Only in Nevada

The 2017 Great American Escape

 JACKPOT, NEVADA

Many a long year has gone by since I’ve been sent to bed without my supper.  But here, in the northernmost reaches of the Silver State, hard by the Idaho border, I somehow managed to pull it off.

It is an axiom of business (and of life) that everything takes longer than you think it will.  Driving 537 miles on our first day out proved to be no exception to this rule.  We couldn’t leave from home by dawn’s early light, as first I had to work half a day.  Then a projected 8-hour drive to our first stop took closer to 9½ hours, despite the 75 and 80 mile per hour speed limits on Interstate 80 through the vast, barren Nevada desert.  By the time we arrived at our hotel, its  restaurant had closed up shop for the evening.  I suppose we were lucky that they didn’t give our reservation away.

At check-in, the desk clerk assured us that all the other casinos along U.S. 93 had 24-hour restaurants.  Exhausted, we trudged to our room with our clothes and laptops.  Then came the conundrum:  Sleep or eat?  Eat, we decided.  I was concerned that my wife’s blood sugar would drop too low overnight if she didn’t get some food in her.

Heading back out down the strip, we first came to the Horseshu Casino, which appeared to be out of business.  After waiting at one of the longest red lights I have ever experienced, we crossed the road to Cactus Pete’s.  Inside the lobby, we passed the closed seafood and steak house.  We asked directions and were told that the 24-hour restaurant, named “Nosh,” was located down by the second bar.  What we found was a tiny snack bar counter with tables off to the side.  We inquired as to where the restaurant was and were assured that this was it. “We’re considered a restaurant,” the woman behind the counter informed us.  Talk about using a word loosely.

Good luck finding anything meatless at Nosh.  The sandwiches, we were informed, were pre-made and already had meat on them.  We walked out.

Driving back to our hotel, we figured that if we couldn’t eat, at least we could gamble. The hotel had given us each coupons for $4 in free play.  Upon finding little of interest in the tiny casino, we sat at the bar and played nickel video poker for about half an hour.  We quickly used up the comps and put in some our own money.  My wife hit a string of full houses before coming up with four aces. My machine, by contrast, seemed to specialize in even money “jacks or better.”  All told, we came away down about $2.50.

On the way back to our room, my wife decided to buy a soda from a vending machine.  She was surprised that the price was only 75 cents. We soon discovered why.  Apparently, you can charge low prices and still make a profit if you don’t actually deliver the goods to the customer.  After losing a quarter in the Pepsi machine, she tried the Coke machine, where she lost the full 75 cents.  Luckily, we had brought some bottles of water with us.

Well, if you can’t eat around here after 10 pm and you don’t want to spend a lot of money gambling, surely there are other activities and attractions in the area.  We saw one such place just as we were heading out of Elko.  And it was open all night, too! “Donna’s Ranch,” the sign announced, “open 24 hours.”

Only in Nevada.

 

 

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Starstruck at the Nationals

At the end of the fourth day of the North American Scrabble Championship (which most of us Scrabbleheads still refer to by its former name, “the Nationals”) in Reno, after I had packed up all of my equipment and was about to leave the playing venue to walk back to the hotel, I noticed a few people gathered around near the door to the lobby.  As I approached, I saw that fellow competitor Stefan Fatsis (famous on the Scrabble scene as the author of the wonderful book Word Freak) and his tween-aged daughter were holding court for a small crowd of admirers and assorted hangers-on.

I had no idea that Fatsis’ daughter was playing in this tournament (in a division higher than my own, I might add).  Sure, I saw the name Chloe Fatsis on the roster.  I stupidly assumed that she was his wife.  Oh, how darling, husband and wife traveling together from the east coast to share the experience of playing in the Nationals.

Um, no.

Actually, Fatsis is married to Melissa Block.  Chloe, no shrinking violet by any means, proudly informed those gathered around that she competed in her first Scrabble tournament at the age of ten and that, at the time, she was still a bit too young for the experience.  That was, what, three years ago?  Should I also mention that she made the playoffs (a feat that neither her dad nor I managed) and that she won $300 in prize money?

