Penny Dreams


As a child, I dreamed of growing up and dazzling the world. But time and disappointment chipped away at me until only the real stuff was left, and it was not all that dazzling. Tired stories, a sack of regrets, and a reverence for the pieces of me that survived.

All this ruination has stranded me in a dark place where I stare at my fingertips, realizing I cannot offer the world what I had hoped. But I still wake up each morning and draw my hopes on the sidewalk, though every time so far, they have been trampled over or hosed off, or the rain rolled them into the gutter.

I am not all I wish I were, but I am here, trying, awake, and part of the story even if no one ever hears it.

I get it now.

1985

At a certain point, daydreaming will not do it. I had spent too much time in that venture as I sat at the dock looking out over the Pacific Ocean.

Penny slots, one-armed bandits, Nevada, and gambling that had been the dream and to make it rich and return triumphant. Lo! Life had another plan for me.

Rolling east across the Mohave desert, the once 19th-century farm wagon was no more, replaced by a late 20th-century Volkswagen Bug. Still hot, still dusty, less room but more efficient.

My travels came by way of my girlfriend’s family home, along the mixed-up track of several numbers roads and byways, until I sped down the ramp of Interstate 15. Because I had no firm plan other than to find lodging and seek work, I promised to call her once I got to wherever I was going.

My only company for the next few hours would be the AM radio, news/talk, classical music, and Jesus. I rotated through them as their signals weakened to a cacophony of garbled sounds or faded to a soft hiss.

Las Vegas came into view after dark. It was blinding and exciting, though still many miles away.

Housing was a series of motel rooms at first in the drearier areas of the city, not that the Strip was any better as I would soon learn. Whores and hustlers, loud noises, and even brighter lights.

All of this was before the transformation to a family-oriented village-like atmosphere. Casino guards still carried guns and would use them to defend their employer’s gambling chips without being asked.

Though November, wind blowing dust from everywhere, walking the sidewalks in search of my dream proved impossible. I took a job flipping burgers.

To work in the daytime, I saw stereotypical scenes.

A black man, a bright yellow Cadillac, a small fedora on his head, and fat stogie drooping from his oversized lips. Red Foxx onliners rang through my head.

I could hear the raucous laughter.

Chicano teens in bright white wife-beater tees and cream-colored chinos, decked out with gold chains, head bandanas, and Keds. Cheech and Chong, the Other White Album, “Dave’s not here,” skits.

This time I laughed.

Queers, Trannies, hustlers, crossdressers, the homeless, and others, avoiding or failing to find classification. They were societies jetsom and flotsam.

Nobody laughs.

From work, after dark, I would see other stereotypical scenes.
Women, women, and more dressed to the nines, standing along the boulevard they called the Strip. They stood amid the litter of handouts offering up the latest and best escort services, hoping to make some luck tourists day.

Around the dirtier corners and back alleys home to my one-room abode, the less fashionable of the trade wandering and shouting com-ons to lost the passerby and those simply trying to get home so they could do it all again.

It all fascinated me. What made these women sell their bodies, if not their souls.

One woman sees me looking out the window and waves. I return the polite gesture.

Still, she stands there looking at me. With an angry shrug of her rabbit-pelt-clad shoulders, she turns her back and steps into the gutter to talk with a “john” who has pulled up.
Abandonment, money, survival, it was always the same.

The sadness is so overwhelming I think of killing myself.

Two months, then three, and I was ready to return to the more genial life I had left along the Northcoast of California. But pride forbade me to go home, and instead, I packed my version of the Connie and headed north to the Biggest Little City.

No map, no plan, I went ‘north young man.’ No sooner had I debarked from Sin City than I came to an elevation that presented itself with snow.

Snow came from the east, from the west. It pushed at me from behind and bogged my little Bug down to crawling speed. But like the pioneers of yore, I pushed on.

Then my wipers died, and I had to reach out of the driver’s side window to remove the freezing snow as it slammed and stuck to the windshield. I cursed my rotten luck as I wheeled my way through one sleepy and darkened town, nearly striking a tree growing in the middle of the road.

Often I have wondered where that happened, but even with the advent of the Internet, I have never been able to learn its location and return to that near-fatal spot.

Then my heater followed the way of the wipers, and I cursed my misfortune even more as I now had to roll my window up after scratching out a viewpoint on my windshield.

A few months before, because it started leaking oil and blowing black smoke, the car received a rebuilt engine. It was no small task either, nor inexpensive as I had a 911 Porche mounted in the rear end.

Three years later, the same thing happened, and I ended up trading her in for a Hyundai. To this day, I still mourn for that Bug, not because of what it was, but for what it represented.

A simpler time.

As for the Hyundai, it ran like a champ for nearly 13 years. It began to overheat and blew two hoses to the radiator before it caught on fire along the Interstate, and I had to pull over and get my son and his stepbrother out of the back seat before completely being engulfed.

