- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2002

LAS VEGAS Nightfall comes to the dingy street corner, and the flickering lights of the 7-Eleven keep watch over the prayer group trying to bring the divine to a carnal city.
Jon Philips, who says he has been drunk for 45 days, wanders up and staggers into their prayer circle.
"Bring us a brighter day," someone prays.
Mr. Philips drops to his knees and the men and women of the Christian Motorcyclist Association encircle him, their Harleys parked nearby.
In a city that sells fantasies of easy money and 24-hour fun, a more desperate reality lies just beyond the neon and glitz that tourists see.
"This is the hardest town in America to live in," says Hal Rothman, a history professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "There's no net to catch you."
Gambling addiction programs are few. Lines are long at the city's missions. The homeless population is estimated to have nearly doubled to 12,000 since 1999.
For many, Las Vegas is an American dream affordable housing, no state income tax and well-paying jobs that don't require much education. Only three states have fewer college graduates, but the average household income of $42,177 is the nation's 19th highest.
Valet car attendants can easily bring in $50,000. Card dealers on the Strip can make much more than that and don't even need a high school diploma.
From 1990 to 2000, the Las Vegas-area's population grew 62 percent, the sharpest rate of increase for any metropolitan area in the country. Now, 1.3 million people live in southern Nevada.
This city has become a glamorous getaway for visitors, but Las Vegas also attracts the desperate, people who couldn't make it anywhere else and come here as a last resort.
Inside a hot, sweaty gym miles from the neon lights, Mike Jamison is training for his next boxing match. He is in poor shape and isn't prepared, but he has been promised $1,000 if he fights in a small venue at an off-Strip casino.
Nobody has ever heard of the 24-year-old fighter, a high school dropout who came here a year ago from Memphis, Tenn. But he believes he can be a champion.
Young boxers flock to the city and fill local gyms, hoping Las Vegas and its boxing-capital reputation will help them become the next Mike Tyson or Lennox Lewis.
"They're all training because everybody wants to come to Las Vegas where they think they can make it," says former referee Richard Steele, who manages the Nevada Partners gym where Mr. Jamison trains.
"If you don't have the talent, you never going to make it. Just coming to Las Vegas isn't good enough."
Maybe Mr. Jamison will be the next star. But in a city built on odds, his chances are slim.
"I've been doing it for 12 years. It's all I know how to do," Mr. Jamison says. "I just pray to God I can stay in Vegas and keep my sanity."
His family back in Memphis is fooled by this city's bright lights. They have visions, Mr. Jamison says, that he is making lots of money and living an extraordinary life in the land of opportunity.
But Mr. Jamison has no car, barely pays his bills, skips meals when there is no food. He prays for his next $1,000 fight.
On his birthday recently, his girlfriend bought him a chocolate cake with a hot check, he says.
"Vegas can break you or make you," he says, stepping into the gym's practice ring.
A few miles away, it's Friday afternoon and a stripper who uses the name Jackie has just begun her shift at Larry's Villa, a smoky, drab place most tourists will never find. It's a locals bar, the same customers day after day.
They feed quarters into video poker machines and some hardly glance up at the girls twirling around metal poles.
"I hate Las Vegas," Jackie, 32, says, sitting in her rose-colored bra and G-string during a break. "I'm so tired of this job, watching them gawk at you and not tipping."
She is a single mother of two who dances six days a week and cleans houses on the side to make ends meet. Her income depends on how well the customers like her and how much they tip.
Women who dance in some of the city's well-known strip clubs, just beyond Las Vegas Boulevard, can make pretty good money $1,000 or more on a good night. Those are the clubs tourists frequent. At Larry's Villa, a good night might be $300 and those can be rare.
Sometimes, there is not enough for Jackie and her children to eat, she says, so she goes without. Her earnings also have to take care of her mother, who has cancer and a gambling habit. When it gets really bad, Jackie borrows from her regular customers.
"I live day to day," she says, popping back onstage for a group dance.
She has been doing this for five years, barely scraping by, but always looking for a big payday. She is tired of dancing, but says it boosts her ego to have men stare at her.
"It just makes you feel so good."
Never mind that it doesn't pay the bills.
"Las Vegas is built on illusion and dreams," says Barbara Brents, a UNLV sociologist. "Its whole goal to tourists is to sell fantasy. In some ways, that spills over into people who see it as a place where they can fulfill things that they couldn't do elsewhere."
That's what Mike Jamison thought.
He lost the fight he wasn't prepared for a technical knockout in the second round. "I fought the fight for the money. They lied to me. They told me it was an easy fight."
A week later, the $1,000 is almost gone. He thinks he might finally give up the dream and get a regular job.
"Vegas, I'm hating it. I can't live fight-to-fight anymore. Man, I'm trying to live," he says.
It's another Friday night downtown on the east end of Fremont Street, past the popular light show that beckons thousands of tourists each night, past the sparkling casinos.
The Christian motorcyclists in their leathers are handing out religious material, hoping to save someone from the perils of the city.
Jon Philips, 39, has tried to leave Las Vegas 12 times in 28 years, he says, but is always lured back for the nonstop gambling and drinking. His brother wires him $20 every other day; Mr. Philips doesn't tell him he gambles most of it away.
"I always come back to Vegas," he says.
"I got a heartache that's going to last for the rest of my life," he says, a tear slipping down his cheek.
The prayer ends, the circle of bikers breaks up and Las Vegas begins another 24 hours.


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