Las Vegas Sun

November 19, 2018

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Wild, weird and woolly of Boulder Highway

It's a Tuesday evening and Brian Borysewich is toppling his bowling pins the usual way -- with nine unholy blasts from a .50-caliber Desert Eagle handgun. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! That's how they do it every other Tuesday during pin shoots here at the Pawn and Gun Shop shooting range on Boulder Highway. "It's bowling Nevada-style," range master Tony Dee shouts.

Eh? It can be hard to hear, what with the BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!, the protective earmuffs you have to wear and the dull roar put up by the 60 or so pistol-packing friends of the Second Amendment gathered for an evening's fun. Sixty people is a lot for the time-consuming task of blowing bowling pins off a table. "We started an hour early," says Dee, a thin, neat old guy, a retired cop. He glances at his watch -- shortly after 6. "We'll be here until 10 or 11," he says. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! A half-dozen crates of pins are stacked nearby and Dee'll need 'em: The machine-gun portion of the competition starts in about an hour.

Just another summer evening along this stretch of Boulder Highway in Henderson. "What else are you going to do on a 90-degree day but come into an air-conditioned range and shoot bowling pins?" Dee asks.

He meant it rhetorically, I think, but around here one's options are many and varied. You could stop in at the Centerfold Lounge up the street, where the topless dancers are already displaying their wares. Or take your spare change or your mortgage payment north to the Skyline Casino or south to the Jokers Wild. Meanwhile, over at Studio Tattoo, owners Dante and Chuck are bent over their bloody canvases, maybe etching a caduceus into a doctor or drawing a Dallas Cowboys helmet on a great-grandmother's thigh. It takes all kinds, you know.

We're not talking about the Boulder Highway of Sam's Town and Boulder Station, the gussied-up and much-touted Boulder Strip. That's way north of here. And south, deeper into Henderson, it's mostly a monotony of fast-food franchises broken only by chain grocery stores.

This patch of highway, between Sunset and Pabco roads in Henderson's aging Pittman neighborhood, has more of what you might call character. It's six lanes of it-takes-all-kinds: tranny shops and auto pawns, abandoned properties and properties that should be abandoned, gift shops, the quickie mart run by turbaned Indians, the bars, the rundown trailer courts like picked scabs. The people are middle class or a little lower, the friendliest you'll find says Ruth Corn, who's been here longer than almost anyone. "We're neighbors. We care about each other."

Just a few years ago, before U.S. 95 stretched out this far, Boulder Highway was your main route into Henderson or to Lake Mead, and Pittman was your introduction to Henderson. A beautification project years ago gave the place palm trees and a pretty median, but it's like putting makeup on Zsa Zsa, the age still shows.

Cheap wisdom and common fear had it that the neighborhood would wilt altogether when that freeway went through and whisked all the traffic and action a mile to the west. Didn't happen, they say. So what if the state's traffic wizards say almost 10,000 fewer cars a day go down Boulder (down to about 29,000 in 1995 from about 39,000 in '94, the latest figures available). John Kish, owner of the Skyline, will tell you he hasn't suffered. Tattooistes Chuck and Dante swear traffic is heavier now than at any time in their years on Boulder.

And it's anything but wilting back at the Pawn and Gun, where Dee is laying out for me the five W's of pin shooting. Things are jumping here! Men, women, yes, even children take turns stepping up to the line, gun in hand, to see how fast they can blow nine bowling pins off a table 25 feet away.

"I've seen it take anywhere from eight seconds up to where you have to time it with a sundial," Dee says. Eight seconds is hot shoot when you consider that the rules force you to reload once. These people are serious. "Some of these guys' guns are worth thousands of dollars," Dee says.

"What do you find so interesting about it," I ask Borysewich, a computer operator.

"Ever go bowling?" he replies. "And you think you have a strike, but the pins won't go down? Here, you can take your revenge on the pins."

Highway patriarch

It's a Monday afternoon and John Kish doesn't have a lot to say, but then, he knows his casino is saying it all for him. Its message: Boulder Highway's been very, very good to me. Let them build their freeway, let them stack up the casinos down the Boulder Strip or around the corner on Sunset Road. He dismisses it all with a shrug.

