Mandalay Bay

I woke up groggily this morning, checked my iPhone and saw the headline "Largest shooting in U.S. History in Las Vegas." Not sure if I was really awake, I clicked on the link and saw a picture of the golden Mandalay Bay Hotel on the front page of the New York Times. The caption read: "More than 50 people killed." 

"Ah, so it's real," I thought, thinking of how I thought Orlando was more people than would ever be killed in a shooting. And before that, I remember hearing about Sandy Hook at the El Cerrito Community Center while registering my kids for holiday camp. The lady filling out my paperwork was crying because her sister's kids went to Sandy Hook. "20 kids have been killed," she said, white-faced. At the time, I gasped out loud, because 20 was an unimaginable number. 

If you're wondering why I'm writing this in my painting blog, it's because, as a painter, I knew the Mandalay Bay Hotel well. In 2007, I spent a week in the hotel at a painting exposition with my Uncle Will and several of my fellow painters from the old 4th Street Studio (now 4th Street Fine Art). Sometimes when I read about a mass shooting, I can't imagine being at the place, so I think "well, I guess that's not an issue for me." In this case, I know exactly where the people were and I can well imagine having been right there. It's just an accident of fate that I was there ten years ago, and not today.

Ten years ago, in 2007, I had no idea who Jason Aldean was and I didn't know any local California friends with guns. In the intervening years, I travelled frequently to Texas, where I became a fan of the barrel-chested Mr. Aldean and also, began to understand that in certain parts of the country, everybody has a bunch 'o guns. For example, when I went to my high school reunion in Tennessee in 2011, the host mentioned he'd bought his seven-year-old son an ATV and a gun for his birthday. In Berkeley, where I live, the standard gift for a seven-year-old is a scooter and gluten-free cake. In both Tennessee and Texas, I expected gun owners to be menacing citizens with a pistol tattoo'd on their forearm, but what do you know, it turns out they're really nice people who look just like me.

Thus, our national dilemma. I know that I would gladly vote for restrictions on automatic weapons, but I also know that people I like very much would not. Same problem on so many fronts, like he of the dark-mark and the horcruxes. Tonight watched some of "The Vietnam War" documentary and wondered if people who were alive then feel like today has the same bloody feel.

Anyway, back to the Mandalay Bay Hotel. My Uncle Will and I drove my van packed full of paintings out to the Las Vegas Art Expo in 2007. I paid about $2500 for a booth then and hoped, as all painters do, that miraculously I'd strike it rich, once and for all! Any artist can tell you that painting is a form of gambling.

Will and I pulled onto Las Vegas Boulevard after seven hours crossing the hot desert. Shading my eyes from the sun, I saw the words "MANDALAY BAY" emblazoned on the shimmering golden towers of the first hotel. 

"Holy Christ," I said to Will. "Is that where the expo is?"

"Yep," he said, grinning. "You hit the big time." 

I felt like a rock star when we pulled into the back loading dock and the roadies waved us in, to unload my paintings into the vast convention center. From every direction, art poured into the room, exploding onto the walls and pedestals. It turns out that even millionaire artists have to haul things like hooks, bubble wrap, labels, and business cards. In a frenzy, we all set up our booths and waited for the adoring crowds of moneyed people to hit our stalls.

For three days, my Uncle and I rose at our cheap room in the Luxor, grabbed a coffee, pounded across the pavement to the Mandalay Bay convention center. The crowd at the Luxor was young and gothy, while the crowd at the Mandalay Bay was slick and high-dollar, as some country stars like to say. For the entire time, we wandered in the area not a hundred yards from today's shooting. 

No, I didn't hit my number in Las Vegas. In fact, I didn't sell one painting. On the other hand, you could say chance was on my side then. Death didn't visit Las Vegas in 2007, but rather yesterday, in 2017. Like my younger, more-wagering self, the concertgoers were just enjoying a evening in the shadow of the resplendent Mandalay Bay, listening to the sounds of a man who sings "The Truth." What the truth is about guns, we still trying to decide.