Too Much Fun for Just One State
From where Im standing on the old Wendover airbase, the brightest thing in the sky is the State Line Casino. Its an square concrete castle bathed in white light. A marquee blinks and flashes. The giant neon-light cowboy is waving at me from just that side of the Nevada border. Come on in, he seems to be saying. Its a cold October night. Im over here in Utah.In the foreground, a line of sedans is crawling single-file onto the airbase. The headlights jiggle as they bump over the potholes. They cruise past the abandoned barracks, empty lots of tumbleweeds, dangerous-looking heaps of rusted machinery. The only life on the airbase is at the old officers club, a two story wood plank building with peeling paint and boards on the windows. One hundred cars are parked outside; lights blink from the behind the boarded-up windows. I can hear the bounding oom-pah-pah of a Mexican ranchera band.
Suddenly, in unison, blue and red lights begin to spin on the roofs of the sedans. Its the state police. There are a lot of them; I stop counting at thirteen. They surround the dance hall, and before long the music quits and people stream out into the night. The men wear white cowboy hats. They load into cars with their wives and sisters and children, and drive away through the corridor of police cars. State troopers in brown uniforms wave flashlights and holler at everyone to hurry it up. Theyre not much older than the Mexican teenagers in baggy pants and snakeskin boots who curse the cops under their breath and slink off in a pack across the airbase. The taco truck drives away.
Within half an hour everyone is gone except the police. They are conducting a search of the premises. Later, they will arrest the operator of the dance hall and take him 100 miles to the Tooele County jail.
Meanwhile, the State Line Casino is still shining like a full moon from Nevada. Wendover Will the mechanical cowboy waves his stiff electric arm, back and forth, back and forth. Hes been waving it all along.
? ? ?
Lisa Willcox is on stage dressed as Gloria Estefan. She wears skintight pants made of a shimmering purple-pink material that could either be vinyl or rubber. A complementary halter-top reveals a firm abdomen that seems a result of rigorous tummy exercising. Before this she was Shania Twain, dressed in a similarly revealing leopard skin body suit.
A spotlight follows Lisa as she spins across the stage with complicated Latin footwork and a flower tucked above her ear. Her cheeks are red and her teeth white. The music issuing from the band is impressive. The sound of a brass section blares from the synthesizer. Lisa Willcox beats a timbale with a single drumstick, does a spin. A disco ball turns on the ceiling and the backlighting of the stage fades from tangerine to lavender to turquoise. Then she takes a bow, bids adios to the crowd, and whirls offstage.
There are six people in the audience.
Based on this performance, I make the following guesses: Lisa Willcox comes from a small town in the middle of America; she was the prettiest girl in her high school; she spent her teen years dancing in front of the mirror singing Madonna into the hair dryer.
Ladies and Gentlemen, booms an unseen announcer, give a big hand for Michael Jacksons step-father!
Now here comes Lisas husband Pete as Elvis Presley. He wears the requisite white leather bodysuit with fringe and rhinestones. He shakes his hips. He looks just like him.
Pete and Lisa Willcox make up It Takes Two, their self-owned and managed cabaret revue, which includes her impressions of Estefan, Twain, Madonna, and Cher, and his take on Elvis, Buddy Holly, John Lennon, and the Rat Pack, to name just a few. Theyve been married four years and performing as It Takes Two for 18 months. Before that he did Elvis and she did Madonna as part of big Las Vegas revues.
It was very limiting, Pete Willcox tells me in between shows. You can only go as far as the producer wants you to go. His show, his deal. But with this show, we can go as far as we can go.
I am sitting with Pete and Lisa at a small bar table at the State Line Casino. Pete wears a plaid sportcoat and a black turtleneck; Lisa has on a sparkly silver dress and long bleach-blond hair. Both hold styrofoam cups of tea and milk. A John Denver song plays from somewhere, peppered with the casino sounds of computerized bells and whistles and coins clanking out of slot machines.
I dont want to be as presumptuous as to say the Sonny and Cher of the Millennium, says Pete, sipping his tea through a stir-straw, but lets go ahead and say that, for the fun of it.
Lisa gets up to find some more honey. She brings back two packets and squeezes them into her drink. The first of my guesses about her proves to be true; she was born in 1970 in Taylor, Michigan, a town which has a lot of hicks. After a year of college, she began singing in a rock band and moved to Florida to make it big. The band didnt do too well, so she found an agent who placed her in a all-guy band, who soon decided they didnt want a female in their group. Finally she passed an audition to be one of three singers in a girl group called Maiden America, with whom she toured for two years. Now she laughs, recalling that the music was mostly sequenced and that she and her partners faked playing their instruments.
It was good for me, she says. It taught me how to front a group, how to work a stage, and things like that. Wed go to a new place every two weeks.
One place they played was Las Vegas, at the Flamingo Hilton. She recounts this all with a slight musical lilt in her voice, either a leftover from her small-town childhood, or byproduct of professionally imitating Shania Twain. It is charming in either case. She tells me that it was Las Vegas where she met Pete Willcox, the Elvis impersonator.
I talked her into doing Madonna, says Pete. I thought if shed sit down and do Madonna, she could save money and record original material.
Before coming to Vegas, Pete Willcox had lived in Los Angeles for 20 years, working the steakhouse circuit, chains like Reubens and Charley Browns. Hed perform by himself with a drum machine, singing songs by Neil Diamond and James Taylor and the like. He speaks with a soft country drawl, muffled as if hed had a tooth pulled the day before. I guess that after a lifetime of being Elvis, one invariably starts to talk like Elvis.
Even up to now, that was my favorite form of entertainment, he says. At least half of the night was original music. You have to play somebody elses songs to make them listen to yours.
But with the advent of disco, the steakhouse scene started to deteriorate. By the late eighties, Pete packed up and moved to Vegas because it catered to the type of show he did.
