling on you,” he said.

Atkins didn’t have a ready answer for Steve, but at one point Sheba approached her, tail wagging, and Atkins knelt down on the dusty plain, coiled her arms around the dog’s neck and held her for a long, long time.