The following is a guest post by Richard Ford Jones (brief bio below), a series of anecdotes drawn from his interactions with the dealers and clientele of an antique mart located in one of the oldest buildings still standing in Downtown Reno, much of which was lost to casino development. Jones works as a substitute floor person for dealers who can’t cover their required days. As with any collection of people, he says, there are personality clashes and mini-dramas galore, and cooperation is hampered by internecine squabbles. He attempts to maintain a circumspect demeanor in his dealings with the various factions.
Due in part to the antique mart owners celebrating their sixth anniversary by laying out cookies, crackers, and cheese, it was a fairly busy day, and we had a few street people and assorted characters drop in. My ability to attract crazy people wherever I go remains undiminished, as all sought me out and engaged me in conversation. Per fellow workers, several are regulars who live downtown and come to the store to get out of the heat or cold and drink free coffee. They know to avoid them. I treated them all like customers, and we got along okay. One guy, a bit more together than some of them, actually thanked me for being nice to him even though I knew he couldn’t buy anything. This can be a tough town to be down and out in, considering how hard it tries to part people from their money. “I am my brother’s keeper” will never be the state motto.
Early in the day, John, one of my fellow floor persons (he sells newer Oriental Art merchandise he buys from another store in the area and marks up) latched onto me and bent my ear periodically for seven hours. I just have “polite listener” written all over me, I guess. He started out by mistaking me for another dealer, a gay guy named “Duke” who sells Barbie dolls, G.I. Joes, old plastic car models, and Deco cocktail sets. There is a superficial resemblance; we’re both relatively thin (though I’ve developed a pot belly over the winter), balding, bespectacled white men in our late fifties with receding salt ‘n’ pepper crew cuts. But Duke has a thin mustache, bad skin, and is several inches shorter than I am.
I finally got John to realize he was talking to another person by pointing out that I only “looked” gay. He then went into a song and dance about how he couldn’t really see me clearly because he’d broken his glasses (he had a cheap set of drugstore readers he carried in his vest pocket). There was also some speculation on my being Duke’s evil twin, and I may have stuck myself with a new nickname.
Our standout customer today was “George,” an old guy doing the full Gabby Hayes: scraggly grey beard and long grey hair, battered Stetson, frayed white canvas shirt under a black leather biker vest, grubby blue jeans several sizes too big, and beat up suede running shoes. He claimed he’d been, among other things, a miner and a hobo. We got to talking, and when the wide-ranging conversation turned to scattering ashes of your loved ones, he declared he’d scattered his sister’s ashes in a casino. I told him about scattering Pop’s ashes on the east slope of Mount Tamalpais (in Mill Valley CA). George, as it turned out, was a graduate of Tamalpais High School. “You’re the first person I met in thirty years ever mentioned that name!” He ended up buying a three dollar silk rep tie. “Sometimes I just feel like dressin’ up.”
One of our regular customers, a woman who appears to be schizophrenic, is obsessed with a “fortune telling wizard” the owner’s wife has in one of her booths. The wizard is a maddening device comprised of a black box atop which is a clear glass ball. Within the ball is a cast resin figurine of a wizard garbed in peaked hat, star spangled robes, and all. It has a proximity sensor and sound generator that produces an annoying electric scale run randomly every few minutes throughout the day, and a loud electric hiss whenever anyone comes near it. When fed a quarter, it verbally intones your fortune in a few brief, clichéd words.
This customer sometimes arrives just before closing to “consult” it, and if denied access to the wizard becomes very distraught. Yesterday, she also purchased a paperback copy of the Edith Hamilton classic “The Greek Way,” which she paid for in loose change. The manger allowed her to slide on $0.68 she didn’t have. She promised to bring the money today.
“Dan,” who is five feet tall if he’s an inch, looks like a cross between Professors Irwin Corey and Timothy Leary in miniature, complete with the wispy grey hair, wry squint, and toothy grin (possible false teeth.) His story is that he’s of royal blood, related on the German side to the Houses of Hanover and of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, but enjoys being a “commoner.” Yesterday when he was in, he led me to a case where the dealer was displaying some chi-chi ladies feathered hats. He pointed to a picture of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, and told me he was proud to see “his cousin.” And the thing is it might just be true.
Like so many of the others who come in here, he just wanted someone to talk to. Still, you have to wonder what the big deal was about Charles Bukowski; maybe it’s just that he wrote it all down.
Bemused in Casablanca (1998)
Richard Ford Jones began writing in the late 1980s, when in his early 30s. During a brief three-month period he produced six novellas and short stories, none intended for publication. He jokingly refers to these as “The Jones Canon.” He did not write anything in a literary vein again for another sixteen years.
His next spurt of creativity was from 2004 to 2008, during which he wrote four humorous genre pastiches for an annual 500-word writing contest in The North Bay Bohemian. The contests involved either building a story on an introduction (with plot elements provided by the judges) or utilizing a list of words in the body of a story.
While Jones has had no literary output for extended periods, he has for many years been a self-described “inveterate crank letter writer,” penning scores of letters to the editorial pages of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, two Northern California newspapers, and now the Reno Gazette Journal, quite a few of which have seen print.
The many authors Jones admires and has read repeatedly include: Michail Bulgakov, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Paul Cain, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Robert E. Howard, Mark Twain, Daniel Defoe, Sir Arthur Conon Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, S.J. Perelman, St.Clair McKelway, Stendhal (Henri Marie Beyle), Alfred Bester, Luo Guanzhong, George Borrow, Alexander Dumas, Fritz Leiber, Charles Dickens, and William Makepeace Thackeray.”