Los Angeles is very trendy, very hip, he says. Its dreadful trying to make a living. They want the latest alternative group, thats it.
Lisa also spent a short time in Los Angeles, playing the clubs and trying to get a record deal to record original music.
Most alternative music is so negative, she tells me. Theres so much negativity in everyday life. I didnt want it in the music, too.
We dont want to present negative sides of life, agrees Pete, unless to show that it can be overcome.
They met at a Vegas revue that included Maiden America and Petes Elvis act, and began dating. Both dreamed of one day recording albums of original music.
I was really trying to nudge Lisa toward sitting in town and letting her career bloom.
So the two settled in Las Vegas and got regular jobs at the big revues, Lisa as Madonna and Pete as Elvis. The money was good. Working two 10-minute slots, an impersonator makes over a thousand dollars a night. They also worked cruise ships.
Theres a lot better money in impressions that in regular bands, says Lisa. A lot stronger money. Our thing is that if you have to sing other peoples music anyway, to make a living, you might as well make the most money you can until you move on.
You might as well dress up like them, says Pete.
In the meantime, both are writing original songs and recording demo tapes that may someday land them a contract. Now, its five minutes till ten. They have to leave now for their second show. They set down their foam cups.
Impersonations a weird business, says Lisa.
Its 9:45 a.m. and Ramiro Ascencio has just eaten the better part of a grilled chicken sandwich. He left the curly fries pretty much alone. We are sitting at a booth in the Rainbow Cafe at the Rainbow Casino, beneath a trellis of speckled ivy leaves. Looking out the tableside windows, I do not see the dusty crags of the Wendover desert, but a pink pastel sky above a quaint cottage, opening onto a tidy vineyard. In order to give the customer the sense of having his petite dejeuner in Bordeaux, the provincial French countryside has been painted on the wall. The ivy turns out to be polyester.
Ramiro Ascencio is the director of food services here. He also owns the Salon Vaquero nightclub that was raided by state police. He spent a night in jail. He wears a pressed white shirt and a tie that includes the colors purple, turquoise, and mango, the tones that apparently dominated the artists pallet when he set out to paint the Rainbow. The carpet in the casino room depicts stars, planets, meteors and rainbows in these colors. The ceiling is mirrored. The Rainforest Room, home to the Rainforest Buffet, is filled with life-size fake palm trees and stuffed tropical birds. That carpet, along with the buffet staffs shirts, is a vivid diorama of jungle life, complete with banana leaves and bird of paradise flowers. Its sort of the same pattern thats on Ramiros tie, and I note that it looks a bit out of place here in the south of France.
Despite the cartoonish surroundings, Ramiro Ascencio is all business. He is a stocky man with a blow-dried hair and a trimmed mustache. He is the first employee Ive seen this morning who does not wear a name tag, so I assume his job is of high rank. He is telling me the story of how the Espanish came to make up 75% of Wendovers 7000 residents. While he tells me this, an occasional wave of discomfort rises from his chest to his mouth, and he must press his lips together to diffuse an enormous belch. Its the grilled chicken, I presume.
Ramiro tells me that long time ago, maybe in the sixties, a man from Murguia, in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, was taking a train across the American West. He got off in Wendover and found work at the State Line, the only casino at the time. The pay was good, and he called home to tell his friends. In time, more Zacatecans moved north to work in the casinos. In the 1980s, when gambling took off, they flooded in. Many are transient, more still have settled in Wendover and bought homes. He crumples his paper napkin and lays it on the curly fries.
Now the Espanish in Wendover, says Ascencio, Its like one family.
Ascencio himself is not Zacatecan. He was born in Michoacan, in the south of Mexico, and crossed the border to California at age 15. He has worked in restaurants all his life. Four years ago he moved his family from Orange County to Wendover to take the management job at the Rainbow Casino, where Saturn and Neptune are on the carpet. He and his wife bought a house on the Nevada side, and their three children were all born in America. He owns two small businesses: a small shop called Novedades Ascencio that stocks Mexican magazines, compact discs, and clothing, and Promociones Ascencio, that holds dances and concerts at the Salon Vaquero. He also rents out the hall for weddings and quincineras. Ramiro applied for citizenship three years ago, but his request has still not gone through.
I ask him if a lot of Mexican babies were born in Wendover as American citizens and he says not n Wendover, but in the Salt Lake hospitals, or at least on the way.
Last week my cousins wife have a baby on the side of the road, he said.
They have to pull over the trailer by Tooele.
Whats foremost on Ramiros mind this morning is that somebody ratted on him. He has run his nightclub for two years without any problems from the city, and now he gets raided by the state liquor agency from Salt Lake City. He had just checked out with the city the day before, and got the green light, so he was sure they hadnt blown the whistle. That meant that someone else had tipped off the state. He has an idea of who it was, but hes not sure yet. Someone caused him to spend the night in jail. Now he has to go to court next week, and he has to hire a lawyer.
Its boll-shit, he says. I am hard worker. I get all the forms, all the papers.
I ask him why someone would report him to the state and he shrugs.
Maybe they dont like it for the Espanish to succeed. To make money. I dont do nothing wrong.
I ask him if he thinks there is a lot of discrimination here and he shrugs. He tells me that no Hispanic has ever been elected to political office in Wendover, Utah, or in West Wendover, Nevada.
Its the next step, he says. Maybe Im not the one, but someone is.
Hi, I just wanted to talk about our local fast food industry. I was always hoping that someday we should get a McDonalds, and by golly we finally did. My kids were real happy about that. I was pleasantly surprised when I read that we were getting an Arbys. Weve gone to McDonalds several times and so I thought I would take the kids to Arbys this week.
