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The Room Upstairs
A tale of lust and mystery off-campus
By Lance Sparks
Like most freshmen at the University of Nevada-Reno (about a zillion years ago), I thought nostalgia was a chronic disease of the old and cranky, a condition I’d never contract because I would never grow that old. Actually, I had a hard time scanning the future at all. I swore I’d never open a story with “Back in my day ….”
Well, back in my day, my podna Ronnie and I went shuffling for rooms to rent before the beginning of fall term. Natch, we wanted an apartment, but with our stakes — near zilch — that was no bet. UNR had dorms, of course, but dorms were for dweebs, and no dude who lived in a dorm could even hope to get laid. UNR also had a very powerful and exclusive Greek system, and to hear the tales told, guys in the right frats always got laid, but frats were strictly for high-rollers whose moms and pops were writing checks. Neither Ronnie nor I had ’rents backing our play — we were strictly on our own poke, which added up to finding rentable rooms.
We were a pair of deuces, distinctly dime-bettors, both 19, painfully horny and self-absorbed, clueless, sexist rubes, both unlikely college students. Ronnie was tall, lanky, with a loping walk, wavy blond hair, bright blue eyes, a quick grin shyly showing straight white teeth. Ronnie’s outfits ran to cowboy-skinny jeans, big belt buckle, boots, plaid shirts. He hailed from some one-cow town in northern Nevada and saw his future as hitting a Keno eight-spot.
I stood five-eight, wispy blondish hair, green eyes. That year I was sporting a Yalie/Beatles/Beat look — pegged pants, shiny shirts, shoes with pointy toes. I was also growing a Van Dyke beard with pointy mustache. I bet my tuition that I had the talent and Deep-South genetic cred to become the next William Faulkner.
We’d both been athletes of a kind and figured we were in beddable shape. No one was going to recruit us to play serious games involving balls, but there was only one sport we were really interested in, which involved beautiful coeds and (we imagined) a lot of sweaty horizontal activity, no helmets.
We black-jacked first day, rooms in a white, wood-framed faux-Victorian house owned by a young couple with a fresh baby, only a block from campus. Their play was to live downstairs and rent the second-floor rooms to (they prayed) responsible young men (First Rule: “No girls upstairs,” almost a deal-breaker, definite dream-buster) who weren’t too loud and would pony up on time. There was one big room with a guy rolling for a roommate. The middle room was rented, we were told, by “a young man” who was not a student but was a firefighter (immediate aura of enviable machismo) and was often away on duty, doing (we assumed) superhuman acts of heroism. The front room was smallish, but I didn’t have much, and its gable window overlooked downtown Reno, just a few blocks away. We all shared a bathroom.
We met the roomie-seeker, dude named Dewey, engineering major, tall, stickish, kinda dweeby, biting a long-stemmed pipe, unlit. Somehow Dewey and Ronnie vibed commonality and agreed to share the big room. I took the front; from my bed I could read pieces of the arch blazing the neon message, “RENO — The Biggest Little City in the World.”
Weeks passed without our ever seeing the mysterious middle-roomer. We sometimes detected him at night, bumping into the bathroom, some running water, the click of his door. The three of us concocted stories, covers for his invisibility: He was actually a criminal, part of a gambling ring; he was a narc/spy, DEA probably, infiltrating; he was the secret lover of some powerful gambler’s wife, meeting late-nights in seedy motel rooms.
One day, mid-week, I happened to connect with Spy-Guy, both striding toward the bathroom. I introduced myself. He dropped his name, Angelo, and he certainly looked Italian, dealer-handsome, maybe six-one, with dense, black, wavy hair, dark-sly eyes in a rugged face, thick shoulders, narrow waist, wearing chinos, a blue button-down shirt, brown loafers, very campus-y. His mouth twisted into a kind of sneer, even when he smiled. Real squared-away guy, older, maybe 23-25. He spoke in a low voice, no particular accent. He kept his head turned, as though speaking to someone over my shoulder. “I probably won’t be around much,” he said, mumbling something about his job and weird shifts. I answered with something like “Well, OK, so see ya,” and let him have the bathroom.
Later, I recapped my Angelo encounter. It was clear to us that all our hypothetical Spy-Guy scenarios were still open bets. My roomies threw a wild card: “Definitely Mafia,” said Dewey, a Vegas native who should know.
“Cosa Nostra. Hit man,” Ronnie put in. “Bet he gets laid a lot.”
Speculation went on for months, fueled by Angelo’s mysterious comings and goings, creaks of the stairs, flushes and running water at graveyard hours, rarely an actual sighting. But the three of us were so buried in classes and fem pursuits that we couldn’t really find time to mount a real surveillance that might solve the riddle. Calculus was killing Dewey and costing him pipes. I was deeply in love with the young woman I would marry in two years. Ronnie, however, drew girls like ants to sugar; he was close to erotomania and academic disaster.
Near the end of the academic year, Spy-Guy’s story broke: Our young landlady, blushing, revealed that Angelo had been arrested — nabbed in a jackpot with the lusciously promiscuous wife of a powerful casino owner, in (uh-huh, the capper) a seedy motel room. I loved the denouement (writerly term, learned in lit class). The scandal got news-play for a day, then died. Angelo disappeared for real, but his room remained empty. New scenarios emerged, most involving Angelo taking a long nap in the desert (crapped out, we punned).
But we three swelled with pride; felt we had lived next to greatness. The tale boosted all three, raised our hopes and our grades and carried us into our sophomore years. (The trio broke up then, when Ronnie and I snagged a cheap apartment, opening a new chapter and a fresh mystery — why so many girls thought my doggish roomie was “so sweet.”)