IF JOURNALISM is the first draft of history, memes are the first laugh of history — virtual graffiti thrumming in real time with all the anxiety, outrage, and relief of the lived moment. And last week, history was laughing at Nevada. Amid a fraught national election, our state stumbled into the spotlight as the internet erupted in gleeful snark over our, uh, decidedly chill approach to tabulating vote results. (The Nevada Secretary of State’s explanation: We’re not slow, you’re just impatient.) Amid the smoke and flame of that eruption: a trove of memes that, sure, often poke fun in the usual places (Nevada as a giant dive bar filled with buffoons and burnouts? Who’d’ve thought?), but that also brought a bit of humor to this high-tension historic moment. Here’s a long-scroll core sample of Nevada history last week, as told by the memists of the internet.
AS I WALK THROUGH the Rainbow Club, the movie Doc Hollywood plays in my mind. That is the early 1990s (classic?) starring Michael J Fox as hotshot doctor Ben Stone, who is on his way to Beverly Hills when he gets stuck in small Grady, South Carolina, and has to adapt to its laid-back Southern lifestyle.
Certainly, the Strip is closer to Water Street in old Henderson than to Grady, but in some ways it feels just as far away. Follow me here: Our Doc Hollywood is Chef Scott Pajak. The 43-year-old culinary expert was a veteran of the Strip for 18 years, namely with the Emeril Lagasse brigade, where he worked his way up from line cook to sous chef at Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House at the MGM Grand before ascending to executive chef of Lagasse’s Stadium at The Palazzo.
In that ultramodern sports bar, Pajak, who looks like an offensive lineman himself, catered to tourists, many not caring how much money they burned as long as they filled their bellies with topnotch grub and their mouths with overpriced cocktails while rooting on their favorite teams. Though he wasn’t as well known as his boss, Pajak did achieve a measure of celebrity as one of the first local contestants to win the popular Food Network competition show Chopped, back in 2012.
But with 2020 came COVID-19 and the end of many local eateries, including big-name Strip restaurants. Nobody knew what the sports landscape would look like this year, so it wasn’t a surprise when Lagasse’s Stadium shuttered this year. “It was the hotel's decision,” Pajak says of the abrupt closing. “There was nothing we could do. We had to move on.”
For the first time in nearly two decades, Pajak found himself without a job. That didn’t last long.
Tim Brooks, an owner of The Rainbow Club and Emerald Isle Casino in Henderson, had had Pajak on his radar for quite a while. For three years running, he bid on the chef at a Boys & Girls Club event where the prize was a private meal cooked personally by the Chopped champion.
Upon hearing about Pajak’s free agency during this latest special dinner, Brooks knew he had just the man for a project he had in mind. “I met Scott on a Monday night (at the dinner), and Tuesday he was in my office. On Wednesday, he was already on the payroll getting ready to open up Triple B for us.”
Triple B recently replaced Images Cafe in The Rainbow Club. It’s a burger joint that serves Americana fare done well at reasonable prices. As for why Brooks felt confident Pajak was the chef to create the new menu and helm the eatery’s opening, Brooks says, “When you meet somebody, you have a gut feeling about their work ethic and their ability to perform, and Scott was a perfect fit for what I was trying to accomplish.”
The changes have been immense for both the eatery and the chef. Pajak now caters to regulars who live in the neighborhood. For the most part, he’s sticking to his culinary guns, but he does admit, “It's an older, local group. That's sort of different than being on The Strip. So we keep the spice level down a touch.”
The biggest adjustment for the restaurant under Pajak’s helm has been his insistence that everything be scratch-made. Daily soup specials are now made with in-house stocks, and items that might have once gone from freezer to fryer now have more care put into their preparation.
This type of effort shines through in everything from burgers — the top sellers are the Triple B Classic Cheeseburger (right) and the Big Tex BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger — to new brunch items like the biscuits and gravy with pork sausage and cracked black pepper.
Pajak has even brought over some dishes from Lagasse Stadium, including the lobster grilled cheese (right, below), which, not surprisingly, is much more affordable at The Rainbow Club. He is also creating special holiday menus for Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.
But then what? How long can a man who spent so many years on the Strip be expected to remain satisfied on Water Street — which is coming along, sure, with a hockey rink under construction and several new restaurants recently opened (Biscuits and Bourbon, Fratelli’s Italian Kitchen), but is still far from the bright lights? No one knows, but perhaps this spoiler offers something: Doc Hollywood found true happiness in Grady and stayed for good.
IT’S LESS THAN a week after the split Biden-Harris win/Congress status quo (more or less … we’ll see?), and I’m already sick of the postgame analysis. Pundits have been saying the same crap about the role of minorities, rural, and women voters (not to mention conservative versus progressive issues) since November 9, 2016, and it was as reductive then as it is today. Still, people crave an explanation: How could this happen? To scratch that itch myself, I’ve found it more helpful to turn to the original sources — those who think about and/or are members of specific groups all day long every day — than to general political commentators who only think about these groups when circumstances dictate.
1. In that vein, I highly recommend Alexis Sobel Fitts’ November 3 essay for Jezebel, “Inventing the Myth of the White Suburban Woman Voter.” Fitts had me at the very first sentence when she invoked an episode of the New York Times podcast The Daily (to which I’m addicted, btw) that sat as poorly with me when I heard it as it apparently did with her. I instinctively knew something was off in the way the women interviewed were held up as a meaningful voting bloc but couldn’t put my finger on what it was. In her inquiry, Fitts goes back to the Bill Clinton-era invention of the soccer mom and follows the various iterations of this character through history, emerging with a cogent theory of how politicians exploit a meaningless maternal construct in order to avoid answering the more challenging needs of female voting blocs with clearly defined policy issues (affordable childcare, equal pay, etc.).