As I explained in my last post, we oldsters haven’t the slightest chance against these bright youngsters.

A bit starstruck, I confessed to Fatsis the elder that I had read his book cover to cover three times and that it had a major influence on my decision to join the traveling tournament show that is known as the national Scrabble circus, er, circuit.  I then further embarrassed myself by admitting that my favorite part of Word Freak was Fatsis’ description of finding himself able to make the eight-letter play FEELINGS and then being unable to get the Morris Albert song of that title out of his head.

I’m glad I wasn’t the only gawker awed to be in Fatsis’ presence for a few minutes.  Marvin, a college economics professor who ended up one place ahead of me in the standings, was right there next to me.  He admitted to having 19 wins so far in the tournament and I blurted out that I had the same.  Fatsis very graciously told us that he had never had that many wins at any tournament.

“But you don’t play down in Division 4 like we do,” I added.

“I once played in Division 4 and I never had 19 wins,” he responded.

The man is both humble and kind.  Case closed (if for no other reason than that Chloe announced that she was ready to go for dinner).

I’m just glad that none of those assembled asked for Fatsis’ autograph.  Now that would have been embarrassing.

Of course, if my copy of Word Freak hadn’t been back home in Sacramento sitting on my book shelf, well, you never know.

Oldies But Goodies

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RENO, NEVADA

I haven’t played against Margaret yet, and I want to.

Not Maggie, not Margie, not Peggy.  Margaret.

Goodness, Margaret is such an old lady name.  It reminds me of the secretary in the main office of the high school where my father taught driver education for 30 years, or Dennis the Menace’s girlfriend.  Or Horowitz-Margareten, the brand name on the bright blue label of the huge boxes of matzos that my parents and grandparents purchased at Passover time in the days of my childhood in New York City.

She instantly recognized me and came over to say hi while she was looking for her assigned table on the first day of the North American Scrabble Championship here in Reno.

“We’ve played together before,” she announced.  “I don’t remember where, but it was a long time ago.”

We stared at each other for about three seconds.

“Phoenix!” we shouted at approximately the same time.  When my sisters and I were kids, such an occasion would have called for both of us to yell “Jinx!”

I would hazard a guess that Margaret is in her early eighties.  She lives in Los Angeles and travels the west coast Scrabble tournament circuit, just as I attempt to do whenever finances allow.  Las Vegas, Reno, Silicon Valley, Portland.

Phoenix.

I have competed in the big February tournament in Arizona on two occasions.  The first time, I drove down from Fresno with a friend (my wife had to work) and was sick with bronchitis the whole time I was there.  A couple of years later, we found ourselves living in the desert just a couple of hours away from Phoenix and I was able to go with my wife.  It’s always an excellent tournament, heavily attended by snowbirds from Canada and the northern states, seeking an excuse to escape the winter weather and enjoy a week or so in the sun.

So it must have been about seven years ago when last I played across the board from Margaret.  I’m amazed that she remembers me, but then again, we Scrabble nerds need to have skills in that area in order to memorize all those lists of words.

I ran into Margaret again this morning as I was lugging my rolling Scrabble bag through the casino, my lunch bag attached by a strap.  I’m just glad that thing has a solid handle by which I can pull it behind me, because it weighs more than 20 pounds, thanks to my heavy wooden Scrabble board.

I was headed across the street to the playing venue and I had nearly made it out the doors of the casino when she greeted me.  At least 20 minutes remained until the director would make the announcements that precede each day of tournament play.  Margaret had plenty of time.  She sat down at a nickel slot machine and began playing.  I wished her luck and headed out into the early morning sunshine.

The reason that I have yet to be paired with Margaret during this tournament likely has something to do with the fact that it is well-attended:  We have more competitors in my division that there are games.  In other words, there are some people in each division whom you will not get to play against.  Margaret is seeded 33rd and I am seeded sixth, so that may be a factor as well.

