I have a confession to make. During my six years in the Gateway City, I was a reluctant St. Louisan. I couldn't help it. As a Chicago native, I was raised to root for the Cubs and display the hometown arrogance-disguised-as-pride that even The West Wing has held up for ridicule. To admit "being from" St. Louis was tantamount to disowning my family, my team and my pizza preference. So for years, when asked, "Where are you from?" I felt compelled to say, "I live in St. Louis, but I'm originally from Chicago."
That urge to wear Chicago on my sleeve gradually diminished as I put down roots and adapted to being a St. Louis local. As much as I loved Chicago theater, there was the MUNY. As much as I teased my friends for complaining about St. Louis traffic, I knew I'd never move back to Chicago and endure its unending rush hour. And even though I laughed my ass off every time Leisa Zigman reported live from Schnucks' checkout lanes during inclement weather, I knew I'd lost my Chicago winter survival skills long ago. I'd reached an easy peace with St. Louis. Although I'd never have the right answer to the famous "Where did you go to school?" question, the town finally felt broken in for me.
Just when I'd adjusted to life on the farm, the tornado hit. My husband, Tom (a St. Louis native who DID have the right answer to the "Where did you go to school?" question), was asked to take a new position in Reno, Nevada. Before I knew it, we were caught in this whirlwind of househunting and packing and moving, oh my. Our friends and family blew by in a gust of farewell dinners and parties. When we landed with a thud in Reno, we found a town as surreal as Oz, a neon skyline against a barren blanket of browns. We definitely weren't in St. Louis anymore.
Reno is as different from St. Louis as the Technicolor Oz was from monochromatic Kansas. St. Louis is a humid river town. Reno is a dry desert outpost. St. Louis's Catholic roots provide a strong moral compass and social services network. Reno's known for its quickie weddings and divorces and the brothels that lie just a few miles outside of town. St. Louisans rally around the Rams, Cardinals and Blues. Reno's too small a town for major league sports, so residents must live vicariously through the San Francisco teams or settle for the University of Nevada-Reno's Wolf Pack. St. Louis is home to major national corporations like Monsanto and Emerson and Anheuser-Busch. Reno's economy wouldn't exist without the casinos.
I was a mere 10 steps off the airplane when I ran into my first slot machines. The one-armed bastards are everywhere: the airport, the gas station, the grocery store. Like a dog begging for scraps, the slot machines are anywhere they can gobble up spare change and spare time.
While the gaming industry (as the casinos prefer to call it) is the town's biggest draw and employer, make no mistake: Reno is NOT Las Vegas. As one comedian put it, Reno is the white trash Vegas. Instead of elegant cultural themes like Paris and Venice, our casinos have hardscrabble mining names like Silver Legacy and Boomtown and Bonanza, which eerily resembles the casino where Cousin Eddie took Clark in Vegas Vacation.
Just as the munchkins welcomed Dorothy and clued her in to the yellow brick road, our neighbors shared with us the secret to surviving life in Reno. Locals don't gamble, they said. Locals might throw a few bucks in a machine when they're entertaining out-of-town guests, but that's it. Locals value the tax break that results from having no state income tax, instead of paying the tax bill by gambling. Sure, there are plenty of people who live and work in Reno who piss away their paychecks at the casino. But they're not locals. Locals are those of us who hold steady jobs and buy houses and contribute to society rather than compound its ills.
It didn't take long to figure out we were locals.
I was prepared to cop a Midwestern sense of superiority and resist Reno as I had St. Louis. I mean, what's to like about a town where most people are passing through just long enough to lose it all? What's the appeal of a climate where nothing grows without an industrial-strength sprinkler system and where you have to buy moisturizer in bulk? I wondered if the "click heels three times" trick would work and transport us back to the Central Time Zone.
But as Dorothy learned, home is what you make of it. And it turns out that, as a local, I'm making the most of Reno by making the least of it. We spend our free time not in the casinos or in town but exploring the treasures that the Sierra Nevada region has to offer: San Francisco, Napa Valley, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite. Instead of grimacing at the endless brown of the landscape, I now notice the light and the way it plays on the mountains, which seem to glow in the moments right before sunset. Instead of begrudging the dry weather, I'm relishing the 300 days of sun a year that create it and the blue skies and rainbows that accompany it. If I'm not exactly proud to live in Reno, I'm content. Because there's no place like home, and right now, Reno is home.
Kristin Baird Rattini is a freelance writer who's written for magazines ranging from People to Business Russia to Bee Culture.