Las Vegas Cab Driver on How City is Surviving - Rolling Stone
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Las Vegas Cab Driver on How City is Surviving

Visiting the Las Vegas Strip with with a Twitter-famous taxi driver who helped alert the town to the tragedy

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Andrew Gnatovich stands with his cab in front of the Mandalay Bay Casino and Resort on October 14, 2017.

Roger Kisby for

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Andrew Gnatovich knew something wasn’t right when three emergency vehicles from three separate agencies zoomed past him on Interstate 15, their sirens blaring. The sight of an ambulance, a cop on a motorcycle, and a taxicab authority cop cruising together on the highway was so unusual that Gnatovich, a Las Vegas cab driver, remembers remarking it to his passengers in his backseat. It was just after 10 p.m. on Sunday, October 1st, and Gnatovich was on his way to drop off two women at the Paris hotel and casino. When he turned the meter off, enabling his dispatcher to send notifications through his navigation system, he learned there had been a shooting about two miles south at Mandalay Bay resort. He snapped a photo of the message, which warned drivers to avoid the area, and tweeted it out to his more than 9,000 followers along with one word in all caps: “Attention!”

Before he could seek more information, a pair of German tourists hopped in the back of his cab and asked for a ride to the Venetian resort. Gnatovich agreed, knowing their destination was in the opposite direction of Mandalay Bay and would take them further away from the street closures surrounding it. It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten an alert about a possible shooting: About a month earlier, reports of gunfire following Floyd Mayweather’s UFC fight prompted an evacuation of The Cromwell Hotel, but the reports turned out to be false. This night, however, was different. By the time Gnatovich arrived at the Venetian, it became clear that the carnage unfolding on the other end of the strip was unlike anything he’d ever witnessed. He could hear gunshots over the radio that connects him to the hundreds of other drivers that work for the same company, Desert Cab, and its partners. The fear in their voices was palpable, unmistakable.

“I shot across the street,” Gnatovich says, then pauses to reconsider his choice of the word ‘shot,’ which he calls a horrible, inadvertent pun. “I jumped across the street to The Mirage and while I was waiting to pick up that’s when I was tweeting a lot, listening, watching.”

As the personality behind the popular blog-turned-Twitter account LV Cabbie Chronicles, for nearly a dozen years, Gnatovich has entertained his loyal followers with stories from Las Vegas – including the ones his passengers would probably prefer stayed in Vegas. His tweets often divulge conversations he’s had with tourists from all over the world during trips to and from nightclubs, bars and casinos. There was the recent tale of the drunk woman closing a $25,000 business deal from the back seat of his cab at 3 a.m. only to have three different credit cards declined at the end of the ride; the couple who asked for a ride to the Clark County Detention Center just to catch a glimpse of the place where O.J. Simpson was booked after his 2007 armed robbery arrest; and the man who asked for a 20-minute ride to a steakhouse whose name he didn’t know to meet a bartender whose number he didn’t have.

“There’s something inherently interesting about Vegas,” says Gnatovich, who moved here from Iowa when he was 20 to study music at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He never graduated, but he liked the city so much that he took a part-time cabbie gig to support himself in a pinch after blowing through his savings. Nearly two decades later, driving has become a six-days-a-week commitment and a major part of his identity. “A lot of what I try to do is content,” he says. “I believe that’s why they follow me is because they want funny or interesting things relating to Vegas.”

But on that Sunday night, as gunman Stephen Paddock fired round after round from his hotel room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay into a crowd of 22,000 at Route 91 Harvest music festival, Gnatovich found himself taking on a new role, as a source of on-the-ground information about what would become the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. Gnatovich sent out dozens of tweets based mostly on police scanner and cab radio reports, providing a firsthand account of the terror before some media outlets had even reported news of the shooting, which left 58 dead and more than 500 wounded. In a series of tweets, he described a city on lockdown: Streets and highways closed, hotels and casinos evacuated, and people fleeing in all directions. He admits now that some of the information he initially tweeted – including reports of suspicious packages and multiple shooters – turned out to be false, but it suggested a scene of total chaos and pandemonium, and one in which even the authorities struggled to keep up.