After pulling into the drive-thru the wrong way, I was so embarrassed that we just left, but Im sure the food was great, at least it smelled good.
Well try again.
a letter to the Wendover Times
On a Sunday night I am at Wendover Cinema and Video. There are three small screens here which acquire movies that were not popular even when they first came out. I once saw a midweek matinee here; there were four people in the audience.
You can also rent videocassettes in the lobby. Typically one employee runs both the box office and the rental counter. Ive seen three or four different women do this job. The owner is a fat man who has a small office whose door sits between the Dramas and the New Releases section. The local kids know him by name and he sometimes comes out of his office to chat with them around the Sega Genesis shelf. Once, I heard he and an employee having a loud, vicious argument from behind the office door. Both were cursing. It ended with the woman storming out of the office in tears, announcing that shed quit, and rushing out the front door.
Wendover Cinema sits on a desert shelf overlooking the Interstate in a newly developed neighborhood optimistically called Bonneville Heights. There is a complex of low-income apartments and condominiums built on this large flat spot, with some larger custom homes on the hillside. Next to the movie theater is a Mexican carniceria and a hair salon.
With little evidence to support myself, I have bestowed some dignity on this dusty outcropping of suburbia. Mostly its because the people living and working here have ignored the prevailing wisdom to set up shop in Nevada, and done so in Utah instead.
The disadvantages are numerous. The most obvious is that Nevadans dont pay state income tax; Utahns do. But the contrast runs deeper. West Wendover is a town on the make. Just incorporated in 1991, its coffers are already rich from casinos, fast food chains, and a supermarket. There are brand new schools and a public library and wide streets of smooth asphalt. The citys slick promotional booklet proclaims West Wendover, a jewel of promise in the high desert that surrounds it. . . a community that offers business and employment opportunities, an excellent quality of life, education, recreationall the advantages civilization brings without the disadvantages of crowded urban living. Glossy color pictures depict neat tract houses, the new high school, and the Toana Vista golf course. Giving scant mention to the casinos which employ the majority of townspeople, the booklet depicts these employees as upstanding, well-groomed and phenomenally content with their unending hours of leisure, filled up primarily with tennis, little league, and horseback riding. The actual work of the gambling and service industrywashing dishes, dealing cards, making beds, serving cocktails, mopping floors, ejecting drunksis conspicuously absent from Come Grow With Us!, but the literature is convincing evidence nonetheless of the towns prosperity.
Across the border, its a different story. The city of Wendover, Utah, recently declared bankruptcy. Its Main Street business consists of pawn shops and creaky-mattress motor lodges. Its civic election campaigns include one candidate publicly offering a fist full of knuckles to his opponent. And once elected, city officials are so notoriously incompetent even the simplest proposals to repair potted roads or crumbling sidewalks are killed by infighting and debate that the editor at the West Wendover newspaper told me that hed come up with a new policy concerning Wendover, Utah politics: I dont cover it, because no one would believe me. When I try to report a story that the council has fired their garbage collector in order to do it themselves, at an increase of $20 per barrel, people think Im making it up.
In short, Wendover is the collision of Utah and Nevada. The east side is an outpost of Deseret, legislated by the communitarian morality that remains from the day of Brigham Youngs oligarchy. West Wendover is all about freedom, economic and moral, a satellite of Las Vegas sin-and-money laissez faire, which in the 1990s has rendered itself the picture of middle-class decorum. Together, the dissimilar towns form something known as Wendover, USA, a place touted on highway billboards as too much excitement for just one state. The Wendover Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism prints up a smart little business directory, whose eight pages boast of shops, hotels and restaurants, and of such wholesome attractions as the Bonneville Salt Flats speedway and the Donner Party Trail. Its a strange publication, perhaps indicative of the difficulty of reconciling Utahs old-fashioned uprightness with Nevadas profitable debauchery. On one page youll see a list of churches and schools; on the next an advertisement screams, UNEDITED Adult Movies and Magazines: The Kind You Cant Buy in Utah, just across the border in West Wendover, Nevada. A full three-quarters of the directorys underwriters represent the gambling and pornography industries
But for some reason, there is development popping up at Bonneville Heights, Utah, at the video counter where I find myself. Maybe there is some sort of allegiance to Utah. Maybe there are some Mormons involved; despite the influx of gambling sinners and Mexican Catholics, the Latter-day Saints still maintain a ward in Wendover. At any rate, Utah lucked out and got the only movie theater in town.
Tonight, a pale, pretty girl is working the counter. I have assumed that she is the daughter of the owner, maybe because shes allowed to bring her two-year-old son to work. Presently hes at her feet. A man renting a video is wearing sweat pants, construction boots, and a motorcycle helmet. The helmet covers the entire face and chin, with a tinted windscreen across the eyes.
Two forty-one, says the girl.
Two forty what? says the man from within the big black helmet. The muffled voice has a recognizable hillbilly drawl, like Elvis. Its unmistakably Pete Willcox.
Two forty-one, repeats the girl, taking his money and making change.
These are due back on Tuesday, she says.
Pete flips up his windscreen. Whats that?
Tuesday, she says, a bit louder.
Right, says Pete. He buries the video tape in his fanny pack and leaves. I hear the roar of his motorcycle.
I bring my selection to the desk and ask the cashier why she thinks that man wouldnt take off his helmet.
She has no idea. He comes in here all the time.
Does he always wear his helmet? I say, hoping to hear some scorn.
She shakes her head and rings up my rental. She seems to sense my disappointment. Hes the entertainer who does the Elvis show at the casino, she says helpfully, as if to explain that, while she herself certainly does not endorse indoor helmet-wearing by Elvis impersonators, it is simply one of the many breaches of civility that a person must tolerate if she is to make her home in Wendover, Utah.
I thank her and am about to leave when she adds, as a conciliatory afterthought, My son didnt like it.
