The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

You know the Lady’s a lot like Reno
She ain’t got a heart
And she don’t care when your down             ~ From, Reno: Songwriters: Dale Wayne Harrison / Hugh Rush Dillon / Timothy Michael White / Trent Carr

Let’s establish something right from the start – it was one forgettable road trip. The saving grace was that it was just two nights and relatively close to home. After six months of retirement and having taken only one trip I suggested to Cora that it was time to take one of our not necessarily semi-annual, semi-annual trips to Reno. It’s usually once in the fall and once in the spring/summer but what with illnesses, injuries and putting a dog to sleep Reno had been off the agenda for a couple of years.

Before we get too far along in this, let me introduce you to Reno, if you aren’t already acquainted. It’s a dump. Wait, let’s clarify that because I don’t want to insult the good settlers of the self-proclaimed Biggest Little City in the World. The part that used to be a major attraction, the Strip, is a dump.

Reno’s strip has seen better days. Once upon a time it was a destination for headliners; the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis and Dean Martin would play Reno and then move on to do a set of shows at nearby Lake Tahoe. For those too young to know Sammy Davis and Dean Martin, those two guys were major stars and each had his own primetime network TV show. If the name Sinatra doesn’t resonate with you at all (and you don’t have to like him) then I don’t know what to say to that. Maybe spent too much time playing video games or listening to Pantera? Maybe your parents should be slapped?

In the early eighties, during Sinatra’s final days on the stage and as Reno’s once bright lights were starting to flicker I took Cora to see “old blue eyes.” It was still the good old days of wearing a nice suit and tie for a dinner show to watch the headliners on stage and the celebs, high rollers and wiseguys at the stage side tables.

I was advised to have a tip ready if I wanted to get a decent seat. We fell in line and I nervously fingered the tip in my slacks pocket. We got to the very formal, stern looking man in charge of our night’s fate and I slipped him 4 twenties and hoped for the best. In those days of living small paycheck to small paycheck 80 dollars was a fortune. The maitre d’ didn’t even look at the bills, just shoved them in his pocket. It was as if after years of being greased, his palm somehow knew whether the tribute was worthy of a seat with a view or banishment to the high, dark reaches of the showroom. Without a word he motioned with a slight flick of his head for us to follow. In all his eminence the maitre d’ didn’t deign to speak to those of us who were mere small potatoes. My offering got us a little past halfway up the room with a decent view.

Sinatra was aging and pudgy, the pipes rusty from cigarettes, booze and fast living. But by God he was still Sinatra and he owned that room with a presence as large as the Sierra Nevada mountains that loom to the west. It was one of those memories that sticks with you; an event you drop in casual conversation that leaves people awe struck. I remember sitting at a table at a company function and the conversation turned to, most memorable concerts. Some heavy hitters where mentioned and when it was my turn I dropped Frank Sinatra. “YOU SAW FRANK SINATRA?” Even the millenials were impressed.

Back in the 50’s and 60’s, Vegas had nothing on Reno. The hotels on the strip were bright, glittering destination spots complete with luxurious accommodations, great restaurants, big league high rollers and celebrities and, because what self respecting Nevada city would be complete without it, a mob connection. Harrah’s hosted the biggest names in show business and housed one of the world’s most impressive car museums.

But now the Strip has been stripped. There are still hotel/casinos on the Strip but they look worn out and tired like the grizzled old timers hitting you up for spare change. Even the auto museum is gone. In 1981 three years after Bill Harrah died, Holiday Inn which had acquired the hotel/casino company sold off almost the entire collection at auction. A fraction of the collection remains in Reno at the National Automobile Museum.

These days if you want nice accomodations that you don’t feel warrant packing bug spray, you have to look away from the Strip to The Atlantis or The Peppermill or The Grand Sierra.

I guess I had a vision of peering through a mountain of black hundred dollar chips or of sitting in front of peaks of food on a plate at an all you can eat buffet when I asked Cora if she wanted to make a run up to Reno. “Okay go ahead and reserve.”

Why wait to get to Reno to start gambling when reserving a room at one of the nice hotels is sort of like spinning the roulette wheel; its packed with uncertainty and will positively pick your pocket for more than you expected.

One summer we decided to go to Reno for the 3rd and 4th of July. The rates on the hotel website showed a better than reasonable 90 dollars a night.
“Book it,” said Cora.
And so I dutifully clicked, BOOK IT and there on the next screen was the grand total of 275.20. There was of course the expected tax but the bulk of the almost extra 100 dollars was the dreaded, compulsory resort fee. The resort fee was filled with all manner of dandy amenities almost none of which I would use.