On one wall of his office, among the photos and plaque buildup honoring his civic goodness, is a black-and-white of the Skyline as it was when he bought it in 1975. One story, 4,000 square feet. This second-floor office didn't exist then, not even in Kish's imagination.

"It was just a bar with 15 slots," he recalls. "I really felt I would sell it soon." That was 21 years and 26,000 square feet ago.

The Skyline caters to locals and they're as reliable as homing pigeons. Sure, they'll check out the new joints, who wouldn't? But, Kish notes, "They all come back home." And, indeed, the Monday afternoon crowd is in full force on the floor below.

They leave behind enough money that Kish has been able to snap up a lot of surrounding property. Years ago, for instance, he bought the nearby Sky Motel, spiffed it up a little.

That some other property owners in the area (he diplomatically declines to name names) aren't as willing or able to upgrade pains him a little. "I can't police it all," he says lightly. But he does what he can. "It's pride of ownership," he says.

Tattoos R Us

It's a late Thursday morning and what're you staring at? Never seen a woman up to her elbows in tattoos before? I mean that literally. Dante Roberts has skulls and curlicues and whatnot capering all the way up both forearms. It's quite a sight, matched only by the arms of her husband, Chuck.

They're advertisements for themselves -- Dante and Chuck own Studio Tattoo on Boulder Highway -- although they don't need to work very hard getting the word out. Body adornment is in right now, way in, and not just with bikers, skateboarders and young fashion victims. Doctors, lawyers, hausfraus -- between 40 and 70 of them come through the doors every business day, Chuck says. Most just browse the walls of available images, trying to imagine just where a Tasmanian devil might look good on them.

What brings them in? "All the celebrations and sadnesses of life," Dante says.

"The majority of people who get tattoos are very secure people," she says. They want that shiver of individuality that goes with customizing your body. There are exceptions; they have one client, a man of 60, who still wears a shirt in the presence of his 90-year-old father.

Studio Tattoo's been on Boulder Highway for 13 years; they love it here. Easy to get to but not stuck in city central. The ambiance in their shop: Contemporary Waiting Room. Clean, quiet. "We want to bring tattooing out of the medieval, stereotypical settings it used to be in," Dante says.

They like the work. "It's the ultimate," says Chuck. "You're doing something different every day. And even if you're doing the same thing, it's on a different person."

Of course, they've seen the needle and the damage done. Dante got her first tattoo -- her initials -- at 14, which she quickly regretted. "I never thought that 28 years later I'd have tattoos, let alone tattoo other people."

But it beats being a florist or graphic designer, careers Dante pursued before picking up the needle gun. Unless you ask her mom, not a tattoo fan.

Dante chuckles. "She was much happier when I had a flower shop."

Dancing for dollars

An early Saturday afternoon, and not much is shaking here at the Centerfold Lounge. Except Kristen, of course -- she's up on the runway in white bra and panties that glow like uranium under the black light; the "No cover" sign outside applies equally to the door and the dancers.

The Centerfold isn't much from the outside and isn't much more on the inside, nothing showy, anyway, just your basic comfy cubbyhole of smoky darkness and cranked-up '80s guitar pop -- the dancers seem to favor Bon Jovi and Aerosmith. A standard-issue bar and standard-issue barflies occupy one side, the dance platform and a few small tables the other.

It's an old place. Co-owner Johnny Mack will tell interested patrons that one wall was built with railroad ties salvaged from the construction of Hoover Dam. Formerly called Boobies and The Look Inn (you should have seen the leering eyeballs they put in those double O's!), the name was changed because, Mack admits, it didn't have a great reputation. A real dog-and-pony show, the joke used to go, "the kind of place," says a guy I know, "where you'd give the girls money to put their clothes back on."

No more. "Let's hear it for Kristen as she starts her last dance," the announcer exhorts. No Gypsy Rose Lee, Kristen's giving it a game try, aided by an expressive face and more stage personality than you'd expect, considering the music.

Still, you have to wonder what's going through her mind as she gets ready to pop her top for the five guys in the ringside seats. Another dozen or so sit at the bar or diddle the poker machines. The dollars Kristen gathers in her thong this time around won't make much of a dent in the old bills.

