There’s a picture of me in the back of my parents’ pawnshop. It must have been taken during the seventies, because I’m not ten years old. Wearing a black knockoff Adidas sweatsuit, I’m surrounded by racks of record players, eight tracks, golf clubs, and typewriters. I’m half turned, looking toward my father, who is holding the camera. In front of me, a long flat cardboard box is jammed with rows of booklets, which are stuffed with pawn tickets. I spent untold afternoons in the back of that store, numerically organizing the tickets and stapling them into the correct books. Sometimes, when I finished with one book, I’d count and roll quarters. It’s a Polaroid photo, most likely taken from a hocked camera whose owner had never come back to redeem his ticket.
My parents were far from any clichéd image of pawnbrokers. As soon as you walked into the shop, my dad—a lanky guy with a thickening middle, bright brown eyes, and black hair receding at his temples—greeted you with a kind smile. I see him making small talk while writing up a loan, bringing up the previous night’s ballgame, or rolling out one of his favorite groan-worthy jokes, Hey, do you know who likes cats? No? Mrs. Katz. In the mid-sixties, he and Mom left the East Coast, following her parents who’d moved to the warmer climate of Vegas from New York City after Mom’s mom got cancer. Dad then spent ten years trying to write plays and short stories while dealing craps at different casinos. He once had a screenplay that supposedly was going to be developed into a movie starring Burgess Meredith. Mom taught grade school and tried to sell Tupperware over the phone. They got into pawnbroking because my grandfather—a dice-throw-ing, trifecta-betting, mathematical genius—had his own pawnshop on Fremont Street, the gambling and tourist mecca of downtown Las Vegas. The struggle of being pawnbrokers became more appealing to my folks than the struggle of trying to make ends meet on their crappy salaries while raising four children. When I was eight or so, Gramps guaranteed the loan that allowed Mom and Dad to take over a struggling downtown pawnshop of their own.
Fremont Street was the heart of the city. Originally a Mormon missionary outpost, Las Vegas was essentially born as a town in 1905, when the completion of the train station prompted the building of shops and the sale of 1,200 lots to private citizens—all downtown. The city, which was officially recognized by the state legislature in 1911, was built from Fremont Street outward. Even in the late nineteen seventies, downtown Las Vegas was just as much a destination as the Strip. Sure, the Strip had huge hotels like Caesar’s Palace, The Riviera, The Dunes, and The Sands. Some were clustered together, but for the most part, each resort was an island unto itself, a quarter mile from anything, with long swaths of hard desert between hotels. By contrast, downtown was like the French Quarter: a small and defined area, every place within walking distance. And just as Bourbon Street was lined with one bar after another for partiers to stumble between, Fremont Street was similarly packed with casinos. You couldn’t come up with five locations on the planet more ideal for a pawnshop.
Here’s how the biz works. You bring in your watch—say it’s eighteen-carat gold, and you need a loan on it. You’d like to get five hundred for it. My dad weighs it and discovers the weight is a little light. It’s not the greatest make or brand. When you bought that watch three years ago, you paid five hundred. You tell my dad you should get five hundred. Maybe you get pissed. You have all sorts of financial pressures on you and you need that money, so maybe you shout and call my dad a dirty Jew. Maybe not. I don’t know you. But let’s say you hold back the epithets, and are smooth in your negotiations, and have some luck to boot. Let’s also say your watch is actually worth a damn: you get a loan for two, maybe two-fifty. You sign a ticket agreeing to a monthly compounded interest rate of eight percent. Your $250 loan would cost you $270, if you wanted to get the watch out during that first month. Your watch would cost you $291.60 the second month; $314.93 the third. Pawnshops make most of their money on the interest which has accrued when people redeem tickets for their goods. Your ticket says you have six months to redeem your watch. After six months, if you haven’t come back, the shop owns the watch—that is, unless you call and explain your difficulties and ask them to hold on for another month. Most will then hold the watch. My parents do that, most likely, my dad wishing you well and sounding positive and trying to make you feel good (It’ll be here waiting for you, don’t worry). This having been said, at a certain point—figure the end of that seventh month—time’s up; that watch is going out in a display window.
Making a living this way is methodical, tooth-pulling work; at John’s Loan and Jewelry, my parents—neither of whom is named John—toiled for ten hours a day, three hundred and sixty days a year, my mother haggling with locals who needed to hock their goods to help pay their electric bill, my dad dealing with the couple who brought in the family television in order to get baby formula. Here’s a former UNLV basketball star turned casino security guard, bringing back in, for the ninth time, the watch he got when the team made it to the regional finals of the NCAA tournament. Here are young lovers looking for wedding bands on the cheap. Thais and Filipinos on international gaming junkets. Drunks on the tail end of holiday benders. Tourists wandering down the showcases, bleary and angry and worn out, busting my parents’ chops about how much some item is worth. Or ripened gamblers, who’ve suffered hard dry runs and are still in the grip of gambling fever, maybe they live in the grip, and need to exchange this diamond bracelet for cash, no, not to fill the tank with gas, not to drive back home to California—these are the ones who sign their pawn ticket and receive their bread and go right back in for another run at the craps table.