Access to Resort Pools. Okay I’ll buy that.
Two Complimentary Bottles of Water. I’m cool with tap water.
In-room coffee w/ Keurig Coffee Maker. There’s a Starbucks’ next to the casino.
Airport shuttle service. I drove.
Access to the Electric Car Charger Station. My car is gasoline powered and why in the world would I need a charger station if I’m getting a shuttle to the airport.
Access to business center. The only business I plan on consummating is to lose money at the blackjack table.
Faxes and Photocopies at business center (limit 5 per day). See access to business center above.
Concierge Service. I have a travel guide and can make my own tour reservations.
In-room refrigerator. I’m bringing an ice chest.

Unfortunately the resort fee is not an ala carte menu. You take the whole package or go to Motel 6 where they’ll charge you about 45 bucks a night for a lumpy bed and an endless supply of creepy crawlers.

So the question is, why not roll the cost of the resort fee into the room rate? And the answer is….because 90 dollars a night is bait that looks a lot more inviting than 137.50 and once you’ve clicked BOOK IT you’ve been pretty much hooked, gutted and fried. You’ve already pictured yourself by the pool or gorging yourself to bursting at the buffet or winning 10 grand at the slot machines (dream on) and you decide the hell with it, it’s only an extra 40 bucks a night and you can win that back in 15 minutes in the casino. By now I know how the game works and so I click BOOK IT knowing that my bank account will be trimmed down mightily on the next screen.

About a week before the trip I had a feeling that it might be cursed. The 10 day forecast was calling for wind and rain in Reno and possible snow on Highway 80 at Donner Summit, in mid-May. On the day we arrived the weather was warm – ish. The next day it rained on and off. Sitting by the pool was off the menu.

This year we opted for a first time stay at The Grand Sierra. It would be our last time stay at The Grand Sierra. One of the basic ground rules at these hotels is that the big money players get preferred parking near the hotel. At the GSR the reserved parking for these nabobs is massive, seemingly taking up acres of land. That leaves those of us in the bourgeoisie to park about two days’ hiking distance from the lobby.

Once we’d made the trek we checked in and were quite satisfied with the room. The flat screen TV took up about half the wall and the bathroom was luxurious. I did wonder, why is the shower stall wall and door made completely out of crystal clear glass? ………… Oh, yeah, scratch that last question.

Cora suggested that we rest after the long drive. About 3 minutes later I headed down to the casino, stopped at a five dollar table blackjack table and watched for a bit. I suppose it’s an important protocol to scrutinize a table before committing coin of the realm. I’m never quite sure what I’m looking for when I stand and watch a few hands. Whatever I’m seeing is just a snapshot and that dealer who I saw bust 5 straight times might be due for an endless string of 21’s as soon as I place my first bet.

A slim, attractive young Filipina tapped the seat next to hers and said, “You’re not going to win just standing back there baby. Come and join us.” Baby? Okay, that’s all the action I needed to hear. Deal me in.
“You have to bring us some luck,” she said. “We’re getting our asses kicked.”
I offered back, “Okay, tell me again why I want to play at this table.”
My first hand was a blackjack. Good start.
“See,” said the young lady. “You brought luck with you. I need it. I’ve lost 3000 dollars.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I forgot to pack enough luck to negate that kind of deficit. I could’ve suggested that she invest in a Blackjack for Dummies book. But then I wouldn’t be “baby” anymore.

The night ended for me at a break even. I don’t know what ultimately happened to the young Filipina. The last I saw of her she had moved to another table and was coughing up 25 dollar chips as fast as the dealer could fling bad hands at her.

At 8:30 it was time for a late dinner. All of the restaurants save the cafe were closing. At a hotel/casino? Cora got a cup of soup and I fasted. This was not a feather in the GSR’s cap.

One of the enjoyable aspects of playing blackjack is the socializing and, “baby” notwithstanding, the mood at the GSR tables was somber and wooden. So I jumped in the car and went to the Atlantis where we usually stay. I played at one table for the bulk of the evening and managed to get ahead by a few hundred dollars before giving it back.

The next day I broke even again, right down to the dollar and while that part was frustrating the afternoon was enjoyable. It was almost like playing cards at the kitchen table with friends.

