Babel

Reno sign

SPARKS, NEVADA

Virginia Street runs through the heart of downtown Reno, but no longer through its soul.

Where once a vibrant crossroads stood, partyers spilling out of casino doors onto the sidewalk, now only a shadow remains.  Alas, poor Yorick, I knew you well.

Sure, many of the casinos are still around:  Circus Circus, with its overhead skywalk to the Silver Legacy; the Cal-Neva, where my wife and her friends used to get 99 cent breakfasts; Fitzgerald’s.  But the Virginian is long gone, its abandoned facade grotesquely greeting visitors like an insect’s cast-off exoskeleton.

Saddest of all is the lack of people.  An old man in a wheelchair waits to cross the street; a woman wanders about in a glassy-eyed stupor.

But mostly the sidewalks are empty, the revelers of yesterday having moved on to greener pastures.  We creep down this once thriving artery, hitting every stoplight and gawking at what once was.  The pickup in front of us has a half-full bottle of water sitting on its bumper; the traffic moves so slowly that it remains upright and unjostled.

Past the federal and county courthouses, a few signs of life begin to appear.  A butcher shop features a large overhanging sign:  Walk-ins welcome.  There are tattoo parlors, vintage clothing boutiques, pawn shops, tiny convenience stores, Indian and Korean restaurants, fleabag motels with names like the 777 and the Lucky Strike.  But Zephyr Books, with its thousands upon thousands of eclectic volumes filling endless shelves and heaped upon tables, is gone.

Farther south, the urban vibe vanishes, as Virginia Street takes on a decidedly suburban cast.  Smallish shopping centers line both sides of the avenue:  Burlington Coat Factory, Kohl’s, Outback Steakhouse, Foley’s Irish Pub.  Wal-Mart.  A branch of the public library.  Border’s is gone, of course, but Barnes & Noble is still there, along with BJ’s Brewery, Olive Garden and the multiplex movie theaters.

Check-in time at our motel is 3 pm; we showed up at 3:05, hoping to settle in before heading out for the evening.  When I provided our reservation information to the desk clerk, she seemed perplexed.  She wasn’t sure whether our room was ready yet.  Over a crackly walkie-talkie, she asked the housekeeper whether 127 had been cleaned yet.  An unintelligible squawk issued in reply.  The clerk looked at me sheepishly.  “She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, ” she ruefully admitted.

I realized that I would have to help her.  “Just say ‘Cien veinte-siete, ¿esta propio?'” I coached her.  Ignoring me, she tried again in English.  She took the return crackle as a “yes” and proceeded to check me in.

What is wrong with this picture?  I have always believed that the barriers we throw up between each other block the empathy that is the essence of humankindness.  But have we really descended to this?  Have we reached the nadir at which employees are unable to understand each other sufficiently to perform the jobs for which they were hired?

Like the desk clerk at our motel, I don’t speak Spanish.  With the encouragement of my mother, I studied French throughout junior high and high school.  This was back in the 1970s, when Spanish was widely pegged as the “easy” language, suitable for study only by business track students.  The college bound were expected to study French or German, the languages of academia.  Also, I grew up in New York, where the vast migrations from Latin America hadn’t yet made the kind of impact that they have today in California.

And yet, as a resident of my adopted Golden State, I have made it a point, in middle age, to pick up enough Spanish to at least be able to ask “Where’s the bathroom?” or “What’s the price?” or, I don’t know, perhaps “Is room 127 clean yet?”  What kind of world do we live in when we can no longer communicate our most basic needs or even say, “Good morning, how are you?”

At a Scrabble tournament a couple of years ago, a good friend of mine bemoaned the fact that he was unable to communicate to the Spanish-speaking housekeeper that the public rest room was out of toilet paper.  “Papel hygiénico,” I coached him.  But he was clearly uninterested in even trying.  What little Spanish vocabulary and nonexistent Spanish grammar that I can lay claim to, at least I know how to say “toilet paper,” for heaven’s sake!

I hear so much talk these days about how immigrants to the United States should learn to speak English.  Perhaps so, but shouldn’t we meet them halfway?  Wouldn’t it be a kind gesture to at least learn enough Spanish to make our neighbors feel that we are making an effort?

After watching the Olympics for the past two weeks, I couldn’t help but notice that athletes from the four corners of the world speak excellent English, while their native tongues remain shrouded in mystery to Americans.

So here in Nevada, we stopped at a convenience store to fill up our gas tank a couple of nights ago.  It quickly became apparent that the clerk spoke very little English.  I’m sure that a little Hindi, Tamil or Pashto would have come in handy.  Lacking any knowledge of these languages, we were still able to get across the message that we wanted the clerk to turn on Pump #1 so we could fill up.

Or so we thought.  Although I pumped more than $30 of petrol into our vehicle, the clerk handed us a debit card receipt reflecting only ten dollars.  Despite our arguments to the contrary, he insisted that it was correct.

When we later checked our debit card statement, we found the $30 charge on there.  Along with the mysterious $10 charge from the clerk’s receipt.  When we returned to complain, we were told that no manager would be available until Monday.  In the end, I’m sure we’ll have to work it out with the bank.

Welcome to Reno, Tower of Babel.

 

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