2. Similarly smart points are made about rural voters in the election section of The Daily Yonder, though they come in the form of individual news stories about specific issues and locations, rather than overarching analysis (which seems like it’d be antithetical to the site’s implied point that rural communities are unique). If you want to really know what’s on rural dwellers’ minds, it helps to be on a regular diet of DY’s news stories, where you learn about things like the disappearance of local post offices and the emergence of county-wide food deserts. But with specific respect to the election, stories such as this one explaining how Biden did slightly better with Georgia’s rural voters than Hillary Clinton are the antidote to the generalized nonsense that’s floating around on social media. The entire 2020 election hub is here.
3. Finally, I implore you to walk away from any further argument about polls until you’ve had a chance to listen to the November 6 and October 16 episodes of On the Media, WNYC Studios’ podcast that challenges listeners to think more deeply about what’s in the news than the news itself does. Trust me, you’ll come back to those arguments armed with information that’ll blow any shallow ranting about Nate Silver not deserving a janitor’s job out of the water.
4. Outside the post-election analysis cacophony — but still related to the election because of the role race played — is Claudia Rankine’s recent collection of poems, Just Us. We’ve written about it previously in Desert Companion (here), but it bears repeating, because the Black Mountain Institute event where Rankine will discuss the book with The Believer poetry editor Jericho Brown is coming up in less than a week. Rankine’s work transports the reader into the body, mind, and heart of Black people experiencing racism with a visceral efficiency that drains any resistance. I for one will not miss the chance to hear her speak in person.
5. And having even less to do with the election (but really, doesn’t everything?) is this delightful essay about “Women Who Wallop” by the New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis. I love women who wallop, too, and though I wish Dargis had let herself go a little deeper down a few of the rabbit holes she explores (particularly the one about fight scenes contrasted with sex scenes), I bought her portrayal of senseless ass-kicking as an accessible catharsis for body-shaming, gender stereotyping, and other Hollywood-based ills. And I’ll be re-re-re-watching La Femme Nikita this weekend, guilt-free.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In his new book The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America, Los Angeles author Tom Zoellner “takes to the highways and byways of a vast land in search of the soul of its people.” “Searchlight,” the longest chapter in the book, recounts his journey through Nevada. It takes him from the title burg (subject of this excerpt, courtesy of Counterpoint Press) through Las Vegas, Beatty, and points north, closing with a suspenseful account of his attempt to climb Pilot Peak. Along the way he digs into the state’s history, geography, ephemerality, and people.
The woman behind the bar hands me a piece of silver that she assayed herself — not perfect, as it bears a pimple of iron in the middle — but she got it for free, scavenged from a pile of mine waste and then cooked down into this blob of wealth.
“You put the rocks into the furnace and it goes into a kind of black sponge,” C.J. says. “Every now and then you can see a flash when it shows platinum. There’s rainbow colors, depending on what type of mineral you’ve got in there. It’s awesome.”
She’s tending the bar tonight at Terrible’s Roadhouse, one of two casinos in the town of Searchlight, which sits near the southernmost dagger-point of Nevada. The carpet bears a pattern of fleur-de-lis, faded and gummy with a thousand spilled drinks, and the stage in the corner — approximately the square-footage of an average hot tub — is empty. No green velvet table games available here, only forty-nine slot machines winking in obedient rows. C.J. pours me another whiskey and keeps talking.
“Now you get these people around here who use cyanide. I don’t fuck with that anymore. It killed my sister. My husband and I take walks all the time around here and look for gold and silver, picking up rocks as we go. You can tell by their weight if there might be something hiding in there.”
Searchlight’s motto is The Camp That Didn’t Fail. Like almost every surviving town in Nevada, Searchlight was built around a mineral craze. A group of investors hacked into a Miocene-era bluff in 1897, and one of them, Fred Colton, snorted: “There’s something here, boys, but it would take a searchlight to find it.” They kept digging. A vein of gold materialized, and with it, more people. For years, the town had a tennis court but no churches. A midcentury hustler named Willie Martello built a gam- bling den and cathouse called the El Rey Club and flew in big spenders for weekend fun. Now the El Rey is a rectangle of ruined walls bleaching in the sun, and the town is at a population of 539, which includes the bartender C.J., who lives in a single-wide trailer with a load of broken computers stacked outside that she melts down for the metallic guts.
“I’m going to die here,” she says. “This is the first land I’ve ever owned.” She can supplement the $8.50 an hour plus tips she earns at the bar with the gold that lies around her. The land is blasted and sere in all directions; nothing grows but weeds and yucca. But the land can yield coin if you look at it correctly. “Right place, right time,” C.J. told me. Money is nothing but labor stored in a little package.
I slept that night on a flat spot in the desert that I found in the dark and woke up to discover a green-and-red speckle of plastic shotgun shells around me, along with a mess of shattered clay pigeons and a pair of kitchen appliances that had been generously ventilated with gunfire — a makeshift shooting range on federal land, which is 84.9 percent of Nevada. For as much as the Western constitutionalist desert rat likes to rail against the heavy fist of Uncle Sam, out here you can pretty much do as you like: camp, fish, hunt, shoot your guns, ride your quad. Freedom’s banner flies high. The Battle Born State’s unwritten ethic is that you can have anything you want at any hour, as long as you pay for it yourself and don’t bother the other customers. I yawned, scratched, got a coffee at Terrible’s Roadhouse, and drove north. My aim, eventually, was the Idaho border.
The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America, by Tom Zoellner, $26, Counterpoint Press