The Continuing Adventures of Matt in Anger Management Land
There must be an easier way to get a free trip to Reno than by attending anger management counseling, but my method has worked twice so far. I don't even really need anger counseling, and it didn't work the first time I took the class, but my boss recently received a letter reporting that I did not get the graduation certificate during my first trip to "Anger School." Truth is, I have my anger completely under control, and I haven't socked anybody for weeks. I deserved the stupid certificate the first time around just for putting up with so much crap, but counselor Gary Preston saw it all differently.
So, here I am, on a plane to Reno so my boss can give Gary more of his money. My boss warned me that if I didn't return with the certificate that I wasn't welcome back at the office. Fine, I could just as easily do my job without feeling welcome.
No, he explained, not only would I be banned from work, I wouldn't receive a paycheck. In order to keep my job, my vocation in life and the only thing that gives me pleasure besides chasing the neighbor's dog, I had to prove to Gary Preston that my temper was under control. That pony-tailed phony controlled my fate.
I have to be on my best behavior, even better than my daily best behavior. Just for one day, I'll play by his rules.
As the plane descends over Reno, I lean over the kid by the window and survey the lights. The vague neon buzz of downtown is surrounded by winding miles of carefully laid out suburban street lights. On the corners are the bright white floodlights over the parking lots of the Wal-Marts, supermarkets and strip malls. Everywhere, the town is full of jokers, fakers and phonies turning their anger inside out. And it makes them ugly. It makes them buy minivans and scream at referees at children's soccer games. I'm deemed the bad guy because I throw the occasional punch?
The plane banks over the center of town as we descend and the lights become clearer. Compared to the lights of Las Vegas, these are darker and dingier, all green, faded pinks and purples. Always budget-minded, Reno's neon is spare, mostly used to highlight the edges of buildings that are square, squat and boring.
The Reno Airport is small. It has terminals A, B and C, and they are all short walks from the six or seven baggage claim belts. The free hotel shuttle pickup is just beyond this. I step out to the curb. I am on an America West vacation package. I would have gotten their "anger management" package if they offered one, but "vacation" is what I am stuck with. The package includes airfare and two nights at the Silver Legacy for 300 clams, and that includes a 25 dollar fee for booking less than one week before the trip. If I had just booked airfare by itself, it would have cost almost 600 bucks more through Delta.
Almost all the downtown hotels run free shuttles from the airport, and those that don't have a casino next door that does. The Silver Legacy shuttle isn't here, but the one for Circus Circus is. I tap on the door and the driver opens it.
"Going to Circus Circus?" he asks.
"That shuttle will be here in a couple minutes." He cranks the door shut. It's damn cold. I can see my own breath and my jacket is packed inside my garment bag. I pull out a piece of paper and pretend to look at it, then I rap on the door again. The driver shakes his head so I wave the piece of paper as if it's important. Reluctantly, he opens the door.
I lie, "It turns out I am staying at Circus Circus."
"Let me see," he gestures toward my paper.
I hold it to my chest, "You have to trust me." He slowly shakes his head.
"It's cold out here!" I scream and I can feel my ears getting hot. People who won't believe me drive me nuts, especially when I could just as well be telling the truth.
"No, I don't."
"Well, then, I guess you won't believe I'm a high-roller, a verrry high-roller, and right about now I'm thinking about taking my business to some other hotel. No, I suppose you don't believe that my father is a very rich man and could have you fired right now. My dad owns this airport."
"Get off my shuttle."
I stand my ground. This guy assumes I am lying, and he's right, but he doesn't deserve to be. He should be wrong and he should have to kiss my feet. I try to think of a way to very quickly become a high-roller, like some secret password. I wish I paid more attention to "Dynasty" reruns. "I'm not going anywhere. This isn't just about the bus, it's about principles."
Then the Silver Legacy shuttle pulls up behind us. "Later, sucker," I shout as I hop off, victorious.