Instead, I have been paired against a lot of young whippersnappers who play with me in the bottom division only by dint of the fact that this is their first or second tournament and they haven’t established much of a formal rating yet.  This is the next generation, the up and coming Division 1 players of the next few years.  Meanwhile, I get to suffer against their superior Scrabble prowess and their young, agile Scrabble memories.  In my last game today, I was completely blown out of the water by a young man who had just graduated from middle school.  He told me he is 13 years old, lives in Connecticut and is here in Reno with his entire family “because I wouldn’t have been able to get here otherwise.”

Eek.

Okay, so I’m old.  I think we moldy oldies need to stick together.  We need to have our own division and let the youngsters duke it out among themselves.  We don’t stand a shadow of a chance against them.

And there are a lot of us.  I have played tournament games against opponents more than 90 years of age, some of whom have beaten me soundly.  I have sat across the board from seniors using magnifying glasses and special lamps due to visual impairments, who get extra time on the clock due to arthritis that is so bad that they can barely pick up the tiles, who show up in wheelchairs and connected to oxygen tanks.  Scrabble is a game we can play at any age, continuing to show off our word knowledge and mental skills long after our bodies have betrayed us.

This morning I was paired against John, whom I met at the very first Scrabble tournament I ever attended, in Silicon Valley’s Los Gatos.  It was a short one-afternoon event, and John was directing.  It was held at a ratty pizza joint, and I had no idea where I was supposed to sit or what I supposed to do.  I still had to learn the tournament etiquette.  But John was unfazed and showed me much kindness, gently explaining about the pairings, ratings and assorted tournament paraphernalia.  I reminded him of this today, making it a point to let him know that his kindness had much to do with the fact that I was not scared away and have been playing in Scrabble tournaments ever since.  He told me that he remembers that day.

That was the last tournament that John directed.  I remember that he told me he was retiring to Florida that very week.  That was at least eight years ago, and John has been living in a small town in the Tampa Bay area ever since.  His elderly mother was already there, and he shared with me today that he had 22 months with her before she passed away.  He had been laid off from work and decided it would be better to retire to a cheaper area than to be a poor, unemployed job hunter in the mean Silicon Valley job market.  Technology companies routinely recruit at colleges for new, young blood.  The tech industry has no use for oldies like us.

Meanwhile, it turns out that John hates Florida.  Not only does he find the heat and humidity oppressive, but he misses the intellectual stimulation of Silicon Valley and he can’t find any worthy Scrabble opponents around.  To my surprise, he tells me that the stereotypes about Florida retirees only being interested in shuffleboard and endless games of cards is accurate.

I’m guessing that John is not quite 70 years old, but he says that the seniors living in his area only want to pay three- and four-handed Scrabble, don’t really keep score, and prefer to spend more time chatting than playing.  It’s all about the socializing, and it doesn’t really matter whether very many words actually make it off the rack and onto the board.  As a very competitive player, this frustrates John to no end.  He finished me off handily this morning.

I’ll say it again:  We oldies have to form our own league or something.  It’s too bad that we live all over this wide country of ours, in Los Angeles and Florida, in Sacramento and Texas and New York.  Perhaps we can start a club online, like the email tournament in which I have been participating for more than a decade.  I doubt that it’ll ever happen, but it’s a pleasant thought.  I may have a chance of someday improving to John’s level, but I know I’ll never be able to get anywhere near what these young folks are doing.  Surely there has to be a unique place for us in the world of competitive Scrabble.

Margaret finished playing her slot machine and ambled across Virginia Street and the wide plaza to the Reno Ballroom, where our tournament is taking place.  She waved as she walked by.

Tournament Update:  After a great morning in which I had three big wins, I had a disappointing afternoon in which I won a game by 2 points (in a recount, no less), lost the next one by 3 points due to a truly stupid mistake, and then got squashed like a bug by a young’un.  My best play of the tournament is pictured above.  After laying down GRIEVE one spot from the triple line (hoping my opponent didn’t have a D, R or S), I drew both the Q and the U simultaneously and was shocked to find that I could play QUAILED for 122 points!  As if that weren’t enough, my opponent wasn’t familiar with the word and challenged the play, giving me an extra turn.  I followed this up with another bingo, STHENIA, a word I know only from my study of bingo stem lists. If only every game could be like this one!