A few nights later, Kristen emerges from the dressing room, vacuum-sealed in a slinky red dress, and trades hugs and laughs with some of the regulars before settling into the bar stool next to me.

"I think that 25 percent of them don't think of you as a person, just as an object," she says. "I try not to let it bother me." She can't help it sometimes, her self-esteem is on the line up there. Rude guys, disinterested guys -- it's enough to make a half-naked girl wonder if something's wrong with her. Then, of course, there are the grabby guys; they present their own problems.

That's why she ducks backstage between songs, before the tune where her top comes off. "I try to psych myself up -- 'OK, here it comes,'" she says. "I'll try to concentrate on just dancing. I figure as long as I'm doing this, I'm going to make as much money as I can."

She's been doing it again for about a year -- she'd taken four years off for some good behavior. She'd rather not be doing it again, but she needs the money. She has a 14-year-old son to raise. A single mother who has to strip to support her child ... she's living a Demi Moore movie! Only there's no movie star payoff here, only a relentless clarity of purpose: Make as much money as she can.

As Kristen dances she keeps an eye on the door. See, she works in an office by day, and they don't know she does this on the side. "I always worry when the door opens, who's it going to be? It's happened a couple of times, but I've been lucky and they haven't seen anything."

Something from nothing

It's a Wednesday morning and Ruth Corn is going back, back, way back.

"When I came here," she's saying, "there was nothing, absolutely nothing."

When was that?

"When was that?" she asks her son, Richard, who's sitting with us in the cramped, cluttered house at Boulder and Corn Street. Surrounding the house is one of Corn's two rundown trailer parks. She's been sewing, keeping the needle handy, I think, in case I ask any impertinent questions. At 88 she may not remember how much property she owns or just where it all is -- "I flat can't tell ya" -- but she hasn't lost much of the pluck and feistiness that prompted one city official critical of her properties to say, "I wouldn't want to tangle with Miss Corn."

Richard sits back in his chair, tilts his head. "That woulda been the summer of '42," he says.

And from that absolutely nothing, Ruth and the late John Corn built something. You can still see some of it: this house, the rock and concrete building facing Boulder Highway that used to be a post office, although for years it's just been used for storage, crammed with stuff like the rest of the property.

Those were the war years, remember, and building materials were hard to come by for civilians. "They wouldn't sell us people anything," Ruth snorts. Ah, but just up the highway the government was building a magnesium plant, and you know the government -- cut the corner off a sheet of plywood, throw the whole thing away!

"So my husband would go out and bring 'em back and nail 'em up," Ruth says triumphantly. "That's how we built this house."

The Corns started with one lot and added more as they could afford it. And sometime in the early '50s the first trailer showed up.

"They asked if they could park here in my drive," Ruth recalls, and sure, why not? Then another came, and another. "Pretty soon, I had eight trailers out there," she cackles. That's how this whole trailer park business happened -- by accident! "I had no more intention of going into trailer parks than Adam," she says. As people moved on, sometimes she bought their trailers and began renting them out.

"It was a good accident, because we've made a good living from it. Not a fortune, by any means, but it's been a good living."

It couldn't help but be when you don't invest in new trailers. With those ancient homes, some you wonder how they stay together, others scarred by graffiti, Corn's parks are widely considered eyesores. The places may not quite be Third World, but they aren't First World either. "I'd like to see it cleared out and replaced," says one city official.

Corn seems cheerily unrepentant. "I think businesses need to learn to tolerate each other," she says. Anyway, she was there first. "The more they didn't want me," she says, "the more I wanted to stay.

"I want to live right here because it annoys so many people."

Walking me out, Richard stands amid the abandoned cars, old furniture and heaps of unidentifiable stuff. "Every fire chief has taken his run at her," he says over the mews of one of the area's several cats. He knows all this needs to be cleaned out, but Ruth won't turn loose of it and she's his mom and he's a good son, so here it stays.

Richard does what he can with the old trailers, keeps them clean inside, newly carpeted and so on. And, he points out, when they have a vacancy, it fills fast.

"We have 19 families out there," Ruth had said earlier, gesturing with her needle hand. "They don't gossip about each other. They don't fight. I'm astounded that many people can live that close together without any bad words."

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