What do you do when you find that you’ve become ineligible for night life? If you waltz into a bar and the bartenders ignore you because you’re 20 years older than they are, wearing a green polo shirt and shorts and do not want a Pabst Blue Ribbon? What then?
Do you will yourself to invisibility, silently staring ahead, noting that no one has bothered to tell the drummer from tonight’s band how badly his t-shirt (which ironically advertises a non-existent tavern in Ephrata, Washington) fits? Do you wonder how many people in the bar have actually been to Ephrata, Washington, home of former Oakland A’s relief pitcher Dave Heaverlo’s nationally-known summer baseball camp?
How long will you last? If you move around, maybe the motion will convince the bartenders that you are an actual person, not part of the Abraham Lincoln-themed artwork on the walls. Just five minutes ago, you were walking down the street, listening to Tom Waits on your iPod, stepping over homeless people and peering into an empty boxing gym, feeling pretty good about yourself for escaping the tourist-approved part of town. Now this.
You can tell yourself all you want that sitting in a bar on a Tuesday night in Reno, Nevada, waiting for a band with a fat drummer to play, is a pretty sad ceiling for self-styled 20-something hipsters. You can tell yourself that when you were their age, you were plumbing the depths of artistic meaning, reinventing the meaning of romance, doing things with the kind of great, dramatic feeling and soul that separates the run-of-the-mill from the truly special. You can tell yourself that 20 years from now, not a single one of them will try to enter a bar like this, having left that sort of silly adolescent whim behind the day they got that first job at the software firm.
You can pull aside one of the bartenders (blissfully involved in a vague conversation about the relative coolness of the guys working on the road outside; one of them has a Mohawk and is smoking a cigar: very cool), yank off his paperboy cap and say, “I’ve been around, buddy. You have no idea.” You can remind them that the real enemy is the mob of t-shirt-wearing tourists, crazy on buffet prime rib, pouring coins into slot machines a half-mile away, that what should really happen here is that they should form a semi-circle at your feet and listen as you explain the secrets to remaining vital way past your nightlife “sell-by” date, but none of it will matter. This is how it goes. You have your time. They have theirs. In the end, there’s nothing to do but drink about half of your beer and quietly slink out the side door.
Outside, it’s the same stretch of road that made you feel so alive a half hour before. There’s still the boxing gym, the poorly-lit Basque restaurant, the homeless encampment. The Tom Waits song is waiting for you to hit “play” on your iPod, but it doesn’t matter. It’s too late.
Better you should take a seat at Shooters, where the bartender looks like a tired P.J. Soles and will remove her fake ponytail to the great shock of about a dozen guys in tank tops who thought it was real. “Sometimes I wear the whole wig,” she’ll tell them. “Everyone calls me Bartender Barbie.”
Or maybe, 24 hours later, after the kind of relaxed and uniquely geeky day of driving around northern Nevada, taking pictures of ruined buildings and imagining what Nevada State Route 342 must have looked like in June, 1965, when the Charlatans drove from San Francisco to Virginia City for a six-week gig at the Red Dog Saloon that unofficially became the birth of the 1960s (None of these houses were here. That shopping center wasn’t here. This was probably a two-lane road.) that is only possible alone because you could never inflict it on your family, you decide that Reno’s nighttime scene has no openings for a bald, paunchy middle-aged Jewish guy in a polo shirt, so maybe it’s time to see a movie instead.
But not before enjoying one more bar scene, this time as a pizza-eating civilian, that involves a heavily-tattooed young mother – who, minus her three-year-old-looking kid, could easily have been slouched at a low table last night at the Lincoln Lounge.
In front of me in line to order was the usual Reno group of guys – tank-tops, weird, amateurish monochromatic tattoos, goatees, angry, “What are YOU looking at?” expressions, skateboarding shoes. One guy was wearing a t-shirt advertising the legendary Mustang Ranch. Pictured on it – naturally, for it represents the Mustang Ranch, the last bastion of the wide-open West -- was an almost-naked woman holding a rifle.
The mom noticed the guy’s shirt. “Look at the hot, hot lady,” she said to her child, using the same sing-song voice that drives many of us to distraction when it’s used to point out flowers, puppies and the ocean. “She’s so very hot!”
“What do you mean?” said her kid.
“I mean, she’s very pretty, isn’t she?”
“Why does she have a gun?”
“Well, sometimes Mommy has a gun. When Mommy goes out sometimes, she has a gun. Lots of people carry guns.”
Yup. Sometimes Mommy has a gun. And that Mustang Ranch lady? Very hot, for a cartoon. And yes, my fellow San Franciscans, Full democracy means these people deserve every bit as much of a voice in how they are governed as you do, no matter if you know better than they do what’s good for them. Very sobering, and a blaring reminder of why I think everyone who lives in my city should be forced to take at least one road trip per year.
Ten years ago, I used to measure success in a foreign environment by how many new people I met. After a few days in Reno, I’m starting to measure it by how long I can go without getting beat up. Or shot.
Who am I kidding? I looked as strange and out-of-place to the homeless guys on Fourth Street as I did to the neo-hipsters at the Lincoln Lounge. Any Wadsworth, Nevada locals who saw me get out of my rented Chrysler Sebring and walk around that ruined schoolhouse yesterday probably automatically spat out “tourist” and then went back to working on whatever broken-down car they had sitting in their front yard. And the gun-toting mother at the pizza place pegged me as an emissary from the planet white collar the moment I walked in.
The truth is that I spent most of my twenties walking around alone. Having neglected to start a career at that age, I had plenty of time and not much money. Walking around was all I could afford to do. I was alone because everyone else was at work. Most of my great emotional, romantic adventures were in my head, stuff I saw from far away while walking around alone. To the outside world I was this anonymous guy, a walk-on extra in the movie of their life, who, like everyone else I’ve always figured, was fighting wars, curing great illnesses, tilting at windmills, getting the girl and riding off in to the sunset, all in the privacy of his own mind. When you look at it that way, not much has changed since.