Talking Politics in a Nevada Brothel

In this desert outpost, Obama and McCain barely stand a chance.

By Steve Burgess 24 Sep 2008 |

Tyee columnist Steve Burgess found himself in Nevada on other business (journalistic –- no snickers) and filed this report.

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Pride on display, and no fist fights please.

Rolling down Interstate 80 through the northern Nevada desert, I am headed straight for Barack Obama. NPR has just reported that the Democratic candidate is making an improbable campaign stop in Elko, Nevada, a little further down this very road. Alas, I am stopping short of all that excitement. Instead, I'm bound for Battle Mountain -- the town officially known as the Armpit of America.

It really is -- they held a contest. But Battle Mountain has more. There's great Mexican food at El Aguila Real. The local Owl Motel appears to offer "Air Conditioned Phones." And down at Donna's Ranch, the local brothel, there may even be some small clues to the political future of this great republic.

Nevada is a state with more slots than trees, and a place where brothels are discreet yet legal, like hair restoration clinics. Politically it is a swing state. It voted for Bill Clinton twice, and George W. Bush twice. As of now, statewide polls show Barack Obama and John McCain in a dead desert heat.

Heading east on Interstate 80, a billboard reads: "Battle Mountain: Halfway to Everywhere." Frankly, that's not much better than "Armpit of America," a title which at least was honestly earned. A few years back, the Washington Post held a contest to discover America's truly deserving underarm. Someone nominated Battle Mountain, and when reporters arrived here everybody was dressed up for Homecoming. "It just said 'hick,'" says civic employee Kim Nelson. In a fateful moment, the Post photographer happened to notice the old sign at the local Shell station -- the "S" had burned out. Battle Mountain clinched the title.

Today the mining town of about 3,000 is host to numerous road races thanks to the long flat highways that disappear in desert hills, the landscape of a thousand car commercials and probably a few Sam Shepard scripts.

Take your pick

On a quiet side street sits Donna's Ranch. It's a grandiose name for a couple of shacks and, on any given night, a choice of two or three sexual partners. Tonight's menu is marked on a white board beside the bar: Gabriella or Tina. The décor consists of wood panelling, dim party lights, a couple of naked girls painted on velvet, and a little stage in the corner equipped with a pole and a decorative string of blue bulbs. A blue heeler named Bashful is flopped in the middle of the room, ignoring guests. A cathouse dog certainly must get jaded.

There are a couple of customers loitering shyly near the bar, which is tended by a slender middle-aged woman named Celynn. She has the kind of face you often see on Vancouver's downtown eastside, the face of a woman who has been through the wringer and survived.

Gabriella comes out from the backroom and grabs a stool. She is a strapping blonde, reminiscent of a robust Dutch milkmaid who, one imagines, could really swing a few cans. I'd definitely pay for her services if I needed to move a refrigerator.

I explain that I am here to talk politics (quietly hoping that this will prove cheaper than talking dirty). Surely they must hear a lot of opinions in this line of work -- it seems to me that this would be better than any hamburger poll. So, the Battle Mountain Brothel Primary -- is it Obama or McCain?

"Talking politics is a way to start fist fights," Celynn offers. "So it's not talked about here for too long. But sure, we hear opinions."

"I'll tell you what my FEMA friend says," Gabriella chips in. "He says in Washington they figure McCain would last two years and then have a heart attack. And Obama would last two years and get assassinated. So you're really voting for the vice-president."

Feeling jumpy

Happy thoughts like that are not hard to find in Battle Mountain. Walking into the lobby of the Comfort Inn, I am not greeted by a blank-faced young woman wearing a ponytail and a Confederate flag sweatshirt. (Sample interaction from the Comfort Inn front desk: Guest: "Do you have an envelope?" Clerk: "Nope, don't think so.") On my first morning at the inn, I walk into a political conversation involving several employees. Armando, a 30-ish Mexican working odd jobs, is discussing Obama. "You know black people," he says to me, making a face. "You know how they are. Listen -- if we get a black president" -- here he makes a little hand movement, approximating a leaping panther -- "black people are gonna jump on us."

"Well," I gamely suggest, "white people are jumping on you now."

"That is true," Armando says. "And eight years is too much, you know. They give money to this big company -- AIG -- but not to the ordinary people. That's Bush."

Race and ambivalence. It's the same back at Donna's Ranch. "You do hear that," Celynn agrees. "There's fear of a black president. And there's fear about an old man making Alzheimer's decisions. It's scary all around. People don't want an old man or a vice-president with a pregnant daughter."

Las Vegas rules

Nevada is a package whose contents have settled. As photographer Tom Brewer tells me, "There are 17 counties in Nevada, and 16 of them will go Republican. All except Clark County -- but that might be enough for the Democrats."

That's because Clark, home to Las Vegas, has about 72 per cent of Nevada's 2.5 million people. Battle Mountain won't have much to say about the fate of the state's five electoral votes. Still, the ads are running on TV and radio, leaking in from other media markets. They are instructive. One Obama radio ad starts by assuring folks the Democratic candidate will protect Americans' right to have guns. Down here at ground level, the high-flown rhetoric is notably absent. If you're looking for Jack Kennedy, you'll have to settle for the Reno lawyer who's running for district judge. Judging from the billboard picture, he's no Jack Kennedy.

"This is an old town, a poor town," Celynn says, wiping the counter. "Miners make some money and everyone else is poor. I've seen two people die because they couldn't get medical coverage. I had to go down to Mexico, to Nogales, to get dental work done -- $800 instead of $12,000. I used to be a drinker and a user, but I'm in recovery. I'd be better off telling the government I'm using again. Then they'd give me assistance."

"It's just so bad. Where do you start? Some people just tell me -- it's terrible, but they tell me, 'We're just going to stay home, not vote -- close our eyes and hope for the best.' Republicans, mostly."

"But as for political talk, we discourage it," Celynn says. "After all, this is a brothel. You should be discussing other things."

The two men who have been hanging around the bar are saying their goodbyes. "I will have to get my courage up and come back to say 'hi' to Tina," one man says, sheepishly.

"You come back and visit anytime," Celynn calls. The men shuffle to the door, stepping carefully around the dog. Bashful doesn't budge.

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