When she was good,
It was oh, so good
You were blessed
If she smiled on you.
You could be king
If she believed your story.
When it was over,
If she laughed at you.*
Half a century ago this week, a young Italian from Fresno by way of Las Vegas drove his freshly-painted canary yellow Buick Riviera eastward on I-80 through Sparks past the Nugget toward Reno.
I was younger, dumber, foolisher and slimmer and had come north against my better judgment.
A few years before, I had escaped from California after 22 years at hard labor. (They haven’t caught me yet.)
I had gone to Las Vegas to work thru the summer but Fresno looked pretty tame compared to organized crime’s neon cat house in the desert where it got to 101-degrees at 1:00 a.m.
Within a year, I was cooking full time hotel dinner runs and freelancing for three ad agencies.
At the end of my 1970 maiden voyage in Nevada follytix, my bosses wanted me to transfer to Reno to kick a moribund Reno office into high gear. In early January, 1971, I flew up here to scope out the job. My first stop was KOLO TV-8, where my predecessor was taping TV spots for the local Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, our biggest account. (My office would be a cubbyhole closing booth off their sales floor.)
I was aghast. There under the hot studio lights lay a full side of beef, bleeding all over the floor.
“High folks, Jim Hayes here from Nevada Chrysler-Plymouth where you’ll get a free side of beef with every purchase this weekend only.”
“High folks, I’m Odis Bass, and I’ll give you two New York steaks just like these just for taking a demo ride at the all-new Nevada Chrysler-Plymouth, the little-profit dealer, right Jim?”
“Right, Odis, free steaks, pro-tem and all that good stuff, 2675 South Reno in Virginia.”
I quietly whispered to my colleague that he should have said “South Virginia in Reno” (nowadays the site of the Peppermill’s north parking lot).
Mr. Hayes told us to let the spot air as recorded. “Let’s see if anybody notices and tells us about it.”
No freakin’ way was I coming to this town!
My colleague later advised “Andy, if I was young and single like you, I’d jump at a chance like this.” He was correct.
My bosses ordered me to start wearing ties and cut my long hair.
One also advised that Reno-Sparks is “very cliquely and very clannish, you’ve got to fit in.”
His partner, a former pro-gambler in these parts, was more blunt: “There’s nothing wrong with Reno that about a dozen selected funerals can’t cure.”
Fast forward half a century. They both proved correct. The cliquey-freakishness still abides and though all those funerals happened, their descendants still call the shots. The power center of Nevada resided in the north back then notwithstanding Las Vegas growth. Much still remains in these parts.
Nevada has proven a fickle mistress. She is at times kind and generous. At others, she’ll eat you alive.
The best advice I ever got about Reno came from a dapper car salesman named Bert Strassheim: “Reno’s a good town. You’ve got to give it time. If you treat it right, it’ll take care of you when you need it.”
Ole Bert remains prescient to this very day.
So what have I learned after 50 years before the masthead? (My first byline in this newspaper came in 1973.)
1. The hangover of our longtime status as Mississippi West remains.
2. The weakest get hurt worst. Whenever our regressive tax structure crashes — like now — the physically and mentally disabled take the first hit, followed shortly by education, something we’ve never been serious about.
3. Necessary government programs, once cut during a recession, often never recover if they survive at all. (Remember Gov. Mike O’Callaghan’s 1970s rural mental health clinics program?)
3. Unless you have a household income of $60,000 or more, especially with kids, move somewhere else if you can. Life gets tough here for the meek and humble. The meeker, humbler — and broker — you are or become, the more you pay. And we don’t care much about healing the depredations of gambling addiction.
4. Nevada hates the indolent on welfare unless the welfare goes to corporations and the wealthy.
5. The power hierarchy of Reno-Sparks still has at its root the descendants of Italian farmers who settled here about the same time as my ancestors hit Fresno. I understand them, both their egregiousness and graciousness.
6. Rock is now acceptable, rap/hip-hop not so much. In 1971, rock ‘n’ roll station KCBN had a hard time selling to advertisers even 15 years after Elvis made “race music” mainstream.
7. Gambling industry employees, especially casino floor staff, are truly a unique subculture which has not been studied nearly enough. (See No. 3, above.)
8. You will get your chances to prosper if you stick around.
9. If you are lucky, you may find rare opportunities to walk with giants such as Western Shoshone legends Mary and Carrie Dan; Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont; Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Delaware; Assemblyman Bob Price and Sen. Joe Neal, both D-North Las Vegas; Reno Mayor Barbara Bennett; State Sens. Mary Gojack and Spike Wilson, D-Reno; psychologist Herbert M. Schall, Ph.D.; consumer advocate Jon Wellinghoff; Johnny Carson; the Nonesuch Nine currently ensconced in the Barbwire Molly Ivins Memorial Columniators Hall of Flames and the descendants of Mark Twain.
10. How to fix it? Re-read my longrunning updates to the top 10 cures for what ails us. (Most recently in the June 10, 2020, Barbwire). Executive executioner summary: The more things change, the more they stay the same here in Cliquetown.
Take care of each other and be careful out there.
¡Sí se puede!
Be well. Raise hell. Esté bien. Haga infierno.
Andrew Barbano is a 52-year Nevadan and editor of NevadaLabor.com, SenJoeNeal.org and BallotBoxing.US/ Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Tribune since 1988. E-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org> *Props to Terry Cashman and Tommy West’s 1972 “American City Suite.”