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An arctic evening in Minnesota: Tracy Bridges shivered near her apartment window, weary of snowstorms and slender paychecks. She was 27, making $23,000 dealing blackjack at an Indian casino in Duluth, and couldn't shake thoughts of those dealers who had flown in from Las Vegas.
They were teaching the casino staffers and talked about high-rollers and tipsy celebrities, about the huge tips dealers pocketed. "I could do that," she thought.
That winter of 1997, Bridges quit her job, packed her Chevy Lumina and sped off across the state, the frozen Red River fading in her rear-view mirror. Five days later, she arrived in Las Vegas in darkness, the hot Mojave air flushing her cheeks, the skyline blazing with neon and possibility.
"Vegas," she thought. "Wow."
Bridges was part of a pilgrimage of aspiration that made Nevada the nation's fastest-growing state and Las Vegas one of its fastest-growing metropolitan areas. They came from New Jersey and Mississippi, from Los Angeles and San Diego, chasing the Vegas Dream: A good job, no college degree required. A cheap house, little money down. A seemingly secure niche in the middle class.
Bridges was able to build a life that made her a star at class reunions. Kami Bennett, with a $28-an-hour job at a home builder and a small inheritance, bought a black Mercedes S500, which she named Black Beauty. Craig Walsh, a union carpenter, got a tattoo on his upper right arm: a red phoenix soaring above the Luxor casino-hotel. Hope Camarena prided herself on showing her daughter that she could make it as a single mom.
They didn't know it would all crumble, quickly and spectacularly, in the manner of a casino implosion.
Camarena had been selling knickknacks at the Westminster Mall in Orange County when she got pregnant with her daughter, Alison. She would be able to afford a better life in Nevada, of that she was sure. So in 1993 she moved to Las Vegas and joined her mother and stepfather working for a construction cleanup firm. She was 20.
Las Vegas' economic boom seemed unstoppable. The Strip kept adding hotels, and suburbs chewed through the desert. In 2005 alone, the region's largest water district added more than 24,000 accounts. Many of the newcomers, like Camarena, were from California.
The number of job-holders more than doubled from 1990 to 2005, and still employers had to compete for workers.
Pardee Homes wooed Camarena to become a field customer service representative. Starting in 2005 at $18 an hour -- plus benefits and quarterly bonuses -- she was a liaison between home builder and home buyer. When she first came to town, she stretched her money by dining at the Circus Circus buffet. Soon after joining Pardee, she bought a PT Cruiser in silver, her favorite color. She drove her daughter and son, Gerald Jordano, back to Orange County for Angels games.
That same year, metropolitan Las Vegas issued 39,012 permits for new homes.
Kami Bennett chased the growth. Raised in the San Fernando Valley, she had traveled to Utah to work as an executive assistant at builder Richmond American Homes. She juggled her boss' prescription refills, getting his white E430 Mercedes washed and picking him up with a Diet Coke in hand.
In 2004, she followed him to the company's Las Vegas office, which was expanding to meet demand. Bennett, 33, subscribed to astrology (a Gemini sign is tattooed on her left hip) and "The Secret" motivational book. Hard work, she believed, would bring success.
Bennett and her husband, Jason, who works at a golf course, felt secure: They bought a 2,100-square-foot home in suburban Henderson for $417,000 and poured thousands more into renovations. Her boss once gave her a Chanel purse, which she named C.C.
"I can't live without Chanel now," she said.
What Hollywood is to actors, Las Vegas became to casino workers. They flocked from riverboat casinos near Chicago, Indian casinos near Seattle, resorts along the East and Gulf coasts.
Tracy Bridges, then Tracy Scott, met a fellow dealer, Michael Bridges, who had left Missouri and its assembly lines. They married and settled into a 1,600-square-foot home, figuring they'd soon trade in for something bigger.
Jobs were plentiful. Bored with yours? Head to another casino, or another profession. Tracy Bridges flitted from making $60,000 a year at the Venetian, mainly in tips, to selling real estate. She worked as a cocktail waitress at Santa Fe Station, a dealer at the Hard Rock hotel-casino, a server at Timbers Bar & Grill.