The Scrabble Dictionary Has Gone Crazy

Over the years, as family and friends became aware of my Scrabble obsession, they’d occasionally ask me questions about the game and its rules.  Among the most common of these has been “Why are foreign words allowed in Scrabble?  I thought we were playing in English!”

The simple answer is “they’re not.”  Look at the instructions on the inside of the box and one of the things you’ll notice is a clarification that words that must begin with a capital letter and words in foreign languages are not permitted.

Well, sort of.

For a long time, I thought I had this explanation down pat.  Just because a word may begin or often begins with a capital letter doesn’t exclude it from Scrabble if there is also another meaning of the word that does not require it to start with a capital.  For example, it is true that “Jack” (with a capital J) is a personal name.  However, one can also jack up one’s car to change a tire or draw the jack of clubs from a deck of cards.  Neither of these uses of the word “jack” requires a capital letter, and the word is therefore acceptable in Scrabble.  (I won’t even start getting into the compound uses of the word, such as jackrabbit, jack o’ lantern, jack in the box, jack cheese and even the archaic jackanapes.)

Foreign words, I’d explain, are not acceptable in Scrabble if the exact same thing has an English equivalent.  For example, gato and caballo are not acceptable, because these Spanish words have the English equivalent of “cat” and “horse.”  However, if a foreign word has no equivalent in English, and the word has therefore been widely incorporated into the English language, then its use is permissible in Scrabble.  One of the best examples of this phenomenon is the word “taco.”  Sure, it’s a Spanish word, but there is no other way to precisely describe the concept using an English word.  Thus, “taco” has been adopted into the English language; most people know exactly what you mean when you say you’re going out for tacos.  The word “taco” has been found in the Scrabble dictionary for years.

Another example is the French word eau.  Yes, it is the equivalent of the English word “water” and one might therefore expect that it would be impermissible in Scrabble.  However, it is used to describe fragrances such as eau de cologne and eau de toilette, as well as a type of brandy known as eau de vie.  And, yes, in Scrabble it is pluralized with an X, just as it is in French.  While some will argue that one can just say “cologne” or “toilet water,” aficionados of Chanel and others of that ilk are quite familiar with the complete phrase.  Thus, the powers that be saw fit to include it in the Scrabble lexicon.

But that was then.  Ever since the latest version of the Scrabble dictionary went into use in tournament play in March, all bets are off.  There no longer seems to be any rhyme or reason for the scores of foreign words that have now squeezed themselves into the pages of the Scrabble dictionary.

The official reason for this, I am told, is that these foreign words may be found in more than one of the major dictionaries of the English language.  Supposedly, if it’s good enough to get into standard English dictionaries, it’s good enough to be permissible in Scrabble.

I beg to differ.

In my opinion, which counts for exactly nothing, just because one prefers to use a foreign word rather than its English equivalent doesn’t justify its inclusion in the Scrabble dictionary.

Lately, I have found myself particularly frustrated with the many Yiddish words that have found their way into the Scrabble dictionary.  This is somewhat ironic, as I have more than a passing familiarity with that wonderful language due to my eastern European, Jewish heritage.  I rejoice in the fact that Leo Rosten and others have published books celebrating the Yiddish language.  But that doesn’t mean that they belong in the Scrabble dictionary when they have clear English equivalents, just because other dictionaries have chosen to include them.

For example, kvetch has been in the Scrabble lexicon for a while, when it just means to complain, bitch or bellyache.  Now, with the new Scrabble dictionary, even the Yiddish word zeda and some of its derivatives are permissible.  It just means “grandfather” or “grandpa.”

Perhaps I just need to stop kvetching and recognize that Scrabble has gone multicultural.  Just don’t ask me why, if foreign words are now permissible in Scrabble, gato and caballo will get challenged off the board.  I have no idea how to answer that one anymore.

Except, that is, to say that the Scrabble dictionary has gone crazy.

Tournament update:  I have been losing games left and right by huge margins, but I also had a few big wins.  My record currently stands at 8 wins and 6 losses, which has moved me down to the bottom half of the pack.  My spread is somewhere around -160, which effectively exposes me as the rank amateur that I am.  I have to keep reminding myself that I enjoy spending a lot of money for superior players to beat up on me for five days.  Oy vey.  (Oy is good in Scrabble, vey is not.  Yet.)

