Jan. 21, 2008
Ayden Yadao will never play an easier game of "which one of these doesn't belong." The 2-year-old passer-by is staring at the three mermaids swimming inside the Silverton aquarium.
Only one is wearing scuba gear. (Silverton mermaids are supposed to hold their breath, sucking air every 40 seconds or so from five regulator tubes circling the bottom.)
Only one has a safety diver trailing inches behind at all times, waiting for something dreadful to occur.
And only one is a man in a wig.
"We have a special guest today," Silverton special events coordinator Sheila Kersher announces through a microphone. The curious crowd facing the 117,000-gallon tank watches me sink to the bottom, then fall on the left side of my tail and scrape my scuba tanks against the white pebbles.
"Mermaids actually swim instead of sitting on their butts," Kersher says. (Swimming is difficult for me even when my legs are unfused.)
The legend of fishy humans first appeared 7,000 years ago in ancient Assyria. Scholars suggest it conveys the important message that we stand both at one with and apart from the animal kingdom (and that we need to buy more cans of tuna, cups of Starbucks and Disney videos). Mermaids first appeared in the Silverton tank shortly after it was built in 2004.
"I realize how lucky I am to have this job," said Timery Middleton, the mermaid on my right. She and Heather Carrasco, a former Olympic gold-medalist synchronized swimmer, have found full-time work taking four 15-minute finned dips each per night.
"One day, I will be able to say that I was one of a few people who got to do this," Middleton said. (This being Vegas, of course, the giant glass at Margaritaville also has a mermaid. But she doesn't have a fin and only submerges for a few seconds at a time. So to heck with her.)
Middleton, who is 27 and pushing her fourth year in the tank, said the best part of her job is mentioning it to strangers.
"I usually wait until they ask," she said. "When I tell them, they're like, 'OK, where are the cameras?' "
She also enjoys startling casino passers-by who don't realize that the 5,000 fish, sharks and stingrays have bipedal company.
"I don't know if I really should do that," she said. "But they always laugh afterward, so I think it's OK."
Silverton aquatics safety manager Jerry Cowley flashes me the OK sign. I flash one back, not particularly because I'm OK but because I don't want to chance that he might drag me to the surface and refuse to allow me back down. As the Silverton's very first merman, I have a duty to perform a full set. In fact, other than two celebrities, I am the first nonemployee ever allowed in the tank. (Actress Debra Messing shot a scene inside for last year's "Lucky You" that didn't make the film. And magician Criss Angel was in twice last year to tape an escape trick for his cable show, having failed on his first attempt.)
As with dry jobs, there are disadvantages to being a half-human/half-fish. For instance, 78-degree water sounds a lot warmer than it feels.
"Your body loses heat 25 times faster under water," Cowley said, explaining why Middleton and Carrasco spend most of their downtime warming up in the mermaid green room.
"It can be monotonous, too," Middleton added. "Coming up with new stuff is not easy. You're literally doing the same thing every day -- the same hand signs and stuff." (Lucky for Middleton, her University of Nevada, Las Vegas major was communications.)
And let's not forget suffering the buffoons who form the universal sign for "lose your top."
"They're usually people who have a drink in their hands," Middleton said. "We just laugh it off because it's quite obvious that we're in body suits." (Although nobody wants to see my top get lost, I'm fairly certain that a bald guy toward the front of the crowd is checking out my butt.)
Once upright, I introduce myself as Ariel, the main character from 1989's "The Little Mermaid." The good thing about this scuba mask is that it's equipped with a microphone, so I can talk to Kersher and the crowd through speakers outside the tank. (It's used by biologists during the daily fish-feeding show.)
The bad thing is that I can talk to the crowd.
Yadao, my new little friend, backs away from the 6-inch-thick glass. He appears terrified. And all I did was ask Kersher if mermaids eat little children.
"Even if mermaids did eat little children," Kersher replied, addressing the boy, "he couldn't catch you."
This is true. Middleton and Carrasco swim actual circles around me, spinning and turning tightly as they smile and wave. Middleton swam before she walked.
"For as long as I can remember, I would get into the pool at our house," she said.
Middleton competed on the Silverado High School swim team before attending UNLV, where she and three other girls set a school record 200-yard freestyle relay.
"I went to school to swim," she said. "I wasn't really swimming to go to school. I kind of had it backwards."
Before she was a mermaid, the unfocused Middleton found herself working as a barmaid.
"I was looking for a new job," she said. "And I found an advertisement in the R-J that said, 'Do you want to be a mermaid?' "
Originally, she was hired for the Silverton's nightly Azure Underwater Fantasy Show. Choreographed by Stephane Miermont, Carrasco's former Olympic coach, it featured nine rotating routines and 10 actors. (In March 2006, the Silverton canceled the show but asked Middleton and Carrasco to stay on as less-animated attractions.)
"Corey, can you hear me?" Kersher asks.
I can't. (Later, I watch it on the video.)
To buoy myself from the bottom, I pressed a white button on my scuba suit that filled my vest with a little too much air. (By the way, prior to one lesson from Cowley, I never scuba-dived. I told Cowley I had, however. These articles tend to go better that way.)
To reverse my uncontrolled lift, I grabbed onto Middleton's fin while she dove for a regulator tube. In addition to momentarily freaking her out, this action sent me into a roll. (I've fishtailed before, but never like this.)
Saltwater immediately began spraying my face with firehose force. It doesn't feel like it's entering through my mask, but a leak in my actual air supply.
I believe this is the something dreadful Cowell was waiting for.
Talking to the crowd suddenly assumes a lower priority to hyperventilating -- only now I've got even less air to do it with, since much of it violently bubbles up around me. (And the size of this nose has acclimated me to very large air quantities at my constant disposal.)
This is as good a time as any to mention the approximately 150 diving-related deaths that occur each year in the United States, according to the University of Michigan. None of them so far has occurred in a 16-foot-deep casino aquarium. Still, whenever I sign a waiver absolving an organization of all legal blame in the event of my death, I've got to figure that someone may know something he or she is not telling me.
"I think this is the first time we've seen our folks drowning in the tank," Kersher announces.
Cowell asks "OK" with his right hand again.
My response this time is a thumbs-up. On land, this means all is Fonzie cool. Underwater, it means, "THE SURFACE ... NOW!"
The leak was in my mask, it turns out. Cowell affixed it over my puke-green nylon hair when under would have been the better choice. When I rolled, the hair broke the mask's seal.
"Well, we know what not to do next time," Cowell says.
There are few things in life that can be stated with certainty. The lack of a next time for this experience is one.
Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.