I run to the Silver Legacy shuttle, liking the driver before I even get on. He asks if I'm going to the Silver Legacy and I say loud and proud that I am indeed. I am the only person on this shuttle, just like I would have been on the other.
"Can you do me a favor?" I ask as I settle into my seat.
"Ram the Circus Circus bus."
The driver laughs, but it's the kind of laugh that means he won't do it. Even after I explain what a jerk that Circus Circus guy is, he still won't do it. And so it is in silence that we get on the freeway and head downtown.
Downtown flickers stale neon. It isn't overwhelming like Las Vegas. And unlike Las Vegas, you can't enter Reno depressed and become instantly, euphorically happy. Whatever mood you bring in is the one that stays with you. For me, it is weary resignation that I'll have to perform like a monkey for Gary Preston tomorrow.
In front of Circus Circus, a few fluorescent bulbs are burnt out inside the big, scary clown/signboard. The remaining light bleeds unevenly through his semi-transparent plastic. Next to Circus Circus is the Silver Legacy, my home for the next two nights. It's downtown's biggest and newest hotel, and it feels new and plastic, like a suburban shopping mall from Victorian times. It's tinted green, maybe to look like a huge pile of money. There's a huge dome out front that looks more like a bowling ball than the one at the National Bowling Stadium two blocks away. The hotel's wings are staggered in height, maybe to replicate a mountain, or maybe and more successfully, to make it look like Legos. Next door and attached to the Silver Legacy is the Eldorado, an older, but well-maintained hotel. Its structures are traced in hot pink lights. The windows are long, narrow tinted strips, just like those in 1970s office buildings.
After I tip the driver, I enter the Silver Legacy. I have been inside the hotel many times but I have never been a guest. In fact, the only place the Silver Legacy folks have ever invited me was to step outside once after I accidentally stuck my finger in a lady's margarita while she was drinking it.
Check-in at this late hour on a Wednesday is quick. Some sweet-talking to the clerk gets me nowhere in my quest for a better room. I'm sure the young lady is looking for money, but all I have for the young lady is my good humor, and that is apparently worthless. My mom always told me that my attitude and charm were worth twenty bucks, but my mom isn't working the front desk at the Silver Legacy. I wish she was. I bet she would void out any dirty movie charges I run up.
The room is quite small, but clean and almost successful in its interpretation of a golden age. The effect is undermined by the cheap materials, though. The carpet in the hall is stained and worn. Here in the room, everything is faded and tired. There is a queen bed, a table with two chairs and a decent sized window. The bathroom has the sink in the public area and then a door closing off the small toilet and shower. The closet is just an open space in the wall. An armoire hides the small TV. The pillows are too flat to bury my head in if I need a good cry. It's not much of a room, but it's home for the next two nights and I'll make the best of it.
The pit of my stomach aches whenever I think that I have to meet with Gary Preston in the morning and fake interest in his stupid anger management exercises. So, I ignore the future and think only of the damage I can do tonight. Damage to the city, my liver and my reputation. The later I stay up, the less I'll sleep and the more unconscious I'll be tomorrow.
I'm hungry, so I toss my duffel bag on the bed and head out onto the main drag, Virginia Street. My goal is to wander down to the Nugget for the "Awful Awful," a hamburger packed with so much hot grease it's a lethal weapon. The burger sits on a bed of crispy fries and you eat the whole sloppy mess in the cramped diner at the back of the slot joint. The cooks grill up the Awful Awfuls as fast as they can, and the cramped little room is hot from greasy steam and the bodies jammed together. It's perfect for a cold night like tonight.
But, I am lured into the Eldorado by the feminine wiles of its blinking pink neon. The casino buzzes, the tables are crowded and there are mirrors everywhere to disorient people. Guests wander in, get all turned around, can't find the exit and decide to squander their fortunes. I wander around, looking for a cheap game among their tables, but it's all five bucks or more.