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“That night it was really the uncertainty that was really unnerving. You didn’t know what was going to happen next,” says Gnatovich. Adding to the sense of disorientation, some parts of the strip still felt remarkably normal, and some people had no idea there was a massacre happening on its south end. Gnatovich says he was stuck for hours in the driveway of The Mirage because security wouldn’t let anyone on or off the property. What should’ve been a moment of panic and dread, however, felt eerily serene because of the hotel’s immersive landscape architecture. “I’m sitting here and I got my window down, I’m watching the waterfall by the volcano thing and it’s just peaceful and couples are walking by hand in hand and it just felt normal,” he recalls.

On the following Saturday night, less than a week after the bloodshed that made Las Vegas a flashpoint in the country’s gun control debate and an international symbol of America’s mass shooting problem, the strip is buzzing with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Women in stilettos and mini-dresses spill out of cabs sipping the last of their drinks and groups of loud tourists fill the sidewalks in either direction. The taxicab stand at the Wynn resort – named for casino mogul and Republican National Committee finance chair Steve Wynn – is packed with so many cabs that it takes about 20 minutes for Gnatovich to get from the hotel’s driveway to the front of the queue. The passenger he picks up here around 10:15 pm, a man with a British accent, says he’s visiting from Bermuda for a jewelry retailer’s convention. On the way to Caesars Palace, about a mile south, Gnatovich asks his passenger if he had considered not coming to Vegas this weekend because of the shooting.

His passenger says no. “Unfortunately, I guess we get hardened to it,” he says. “Growing up in London, we had a lot of Irish bombings. You have to show that it doesn’t affect you. Sadly, the week after [a shooting] is probably the safest.”

At about a quarter to 11 p.m., Gnatovich pulls into the driveway of Caesars Palace, where the only signs of last week’s shooting are the massive video screen marquees bearing the words “Vegas Strong,” a hashtag that’s been promoted by the city’s convention and visitors authority in response to the tragedy. “We’ve been there for you during the good times. Thank you for being there for us now,” reads another message on the marquee. At Caesars Palace, Gnatovich picks up a middle-aged couple from the Midwest who give him an address just off the strip. Gnatovich assumes it’s the address of a strip club at first, but he later realizes it’s a warehouse-sized marijuana dispensary. His passengers later admit they’re buying weed for the first time.

“It’s satisfying a curiosity I’ve had for a long, long time,” the woman in the backseat says, then adds coyly, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

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On the way there, Gnatovich rolls down the windows so we can smell the pungent marijuana wafting from exhaust fans at the dispensary’s adjoined grow house. The man in the back of the cab asks Gnatovich if he can pull over. He thinks he’s going to be sick, but it’s a false alarm – not so for the passenger who puked on the way from the Cosmopolitan to Circus Circus about two hours earlier. (“Puking outside the cab is free. Puking inside is not,” Gnatovich successfully warned his customer at the time.) Gnatovich pulls into the fluorescent lights of the dispensary parking lot and leaves his meter running, per his passengers’ request. When they return with a black plastic bag about 15 minutes later, he prompts them with the survey question he’s been asking all of his passengers over the last few days.

“I’m doing an informal survey. Did you guys have any apprehensions about coming, second thoughts, things like that?” he says. They tell him no. “I figure it’s the safest place in America right now,” says the man in the back, who is so paranoid about his recent marijuana purchase that he won’t say what state he lives in or what he does for work. “The casinos have tighter security than the federal government does.”

Gnatovich drops the couple off at Caesars just after 11 p.m. and heads to the Bellagio resort to pick up more passengers. Since Nevada state law prohibits Las Vegas cab drivers from accepting rides hailed on the streets, a good portion of a cab driver’s night is spent winding through the maze of driveways and underground tunnels that lead to a casino’s taxicab stand. The highly organized set of queues can feel like waiting in line for a ride at an amusement park; at the Bellagio, there are vending machines and restrooms cab drivers can use while they wait. The more hospitable a casino is to its cab drivers, says Gnatovich, the more likely they are to recommend it to their passengers. (For the record, the Wynn is Gnatovich’s favorite, and yes, he’s been comped there enough times to say so.)

