The time: early 1980.
The place: downtown Reno.
The setting: a small single room on the third floor of the Vintage House, a dulled colonial revival boarding house. It was vintage in the same way that a pressed suit in a thrift shop or an old typewriter in a pawn shop is deemed “vintage.” Since it was a typical winter in the high Sierras and my little third floor studio had no refrigerator (nor closet nor bathroom, for that matter). I kept a few cans of Shasta Cola and a mesh bag of citrus, apples, and carrots on the sill outside the window. I had no phone, though on the first floor I could wait in line to use the pay phone in the booth with the folding door that wouldn’t close all the way. I had no car. But I did have my first college loan payment coming due.
My youngest sister recalls her only visit to this, my first residence as I began life on my own. She says her first thought was “my big brother went to college for four years and spent all that money for THIS?” Over an icy Donner Pass to the west and back on down into Sacramento, high school homework awaited my sister. She admits today that she gave a long look at my “apartment” and thought “maybe I’d better rethink this whole college thing.”
The neighborhood was not without attraction, the Comstock Hotel/Casino directly across the street from the Vintage House’s front entryway notwithstanding. My room’s window overlooked an inviting (at least in the summer) corner square of lawn at First and West Streets. Running alongside First Street the Truckee River, all 40 feet wide and 20 inches deep of it, sluiced over a stony bed. Across the footbridge to the other side of the river was Reno’s downtown Wingfield Park.
The Truckee’s pristine water coursed its way through the Sierra Nevada range from Lake Tahoe, roughly 40 miles to the southwest of Reno and 2,500 feet higher in elevation. Because Tahoe, at over 1,600 feet in depth, is North America’s second deepest lake, even during Reno’s dry, high-desert summers, the Truckee’s water always refreshes. There are rainbow trout in the Truckee, had I owned fishing gear or a stove. But as I was just ending nine months without full-time employment following my graduation, I had borrowed my first month’s rent, and what I owned consisted of the clothes on my back and not a whole lot beyond that. Maybe come summertime I would fit some low-end fly fishing gear and a camp stove into the budget. Provided the owners of the Vintage House didn’t raise the rent, for summer was the height of Reno’s tourist season.
Wingfield Park offered summer bands every weekday during lunch hour. Suited business people, young mothers pushing strollers, here and there a vagrant, casino dealers dressed in black slacks and white shirts with ruffled shoulder garters, teens on ten speeds and smaller kids on bikes with their low-slung banana seats, everyone picked up sandwiches at the Port of Subs sub shop, crossed over the footbridge and enjoyed lunch and music outdoors. In August you could plop down on the river’s edge or sit on a granite bolder and dangle your feet in the brisk river. The city-sponsored bands would play western swing one day, Dixieland jazz the next day, while another day might present love ballads by decade. The love songs and ballads by decade were always my favorite performance: “Ain’t She Sweet” from 1927, “S’posin’” from 1936; “Perfidia” from 1940. They introduced me to a musical vocabulary beyond anything I knew. Led Zeppelin this was not. From these summer performances I learned to love a world and a time I had never taken time to imagine. If music thus proved to be the food of love and romantic comedy was to your liking, you could pull your feet from the Truckee, amble back across the bridge, and head around the corner from the Vintage House to the two cinemas down the street to catch the latest matinee.
Looking back from the river and past the Vintage House, two blocks further down one observed the Vintage House’s major competition, the 7-story Beaux Arts style Bill Fong’s El Cortez Hotel and Chinese Restaurant (go figure). And in one of those “only in Reno” peculiarities the El Cortez contained a massage parlor katty corner from the Catholic Church’s co-cathedral for the Diocese of Las Vegas-Reno. The bishop spent most of his time in Las Vegas. I never knew if the masseuses spent any time in the cathedral.
So this was my neighborhood. I lived two blocks from work.
I had miscalculated my fellow denizens of the Vintage House. Having spent my college years in a dorm, I figured living in a boarding house would simply be more of the same—dorm life, one big generally happy family—only without freshmen. Everyone would be grown ups.
It took no great perspicacity to realize that the joint was the last stop for folks who had not quite completed the trip down, not fully realized the trek out. True crazies walked the hallways and moaned in the night. Dressed in a nightgown, a perpetually sotted woman 40 or 50 years my senior regularly knocked on my door late at night to tell me I was one fine looking young man and to ask if I could spot her a dollar or two until her son came through with the monthly check he could “always be counted on” to send around the first of the month. I’d not met anyone like that in St. Edward’s Hall, that’s for sure.