The fire department and police arrived about the same time, and while a friend was taking the boys to school, the cops cuffed me up for arson. It would take an act of God and the fire marshal to clear my name and prove it was not my fault.

Even though I studied to be a law enforcement officer and worked as a deputy reservist for a time, I have found myself on the wrong end a few times. I threw away $1,200, which became grand larceny-theft; nine years later, I received stolen property in the form of a video camera a manager loaned me without the proper paperwork. Finally, I called my son’s middle school principal a name, and I got busted for disturbing the peace.

There are two takeaways from the above tale: law enforcement officers will follow the law as long as they do not have to work to bring justice to a situation. And the justice system is rigged to force a person to act against their better judgment.

Unfortunately, I am not lubricated enough to make my argument sound any more uncomplicated than I have done. Maybe later.

All night I slugged my way north, through unknown towns and burgs, uphill, downhill, and sharp curves, both left and right. I saw only two other vehicles that night and into the early hours of the morn.

Both were parked on the side of the road, going no place, evidence of intelligence and self-awareness.

How I found Interstate 80, I have not a clue. I did have an idea of east and west, so I turned left. Still, I pushed on into the dark morning towards what I hoped would be Reno.

Suddenly, between two massive walls of a rocky canyon, I saw the first hint of my prize. Bright lights in an inkiness I had only experienced once before as I rolled east towards Vegas.

It would be another three or four months before I dove east on that piece of road and saw all the splendor I had missed in the dark. It is still a fascinating drive to this day.

My heart leaped for joy and my butt unpuckered. It would soon be okay, and I could find rest, relaxation, and refreshment after my long, freezing journey.

The price for a room at the MGM was far too steep for me, so I decided to sit down and toss a few quarters in a machine and hope a waitress would offer to serve me a cocktail for free.
Broke and still no waitress, still no cocktail. Only a rising ball of bile in my stomach, the ringing of bells, coins in the metal pans of the slot machines, “Cigarettes, cigars, gum,” and a dizzying world of lights and no way of registering the time.

Disappointed in myself, my weakness, my loss, I walked to the men’s room and splashed water on my face. I turned, and an old black gentleman handed me a hand towel to dry myself.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Sorry, I don’t have a tip to offer you.”

“Don’t worry, but let me offer some advice, do not gamble. The house always wins.”

“Thank you.”

As I walked by the seat where I had blown much of my cash, an older woman was beaming, having won the 100-thousand dollar jackpot and the new car sitting on the carousel, center stage of the bank of slot machines.

There is a reason they are called one-armed bandits. And there is the reason why I do not gamble.

Wandering the casino floor grew irksome, especially when told to move along by security officers. It would be a year before I understood the ‘eye-in-the-sky’ had been tracking my every movement in that cavernous room with the loud colored carpet.

Down the long walkway, I finally took to strolling. Posters of old movies, many I had seen, statuettes once owned by actors and actresses that I had watched on television, lined the walls.

Then there was the famous stairway, where at four in the morning, a lucky couple had their wedding photographs taken. Above them glimmered an opulent chandelier, beaming rainbow light streaks over the area below.

I have always wondered if their marriage succeeded, and what a shame if it didn’t.

Making an abrupt change of direction is dangerous business in a casino, especially when filled with hobnobbers seeking their next party. For me, my danger was Joe Montana, San Francisco 49er Quarterback, whom I walked into and who knocked me back on my derriere.

Not many without a jersey can claim such an embarrassing moment. I did get an autographed photo out of the ordeal.

For two weeks, I slugged it out with MGM security, moving my Bug from one lot to the next as I did my best to live from that cramped space. Finally, down to my last few bucks, I had a change in fortune and found a room at a boarding house for $50 a week.

By the way, as a side note, we went to work for the MGM in security, but only after it became the Reno Hilton. Talk about coming “full circle.”

With a place to lay my head and address to use for work, I quickly found myself employed as a writer. But do not get too excited about that queer descriptor, as I wrote keno at the Cal-Neva, not the career choice one selects when numbers look like scribbles and scratches.

“You are not dressed for work. Where are your ‘black and whites?’

“Black and whites?”

“Yeah, black pants, white shirt, black tie, black shoes.”

“I don’t own anything like that.”

“Well, go buy some or don’t come back.”

“You can get them cheap across Virginia at Woolworths,” someone offered.

As fast as possible, I rushed across the street and bought a shirt, a pair of pants, a belt, and a tie. Then I sprinted downstairs at the casino to change, so I might get a few hours in before I got fired.

The black man at the shoe-shine booth and guarding the bottom of the stairwell and restroom doors offered me a free shine.

“At least nobody gonna say you ain’t spiffy.”

Smiling, I handed him a two-dollar tip. Now, I had less than five bucks to my name, and I had to make that last through payday, still two weeks away.