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But there are also the casinos that Gnatovich has had long-standing feuds with — and up until this week, Mandalay Bay was one of them. On his public Twitter feed, Gnatovich previously accused some of the hotel’s doormen of stealing business away from him by persuading guests to take limos and other cab companies in exchange for their cut of the fare. Gnatovich says pulling up to the Mandalay Bay always felt contentious because of his well-known beef with the doormen. But after the shooting, he decided life was too short to fight about stolen cab rides. So earlier that Saturday, he drove over to the Mandalay Bay and called a truce. “I know we got our differences, but it’s over. And I could feel that they reciprocated,” he says, recalling the exchange. “I’m feeling this whole love thing right now, you know what I mean? Maybe some good will come out of this [tragedy].”

It’s nearing midnight when we pull up to the cabstand at the Bellagio. Over the course of the last few hours, Gnatovich has shared his opinions with me about sex, drugs and money, all topics that are stripped of any taboo in Sin City. But there’s one topic Gnatovich refuses to talk about: guns. “Obviously it would be my wish that things like this didn’t happen,” he says of the mass shooting. “What’s the path for that? Whatever that path is, you know, it’s worth doing.” When asked if he would elaborate, he suggests his political views don’t mesh well with most of his Twitter followers, and especially most of Twitter’s user base more broadly. Politics, he says, is “something that I view as inherently divisive and I’m trying to build an audience. It seems very counterproductive to take a hard stance on.”

At the Bellagio, Gnatovich picks up two women carrying shopping bags. They’re in town from San Jose for a skincare convention, they say, and they’re staying at the Trump International Hotel, which they’ve chosen because it’s quiet and doesn’t have a casino attached. It doesn’t seem to faze them that it also bears the name of the current president of the United States. When Gnatovich asks his survey question, one of the women answers that more than half of her group of 15 backed out of the trip after the shooting. She had doubts about coming, too, she admits, but she’d already booked months in advance. Besides, she says, you can’t live in fear: “You can walk off that curb, hit your head on the curb and be done.”

She asks Gnatovich if business has been slow since the shooting. “Does it look slow right now? You can’t even get out of the driveway,” he says. By now, the crowd outside of Caesars has multiplied into a pulsating mass. “That to me feels like a normal Saturday night,” he says. “It doesn’t feel any different.”

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Even still, Gnatovich can’t stop thinking about the handful of passengers he picked up and dropped off at Route 91 music festival that weekend. He says he wishes he could’ve been a hero that night. He regrets not returning to the festival grounds to help rescue people, like many of the cabbies he later saw in viral videos. He read in the newspaper that one of the shooting victims was from Alaska, and he’s haunted by the thought that maybe it was the same Alaska native that he picked up from the festival the previous Saturday night. “How many people from Alaska could there really be at that show? There can’t be too many,” he sighs. “Now it’s real people. It’s people I spoke to. It’s not just text on a page. It’s not just names in the newspaper. I see their faces, you know?”

The relative ease with which the city has sprung back to life in the aftermath of unthinkable tragedy was surprising even to Gnatovich, who thought he’d seen it all in his more than 13 years as a Las Vegas cab driver. He says the shameless revelry in the streets – and in the backseat of his cab – initially left him feeling conflicted. “At first, I thought that was disrespectful in some way. But I see it differently now,” he says. “I feel like those people came here to have a good time, and we almost owe it to them to keep having a good time. That’s how I’ve justified it anyway. That’s all there is to do is to carry on.”

The night is young, and business is good. Gnatovich speeds away from the massive gold chandeliers of the Trump and pulls up to the Wynn across the street. There’s hardly a wait for the taxicab stand. 

In This Article: Las Vegas


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