LAS VEGAS — Pete Buttigieg is shaking hands with one of the more ancient and war-worn inhabitants of Veterans Village II on the wretched east end of Downtown Las Vegas. When he saw Pete climb out the back of a big shiny black Cadillac SUV a few minutes earlier, the old soldier had wondered aloud, “Must be a senator or something.” Someone told him that the kid in the white dress shirt and blue tie is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and is thinking about moving to the White House. (Mayor Pete hasn’t said for sure whether he’s running or not, saving the “special announcement” for an event in South Bend this upcoming Sunday.)
“Ooohhh,” the old man said. “John Fogerty was here earlier!”
Now the old man, sitting in his rollator, is shaking hands and giving Mayor Pete a big wrinkly grin. “Yeah, good, I voted for you!” Mayor Pete, hunched over him and blushing, pats the old man on the shoulder and walks away.
Veterans Village is the handiwork of Dr. Arnold Stalk and an exhausted staff. They give otherwise homeless veterans a place to rest their weary heads. The place looks like the crummy apartment complexes where the poor Black and Latino kids lived in the Chicago suburb I grew up in, its parking lot cracked and depressed. This used to be an abandoned Econo Lodge motel before the veterans moved in. A few construction workers are buzzing away on one of several small shipping containers being repurposed into studio apartments.
Mayor Pete was given the grand tour of a model unit by the front gate, painted in a trendy gray-brown with white trim. The inside has a tiny kitchen separating a tiny sleeping area at the back and a tiny living room at the room; clean and tidy, it reminds me of the crammed affordable housing units being built on the outskirts of Juárez. A woman wearing one of the Veterans Village shirts that all the staff members wear points toward an empty lot behind a building by the back entrance, where the finished units will be set.
Arnold Stalk and the staff also organize a food pantry every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. “Sometimes more,” says the big-bellied man sitting in a chair at the main gate and checking people in from the neighborhood, mostly older single men and mothers with their kids. He records their names, the number of people in their families, and whether they’re collecting food stamps or not; the State of Nevada will come by every so often to make sure they’re actually distributing the food to people in need. “We get Starbucks food seven times a week,” he says.
Since Mayor Pete is visiting on a Monday, there are two palettes at the front of the complex, one stacked with cans of diced tomatoes and cut green beans, the other with bags of lentil beans. Folding tables wrap around a little courtyard in front of the main building, and veterans and the people from beyond the gates line up to pick from a pretty wide selection of bread, buns, frozen burger patties and pork fillets, pre-packaged salads and sushi, veggies, bananas, bags of potatoes and Brussels sprouts, muffins, cookies, stuff like that.
“You better grab some water,” one hefty lady in slippers tells another hefty lady in slides. “You’ll need it. You never know when they’ll shut ours off. The other day I was pleading, ‘Please don’t shut my water off!’ ” She laughs about it.