Three months later, I had some more success. I landed a job doing radio overnight on the weekends.

He liked the letter I had sent to him and every other program director in the valley whose name I could learn. I also sent him an aircheck from a radio station I had worked for before I embarked on my magnificent journey.

He was less impressed with that than the fact that I had been the voice for Paul Bunyan for four years.

“I was the spieler for a tourist attraction.”

“A spieler? What’s that?”

“A P.A. announcer.”

“Oh, like a carnival barker.”

“Yeah, something like that.”

I got the job, but it did not last because I found another one, which did not last either.

Then I left the Cal-Neva for John Ascuagua’s Nugget in Sparks. Again, I was a writer, but not the kind of writer I dreamed of being.

Pitfalls to this job came daily, as I had a disability that prevented me from understanding numbers. I made many an adding error that the desk had to correct.

Further, twice in one day, I wrote a $50,000 ticket and was removed from the game to sit in a back room to ‘cool off.’ Worse still, I was not allowed to go downstairs to collect the $5,000 tip offered by one of the winners.

Blessed keno. I lasted another three years before finally landing a full-time radio gig, where at least I could rewrite some of the promotions I repeated from shift to shift.

Nightly, I returned home smelling like cigarette smoke and feeling so defeated that I could not find the emotional energy to pick up my pen. At least I had my radio show.

Before landing a full-time radio gig, I had a brief interlude where I came and went in the blink of an eye. Because I had worked in a couple of different professional photo labs, I had gone to a career placement center, and they sent me to a lab in Carson City.

I was there for only two days when the manager decided I was not a good fit for her business, leaving me unemployed for nearly three months.

Slowly, I became a night owl, sleeping during the day and working at night. It was not the penny slots that I had dreamed of all those years before. It was better because I also started writing for a radio magazine and nationally televised nighttime show host and comedian Jay Leno.

Watching someone open a secured door allowing a knife-wielding crazy man into the building, a shoe-box with electrical wiring hanging from it, coworkers found dead in an empty studio, and calls from listeners requesting to hear this song or that tune. It came with the territory, though save for the last of the list, never expected.

After bashing the knife-wielding crazy man in the head with a disused teletype machine and then having to pay for damaging it, I found myself canned. Another time I was in a recording studio when two women walked in off the street. Blamed for leaving the door unlocked, I got the ax.

Still, in our newly-wed phase, I came home one Saturday morning, stripped off my duds, and crawled in bed for a two-hour nap before having to go to my other job at the casino. I was snoring pretty hard when I was violently shaken awake by my bride.

“What is this?” she said, holding up a folded envelope I had forgotten was in my back pocket.

“Well…uh…I can explain.”

“You had better!”

“Every Saturday and Sunday morning as I start my shift, I say good night to the cowboys and truckers for the ladies working out at the ranch. And so, they sent me those free passes as a way of saying ‘thanks.'”

Never saw that envelope again.

Always wanting a touch more, I landed jobs working in the movies. It started before I left the Northcoast with a small film about an alien left behind and nearly falling into government clutches. My big break was shaking a two-by-four attached to a line of trees.

Ever struggling to make ends meet, I washed dishes, mopped floors, washed bedsheets, and then found myself on the set of the third film in a series of movies that I had never seen. Enter Mark Hamill’s stand-in and eventual stunt double.

I still have the autographed picture that reads, “To Tom (Luke II!) from a galaxy far, far away. Mark Hamill.” That and a handful of call sheets.

Carrie Fisher and I even became lovers for three weeks. Her boyfriend, singer Paul Simon wanted to fight me, he was so angry about our ongoing rendezvous.

“What would you like to do tonight after we wrap?”

“Same thing we always do, let’s fuck all night long.”

“Damn, you’re my kind of woman.”

“Hey, you, fucking asshole, you know who I am?”

“Yeah, and so what?”

“You’re screwing my future wife.”

“I doubt that.”

“Why, I’m going to kick your ass.”

Simon’s bodyguards, he had two of them, intervened by lifting him off the ground and carting him off. I had no idea he was such a short-statured man.

And I still think I could have beat him in a good old-fashioned fistfight. Hell, who knows, the two of us could have even ended up being drinking buddies afterward.

She was sweet, and I miss Carrie. And she never did marry Paul Simon.

Disappointment rolled in early the following year when neither my face nor my name appeared on film. It was hard to look my friend’s in the eye because I was sure none of them believed me.

Once settled in Reno, I found all sorts of movies to be a part of, from Starman, the T.V. show, to Pink Cadillac and Sisterhood, Cobb and The Cooler. There were others, all as an extra, and I have put them from my mind.

The Cooler is the closest I ever came to having a speaking part. As one of the two stickmen at the craps table, actor William H. Macy tosses me a casino chip, and I say ‘thanks’ before tapping the chip on the edge of the table.