There was the blonde woman who spoke at length about her grandchildren and looked much younger than her stated 55. She was sucking up Margaritas like a camel but still managed to hold her own at cards. A well dressed Chinese woman bounced back and forth between our table and a Pai Gow table. With every dealer bust she gave high fives all around. She told me that she works for Chanel in Hawaii which explained the impeccable attire and accessories.

On my right was a young guy with a sparse little peach fuzz mustache. He looked like he should’ve been in his high school math class instead of at a blackjack table. He would bet a five dollar chip and if he won, would feed off that initial win until he was broke. Then he would by one more five dollar chip and feed off that one for as long as it would last. He never bought more than one chip at a time. A woman who I took to be his mother stood by his shoulder and seemed to be chastising him in Spanish.

A young woman wearing a blue university of …. somewhere that I couldn’t make out….sweatshirt bought four 25 dollar chips, lost them within a minute, shot the dealer a black look and stalked away. Toby the dealer looked at me, shrugged and said, “If you’re going to get pissed off you shouldn’t gamble.”

A little later a young couple came to the table wearing U of Nevada sweatshirts. The guy played while his companion looked on. He was clearly a green rookie and Toby asked the young man if he’d played before.
“Just in the dorm. Never in a formal setting.” Oh boy.

Toby patiently explained the protocols and for the most part the newbie did pretty well. At one point he drew a pair of aces, held them in front of me and asked what he should do. I don’t really like being in that position because I don’t want to be party to someone drawing a losing hand. But this one was low hanging fruit.
“Split ‘em.”
He won both hands, relieving me of any potential guilt that he might not be able to buy his chem text because I’d led him down the path.

A little while later he drew a pair of tens and proceeded to split those. Everyone at the table looked aghast, as if he’d just exposed himself. Chanel woman advised against it. Toby paused “Are you suuuuuure that you want to do that?” Toby waited patiently for the greenhorn to reconsider and avoid the misfortune that awaited him.  Maybe it was pride that made the young man go ahead and split those tens. As expected he lost both hands. As he collected the young man’s chips Toby explained that you never, EVER split tens.

We all have some quirky little likes, habits and hobbies so who am I to judge. Look at me, I went through my Civil War reenactor period and ran around playing army in 100 degree July weather wearing a woolen Union cavalry uniform while some of the old boys on the rebel side soaked brass buttons in pee. Because what better way to get that coveted, tarnished 1860’s look than pissing on your buttons.

That said, this is the part where I might start offending people so if you like wearing animal costumes in public in May or you have friends who like to do so then stop reading. On our second day I noticed that the lobby was packed with, oh, how should I put it? Okay, nerds. You know the scruffy looking ones who look like a cross between Rory Culkin and Mario Batali. Their idea of a fashion statement is an “I put my game on pause to be here” t-shirt and they rate playing Gloomhaven as number one out of the top 10 things to do on a Friday night and going on a date as number 83 out of the top 10 things to do on a Friday night. But then who am I to judge? Remember, I’ve still got that Union cav uniform hanging in my closet.

So on this particular day there were scores of Steve Urkels and Sheldon Coopers roaming the lobby, all men and none with anyone who resembled a significant other – male or female. As they entered the hotel they carried stacks of Costco pizzas, cases of snack foods, furry fake animal heads, and flats of Smirnoff Ice. The latter didn’t bode well. On second thought furry animal heads didn’t bode well either and the thought of those in combination was downright bone chilling.

Back in the lobby a couple hours later and they were in full regalia; birds, squirrels and lots of felines and canines. It was obviously part of a convention; maybe some board game/Dungeons and Dragons sort of thing. Something with sexual connotations? I shudder to think about the latter and I shudder even more to wonder what they were wearing under the costumes. In their full battle gear they certainly drew a crowd. One could only wonder what they did at the club meetings.

While they seemed to be having a grand time I say burn the bird suit, shave the scruffy beard, use the periodic table of the elements t-shirts for waxing the car and go out and find a nice girl. I have to believe that an interesting companion can be a lot more fun than dressing up in a squirrel suit. But then who am I to judge? I still have a cavalry sabre and a Civil War carbine hanging on the wall of our home office.

In any case, the menagerie was still roaming the hallway on our floor during the wee hours. A pair of these guys chatted just outside of our room somewhere around 3 in the AM. I heard one fellow, apparently of high rank; a grand poobah or whatever they call the officer corps, proclaim to his lieutenant that he wouldn’t give an award to anyone wearing a furry knight’s costume. With a roll of my wide awake eyes I turned to Cora and told her that I wouldn’t give an award to a furry knight either. She didn’t answer. She was asleep – lucky her. Sleep did not come easy for me for the rest of the night.

