2001 April: Friday
Beryl gave a worried glance out of the window. “If it snows any harder it’s going to be difficult for the audience to get here – and we’ve got to get off the mountain ourselves tomorrow to get you to Reno Airport.” The snow began to fall harder.
Despite the increasing whiteness outside, by 7pm the audience did arrive – not vast hordes, admittedly, but enough to fill out the tables and to give the place a rustle of anticipation and adrenaline.
Beryl gave the introduction: “Tonight we have something really different in Sierra City. We have a Scotsman impersonating an Irishman in an English restaurant serving Italian food. Give a big hand for Oscar Wilde’s return to the Rockies!”
The show went ridiculously well. The jokes sparked, the stories of Oscar’s adventures in America provoked yips of recognition, and the section about Wilde’s time in jail (in contrast to the distaste in Pinehurst, N.C.) produced a deep silence of sympathy. Pin drop time. It was a hit.
I came off stage to face a row of beers donated by well-wishers. Beryl introduced me to a local arts administrator called John. Despite his enthusiasm for the show, he was pessimistic about the chances of touring it further in the region.
“California is perhaps the richest place in the world. And the state gives less than one million dollars to the Arts. Even Hawaii gives five million. I get a budget of $500.”
Outside the snow was falling increasingly fast and the audience began to scatter.
“Sorry to go, sir, but in an hour we won’t be able to get back over the mountain.”
I polished off the remaining beer, before being invited for further drinks at the Miners Hotel one hundred yards down the street. Beryl, her friend Joanne, and myself ended up at midnight in the hotel bar with Kathy the landlady. The drinks flowed.
The bar of the Miners Hotel had log-lined walls, a small dance floor, and had been built in 1886 – it shimmered with the ghosts of the Old West. Tonight, except for the four of us, it was empty and the far tables lay in shadow. Now on a full tide of beer, I crossed over to the jukebox and selected ‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles.
‘On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair’… I started to sway-dance to the jangling guitars. My spine began to tingle – the beer, the adrenaline of a good show, the blizzard outside, and now dancing alone to ‘Hotel California’ – in a hotel – in California!
‘You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave’…. It was a totally unforgettable moment.
At 2am, we bid a drunken farewell to Kathy, and stumbled back through the snowdrifts to Mountain Shadows.
2001 April: Saturday
I was faced with three obstacles when I awoke at 8am. The first was a fair-sized hangover. The second was the sight of the mounds of snow burying the cars on Main Street. The third came when I rang through to Charleston, South Carolina, my next destination and show venue.
“Hello, can I speak to Mrs Hodges, please? I’m just phoning to confirm my arrival times tomorrow.”
A woman’s voice hesitated then said: “I’m very sorry to have to tell you that Mrs Hodges has died.”
The natural humanitarian response to a tragedy was complicated by consternation over what the hell was I going to do with the promoter being dead. I muttered condolences and the woman asked me to ring back later.
I stood out on the front balcony of Mountain Shadows, lit a cigarette, and considered the situation. Over the next 48 hours, somehow I had to get off a Californian mountain on a road currently buried under snow drifts, find somewhere to spend the night in Reno, then fly across the entire North American continent to the Deep South to stay at the home of a stranger who had just died, and then perform a show about an Irish Republican, homosexual socialist in the heart of the American Bible Belt at a venue that I was not sure still existed. With a hangover.
However, even as I pondered the quandary, the first problem began to dissolve. A distant rattling and clanking grew to a roar as a large snow plough rumbled into sight, hurling a white fountain from the road to the sidewalk. It was an exhilarating sight and I exchanged a friendly wave with the driver. Well, at least it was now possible to get out of the front door.
I packed my case while Beryl and Joanne swept the snow from the roof of the car. We gingerly started to drive out of town. It was a nervous journey, especially as the road to Sierra Valley was steeply downhill with numerous hairpin bends. Within half a mile, we came across a jack-knifed articulated truck sprawled across the road like a broken arm. Two police cars waited in attendance. We edged round the obstacle, our right-hand tyres only two feet away from the edge of the ravine. A mile further on, Beryl just managed to control a thirty foot skid along the ice. Fortunately but not surprisingly, we were the only vehicle on the road during the whole descent to the valley.
The road to Reno, though flat, was bleak – sudden swirls of snow drifted and settled on the desert sands. A song kept running through my head. It was Johnny Cash singing the live version of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ – “I shot a man in Reno, Just to watch him die”, followed by the yells of approval from the prison inmates.
We drove into the city at 4pm and passed under the Virginia Street ‘Reno Arch’, an illuminated hoarding that spanned the road and read: ‘Reno – The Biggest Little City in the World’. This cheery enticement was belied by the reality of the place. Granted that the weather, the hangover, and Johnny Cash didn’t help, but downtown Reno looked grim. The roads were lined by vast casino hotels. Although their frontages were gaudy enough, the remaining walls had been left unadorned – street after street had the appearance of being lined by blank, concrete warehouses.
We parked at the Legacy Casino and went looking for a hotel room. The lobby was the size of a small airport terminal and was dominated by an eighty foot high replica of a mine derrick. A large notice announced that ‘The Jay Leno Show’ was being broadcast live from the hotel theatre that night. These initial indications of merriment were dashed by a look inside one of the gambling lounges. The room must have been fully an acre large. Rows of fruit machines stretched into the distance in precisely ordered ranks, their punters sitting gloomily in front of them like sweatshop workers who’d just heard that their pay was being cut. Girls in fish net leotards proffering trays of drinks passed along the aisles to total indifference. Even the rattle of a win was greeted in bovine silence.
To top it all, the place was booked out. The Gun Convention was in town – the same crowd who had breakfasted at Mountain Shadows. We tried another casino called ‘Circus Circus’, and then another to no avail – the gunmen had taken over the town. Beryl suggested we tried somewhere out near the airport. I wasn’t sorry to leave – the ‘Reno Arch’ looked like someone had attached a clown’s mask to a corpse.
Finally we located a vacant hotel along the Airport Plaza Rd. It was a brief farewell to Beryl and Joanne – they wanted to get back to the mountains before nightfall. I went to the hotel bedroom and explored the amenities. Admittedly the place was cheap, but none of the luxury gadgets seemed to work. The TV picture was intermittent and the coffee machine just dripped water, but the most extraordinary lapse was in the bathroom. For over sixty years, the main propaganda stick with which the West beat the Soviet Union, even surpassing the gulags, was the line that Soviet hotels lacked bath plugs. And right here, in the beating heart of the USA, the damn bath plug was missing! Breshnev would have loved this.
I dozed off for a few hours and woke at 2am.
2001 April: Sunday
Killing time, I read the local paper. All the ‘Situations Vacant’ jobs seemed to be either for croupiers or thinly veiled invitations to staff the neighbourhood brothels. Beryl had mentioned earlier that attitudes to prostitution around Nevada and the Sierras had always been lax. She reckoned that it was because whoring had been the leading, sometimes the only, career option open to the pioneer women.
At 4am, I switched on the TV. In response to viewers’ telephone calls, a female presenter spent an hour reading out their Tarot card futures.
By 5am, I reckoned that that the time difference on the East Coast must be four hours ahead, therefore I could make contact with South Carolina. At least the hotel phone was working. This time another voice responded and I had to explain the situation.
“Well, I guess that’ll be all right. It’s kinda sudden. No one knew you were coming today. Are you still in London? Well, I guess somebody knows something about it. I guess.” His voice dwindled away into indecision.
I hailed a cab to the airport.
(To be continued……)