Wednesday, September 14, 2005
A Tale of Two Cities
I left my hotel in Salt Lake City at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning to get to the airport for an 8 a.m. flight to Reno. After four days without coffee, I thought I was hallucinating when I saw a Starbucks near the gate. At least my faith was restored that even the Mormon church couldn't keep the McDonalds of coffee out of Utah completely.
The flight from Salt Lake to Reno is only about an hour and ten minutes. But the cities are culturally (and I suppose technically morally) years apart. It has been eight years since I was in Reno. I used to go there every year to visit my friend Mike. He worked at Harrahs. When he quit and moved back to Seattle, I ran out of excuses to justify going to Reno.
Reno is hard to describe. My first trip there was when I was 21 years old. Compared to Boise, Reno was a sophisticated Metropolis. I remember being particularly impressed by my first casino cabaret show. It was in Harold's Club (long since closed and torn down). The show was called Bordello and the opening song was, "If you want to see my bosoms, you have to pop my balloons." A couple of chorus girls clad only in balloons and g-strings ran through the audience and let each person pop a balloon. When you are 21, that is pretty cool.
Reno used to be the blue collar Vegas. If you wanted upscale, you went to Tahoe. If you wanted down and dirty, you went to Reno. Reno was pure in the sense that you always knew pretty much what you were getting...a $1.99 Prime Rib and Eggs at 3 a.m.
Reno has changed. The Nevada Club followed Harold's Club into oblivion. The MGM Grand became the Reno Hilton. The downtown Hilton became the Phoenix. They built a bowling convention center that looks like a bowling ball. The Eldorado has been joined by Silver Legacy and linked directly to Circus, Circus. You can literally enter the Eldorado and walk inside for three blocks through the Silver Legacy and into Circus, Circus without ever going outside.
And the casinos have changed. Gone is the sound of slot machine handles being pulled and nickels clanking into trays. Most of the games now accept currency and pay off in tickets that can in turn be slipped into other machines. Almost all of the machines are video versions of slot machines with complex themes and incomprehensible payoff tables. Deceptively, they claim to be penny or nickel machines, but maximum bets of 10 or 15 coins per line for 15-20 lines can add up to $2 or $3 dollars a spin.
They've even managed to replace those minimum wage change people and cashiers. If you have any credit left on the coupons, you can slip them into yet another machine that dispenses cash. It makes me wonder where those poor souls who used to take those jobs ended up.
I suppose it was inevitable. Reno never could compete with Las Vegas for glitz and glamour. And now that huge casinos have cropped up on Indian reservations throughout the country, there's no real reason to hassle with airports to go to Reno. I think it's only a matter of time until the biggest little city in the world becomes the biggest little ghost town in the world.
And that makes me sad. Because I'll always associate Reno with being 21 and dazzled by the promise of being an adult. But I did have one brief glimpse of the past when I was in Reno this trip. I walked into Cal Neva, one of the last bastions of the old school casino. And although they too had replaced most of the one-armed bandits with video games, I found a singled slot machine that paid off in actual silver dollars and you could actually put single quarters into it and pull a handle. On the fourth or fifth pull, the reels lined up and a single Silver Eagle plunked into the tray. It was shiny and new and I slipped it into my pocket and walked away a winner.
Maybe there is hope for Reno after all.