There is no acceptable English word to describe how hot it was on the day I ran into Toby. When I started talking to him on the corner of South Main and Charleston in Las Vegas’s arts district it was about 3 o’ clock in the afternoon on a day in the middle of July. In other words it was the hottest time of the day on one of the hottest days of the year in one of the hottest places in the Northern Hemisphere. I had made the grievous mistake of deciding to make a 3 mile long walk in such oppressive heat while wearing a button-down Oxford shirt and a pair of jeans, both of which became soaked with sweat within minutes of my departure. Toby was more properly dressed than I was, sporting a pair of khaki shorts and a silken, short sleeved shirt that was brocaded with all manner of fancy-looking designs. He looked to be in his early-thirties and, if the gaudy club shirt and lack of a ring on his finger were any indication, a bachelor.
Toby’s face had the brown, sun-crackled shine of a construction worker or a landscaper, with a healthy dusting of stubble on his face suggesting that he hadn’t been back to his hotel room since at least yesterday morning. As we walked, Toby chain smoked Newport Red’s, lighting each new cigarette with the dying butt of the one he had just finished. It had been a good two days since I’d had a decent conversation with anyone and Toby must have felt similarly as he started talking to me while we walked by one of Las Vegas’s ubiquitous bail bonds agencies.
“Why the hell did I just do that?”
“Do what?” I asked.
“I just bought a 500 dollar shirt.”
“Damn, man. That’s a pretty pricey shirt. Is it the one you’re wearing?”
“Yeah, it’s the one I’m wearing.” Toby said, pulling at the front of the shirt with his non-cigarette smoking hand. “Like I’m going to buy a 500 dollar shirt and carry it around with me in a goddamn bag?”
“I hear that. If I bought a 500 dollar shirt I’d probably sleep in the damn thing.”
Toby shook his head. “I know. The funny thing is, I have absolutely no idea why I bought the the damn shirt. None. I mean, who spends half a grand on a single shirt? It’s fucking stupid.”
“It’s not that stupid.” I told him, despite the fact that I thought it was pretty stupid.
“I don’t know. It’s just that I feel like…I feel like I just have to spend the money. Like I’m afraid it’s all gonna rot or something.”
I nodded at Toby as I turned away from the hot desert wind with my hand over my mouth, walking backwards while trying to light my own cigarette.
“I run an oil drill up in North Dakota. That’s where I get all that $500 shirt money from. You know where Williston is?” Toby asked me.
“Never heard of it. But I’d imagine it’s closer to Montana than to Minnesota.”
“Yep. It’s way up there in the northwest part of the state, right up next to absolutely fucking nothing. I have to drive over 2 hours just to get to the nearest airport so I can get the hell out of there.”
“How often do you leave?”
“I leave North Dakota every two weeks. The job has crazy hours, but it’s two weeks on and two weeks off, so you have a lot of down time too. Most of the guys fly out to be with their wives or girlfriends or whatever when they’re not working. It’s a pretty good perk, you know. Where else can you get a job that lets you live wherever the hell you want for half the year and still pays good money?”
“That is a pretty good perk” I admitted to Toby. “But why are you in Vegas in the middle of the damn summer?”
“I only fly to Vegas because it’s the cheapest flight I can get out of Minot, which is where the airport is in North Dakota. Plus, rooms down here are cheap as shit. I’m staying at Planet Hollywood now for half the price it would take me to rent a crappy little room in Williston.”
“What’s it cost for a room up there?”
“You don’t want to know, man” Toby told me as he pitched his cigarette butt into the middle of South Main Street. “They just don’t have the infrastructure up there to deal with us all. Before the whole shale-oil boom, Williston wasn’t nothing but another podunk prairie town. Next thing you know, fracking catches on so that they can finally reach all that oil underneath the Bakken(1) and the whole damn world descends on the place.”
“Alright, so much does it cost to get a room in a town that has the whole world coming down on it?” I asked.
“You can’t find a room up there for less than $100 a night.”
