The Paris of the Sierras

Reno, NV

When I look out the window of our studio apartment in Manhattan, I can see a triangle of the Hudson River flanked by industrial brick buildings, a garage, water tanks, and the shapeless form of one of Frank Gehry’s monstrosities on the West Side Highway. “We have so much sky over here,” my boyfriend coos. He used to live on the second floor of a building in the East Village, and the sun would shine directly into his apartment for approximately one hour each morning.

In Reno, I stand on my aunt and uncle’s porch. I can see 180 degrees in either direction: flat one-story roofs disappear into the slope of distant, golden hills covered in dry grass. The hills further out are purple and dim. An airplane overhead is so small it looks like ash.

Cities in Nevada were settled by prospectors who discovered a mother lode of silver in the hills of Virginia City. I never understood why anyone would make a city in a desert, but Reno, “the biggest little city in the world,” is modest when you consider Las Vegas, “the most miscalculated, insatiable mistake this side of the Rocky Mountains.”

Desperate for espresso, I walked this morning down Wells Avenue, a wide, deserted boulevard, to Starbucks, a mile away. It was across from the Ponderosa, home of the Wild Orchid Strip Club. The structures downtown are mostly gleaming stucco and concrete shooting into the pale, bottomless sky. Dancing lights, rotating marquees, and neon compete with a horizon of nothing. Signs announce prime rib dinners for $8.95, two tacos and a Budweiser for $1.50.

I’m tempted to dismiss a place where it is not uncommon to see sunburned people in their 80s pulling down levers on ringing slot machines over and over, nursing another drink, eyes vacant, mouths pursed, their cigarette ash growing dangerously longer and longer, as some kind of cultural wasteland. But the hotels and casinos here (and in Vegas) have drawn musicians, dancers, and theater people to steady work for decades. For a city with such empty sidewalks–another wasteland signifier–there is a surprisingly vibrant theater scene. There are cafes independent of Starbucks (I’m sitting in one), youth in rebellious outfits, a university, and numerous jazz and blues clubs. My uncle, a longtime professional musician, leads the Reno Big Band, a motley but highly capable crew, many of whom used to play in the Harrah’s band, before it was dismantled in the early 90s. My aunt used to be Bill Harrah’s executive secretary and tells proudly of how he said no to the mob, who offered him an unimaginable sum for control of his casino in the 70s.

“Reno is the Paris of the Sierras,” my mother decided yesterday.

That said, casinos freak me out. They seem like the saddest places on earth. My cousin Licia, a blackjack dealer, described the old ladies she works with, who are in their 70s and still have to cocktail waitress because they gambled their wages and tips all these years. The relentless ringing, blippy noises, the cigarette smoke dryer than the desert air, the smelly carpet, the swiveling chairs and brass railings, the endless visual exclamation points in a giant vacuum of purpose…it seems like slow death.

I have to suspend my snobbiness, my finely-honed Manhattanite propensity for European urbanity and manageable grids of streets, my distaste for t-shirt stores, pawn shops, cars, televisions that no one turns off, lawns people have no business wasting water on because they live in a fucking desert, strip malls, parking lots, derelict motels as crack houses, rednecks–basically, as my friend Michael said once, “the irony-free zone.”

“That’s why I never leave the island,” my boyfriend explains quietly.

“C would sooner eat glass than go to something like this,” I whispered to my mother last night, which is to say, I would sooner eat glass than go to something like this, but there we were: the parade of souped-up, tricked-out big rigs parading down the street for the annual classic car and truck bacchanal that is Reno’s Hot August Nights. (Actually, it’s more like sort-of-cool, windy August nights.) The parade, or “cruise,” began with a monster truck leading the way. I think it was three stories high. Something about trucks that size scares me to my core; I think they’re going to run me over. Endlessly revving engines remind me of the unemployed alcoholic fathers in my neighborhood who stood in the oil-stained car ports beneath the upstairs apartments and revved their engines all day long. My uncle (not the one in Reno), another nonverbal alcoholic, was also obsessed with cars. He took my mother’s sister to drag races when they were married, at out-of-the-way tracks in east San Diego county, the Kentucky of southern California.

I gamely marveled at the chrome and the blinking lights and the fire coming out of the tail pipes and the “chopped tops” and the shiny engines and sexy bulbous curves of the machines driving down Virginia Street last night with Licia’s husband, a self-proclaimed devotee of “anything on wheels.” He can spot the make and model of a car from the sidewalk: “That’s a ’64 Bel Air, you can tell by the wind shield,” he says. “The Corvettes look like bowling shoes,” I note helpfully.

The cars and trucks were driven mostly by white men exiting middle age–the men known as “hot rods” when they went to high school in the 50s, like my uncle. Back then, they greased their hair and their arm muscles bulged out of their white undershirts like Marlon Brando. Now, they wear big white running shoes, knee-length shorts, and “Hot August Nights” t-shirts, their bellies protruding like pregnancies. The cars are driven in on trailers and unloaded once a year for this express purpose. Like all collecting, there is a pointlessness to it, magnified by the attendant devotion of its practitioners.

I feel like an anthropologist. Which isn’t fair.

Passport to the provinces soon to expire,
I remain,
Ms. Magnolia Avenue


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