Beneath The Neon: Life and Death In The Tunnels Of Las Vegas

I just finished Beneath The Neon; Life and Death In The Tunnels Of Las Vegas by Matthew O'Brien, news editor at CityLife, an entertainment newspaper in Las Vegas. In Beneath, Matthew's interest to follow the escape path of convicted murderer Timmy "T.J." Weber, leads him into the drainage tunnels underneath Las Vegas. Timmy Weber is now sitting on death row in addition to his sentence of life with no parole. He was convicted on 17 counts including murder, attempted murder and sexual assault. Weber raped his girlfriend's 14 year old daughter then murdered his girlfriend, and finally tortured and murdered his girlfriend's 15 year old son. Weber was allegedly having a sexual relationship with his girlfriend's daughter since she was nine years old. Weber then returned to the scene of the crime two weeks later while his girlfriend's surviving son and another companion were trying to reclaim some possessions for the funerals.

Weber attacked the men but instead decided to flee with his bleeding injuries he has sustained into a storm drain nearby. He spent 5 hours underground, eluding capture from the police. He was eventually caught more than three weeks later above ground. What O'Brien finds in addition to garbage and waste, while following Weber's escape path, are people who have made the tunnels their home. The need to survive among street violence in Las Vegas and the high, scorching temperatures in the desert climate have driven these homeless people into their cool depths away from the streets, people, heat and police. Here in these depths there is more drama in the storm drains than above ground with its blinding neon that any reality show could capture. These homeless people are also referred to as "mole people," a  term used to describe people who live under cities in the subway tunnels and shafts.

I believe that the fascination with the tunnels themselves is what captures people's interest so much about the people who live in the drainage tunnels of the city. Otherwise they would just be regular homeless people to most, and while I think there are genuine concerns about the homeless it is the obsession with the unknown that draws us as well. A tunnel; pitch black, suffocating, quiet, echoing, claustrophobic, cobwebs, spiders, tides of cockroaches scurrying, ghosts, evil, death, crazy people, murderers, rapists, are all some terms that might come to mind when you look at a tunnel oozing its black ink.  Of course there are some alternatives; adventure, discovery, excitement, and the feeling like you are in another world. Into that mix you add the fact that people are trying to exist in those conditions?

Throughout the book O'Brien goes onto explore the tunnels all over Las Vegas, in the meantime having some meaningful conversations with the homeless people that live down in those tunnels. They are there for a myriad of reasons; drugs, alcoholism, mental illness, or some just through rotten luck and the crappy economy. Since my uncle was homeless for most of his life before he died on the streets, I have always wanted to know more about his life and the possible things he had to endure. I have a good idea because I grew up in some pretty rough areas and have miraculously survived through a lot. Beneath The Neon does not sensationalize but rather captures the true emotions of each person's story and how they came to live in the tunnels.

I was a bit disappointed there were not more pictures of the tunnels and the pictures that are in the book are in black and white. I love black and white photos but these photos should have been in color, the B&W really took away a lot of detail and richness that you get with color. After I read the book I found myself wanting to take on urban exploring but more importantly, I saw homeless people with an enlightened vision. Not that I did not see homeless people with sympathetic eyes before, but reading this book turned me onto a whole other world where they exist.

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