Her circumstance was not isolated. The Vintage House was full of broken, lonely, loony, sad old souls, many apparently dumped off by families anxious—obviously not without reason—to have them out of the way. You sensed it was an “anything to keep crazy mom or drunken pop occupied and away from the grandkids” sort of thing. Justifiable or not, my fellow boarding room neighbors struck me as cases of an “out of sight out of mind” mentality. Pay the rent and send Grandma an allowance so she could play dollar bingo all day, quarter slots all night, and slow games of keno when the money ran tight.
I, of course, hardly saw myself as a down-and-outer one short step away from vagrancy. There were a few up and comers, though none seemed to be my age. Across the hall from me in one of the cheap rooms without a window lived a black guy whose age I never really gave much of a thought to. He might have been old enough to have been my dad. Butch had something I did not—a television. A small black-and-white television.
It was my good fortune that not only did Butch have a television, but he shared something with me as well: a passion for college basketball. Better yet, he loved my college, Notre Dame. On that rabbit-eared TV he had watched Notre Dame come from 11 down with 3:28 to go and end UCLA’s 88 game winning streak. He had seen Notre Dame beat a 29-0 USF team, watched the Irish knock off DePaul’s great teams, anguished through that unspeakable loss to Danny Ainge and BYU in the NCAA Tournament. Butch knew his hoops.
Saturdays had me in my new friend’s room, the both of us watching college hoops, hooting and hollering loud enough that the folks there might have sworn we were the real derelicts. Naturally we would talk. I told Butch about Notre Dame players I knew, even if only peripherally. Butch, it turns out, had come from yet another world I had barely heard of, much less ever imagined. You see, my new friend Butch had for years worked as a female impersonator at Finnochio’s in San Francisco, a world-famous nightclub where the talent was so outrageously good and the entertainment so raucously, raunchily funny that it transcended being just a gay nightclub. Finnochio’s even packed the house on ladies night. (I will grant the point that a packed house on ladies night at Finnochio’s might well have meant that you were taking your chances. The club was, after all, “off limits” to military personnel. I never asked Butch how the military assigned officers to go look for violators.)
So there it was. My newfound college hoops-loving friend Butch was an ex-drag queen. During chit chat and halftime talks, ol’ Butch would regale me with tales of glory past, tales of fabulous wealth and profligate spending, stories about the excitement of four performances a night and the grand adventures of world travel on San Francisco-based cruise ships. Butch had been livin’ the life. Life as a drag queen had been great, his only regret being his failure to save for the future. And as Butch grew older, that had become a big regret.
But now—now he was excited to be in Reno starting a new career. He had gone to school to quickly learn a new trade as a chef (how he learned to be a female impersonator is something I never quite got around to asking him). Like me, he was just starting a new life. Unable to find work with a degree in the liberal arts, I had picked up full-time work in Harrrah’s Casino as a change person. I made change in the nickel slot machine area, mostly for tourists who came from California, Oregon, and Idaho on buses. It was not exactly what I had gone to college for, a little point my sister had taken careful note of. There was not a fortune to be made, but it was work. Things were looking up.
Still, it was clear Butch missed the old days. One day while watching hoops, Butch began reminiscing and got to feeling a bit wistful. Finally, he got downright maudlin. Here he was making a couple of bucks an hour above minimum wage when for years and years he had roomed first class and had money to burn. Life could be so unfair.
And in my world, life being unfair usually meant my team was losing for I remember feeling a bit grouchy. I had just heard for about the half-dozenth time about how great life had been as a drag queen at the top of his game, so to speak. Broke as a pauper, I should here declare that I was never tempted by Butch’s tales of wealth and glory. I lacked a certain insouciance or something. And Butch, he of discerning eye and astute evaluation of temperament, no doubt quite readily determined I did not have what it took to be a female impersonator. So alas there was never any intimation that I throw in with him, learn the ropes (or feathered scarves), and go for the easy money. Anyway, weary of hearing about the glories of Finnochio’s, I snapped at Butch.
“Butch, if being a drag queen was so great and you miss it so much how come you’re in downtown Reno freezing your tush in the dead of winter, surrounded by lunatics and living in a run down boarding house and working for two bucks an hour over minimum wage?” I hammered the point home: “I don’t see why you don’t just go back to San Francisco, go back to Finnochio’s, back to the shows and the money and the fame, to the world cruises and all—I don’t get it: if it was all so great why don’t you just go back to doing all that? Why don’t you just go back to Finnochio’s?”
My friend Butch pulled in a deep breath. And then in one of those lessons they don’t teach you about in college he drawled, “Miii-chael, honey, I tellll ya, I turned 40 and I just couldn’t wow ‘em any more.”
Al Maguire, the ever-quotable rough and tumble basketball coach who took Marquette to a national Championship in 1977, once said something to the effect that after four years of college, a person ought to tend bar for six months and drive a cab for six months. “Then and only then,” said Maguire, “can a person be considered truly educated.” He might have been onto something. I figure six months at the Vintage House was close enough to count.