At one table, a crowd hovers at a respectable distance from the lone player. An elderly man with a bad toupee sits at third base holding a four-inch thick stack of bills in his hands. He peels off a wad and hands them to the dealer who hands him a stack of purple chips. You'd think purple would be worth something between the blue dollar chips and red five-dollar chips since blue and red make purple. But no, they're worth 500 bones. That's a lot, easily enough to pay off the Chevy small-block I have on layaway at Checker Auto. Johnny Deep Pockets then puts out two chips, get tens and splits them.
The ugly old man is wealthy, and yet he's an idiot. I am poor, and I am not an idiot. Nothing could better illustrate that life is unfair, and I hate how unfairly life treats me. I push through the crowd and sit down at the table. I bet any guy stupid enough to split tens is stupid enough to believe a five-dollar bettor at his table took his cards and screwed up his hand.
The dealer gives me a dirty look as I throw twenty bucks on the table. As soon as the money hits, the pit boss hovers over me. No cards are dealt and the half-dozen people watching are silent. They fall into two categories: decent people rooting for David, and jerks rooting for Goliath.
"This game is reserved," the pit boss says, in that polite voice reserved for people who might be dangerous.
"And if you jumped off a bridge, would I have to follow?"
My logic dazed him momentarily and his eyes went glassy. Finally, he answered, "You need to leave this table." He didn't even answer my question!
"What, my money's not good enough for you?"
I nod coldly, recognizing the pattern of abuse I have been subjected to my entire life, that of not having enough money to do what I want, which is to piss off rich people. "I get it. It's all about money, isn't it?"
Angrily, I get up from the table and scoop my twenty bucks as noisily as I can. I press it to my mouth and lick it from top to bottom. It tastes inky and dirty, but I am hungry so I lick it a little extra. Then, as everyone watches, I stuff it in the pit boss's shirt pocket. "Here's a little something for your precious time," I snarl and then strut away.
The people behind me stare like I'm a nut, which I am not. "What are you looking at?" I challenge each and everyone of them. They had their chance to be a hero, they could have stood up for me, or better yet, given me a bunch of money. But they did neither.
I make it half way across the casino before I'm sure I made my point and turn around. Johnny Deep Pocket's table has returned to normal and the pit boss is working hard to assure his rich customer that everything is fine.
When he's not looking, I stick my hand in the pit boss's pocket and pull out the wet bill. At the feel of my hand on his chest, the boss lurches back. "What the hell?"
"I need the twenty. I was just proving a point," I say before making a beeline for the nearest exit.
Back on Virginia, my empty stomach makes the night feel especially cold. I hunch my shoulders against the wind and bury my hands in my pockets as I walk down the empty street toward the Nugget, but the chill still cuts to my bones. I need a drink.
I cross the railroad tracks, underneath Fitzgerald's neon rainbow with a few lights burnt out. Fitzgerald's looks low-budget because it is. Its entrance is a green gaping mouth, like an Irishman would have. On the sidewalk, a tall, fat black man in a one-size-fits-all leprechaun suits dances from foot to foot, blows on his hands and passes out funbooks with quite a bit of surliness. I take one and enter the casino while he mutters "You're welcome" behind me. My natural instincts guide me to the coupon for the free cocktail, and I cut across the depressingly dead, and obnoxiously kelly green floor, to the bar.
The bartender is young and a little bit pretty. She's washing glasses as I take a chair and ask for a complimentary Manhattan. I use my most charming line to draw her attention, "Go ahead and make it strong because I like to be drunk."
She smiles and I can tell it's a real smile. Her teeth are a mess, but she's still pretty. Short blonde hair, a petite figure and a tiny nose. Not so much the kind of girl you want to take to a deserted cabin where there's nothing to do but have sex, more like the kind of girl you want to take home to your dad just so you can say, "See, I told you I wasn't a loser." "Kim," her nametag reads.
Kim pours my drink and asks, "Are you on vacation?"
"No," I say, but I remember not to mention anger management because that usually scares girls off. "I've got some important meetings tomorrow."
"Oh, what do you do?" She sets the drink in front of me and I take a sip. It's the strongest Manhattan I've ever had, tasting even more like melted tire rubber than most.