Who Goes First?

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The playing venue at the 2015 North American Scrabble Championship

RENO, NEVADA

Which player goes first in a game of Scrabble?  As with so many things in life, I shouldn’t think it would matter, as long as someone goes first.  While I can’t imagine an “after you, my dear Alphonse” type impasse, as far as I’m concerned, if you want to go first, just go already!  Are we going to sit here all day?  I’m not about to have a philosophical discussion of who should play first.

In formal Scrabble clubs, such as the one to which I belonged when I resided in Fresno, who goes first is generally determined by drawing tiles.  Each player sticks his or her hand into the tile bag and draws out one tile.  Whoever has the tile closest to A goes first (with the blank tile trumping all).

In nearly every tournament that I’ve attended, the prevailing rule has been different than at club.  The usual “draw one tile” procedure is used for the first game, after which players are supposed to take turns going first to keep things even.  So when your opponent sits down across from you, the first question is always “how many firsts do you have?”  One is not expected to remember how many times one has gone first.  The tally sheets have indicators for “1st” and “2nd” next to each game, and you are expected to circle the appropriate indicator.  So when the inevitable question arises, each player starts counting down the little circles on his or her tally sheet.

“Well, I’ve had five firsts,” my opponent announces.

“I’ve had six, so you’re first,” I’ll say.

To my surprise, I learned that none of this applies at the North American Scrabble Championship.  That is because “who goes first,” along with every other little detail, is already decided for you ahead of time by the tournament organizers.  Some may not care for such regimentation, but I absolutely love it.  This is by far the best organized event I have attended in my seven years on the tournament scene.  I am seriously impressed.

Before the start of each game, the players check the postings on the bulletin board for their divisions.  Listed is the name and number of the player whom you are playing next, the number of the table you are to sit at and which player will go first.  It’s amazing.  You need to have attended some of the woefully disorganized little tournaments I have attended to appreciate how incredible it is that this giant tournament is organized down to the last detail.  I credit the hard work of the extensive staff.

At a lesser tournament, even the matter of where to play can be contested.  For example:

“We’re next.  Come on over here.”

(whining) “Well, I haven’t played on my own board all tournament.  Can we play at my table?”

Whatever.

At the North American Scrabble Championship, there is none of this.  I have encountered no whining, no arguments, no pettiness or cattiness.

There aren’t even any worries about equipment.  Each division’s leader and assistant, dressed in referee stripes for easy identification, walks around during the game to ensure that each table has plenty of challenge slips.  Your pen ran out of ink?  You need a tissue?  Just call over one of the Stripers and ask.  Oh, and if you start coughing, which may disturb the concentration of the players, the division leader or assistant will visit you with a cough drop in hand.

A bit Orwellian?  Perhaps.  But I wouldn’t have it any other way.  If only every tournament could be like this.  Now I understand why people travel the country to attend this one year after year.  One of my opponents told me that this is his ninth consecutive year of attendance.  I had to bite my tongue to hold myself back from asking if he’s rich.  Reno is only a two and a half hour drive from my home in Sacramento, but how on earth can anyone expect me to lay out the kind of money necessary to attend next year’s tournament in Fort Wayne, Indiana?  Not unless I win the lottery between now and then.

So, you may ask, how did I do on the first day of the tournament?  Not nearly as well as I should have.  I finished the day with four wins and three losses.

My first game was with a snot-nosed kid who could not have been more than 12 or 13 years old.  I cast no aspersions upon his personality by so characterizing him.  In fact, he was a very polite young man who shook my hand both before and after the game.  I am merely remarking on the fact that he kept blowing and wiping his nose throughout the game, repeatedly dropping and retrieving a tissue.  The game was a squeaker; I ended up winning by four points.  I was surprised when the young man did not request a recount.  Perhaps he had never done one before.

After winning each of my first three games by a whisker, I then proceeded to lose my next three games by more than one hundred points each.  There goes my spread, down the drain.  I managed to win my last game of the day, although only by seven points.  My opponent then requested a recount.  It turned out that I had cheated myself out of a point and he had given himself four points too many.  So I ended up winning by 12.