The Bridges bought a Dodge Caravan, a time share in Maui. They had a daughter, Victoria, whom they eventually enrolled in a $300-a-month private preschool. Nothing seemed out of reach.
Craig Walsh helped build markers of suburban sprawl (parking garages, freeway overpasses) and lavish Strip behemoths (Wynn Las Vegas). "The joke was the state bird was the tower crane," he said.
He had moved from Orange County in 2004 and at age 24 started work as a union carpenter for $18 an hour. His high school sweetheart, Juli, found work as a medical assistant and bought her first car with a sunroof. They soon married and had a daughter, Kayla.
The couple got a $170,000 home with a fixed-rate mortgage on Pearblossom Lane, where Walsh planned to swap rocks for grass and carpet for hardwood. Down the street lived his wife's old neighbors from La Habra. "I thought," he said, "we could live the life we weren't able to live in California."
Juli Walsh lacked his enthusiasm. She found Las Vegas too hot, too transient. But whenever she talked of moving, he reminded her: "No other place pays good money for construction workers."
In 2006, nearly 39 million tourists poured into Las Vegas, nearly twice as many as in 1990. The median home price reached a new high of $315,000.
But even then, little-noticed cracks were undermining the Las Vegas economy, with over-extended homeowners defaulting on exotic loans. Bank-owned signs began dotting cul-de-sacs, and in August, Hope Camarena was laid off from Pardee Homes.
Las Vegas, which had led the nation in growth, was about to lead it in foreclosures. A glut of bad mortgages and empty homes began driving down prices even as building charged ahead on the Strip.
Thousands of new hotel rooms were planned, and it was expected that all those new jobs would lure new workers, who would buy newly constructed homes and shop at newly opened Targets and Trader Joe's. The formula had always worked before.
Bridges, then pregnant with her second daughter, Olivia, decided to take time off. She could afford it; her husband ran the craps table and dealt baccarat at the opulent Bellagio.
Walsh was building Town Square, an upscale outdoor mall; Bennett was having brand-new toilets installed in her home.
Camarena, stunned by her sudden dismissal, was eventually hired at Lennar Homes. But two days before her start date, she got a call: Sorry, there's a freeze.
She interviewed with Rhodes Homes. Nothing. Same with D.R. Horton. Same with Pulte Homes. She enrolled in classes to become a building inspector, but after nearly a year, construction had mostly dried up and, with it, so many jobs.
With home prices now in free fall, Kami Bennett's company, Richmond American, started trimming staff. She came to work all smiles, and "as I soon as I walked out the door, I was in shambles." She hid Black Beauty -- license plate holder: "Jesus Spoils Me Rotten" -- lest co-workers think she had gotten a raise.
In May 2008, top managers pulled Bennett aside after work: Her position had been eliminated. Still, she believed another job was weeks away. "I'm unstoppable," she thought.
She was eventually hired, for $12 an hour, as a golf merchandise coordinator at Lake Las Vegas. The resort was tony but financially troubled. Four months passed. She was laid off.
Bennett searched for work with the same vigor she had applied to tracking down her boss' tuxedos. She applied to be a mail clerk. She applied to the DMV. During interviews, she showed off a black pantsuit and a portfolio that included letters of recommendation from her last 10 employers. Afterward, she mailed thank-you notes with Starbucks gift cards: Coffee's on me.
But in a town where employers once competed for workers, job-hunters now competed with one another. In 2008, with the national recession draining 401(k)s, undermining home equity and discouraging tourism, gambling revenue tumbled almost 10% in Clark County. The casinos laid off thousands, and, by one estimate, the region's population shrank.
Some days Bennett stared at her closet, filled with 3-inch peek-a-boo heels she once wore to work. She fired the housekeeper and the pool guy, found a cheaper hair colorist and once paid her $2,200 mortgage in keno winnings.
She has refused to walk away from her suburban home, with its pool, five waterfalls and those brand-new toilets. "I'll do what I have to do," she said. "I'll work three jobs if I have to."
Her shoulders slumped, her voice quavered. "I can't even get one."
Late last year, Tracy Bridges got in a tiff with her manager at a bar and left her job as a waitress. But flitting from job to job wasn't an option anymore. There were none to be had.