No. The helmet. It scared him.
When in April the sweet showers fall
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Then people long to go on pilgrimages
And palmers long to seek the stranger stand
Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands.
-Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
It has been a long time since the train stopped in Wendover to deliver the man from Murguia who laid the first seed for the community of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Nowadays the train blasts right through. Not only does it not stop, it doesnt even slow down.
The California Zephyr made its first voyage from Chicago to places west in March of 1949. The stainless steel diesel streamliner was christened after Zephyrus, the Roman god of the West Wind, and terminated at the Pacific Ocean at San Francisco. Along the way, passengers were served fine food and beverage by a coterie of neatly dressed stewardesses called Zephyrettes. The train was the finest piece of technology that post-war America could offer its citizens. Each train was equipped with the famous Vista-Dome, a lounge car covered with a glass canopy, and it was from these Pacer X-style chambers that a generation of train travelers got their first panoramic view of Rockies, the Sierra, and the Great Salt Flats.
In the days of inexpensive jet travel, Amtraks California Zephyr is a novelty, and its selling power is the nostalgia of a train trip. The conductors still call All Aboard! at each stop, but the words ring slightly false to the modern traveler in the way that the words Prepare for Blast Off! might sound on an astronaut-themed roller coaster. And indeed, the Zephyr milks the sightseeing element of its itinerary. Lounge cars still have domes glass in the ceilings, and all chairs point outward, so that passengers can sip up the scenery with the their Cabernet Sauvignon. The train spends its daylight hours in the jewels of the American west: the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. Coming from San Francisco, darkness falls just past Winnemucca, and the sun rises near Price, Utah.
What gets blacked outthe scenery not worth seeingis the majority of the Great Basin and the Salt Flats. There is a six-hour stretch, between Elko, Nevada and Salt Lake City, where the train doesnt stop at all.
The Zephyr roars through Wendover just after midnight, passengers sleeping soundly.
Its been said in Nevada that going to a casino for the music is like going to a whorehouse for a hamburger. The difference is that you have to pay for the hamburger. And though I can not testify to the quality of brothel chuck, I am witnessing one of the finer free concerts I can remember.
I am watching the band R.E.T. perform in the State Line Casino. They are not on the showroom stage where Pete and Lisa Willcox play, but crammed onto a small stage above in bar in the casino proper. There are six black men on stage, and when they dance in unison they must tuck in their elbows to keep from knocking one another. The bass player swings his instrument back and forth to the beat, narrowly missing an electric piano on the left and a microphone on the right. I would say that average age of the performers is 40, though the main singer, clad in black silk and gold chains, looks about 25. His head is shaved and polished; hes beating a tambourine against his thigh. The band is playing Whats Going On by Marvin Gaye, and the crowd is bouncing. I count 11 black people in the audience, which is more than Ive seen in a month in Wendover. A 300-pound man in shimmying on his bar stool. People are dancing. People are actually paying attention to the musicwatching and singing along and tapping their feetenough so that nobody is playing the slot machines.
During the set break I sit down with the bandleader as he gulps down a whiskey-and-Coke. His name is Raymond Hatcher and hes been a professional musician for more than twenty years; as a teenager in Sacramento, he and his five siblings formed a family act called Black Nature. He wears a backwards Kangol with wet curls streaming out the back. The waitress sets another drink on the table.
Thats what I like about Wendover, says Raymond Hatcher, sipping the straw to get the last out from the ice cubes. Theyre pretty laid back.
He tells me that in most casinos, musicians arent allowed to drink. Once on a riverboat casino in Mississippi, his singer, D Moneythat dude with the bald headhad a glass of beer an hour before showtime. The manager saw it, and D Money was 86d for life. Then Ray, who manages the band, had to write a letter of apology to the casino, assuring the casino that D Money had been fired. It was not really a problem, though, because R.E.T. has rotating members, so the next time they went to the steamboat, he simply brought a different singer. Ray told me that he currently has twelve band members; sometimes he has R.E.T. playing simultaneously in two different places. Six in Nevada, six in Mississippi. Members come and go all the time.
We used to have a guitar player, says Ray, but he turned out to have diabetes, and the traveling was too much for him.
R.E.T., which stands for Respect Equality Togetherness, plays R&B; and soul and slow jams from legends like Marvin Gaye, the Stylistics, the Commodores, and Rick James. But Ray tells me that pretty soon theyre going into the studio to cut an original record. They dont have a distribution deal as of yet, but Ray hopes to sell discs at shows and on the internet. In the meantime, they throw in one or two original songs each night. Its hard playing what you want to play in the casinos. In Vegas, the stage managers still write up song lists for the bands, based on what they think their gamblers will want to hear. For a black band, this invariably means Motown oldies.
Its like, Ray says indignantly, why do I have to play Sittin on the Dock of the Bay?
A skinny white woman in a Utah Jazz t-shirt has sits down with us. She seems to know Ray. She lights a cigarette. I ask Ray how he likes Wendover compared to his home of Reno. He says its not bad. Theres not much to do in the daytime but watch TV and catch a matinee, but the crowd at night is pretty good, definitely better than a few years ago.
There the best band around here, says the girl. I seen them the first time they played. I used to work here.
Back in 96, the crowd was all, like, Mormons, he tells me. I mean, everyone had a beard. They didnt know what to make of us.
When do you start again, Buckwheat? says the white woman, lighting another cigarette.
Ray looks at me a raises a single eyebrow. After two decades in this business, hes heard it all. What else do you need to know, he seems to say. He finishes his drink.
Before he gets up, I ask him a final question. I want to know where the name Respect Equality Togetherness comes from.
Well, originally it was Ray, Ewan and Tony, he says. But Ewan and Tony left the group, so I changed the name, and kept the letters.
