Waking up in the Goddess Room of Reno’s Burner Hostel, I feel as if a mystical presence is watching over me.
A mural of a woman surrounds me on all four walls. Her purple and teal hair gently flows down from her head, becoming waves that blanket and soften the walls while enveloping the sleeper in a calming aura.
Other “themed” rooms inside the hostel include the Cat Room, the Monsters Room, and the Mermaids Room.
Before visiting, “shoddy casino-ville” was what I’d envisioned Nevada’s capital (home to 247,000) would be like.
A passenger explained to me though that city designers are trying to change that reputation.
“They want to shift how people see Reno. Make it more family-oriented. No more casinos. The only ones that will ever exist are the ones that exist now.”
Before driving for the day I set out to explore the city, strolling from the hostel past minimalist country-style homes until I reach downtown, where casino signs glitter and beep. The energy here is flashy, yet not bustling. Picture a more subdued and toned-down version of Vegas.
A man rock-climbs up the wall next to the massive shimmering Reno sign–which, according to movoto.com, was built in 1926 and has featured the town’s famous motto ‘The Biggest Little City in the World,’ since 1929.
I wonder when evidence of city planners’ attempts at reforming Reno will come into view. I’ve seen no cute cafes or craft breweries; the majority of Reno’s commerce seems to consist of truck shops and casinos.
Soon enough though, the vibe changes completely.
Crossing one of the Truckee River’s several pedestrian bridges, I marvel at the sight of water flowing through the middle of a city.
How out of place but also not. Mostly just pretty, I think. Some people walk their dogs next to it; others fish. Occasional mini waterfalls gush down over smooth white rocks.
A short stroll south of the river, Midtown teems with craft beer spots, tattoo shops, and graffiti art. Previously a quiet enclave of Victorian homes, in 2011 after the opening of a surfeit of new businesses, this neighborhood became a district that bustles and thrives.
Spencer Spellman writes in Sunset Magazine, “Here, you can shop for books and vinyl by day, while sipping cocktails on a rooftop bar by night–without a slot machine in sight.”
Inside one store-front, an inflatable baby seahorse peaks through the window, comma-like in its curled-up position. A macaroni kernel also comes to mind, as does a crumpled and compacted yellow saxophone.
After passing by a house with this out front:
I end at a bar whose low ceilings and brick walls make it feel like the inside of a rectangular box– but in a cozy, intimate and not claustrophobic way. The musicians, who introduce themselves as a “band with a song,” play level with the crowd, rather than above them on an elevated stage. Everyone’s feet, musicians’ and audience alike, trod the same scuffed-up metal and brass floor.
A bearded bald guy with a red mustache and a brown leather jacket sips from a plastic cup of beer while shouting the words psychedelics and desert and a bunch of other words I can’t make out.
My own experiences live up to this Yelper’s touting: “Reno is without a shadow of a doubt the most under-rated city in the U.S. Yes downtown is kind of scuzzy, but less than five miles out you have world class out door recreation.
Three huge ski resorts, Lake Tahoe 20 miles away, kayaking the Truckee river, running hiking hunting and cycling in the Sierra Nevada’s and at the end of the day gambling and fine dining downtown. Throw in a great climate, the convenience of a big city, and no state income tax… C’mon.”
“I feel like the only reason you think your life is a mess right now is because you don’t like the way your hair looks in this.”
— Guy to his friend, before handing him a comb. Legit advice of a friend who knows you well, or the opportunistic pitch of a hair comb salesman? I wonder.
Bigger passenger story: an anthropological look at casinos and exploring the underpinnings of addiction with a former gambling addict
“There’s this program where you put your name on their list, and then if they see you in their casino they’ll kick you out and take all your money,” says Janet* the woman passenger I’ve just picked up outside a cafe in Reno. “My gambling problem led me to enroll in it.”
Her words prompt recollection of my own experience at a casino earlier that day. Curious about “casino life” from a purely anthropological perspective, I’d wandered into one that abutted a Starbucks (which as far as Starbucks go, was a pretty classy one, housing its imbibers under a ceiling of mesmerizing stained glass designs).
As I passed rows of machines with titles like “Wild Panda,” “Blaze of Glory,” and “Quick Hit,” next to the bleary-eyed people operating them, I imagined the casino owners saying while gesturing to the comfy black swivel chairs next to them: “Please, get as comfortable as possible while we help you transition your dollars $$$ to a better home.”
A few minutes in, I found myself struggling to hold a thought for more than a few seconds; it would begin to construct itself only to dissolve mid-formation. The smell of cigarette smoke and greasy casino food filled me with nausea. The beeping and ding dings coming from all directions had me on edge.
It occurred to me (for the first time in actual words, beyond just a mere feeling) that it’s when people are anxious and unable to string coherent thoughts together that we’re most vulnerable to succumbing to our impulses.
That’s how they get you. Sever the connection to your prefrontal cortex; amplify the volume of your reptilian brain.
I could see how people can spend all day in here. It’d be so easy to lose track of time, I think. Day could turn to night and you wouldn’t even know it. Inside the casino there exists a self-contained world—not because you could sustain the illusion that all your needs might be met inside here, but because you could forget that you had needs altogether. That is the magic and disconcertingly insidious nature of casinos.
**Read the rest in Part 2, available tomorrow!