“$100 a night?”
“$100 a night. The town blew up so fast that they don’t have enough housing for even half the guys out there, which is when you get the trailer parks and tent cities and all that.”
“How long have you been living up there?”
“I’ve only been up in North Dakota for about 18 months, but I’ve been working in oil for damn near a decade. I don’t recommend getting into it, but once you do, I can guarantee you’ll have a hard time leaving.”
“Why’s that?” I asked, noticing a slight smile coming across Toby’s face.
“Because the money’s too damn good to leave. I’m making over $90 grand to run an oil drill for half the year and dick around for the other half. Hell, most folks can’t even get a good job, much less one that pays you close to six figures for six months worth of work. I mean, the work itself is godawful. It’s filthy as shit. There are toxic chemicals all over the place. The summers are hotter than hell and the winters get so cold that your piss will freeze before it gets from your dick to the ground. Plus, there’s a decent chance you could die out there. Company doesn’t give two shits about safety cause it’s just a big gold rush out there…time is money and all that crap. They say that they’re taking care of their workers and lowering workplace accidents and all that, which is naturally just a bunch of bullshit.”
“Do guys die a lot up there?”
“I don’t know if I’d say a lot” Toby told me, pausing a few seconds to think it over. “It’s not like people are dying every damn day, but it’s a pretty dangerous place to work.”
“How does it happen?”
“God, all kinds of ways. Like, if your supervisor tells you to climb a derrick to fix something, you better do it. Doesn’t matter if the damn thing is swaying from side to side like a weeble-wobble; you get up there or you lose your job. Next thing you know you’re falling from 25 feet in the air with a couple tons of metal following right behind to crush you like a bug. I’ve heard of a couple guys who got hit in the head with loose bolts and shit that come off of rigs when they’re not secured right. Fuck, I don’t care if you’ve got a football helmet on; if an eight pound bolt comes falling down on you from 150 feet in the air, your ass is gone.”
“Well, if it’s such a dangerous job, why do you do it?”
“Why does anybody do anything? The money’s good. When I started, I only intended to work in drilling for a couple a months cause, you know, I had college bills to pay and all that. Next thing you know it’s 9 years later and I’m still doing it. The money’s just too good to leave.”
“Did you start off working in North Dakota?”
“No, I actually got my first job drilling in Utah. I flew into that shit blind, man. Didn’t know a damn thing about oil or anything like that. But I learned on the job and got pretty good at it…next thing I know all these doors started opening for me.”
“What kind of doors?” I asked.
“Big doors.” Toby said putting his hands out in front of his body to illustrate for me like he was describing a fish he once caught. “I’m telling you, they just kept opening and opening, and the money just kept on getting better and better. Why the hell would I go back to college now when I’m making more than any of my friends who got their degrees and I don’t have any student loan debt? The paychecks practically make your mind up for you.”
As Toby was talking, we came within a few hundred feet of the Stratosphere Hotel in all of it’s exaggerated, Space Needle-esque glory and were approached by a homeless woman sitting on the curb outside of a Denny’s who asked us if we could spare change or a cigarette. I handed her one of mine and we continued walking for about half a block before Toby spoke up.
“Look, I wouldn’t normally recommend this to folks because it’s kind of a dick move, but one of by friends up in North Dakota taught me this trick to get bums from asking for your shit.” Toby paused. “Well, he’s not really a friend. He’s more of an acquaintance. Anyway, what he does is, whenever he sees a bum who he thinks is going to ask him for some change or a smoke, he just beats them to the punch. He says that the trick is to ask them for a cigarette or some money before they have a chance to ask you. Normally the bum’s so surprised that he can even open his mouth and you just keep on walking. I mean, it really is a dick move, but it works every time.”
“Damn…That’s pretty cold.”
Toby sighed. “Yeah…like I said, the guy’s an acquaintance.”
(1) The Bakken Formation is a roughly 200,000 square mile oil-producing shale formation that lies underneath parts of North Dakota, Montana and Canada.