At that point I had to wonder, what is it with the Grand Sierra? One summer we stopped by to check out the restaurants and casino. In the far reaches of one of the parking lots was a caravan of dust covered vehicles and equally dust covered and oddly dressed denizens. It looked like a scene out of Mad Max. Turned out that the lot was being used as a way station on the way to and from Burning Man.

Departure day and the traffic advisories warned of slick road conditions until mid-morning so I decided to hit the blackjack tables for a couple hours. It was mercifully short. I’m smart enough to know that it’s time to quit when you’re dealt a couple of 15’s a 16 and a 17 while the dealer is drawing 19’s and 20’s. I’m not saying he was cheating. Like my wife always says “Everything happens for a reason” and the reason that morning was, pack up and go home.

Back at the room, Cora announced that there was snow on the summit and chain controls on highway 80 westbound. Perfect. At first I had the notion of just rolling the dice (I was in Reno after all) and heading out without chains but given the bad hands I’d been dealt earlier I decided to stop at the last chance chain store in Verdi near the border. One hundred dollars later I was the sad owner of a brand new set of tire chains that I had no idea how to install and may never use for the rest of my life. Turned out we didn’t need to mount the chains but we did drive at a crawl through a snowstorm – in mid-May.

I’ve been asked why I don’t opt for Vegas instead of Reno. After all there’s so much more glamour and excitement in Vegas. Well maybe that’s why. I’m looking for inexpensive relaxation and it seems to me that glamour is counter-relaxation. My 33 year old daughter loves Vegas but she tells me that it’s exhausting – even if you go with the intention of relaxation.

Cora and I like Reno because in the time it takes to drive to the airport, go through security, fly to Vegas and go through all the arrival and transfer from the airport, we’ve driven to Reno checked in, unpacked, overeaten at the buffet and lost 50 bucks at the blackjack table. In Reno I get a sense that I’m in control. In Vegas, I’d just be along for the ride.

Reno can look rough around the edges; and it bloody well looks rougher than 40 grit sandpaper at the Strip’s dead center. I know that there are nice areas of Reno. A friend of mine tells me that the university is quite beautiful, I’ve seen some quaint little homes and regular people live, work and play there so it’s gotta be nice and well, regular. And there are things to do besides gamble, gulp cigarette smoke in the casinos and milk the ATM for more of a stake.

The aforementioned car museum while sadly paired down is still worth a visit; you can go rafting on the Truckee River and if you drive east for about 30 minutes you might spot bands of wild mustang horses. In nearby Sparks there’s Scheels, a massive sporting goods store complete with a ferris wheel in the store and a small seaplane hanging from the rafters. And if you happen to have a sweet tooth Scheels has a candy kitchen that turns out some decadent fudge.

About 30 minutes southeast is the old mining town of Virginia City where you can spend a good half to a full day. Interesting little shops, an old railroad that you can ride, a short tour of a section of silver mine and you’re likely to find some good live music in one of the town’s saloons

But for me, odd as it may sound, Reno is all about that dumpy Strip. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about grizzled old boys with leathery skin, colored with faded worn out tats, drifting in the afternoon desert heat between the tired hotels, pawn shops, tattoo parlors and adult book stores. A couple blocks up from the Strip is a strip club with a perpetually empty blacktop parking lot that shimmers like a griddle in the midday sun. I imagine that inside are bored looking women stifling yawns as they slink around a brass pole taking it off for an empty house save one or two leering old men.

Maybe the unpretentious sleeze is part of the attraction. In Reno what you see is what you get and plenty of what you get you really don’t want. Reno is Nevada’s straight up sin without pretension. Vegas is the same sin only its contrived and gussied up. Vegas is international glitz; spike heels, fancy jewelry and a slinky dress sipping a Cosmo. Reno is still a frontier town; roughout cowboy boots, a tarnished silver and turquoise bracelet, a beat up Stetson, tramp stamps and dusty jeans knocking down a shot of Old Crow with a PBR back. Vegas has call girls, Reno has cathouses.

Reno was once a way station for pioneers and miners headed for California after gold was discovered.  When the area’s own Comstock silver lode was discovered it was a mining town with all the rough and tumble that goes with it. When the lode played out Reno became a different mecca; the mob, entertainers, hangers on, gamblers and young imprudent couples who wanted to get married on the fly in a hokey wedding chapel. Five years or so down the road they could come back and undo the original mistake with a quickie, no fuss divorce just down the street from the chapel.

