Reno, Nevada, the Biggest Little City in the World. It is 1958, and I am in my teens, alone, abandoned and on my way to find the Reno Police. Without thinking, I put my hand in my pocket and feel the silver dollar my Aunt had given me for good luck.
A year ago I had lived and attended College in London, but that Winter I contracted the Asian Flu and nearly died. This left me weak and depressed and so Mother suggested I visit her sister in San Francisco. The change and the sunshine would do me good and I could return fully recovered. However, in truly dramatic, adolescent fashion I decided to ‘put my life in the rat race behind me’ and to emigrate, on the understanding that Mother would join me in a year if I still wanted to stay.
So, shortly after my 18th birthday, I took off from Heathrow, arrived in New York for Christmas to stay with my cousin. Spent New Year in Connecticut and finally arrived in San Francisco late January. Everything was amazing, wonderful and I began to feel my old self almost as soon as I landed. I found work easily and became an employee of the Bank of America. For some months I was happy, but wanted to see more of this huge country and my Aunt asked her old friend, Mr. X, who spoke little English, if he would take me to visit his family in Sacramento – a full day’s drive away. They had known each other in Paris and remained friends, he having arrived in San Francisco shortly after her. I was brought up speaking French and so had no problem as that was the main language spoken in the house. It was arranged that I should stay with them for the Labour Weekend, during which time they would show me Reno and perhaps the silver dollar would bring me luck.
My aunt had known Mr. X for many years when they lived in Paris and he had emigrated to the States shortly after they had settled there. He was a regular visitor and although I was more or less indifferent to him, he seemed nice enough and obviously my Aunt had no problem allowing her naive little English niece to go away with this man who was old enough to be her grandfather!
Mr. X collected me at 5 a.m. and I was ready, packed and dressed in typical American teenage style ie: shocking pink jeans, white shirt and Bobby Sox! Happily I waved goodbye and settled down for the long drive. When we got to the Nevada mountains we stopped so I could take pictures. Returning to the car we drove around many hairpin bends in the mountains and with each turn Mr. X placed his hand on my knee to steady me – I was not comfortable with this, but thought he was just being concerned (no seatbelts in those days of course). We stopped again for a light snack and soon drove into Sacramento. As we approached the valley, the heat was such that it took my breath away and I began to worry that I would not be able to cope, however, his family’s house was beyond the city and a little higher up, which cooled the air considerably. We stopped outside the house but as we approached I could already see that it was boarded up and looked abandoned.
– 2 –
Mr. X said he had been stupid enough to presume that they would be there and knowing their hospitality, was certain there would have been no problem and that they would have welcomed us. However, it was getting late and we were far too far along to turn back now and anyway he was exhausted from the long drive, and indeed so was I, and a little disconcerted with the way things were turning out. Mr. X suggested we go directly to Reno where he would book bed and breakfast for that night, take me to a Spectacular show, and then we would head home the next day.
He said that because it was Labour weekend everywhere would probably be full, however, if I stayed in the car, he would run around trying several places he knew and come and get me when everything was booked.
About half an hour later, just as I was beginning to get anxious, he turned up saying that he had found somewhere not very far from where the car was. He handed me a key, gave me the name of the little hotel and suggested I freshen up whilst he went to book a Show. He said he would meet me in the lobby in about another half hour.
Half an hour later, refreshed and changed, I found him waiting in the lobby. We went for a meal and a wonderful show at one of the casinos and during the evening people began to get up and dance. When Mr. X asked me, I did not hesitate for I loved dancing, but he held me that bit too close so I used the old trick of stepping on his toes and pretending I was perhaps too tired. He took the hint and we walked back to the little hotel.
He followed me up the stairs and when I arrived outside my room, I stretched out my hand and in the manner of a polite little English girl I said, ‘Good night and thank you for a lovely evening’ He did not take my hand, but quickly took the keys from me and opened the door, pushing past me and into the room. ‘Sorry!’ I said. ‘I thought this was my room.’ Mr. X looked directly at me and said ‘No, this is our room.’
Suddenly the penny dropped. I told him ‘No way!’ leaving him in no doubt that this was not an option. He lunged at me, using language I had heard before but would not repeat. I grabbed the handle to a door, for a moment thinking it was the door to the room and found myself being chased around and around through the long wardrobe which was open at both ends. Eventually I talked my way – in gutter French! – out of the situation and he left telling me he would not be back and didn’t care what happened to me. I slammed the door, locked it and sat on the bed all of a heap. For the time being I decided I was safe and would think what to do in the morning. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The following morning when I came down to breakfast, the landlady said how sorry she was that my ‘husband’ had had to leave so suddenly, but that I was not to worry since he had paid for the whole weekend. Of course, it was Reno, where anyone can marry anyone under almost any circumstances, so she was not surprised at us being a couple. After breakfast I decided the only thing to do was to go to the police. I did not tell the landlady, but began my walk in the sunshine along the long main street, with casinos and one-armed bandits on each side.
– 3 –
Finding myself clutching the silver dollar and feeling I now had nothing to lose, I placed it carefully in a bandit and pulled down the leaver, Jackpot! Wow! Money poured out onto the pavement as I tried to gather it all up. Bells were ringing both inside and outside the casino and people came running out and tried to persuade me to re-invest the money back inside. However, this now changed everything. I was adamant that I would not enter the casino as I had a greyhound bus to catch and true to my word, made my way to the bus depot where I purchased my return ticket to San Francisco for the next day. Flushed with excitement, the Adrenalin still pumping, I returned to my room. The landlady greeted me saying that my ‘husband’ had called and would be calling back shortly. I did not want to speak to him, but was curious as to what he would say. When the call came he was full of excuses, partly saying that I should have understood the situation, and partly that he had been a fool. He asked to collect me and take me home, but I refused, much to his surprise and said I could now make my own way home. This worried him terribly, not the least of which was what I might say to my aunt, and the fact that I was under 21 and potential jail bait. I reassured him that since nothing had happened there would be nothing to tell and put the phone down.
The rest of the weekend was lovely, I felt relaxed and free and enjoyed another lovely meal that evening where I met a family who, being surprised at my being alone and so young, took me under their wings for the evening and to another show. (I did not tell them of my earlier predicament, but said that my family had had to return home unexpectedly and that I had decided to stay on for the weekend). Very early the next morning I was ready and packed and on my way to the greyhound bus and home.
Much to my surprise, and to this day I don’t know how, Mr. X was waiting for me at the San Francisco bust station and wanted to drive me home so that I could be seen getting out of his car. I was tempted to refuse, but he looked so pathetic that I agreed.
I did not tell my aunt what had happened until my last day in San Francisco and to my shock and surprise she simply laughed and shrugged, saying in French, ‘He’s a Frenchman!’ as if that explained it all!