She found holding onto her lifestyle was like holding onto a fistful of water. For six months, her $1,200 mortgage payment was late. She sometimes hid shopping bags from her husband, Michael. She recalled cringing at the cost of an "I Dream in Pink" Barbie for Victoria's birthday; and she could have bought something cheaper, but that would have been admitting defeat.
One warm night this summer, after she had tucked in Victoria, 5, and read to Olivia, 2, she changed into a yellow T-shirt, swept her hair off powdered cheeks and kissed Michael good night. It was time for what passed as work.
She hoisted open the garage door and placed a small cardboard box into her Dodge Caravan, which smelled faintly of lilac. Bridges drove a few streets over, lowered the passenger-side window and tossed one rolled-up Avon cosmetics catalog after another. Thwack. Thwack. She continued throwing for 15 minutes. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
She tucks her Avon business card in each catalog, and sometimes people called to place orders. One time, a man called to complain about the unwanted catalog, and she explained how, for months, she'd fruitlessly applied to casinos. His tone softened: He too had lost his job.
On the hunt
Craig Walsh was laid off from a $32-an-hour job building the suburban M Resort this spring. He found work at the Fontainebleau hotel but was let go after just two days. The hotel, 70% finished, eventually filed for bankruptcy.
His wife, Juli, had lost her job last year. She spent months scouring Craigslist and caring for Kayla, now 2 years old.
The couple slashed their spending. Squabbles blew up into fights. In March, his wife moved back to California with Kayla. The final blow, Walsh said, had been when he secretly withdrew a couple hundred dollars in savings to play four-card keno.
He searched for work, but he needed something that paid more than his unemployment check, which was less than $9 an hour. His phoenix tattoo took on new meaning: "My life was here in Vegas, and it blew up."
With the county unemployment rate topping 13%, job fairs became scenes of desperation and sadness. One afternoon, Hope Camarena arrived for one at the Hard Rock, which was hiring 200 housekeepers. Over two days, 4,000 applicants showed up.
They filled out paperwork next to Budweiser taps and were interviewed at small tables near a red-curtained stage. From afar, it looked like several dozen bad first dates.
Camarena was dressed in a bright green button-down, a black pencil skirt and black peep-toe heels.
"I tell myself I'm worth a million bucks and they should spend it on me," she said, biting her lip and straining to hear her number to be interviewed -- 775.
Four hours after arriving, she told the interviewer she had completed classes in busing tables and food service. She didn't mention how she'd been subsisting on child support, food stamps, Medicaid and Section 8 housing assistance.
Camarena cleaned friends' homes for extra money. She gave up her beloved PT Cruiser and took the bus. In the last two years, she'd applied for maybe 300 jobs. Three times a week, she sifted through listings at an unemployment office where cheery posters promised OPPORTUNITY.
The Hard Rock didn't pan out, but later this summer she got a call: The Aria, a hotel-casino slated to open this year, wanted her as a food server and buser. She screamed in relief. Then she started looking for a second job.
Worried and weary
Frustrated, Walsh went to the union hall. Some 2,100 journeyman carpenters were on a hiring list; he was No. 963. He brushed off paying the mortgage and bills for two off-road vehicles and a companion trailer. One afternoon, he silenced his phone: "They've all been collections people trying to collect money I don't have."
One morning in May, he walked outside the house, which was stripped of furniture and nearing foreclosure, and wiped his hands on his "Greatest Dad 2007" T-shirt. His dogs, Marley and Riely, followed. Much of his life had been boxed up: His hard hat with the "Live Better Work Union" sticker. Kayla's stuffed turtle, Tippy. A chunk of plywood from the shed: He'd used it to mark his daughter's growth.
Two friends in Las Vegas had moved to Arizona, and another to Indianapolis. His lack of family here, which mattered little during good times, began to wear on him. The scorching desert felt hotter, the rows of stucco boxes loathsome in their sameness.
The next day, Walsh loaded the dogs into his Chevy Trailblazer and hooked up the trailer intended for his off-road vehicles. He headed down Interstate 15 to a place that, even for all its troubles, now appeared more promising: California.