When Col. Paul Tibbetts came to Wendover Air Force Base during World War II, his mission was so secret that he was the only one on base who knew what it was. The facility was brand new, with its identical barracks lined up on the salt flats like hay bales on the prairie. If you combined the airmen, their families, the railroad crews and the miners, there were more than 20,000 people in the dusty outpost. Tibbetts knew that the plane he piloted from Wendover would change the course of history. He knew that the plane would be famous, and to be sure that it wouldnt have the same name as any other vessel, he christened it after his mother, Enola Gay.
Tibbetts historic mission over Hiroshima may have put Wendover on the map, but not for long. In 1977, the Air Force abandoned its Wendover base, and deeded the airstrip and barracks to the city. As the casino industry boomed on the other side of town, Wendover flung itself headlong into establishing a gamblers airport that would haul in the tax money. Ultimately the expected weekend junkets never arrived; Wendover declared bankruptcy and Tooele County took control of the airport.
The rest of the airbase buildings have been rented at meager profit to various local concerns. What were once barracks now house a 50?-per-load laundromat, a weight-lifting gym, and Bens Used Things, which sells furniture, vacuum cleaners, and mis-matched sets of china. The old chapel has been converted to apartments, with the steeple still intact; a mess hall has become the Wendover Christian Center. One air strip is a commercial drag racing lane. Other buildings are boarded up or falling down.
One attempt to bring a share of Nevadas tourists over to the Utah side is the self-guided historical tour of the airbase. Big signs mark the locations of the Enola Gay hangar, the chapel, and the airmens barracks. The airport lobby includes a one-room museum with framed black and white photos and scale models of the base. Press a button and hear a audio re-enactment of 1945 soldiers loading atomic bombs onto the Enola Gay, complete war-era swing music in the background.
The largest intact building, according to the neatly lettered signs, is the Officers Service Club, Gym, and Open Mess. Oldtimers recall seeing Frank Sinatra perform here for soldiers, just after the war, back when the State Line Casino was hardly more than a road house. Nowadays locals know this building by its other sign: a hand painted plywood number with a crude cowboy hat and saddle and the red-lettered words Ramiro Ascencios Salon Vaquero. This is Wendovers Thursday night club, and on a good night it draws a bigger crowd than any of the casino stages.
Im here for the dance. None of us here know that in two weeks the club will be closed down by the state police. For the time being all is festive. Children are playing. People are eating tacos from a truck in the lot. The security guard, a blond woman who is the only other gringo besides me, informs that tonight is a quincinera, and admission is free. I pass through the lobby, where men drink bottles of beer, into the dance hall.
It is a big, square, high-roofed hall filled with music and laughter and spinning electric lights. It smells like old lumber and perfume. Couples are dancing on the plankwood floor, the woman in dresses and the men in cowboy boots and hats. Others sit at little round tables against the walls. There are hundreds of people. A balcony wraps around three of the walls, and at the far end, up on the balcony, plays the band. Theyre dressed in silky cowboy suits that remind me of some extravagant 4th of July pageant.
They play the fast, tinny brand of tejana music that blares from jukeboxes in Mexican restaurants. A green spotlight focuses on the singer, and down here on the floor they clap and holler when the song ends.
I am in the Silver Smith Casino lounge talking to Lisa Willcox about guns. Its across the street from the State Line, and owned by the same company and connected with a skywalk that bridges four lanes of pavement. The stage is nondescript; slot machines make slot machine noises. Pete Willcox told me that there was once a prettier showroom here at the Silver Smith, but it was torn out to make room for more slots; after all, he admitted, the bottom line of the gambling business is making money. The chairs are soft and round, the same ones they have over at the State Line. Lisa is telling me that the last time she was in Wendover she bought a 9 mm handgun at the pawn shop.
My girlfriend was pissed when she heard I got it for 150 bucks, says Lisa Willcox. In Vegas they go for 350, so I got a really good deal. The blue book is three, like, twenty on it, so I got if for half the blue book.
She has changed out of her stage costume but still wears the two-inch fingernails and one-inch eyelashes. Shes wearing jeans and a white turtleneck sweater with purple and lavender stripes. Its the same two colors as her lipstick, which is applied over an area about twice the size of her actual lips. The topic of guns had come up earlier when Id asked Pete and Lisa what they did during to pass the daytime hours in Wendover, and Lisa had said, Shoot guns, play golf, ride motorcycles. They like to drive their bikes to the ample open space around town and fire their weapons. Handguns, mostly. Pete told me he had some 30-30 rifles but he never shot them; he just bought them because he liked their Western look. He also has a .22 that is so accurate that all you have to do is point it at a bottle, and the bottle explodes.
You dont even have to pull the trigger, he said. I swear.
Now Lisa and I are here at the Silver Smith to see the Coates Twins perform. More accurately, I am here to see the Coates Twins, and Lisa is here to sing with them. Pete has gone home to do some recording on his digital machine, which he told me was no bigger than the briefcase I have been lugging rather self-consciously through the casino. Both Pete and Lisa have assured me that I will enjoy the Coates Twins music.
Theyre been playing since they were 13, or younger, Lisa told me. They met the president.
The twins are on stage now, wearing matching black velvet pants and floor-length zebra-print overcoats. Along with a mustachioed lead guitarist and a young bald drummer behind a Plexiglas shield, they are playing a competent cover of a song by the pop folksinger Jewel. One twin plays bass, the other plays guitar. Both sing. Both do the chicken walk. Yes, they really are twins.
There are three other people in the audience. A husband-and-wife truckdriving team are drinking Cokes. A drunk man has employed a second lounge chair for his legs and is lying down. Lisa tells me that when she and the twins are in Wendover, they ride bikes together.
Theyre real tomboyish, she says. They grew up on dirtbikes, so they taught me to ride my street bike in the gravel. And I tried to peel out in the gravel, which I dont know how to do. I wrecked my bike.