The shot was so far away that not only could you not make out my face, but then the film was speeded up to show how a ‘hot’ game can ‘cool’ rapidly and then returned to standard speed as I tapped on the table’s edge.

One late night, after the set wrapped, I got on the elevator. Actor Alec Baldwin followed, moving past me to the rear of the carriage.

“Have a good night, Mr. Baldwin. Hope you get some sleep.”

Crickets and a side-eye were his response. I never spoke to him again, though we rode the elevator together several times.

Eventually, these things ran their course, and I found myself seeking work I would never have imagined doing when I was younger. Hired to drive fence posts into hardpacked earth, string barbed wire, chase cows and horses, I learned about cowboy poetry and collected ideas for a story or two.

At least once, I found myself wrapped up in my work, literally. That is to say, a rather lengthy piece of barbed wire came uncoiled and found it necessary to wrap itself about my body, head to foot.

It was a painful lesson, but not nearly as excruciating as being dragged through a cactus patch because your horse got spooked by a tumbling sage bush and decided to quit you. Days and weeks, plucking needles from places one cannot reach on their own come and go in uncomfortable ways.

But being wrapped in barbed wire happened only once. Getting knocked from a horse occurred with more frequency than my body would like to remember, and it was usually caused by my negligence, a failed tie-off on the horn, or a sudden but violent jerk down from a roped heifer or steer.

Dislocated shoulders and long, bumpy truck rides to the doctor are not fun. And it is hard to wipe your bum or even pick your nose with a handful of dislocated digits.

Other times stupidity followed where the whiskey and bottle flowed. A cowhand, recovering from the night before, was sure that the old and fragile mountain cat that was trailing us, and that I pointed out, was a danger.

It was all I could do to not laugh because I had been dropping bits of jerky for the old guy to eat since he was getting too weak to hunt anymore. I can be tender that way.

Perhaps, blowing up a privy by accident with someone seated on the hole and because he was plan ornery is not your kind of fun. Then neither will the tale of a guy getting knocked head over heels by a wild bull running through the outhouse that he is using, only to end up landing in the trench below.

Nor will I share my exploits as an emergency medical technician and the odd things I have witnessed over the years. Suffice it to say that violent death is the worse while live birth is often the best.

However, there was that one time when I was on the radio during a breech birth, and I had asked for another ambulance with specialized equipment to respond. I quickly learned that the baby was coming with or without their arrival.

“So you want her knocked her out?”

While waiting for a response, the ambulance driver clipped the mother on the chin, knocking her out. Had it not been for the headphone and mic set I was wearing, I would have murderized that man.

The headphones plugged into the overhead console prevented me from reaching him as he ran from me. I hit the end of the cord and bounce on my keester.

A poor choice of words on my part, but mom gave birth to a healthy baby girl anyway.

One afternoon a man exited his car into the street without checking what was coming up behind him. He bounced several dozen feet after a bus hit him and his car door.

Arriving, we assumed he had severe injuries, so we planned to ‘scoop and run’ instead of ‘stay and play.’ As we packaged him for transport, he asked jokingly, “Did anyone get the license plate of the bus that hit me?”

I knew at that moment that the man would survive his ordeal.

Being on an ambulance crew is fine for a while, but the burnout rate is phenomenal. I decided to save what sanity I had left and become an instructor. I even had the fortune of speaking to the legislature one Fall afternoon in an attempt to convince them that Washoe County should not have the final authority over who is qualified or not to be an EMT.

All my training came in handy as I spent four months nursing my parents back from the brink of death. It is the first and only time I returned to the Northcoast to live, and I never want to reside there again.

Writing it down makes it suddenly sad to say, but the truth is the truth. Besides, only my sister and her family live there. The rest are either dead, moved away, live elsewhere, or as in the case of my son and daughter-in-law, are less than 15 minutes from me.
It took me 20 years to finally find that sweet spot and land a cush job as a news reporter. It lasted less than a year, but what a wild ride I had in the meantime.

There is so much dirty politicking happening at the state and federal levels. I found my niche, and I rolled in it like a pig in a mud pit as I went after one bad apple after another.

Guys like the younger George Bush and Harry Reid were always in play, and I thought them fair game as they sidestepped the Constitution all the time and without a hint of remorse. I also found that I could become a target, so to speak, as Internet outliers used the web to beat me into submission.

After a local politician blamed me for his failing campaign in a letter to my editor, I lost my job. I did not help myself by having published that letter on my blog for all the world to read.
I take full responsibility for what went down.

Ah, the good old day.

That sent me packing back to radio, where I languished between swing and graveyard shifts for seven years. It was the first time in my career that I was happy to have been canned, though I did not enjoy how it happened.

Let me say this: if you call a spade a spade, do not be surprised when that spade tries to bury you.

2022.

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