There were the Jack Mormons from neighboring Utah who wanted to drink and play and couldn’t get enough of either at the Nevada/Utah border town of Wendover or any of it at all in their home state, so they headed for Reno.

Even during its glory years in the fifties and sixties Reno played up its frontier roots. It’s always been a gritty little place, and that’s the way it should be and what the hell, it’s the way I like it.

12 thoughts on “Reno. A Short Irreverent Travel Guide

  1. Timothy Price says:

    I’ve never been to Reno. Sound like an interesting adventure. I always liked Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dean Martin. I was never a big fan of Sinatra, but he had such a wonderful voice.

    1. Paulie says:

      I agree with you on Sinatra. By all accounts he was less than a swell guy. The word thug might be fitting. Dean Martin was pretty hilarious.

      Even if you don’t gamble there’s enough in the area to warrant a couple days. There’s a little museum at the Paiute reservation about 40 minutes east. There’s also the silver mining town of Virginia City about a half hour away. You can actually tour a small section of a mine and that’s an interesting tour.

      If you’e old enough to remember the TV show Bonanza, it was set in this area, although the Ponderosa would have been closer to Tahoe.

      1. Timothy Price says:

        I remember Bonanza. I’ve been all over southern California, nd I’ve been to Las Vegas for various things, but have never ventured further north than Death Valley.

  2. Cleverly written!!! Love how Cora planned to rest and 3 minutes later you were hitting the tables…

    1. Paulie says:

      Thank you Tina.
      What can I say. Howabout sleep is overrated.

  3. Eliza Waters says:

    You’ve summed it up pretty well. Both downtown and inhabitants look a bit rough and weathered. But with Tesla building its plant, changes are afoot. Who knows where it will lead?

    1. Paulie says:

      There’s already a lot going on east of Sparks with all the distribution centers. I imagine that’s where Tesla will be located. I hate to see more development in the Great Basin. It’s a starkly beautiful place.
      As for the strip, it will probably never go back to its glory days. The city government may have to step in, in some fashion to get that area cleaned up and get the remaining hotels to clean up their act.
      It’s a short drive for Cora and I and we stay clear of the strip now. I like to gamble but I won’t do it in California (Don’t want to get in the habit) and Cora likes the food and sitting poolside. We do like going out to Virginia City (even if it is Trump central) and I usually take a trip to see the mustangs.

  4. I’ve never been to Reno but I changed planes once in Vegas. When everyone deplaned, most everyone made a beeline for the slot machines. I ignored the one armed bandits and walked around the terminal looking out the windows at those magnificent mountains. Hey, I’m from Florida. We don’t have scenery like that here.

    1. Paulie says:

      Entering Reno from California you go over the Sierra Nevada cresting at Donner Summit (where the Donner Party passed that fateful winter). There’s a plaque at the summit commemorating the party. Then it’s a quick drop to what is the western edge of the Great Basin and Reno.
      It’s a dramatic change. There really is a stark beauty about the country.

  5. OK, Paulie. I am hooked. I have no idea how you found my blog, but I’m glad that you did, and I’m glad that you followed. I will be following you. Sinatra: one of my favorite singers of all-time. Amazing expression and nuance. As a human being: not so much. Good thing I can keep those ideas firmly separated. Otherwise I would miss a lot of great music.

    1. Paulie says:

      Thank you Michael. I like it when I can hook a reader. I actually found your blog through a comment that you posted on Amy’s The World is a Book site, clicked the link and got hooked myself.
      It helps that you are/were an SF Bay Area resident. I live in the East Bay and I’m drawn to bloggers who are local. I like to see the impressions of other bloggers, photographic and narrative, about our area.
      Being someone who dabbles in photography I’m also drawn to photo sites, particularly the ones that provide instructive commentary.
      I feel just as you do about Sinatra; bad guy, great singer and showman. The show was actually an anniversary present for my wife. That show was something you just don’t see that much anymore; a headliner playing a dinner or cocktail show in a relatively intimate setting.
      Thank you for the follow and for the kind words.

      1. Great! I live in the South Bay but I make it to the East Bay very very often. We should connect sometime. Here’s a thought I had later about Sinatra: it could be that he spent all of his humanity on singing and didn’t have any left over for life. I will very much enjoy reading more of your writing.

Would love to hear from you

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