A security guard is tapping the drunk mans shoulder. I notice now that he is passed out, sleeping. Without opening his eyes, the drunk man swings his fist at the guard. The Twins are playing Keep on Rockin Me, Baby. Soon there are four security guards. The man is smoking a cigarette, his eyes still closed. They grab hold of his limbs and he kicks and flails. The security guards are not sure what to do with the man; they confer near the front entrance. Lisa and I and the truckdrivers clap as one song ends and another begins.
Some people call me the space cowboy, sing the Coates Twins. Some people call me the gangster of love.
Then Lisa gets up and lays her hand on the mans wrist.
I want to talk to you but its too loud in here, she says. Will you come outside with me?
The man bolts upright and staggers behind her to the foyer where the security guards are waiting.
I didnt want to see you get carried out, she tells the drunk as he is escorted to the street. It would have been ugly.
I would like to thank the Young or Old People, that ran off with 90% of our just harvested potatoes on or around the 14th of October 1999.
I would also, like you to know, that most of the Spuds you got away with, are the seed Potatoes, that I was saving to plant next spring.
I think that its sad that you had to steal our food, that we took 6 months to grow. Well I hope that whoever took the Potatoes, enjoys them. That will be the first and last time you will ever get anymore of them from me, because I just wont allow it to happen again. If you dont believe me, just try it again next fall, and see what I mean. Here is some information that I think you should know. We live in Wendover Utahon Pilot Avenue. Between 700900 East. Also I would like you to know that its going to cost us over $75.00 to replace the Seed Potatoes you took from us. I hope that you dont choke too much when you bite into the spuds that you didnt put any effort in earning. I want to thank you so very much for you being who you are. I hope that you always enjoy living with yourself, and doing the bad things you are doing.
I may not find out who done this to us, but I do know that the good Lord will get you, if and when you get to Heaven. I hope that you will be able to rest in peace. I know I will. Thanks for nothing.
a letter to the Wendover Times
From the moment Ramiro Ascencio shows me his briefcase, I understand that he does not intend to lose this battle. It is the boxy leather type with a combination dial that Ramiro must spin with his thumb before clicking the latch. Inside is a thick stack of documents: licenses from the city, minutes from the zoning commissions meeting, clippings from the local newspaper. As he shows me each paper, he thrusts his forefinger at certain passages and reads them aloud.
Permit for consumption of beer, he says. It says so right here.
We are in the lobby of the Salon Vaquero, and Ramiro Ascencio has his papers spread out on the ticket counter. He has agreed to meet me here on his day off. He and his son were dropped off here by Ramiros wife. She let them out of the mini-van, then took the young daughter to the laundromat.
It is cold inside. Ramiro wears maroon sweat pants and a black leather jacket. Wind blows in beneath the front door and lifts the dust off the plank wood floor. He catches me looking at the ceiling, warped and waterstained, with the tape is peeling off, and tells me that he did the drywall himself. But then the roof leaked and ruined all his work, so he decided not to fix it until the county replaced the roof. The walls are covered with concert posters.
Promociones Ascencio Presenta
Con Su Exito Supe Perder
Im taking my son to court with me, says Ascencio. He heard the city manager tell me everything OK to open again. Hes a witness.
His son, who is leaning against the ticket counter in a West Wendover High football jersey, nods with assent but not enthusiasm. He speaks Spanish to his father, and the few words he says to me are in unaccented English.
Ramiro Ascencio shows me his court papers. He is angry. He tells me he lost eight thousand dollars on the night of the raid. He is not sure why the police seized his cash drawer. He has hired a lawyer and pleaded not guilty to five counts of serving alcohol to a minor. He does not understand these charges because, during the raid, the officers didnt find any minors drinking beer. Furthermore, the Wendover Times reported that Ascencio had been charged with five entirely different violations, all having to do with improper alcohol licensing. But the criminal charges from the State Alcoholic Beverage Commission are just part of the problem; Ascencio has also had his business license suspended by the city of Wendover, Utah.
Among the infractions are complaints of noise, not having restrooms, and no running water. Ascencio points outside at the portable plastic outhouses hes rented. As long as they can pee and poo, he says. Everything is fine. As for water, the Salon Vaquero is not connected to city system. For more than a year, Ascencio has been lobbying Tooele County, who owns the property, to extend water service to his building. It hasnt happened.
Ramiro finds his predicament suspicious. To begin with, the city never told him that theyd suspended his license; he read about it in the Wendover Times. When he took the newspaper to the city managers office, he was told that they knew nothing about it. But he then acquired the minutes from the meeting of the Zoning Commission in which the suspension had been recommended. It turns out that the chairman of the commission, Randy Croasman, is also the publisher of the Wendover Times.
Just as Im about to ask Ramiro is he thinks this publisher might have a conflict of interest, he tells me that Croasman is helping another local Mexican to open a new nightclub, just blocks from the Vaquero, that will hold Spanish-language concerts. When Ascencio called Croasman to ask him why he was publishing undocumented rumors in the paper, he tells me, Croasman, yelled at him angrily over the phone. He also informed Ascencio that Salon Vaquero was in violation of a code that mandated that no beer could be sold within 600 feet of a church. The nightclub is 580 feet from the Wendover Christian Center, which occupies an old barracks. Ascencio doesnt believe that his neighbors would have complained about such a thing; in fact, when their daughter recently married, they held the reception at the Salon Vaquero. (Randy Croasman did not answer my requests to speak with him for this story.)
My next question for Ramiro is this: how did the State Liquor Commission, whose nearest office is in Salt Lake City, find out about the Vaquero in the first place? And how did the Wendover Times, which is a weekly that comes out on Friday, have such a detailed report of the raid that happened late Thursday night.