I began the tournament as the sixth seed out of 48.  After Round 1, I was in 21st place.  After Round 2, I was in twelfth place.  After Round 3, I was in sixth place, back up to seed.  Then I lost the three games and dropped down to 30th place.

As we have a March Madness style bracket contest going on, I think I owe an apology to the thirty or so players who saw I was seeded sixth and selected me for their brackets.  Sorry!

The Scrabble Rules

RENO, NEVADA

The big day is tomorrow — the start of the 2015 North American Scrabble Championship.  We have arrived in town and unpacked.  I have registered and obtained my name tag.  I have prepared my vegan sandwiches for lunch.

Now, if I can only avoid letting my nerves get the better of me.

One of the annoying, but totally necessary, things about tournament Scrabble is that there are a lot of rules.  I don’t mean the rules printed inside the cover of the Scrabble box.  Special rules that are necessary to maintain some type of semblance of order when you have 300 super-competitive people playing in one giant room.  If you’re interested, you can see a condensed set of tournament rules here.  Then there is the Code of Conduct, which I can succinctly summarize as “Be polite.  Don’t be an ass.  No cheating.”

I am pleased to say that cheating, or attempts thereat, is extremely rare among we Scrabble people.  I can’t understand why anyone would want to cheat, but I’m told that, occasionally, we run across someone who wishes to win at any cost.  This is my ninth year playing competitive Scrabble, and I am grateful that I have yet to run across such an individual.

And yet, we engage in certain elaborate rituals to show everyone that we are not cheating.  For example, before the start of the day’s first game, as well as after each game, the 100 tiles are arranged face up on the board (typically 25 in each corner of the board) to show one’s opponent that no tiles are missing.  If there is any question that the correct number of each letter is present, either player may request a “distribution,” which involves counting out the tiles to ensure that there are nine As, two Bs, three Cs, four Ds, 12 Es, etc.

To pick letters to place on your rack, one must draw tiles out of the tile bag.  The rule is that you are supposed to show that you are choosing tiles at random, not looking in the tile bag first.  This is done by holding the tile bag up at shoulder level and looking away from the bag while drawing out the number of tiles needed.  This may seem like a pain, but after a while, you do it automatically and without a thought.  For decrepit old people like myself, by the end of the day (we’re talking about playing Scrabble for eight hours), we’re lucky if we can still lift our arms. (And after a five-day tournament, we’re stiff as boards and chowing down naproxen and ibuprofen like candy.)  Scrabble is supposedly a mental pursuit, not a physical one, but there are still times when I am convinced that it is a young person’s game.

Even the particular set of tiles you use can become an issue.  For tournament play, the tiles are supposed to be perfectly smooth, so that when you stick your hand in the bag and your head is turned the other way, you can’t feel what letter you’re touching.  Attempting to discern your letters in this manner is known as “brailling.”  Most modern sets of tiles are smooth enough to be “unbrailleable,” but I have witnessed at least one heated argument over the matter.

I’m telling you, the little things get tournament players riled up beyond all reason.

After a game is over, if the scores were really close (within ten points of each other), either player has the right to request a “recount.”  This involves going back to the beginning of the game, recounting the value of each play, comparing it to what was written on the score sheets and making adjustments as necessary.  Your opponent is likely to be seriously pissed off if you ask to do this.  However, at one tournament, I gained several points in correction by doing this, with the end result being that the score had been a tie.  My opponent, who believed he had won, was steaming mad.

Then there are rules about “designating blanks” (when you play a blank tile, you must immediately declare what letter it is supposed to represent and write it on the score slip that gets turned into the director) and about the precise ritual that must be followed in case of a challenge.  And there are rules about what happens when a player makes a mistake by drawing too many tiles out of the bag.  And there are rules about dozens of other things, some of which I don’t even know and would have to look up.

So, in the morning, I will do my best not to break any rules and not to be trounced too badly by my eager and esteemed opponents.

Wish me luck.  (I am going to need it.)

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.