She nods and heads down to the other end of the bar to stock the icebox. I take a solid swig of the overpowering drink and I'm warmer already. Warm and lightheaded. Kim's pretty in the kind of way that makes me think that maybe nobody else even realizes it. It's a pretty that sneaks up on you and says, "Kiss me!" I wonder if my dad would like her. He likes my wife, but I get the impression he thinks I am blackmailing her, or I've brainwashed her. If I brought home another classy lady, he'd know my wife wasn't a fluke. I swallow the rest of the drink and call Kim back to me.
I ask for another Manhattan, "Stronger," I command her. She smiles again and now I think she is gorgeous. My God, is she pretty. I sort of wish I had a giant shoebox I could put her in and take her home. I'd punch holes in it and everything. I want to talk to her and trick her into liking me, not for any indecent reason, but because I like pretty girls to think I am cute.
I have nothing to say. My hunger is so acute that I'm getting tunnel vision, but I can't go to the restaurant. My experience is that when I leave a girl alone at a bar, she's never there when I return. So I'll stay here until Kim loves me, even if it means pissing my pants.
There's no excitement in the casino, only a pair of Canadians in gimme caps at the Three Card Poker table and a pit boss picking his teeth with a matchbook. I want to be witty for Kim, but it's not easy on an empty stomach.
So I finish my Manhattan and order another. As Kim approaches, I open my mouth wide and say, "Send in the clowns." That felt sort of clever.
"More booze," I clarify, then add, "You're so pretty."
She gives me that sort of weirded-out look I am so used to. Rather than make the situation worse by adding, "Touch my hair," I sit quietly and swallow the next Manhattan in two gulps. My tunnel vision has narrowed to a pinpoint and staring at Kim is like spying on her through a telescope. Maybe if I rest my head.
"You okay?" It's one of the Canadians touching me on the shoulder. A guy can't fall asleep at a bar for a minute without someone bothering him. I don't feel like telling a Canuck I'm fine, so I use hand gestures instead. Then I ask for another drink from Kim. I think she did something with her hair while I was resting. It looks good.
"You've had a lot," Kim protests.
"But it still hurts," I say and then for no reason I begin to cry, not a little but a lot. "It still hurts and I miss people. Why won't they talk to me anymore?"
Kim is leery, but I know she'll serve me because she's already holding a glass. It's hard to see what she's doing, but I bet she's trying to water down my drink. Every bartender does it once I start bawling. "Don't cheat me, honey."
My Manhattan is set in front of me and I bend over and put my lips to the glass. With what seems like an acceptable amount of slurping, I complete the drink. Good thing I finished when I did, too, because I then fall to the floor.
The security guards are very nice as they escort me out of the casino. One even promises to get Kim's number for me. "Call me at the hotel," I tell him. He nods and says promises to do that. "Do you know what room I'm in? It's the-" I gesture to its size, "with the brown thing and then you go 'tum-tum-tum-tum.'"
The guards drop me on the concrete outside the gaping green entrance. My body is freezing while my head pounds with heat. The cold of the sidewalk and the wind are cutting into the drunken haze I was cultivating, and my vision is returning.
The Silver Legacy is miles away, it seems, and the lights are so painfully bright. I take a step and it feels terrible. I want to sleep here on the concrete. It looks soft, but that bum sitting against the trash barrel will take my wallet if I do. I take another step, then another, slowly and gingerly, so as not to break anything in my head.
The cold wind continues to pound my prickly head as I gaze into a wide and blurry view lights of downtown. Many lights are burned out in almost every sign, the slot joint "The Gambler" is missing its "r" and blinks "Gamble, every hour, every day." It's not bad advice.
With my head throbbing, and my legs beginning to ache, I stagger
down the street. All I can think about is the horizontal surface
of my bed, a heavy blanket draped over me and a soft pillow.
I want to lie down so badly. Which is why I am so surprised to
find myself buying 40 dollars worth of chips at a Circus Circus