I dont know, Ramiro tells me. I look at his son, who looks away.
Does he think it was the newspaper man?
Ramiro shrugs and smiles, as if to say, you didnt hear anything from me.
I ask why, with all the trouble from the city, he didnt just open his club across the border in Nevada. He tried that, he says, and held a couple concerts in an auditorium in West Wendover.
But the landlord dont like Mexicans hanging around in the parking lot, Ascencio tells me. So he kick me out.
Truck of The Week from the Rainbow Hotel Casino Suites
Its the 77 Express Stargazer from Lowell, Michigan. Drivers Ken Stone and Ken Orcar operate this 1999 Kenworth, powered by a 500 Detroit diesel. This week the truck was hauling paper and cheese from California back to Michigan. The truck is highlighted with chrome and has over 130 lights on the outside
The truck will soon have a Rainbow Hotel Casino decal on it as the sponsor of the carpet for the cab and under the tractor during truck shows in several states.
advertisement in the Wendover Times
There are seven of us around the table in the Silver Smith lounge. The Coates Twins are on set break, and Im there with the entire band, as well as Lisa Willcox and a man in a shirt and tie who is in charge of hiring bands to play here. In my corner, Lisa Willcox has introduced me to the Coates Twin who plays bass guitar. She says Im a writer doing a story about Wendover music, and Bass Twins interest is piqued. I offer up two copies of Great God Pan to prove my credentials. Lisa has sent for two drinksa Coors for me and a virgin pina colada for herselfand paid for them with vouchers. Bass Twin is drinking a can of chocolate SlimFast.
While we talk about various subjectsquality of different recording devices and how much the different casinos payLisa Willcox and Bass Twin thumb through the magazine. They seem a bit tripped up by the story on Bobby Beausoleil, a cohort of Charles Manson, and by the advertisements for Feral House books, which include such titles as Satan Speaks, The X-Rated Bible, and Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground.
Look here, says Lisa, reading the ad, Jehovah commands Hosea to marry a whore.
Meanwhile Im trying to make conversation with the rest of the table. My repeating of Ramiro Ascencios claim that Mexican ranchera bands earn $10,000 per night is refuted by a chorus of disbelieving scoffs from the professional musicians. But the man in the tie sides concedes that it could be true. A lot of those stars, weve never even heard of.
Like Selena, says someone. She was huge in Mexico before anyone up here knew who she was.
Lisa looks up from the magazine and says it would be fun to do Selena in her show, but doubts that her audience would recognize her. Her crowd tends to be older, she says. I ask if anyone has ever been to the Salon Vaquero, and they shake their heads. Theyve heard of it, though.
I was thinking of going to that, says Lisa Willcox, but my friends said I better not because its dangerous. I wanted them to teach me to dance better, for Gloria.
Now its time for the Twins to go back on. I ask Bass Twin if theres a time we could talk in the next two weeks.
Were only here for one week, she says. So why dont we do it the week after that?
Then she turns and walks up to stage and Im left with Lisa Willcox and my briefcase of magazines. Im not sure what just happened. Lisa stands up to follow the man in the tie to the buffet; hes going to comp her a free dinner. I get up, too, and ask her if she thinks the magazine has offended the Bass Twin. Lisa nods.
You see, the problem is, shes like me. Were both Christians. And its hard to see the references to Satan, and all this about Hosea marrying a whore. When you love the Lord, its hard to see that.
The man in the tie motions her away, and she slings her purse on her shoulder.
And even in your article about camping theres a . . . she continues, smiling, searching for the right word. I understand that she is trying to be helpful. Theres an unfavorable reference to the male anatomy. And when you tell someone youre born again, you dont want to see that stuff on one page and yourself on the next.
Then shes gone. I sit back down. The music starts.
I spend the evening drinking Coors and watching the rest of Coates Twins show. It will be a long and unusual night. It will surprise me, the things you see and hear if you sit that long in a casino lounge in Wendover, USA. Later on, a man who is half my height and twice my age will say to me, I used to be a beautiful woman, so why dont you fuck me? A drunk Hawaiian, barely able to stand, will ask me to join his rock band called Tropical Flame. A slightly-built man of 50 with sideburns, a black silk shirt, and prison tattoos on his forearms, will dance with a young woman from Salt Lake City, and with flamenco-like grace, wrap his knees around her in plain view of her father and fianc?. Meanwhile, the father, wearing a surprisingly orange t-shirt with Tommy Hilfilgers signature across the chest, will spring onto the dance floor and cross his arms and kick his feet in what looks like a Russian folk dance.
But in the meantime, none other than D Money from R.E.T. has arrived, and been invited on stage to sing a number. They play Brick House, and D Money is right in between the twins, they in their floor-length zebra-skin coats and he in his black silk pajamas. Hes giving them sidelong, lascivious smiles, smacking his tongue up against a formidable gap in his front teeth. Bass Twin leans back on her heels with a skeptical look on her face. D Money is electric. Hes spinning and grinding and tapping and slapping the soles of his patent leather shoes. He has on white socks. Then one at a time, he slinks toward a twin and gets behind her with a hip-thrusting humping motion, all the while waving and grinning to the crowd. They love it. They cheer. The twins turn red and look away.
Ramiro Ascencio and I are inspecting the mens room in the Salon Vaquero. There are pipes along the wall where toilets and sinks should be attached. But there are no such fixtures. There is no running water in the building, but Ramiro assures me that, in the case that water service is suddenly established, he is ready to install toilets at short notice.
Now I show you the ladies room.
The ladies room looks pretty much the same as the mens room.
We cross the lobby and Ramiro pulls aside a hanging plastic sheet and leads me to a back room used for storage. Its a big cold chamber. On the floor, pink and yellow toilets and sinks and urinals lay on their sides, covered in dust. He goes over and nudges the porcelain with his foot.
You see? he says. I have the toilets.
The only other things in this big, drafty storage room are a fleet of plastic sit-on-top toys.
In this room, I want, how you say, for the children.
Yeah, so when they bring the family, they can dance while the kids play in here.
Ramiro tells me that the problem with raising kids in Wendover is that there is nothing for them to do. Since theyre not allowed in casinos, they spend their Friday nights driving out to the desert and drinking beer. They start as young as age 12, he tells me, and they get addicted.
Thats how come I want to open the club three nights a week, says Ramiro. Fridays for kids, Saturdays for adults, Sundays for families. The kids need somewhere to go.
We make our way to the main hall. I can see daylight between the planks of the enormous pitched ceiling. The paint has peeled off. The rafters are covered in bird scat. Ramiro tells me that when he first moved in here, he had to shovel bird shit out of the long-abandoned hall.
This deep, he says, pointing at his shins. We also paint the downstairs. See?
Ramiro Ascencio takes me upstairs and turns on the music. The ranchero blasts from a wall of speakers. The windows rattle. The louder the music gets, the emptier the room feels. Downstairs, Ramiros wife has arrived and is straightening tablecloths and arranging chairs. Their daughter rides a plastic tricycle across the dance floor.
I ask Ramiro if he ever played in a band, and he says no, but now and then hell get up on stage and sing a few numbers.
Then, for reasons I dont understand, Ramiro begins to tinker with the spotlights. Im not sure if theyre broken and need adjustment, or if hes trying to re-create for me the effect of being here during a dance, or if he just likes to play with them. He points a light at the spinning disco ball; melons of lights roll in circles around the dance floor. Trumpets ring out from the speakers. Ramiro flips on a big spotlight and a green circle appears on the empty stage. Its just me and him and his family and the loud music, mid-morning on a Saturday. Two months later he will win his court case and be acquitted of all charges. The judge will remark that the confusing and misleading nature of the Wendover permits made Ascencios mistake understandable. Then he will try his best to bring the dance hall into compliance with zoning codes, and bring the Vaquero back to life.
Ramiro Ascencio spins a dial and the circle of light expands, then contracts, and he aims it onto the mike stand at head level, and on the back wall appears a small green circle with the shadow of the microphone. He leaves it there, satisfied, and we stand there together listening to the music and watching the lights.
Im watching the second set of Pete and Lisas show at the State Line. Lisa has just finished Cher, and the crowd was crazy for it. She has it down, complete with Chers snotty banter: You guys have been a real peppy crowd, she says through her nose, but I gotta go now.
The room has filled up considerably. There are close to a hundred people. In front is the road crew that has been in town, working on Interstate 80. There are three women and a dozen men, and all have white hotel towels wrapped around their necks. They purport to be having a toga party, and they call for cocktails by the tray-full. Its a good audience; loud and drunk and boisterous, but not rude. One man knelt stageside while Lisa blew him a kiss. As the next song begins, they began to play bumper cars on the dance floors in their lounge chairs which, I learn, have wheels on the bottom.
Pete comes out as Tony Bennett, doing Stepping Out, but midway through the song, Tony calls out George Burns, and Pete suddenly has thick-rimmed glasses, a cane, and a hobble. He begins a series of impressions of movie stars: Jack Nicholson, Walter Matthau, Clint Eastwood. I know from our earlier conversation that this is Petes favorite part of the show, the part he considers the most intimidating and risky.
Sometimes they like it, sometimes they dont, he had told me. Im kind of at their mercy. When you get vulnerablewhen you give the audience the chance to really like it or not like itthats when its the most exciting.
Now Rocky Balboa is trying to sing Stepping Out, and the crowd howls. They love it. A group of gamblers is hesitating at the cabaret door, wondering if they should commit.
Its a free show, pilgrims, says John Wayne on the stage. Come on in. We wont bite ya.
They come in and take a table and the crowd cheers. One of the road workers lets a out a hoot. I am thinking about what Pete Willcox had said about taking risks onstage. He had compared it to a boxing match hed seen the week before.
He was really a big guy, Pete said. 240-250 pounds. I wish I could remember his name. And he was fighting someone who was about 215, who had just had a hundred rounds sparring with LewisLennox Lewisand he knocked the kid down twice. Then he got up and knocked him down. And four rounds later: bang, knocked him out again. Oh man, it was jarring. It really was. That was the most explosive fight Ive seen in the last five, six years.
Now, you can stand there and out-point a fighter, just with jabs, but it youll take a chance, and start throwing roundhouses or extra rights, you stand a chance of getting knocked out. But you also stand the chance to knock the other guy out. Thats what happens in entertainment. You do just safe bits, and they go over. But to try these impressions and humorif that goes over, its really rewarding.
For the shows finale, Pete Willcox comes out as Ray Charles. No blackface, but with the sunglasses and shuffling feet, hes got it down pretty well. Then Lisa joins him in a spangled mini-dress and a red bob. Shes the Uh-huh girl from the Diet Pepsi advertisements, and they sing, Hit the Road, Jack. The crowd has settled down a bit, but is still attentive, and applauds. They finish with A Woman is a Woman but a Man is Just a Man, a well-choreographed number featuring Pete bumbling around stage and Lisa wagging a playful finger at him. He improvises some loose-legged dance moves and she rolls her eyes to the crowd. They seem to be enjoying each other, and the crowd can see it. Pete grins shamelessly. Lisa laughs and smiles. The road crew yells and the rest of the crowd claps their hands.
Sometimes when were on stage, usually at the start of the show when the light comes on us like that, Pete had told me, spreading his fingers to demonstrate what its like to be in the spotlights halo, I almost feel like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Kind of like she and I against the world, and no matter what our troubles are, at least were trying here.