A picture of the outside of Reno Nevada. The text reads: RENO the biggest little city in the world.

Harriet’s Harrah

Content warning: Descriptions of a gambling addiction

It has always been interesting to listen to other people talk about their families and the weird stories that go along with them. We all have that strange uncle who gets too drunk at Christmas, those siblings who refuse to talk to each other and the grandma that is more excited to see your dog. I often think that my family can be a little boring and predictable at times, but then again, we do have Harriet.

Harriet is my grandfather’s cousin but is closer to my parent’s age. Harriet is a gambling addict and a hoarder. She lives by herself in ‘the biggest little city in the world’, Reno, Nevada, in a small house filled with everything from newspapers to old pieces of foil. This is a very sad place to visit. It is like Las Vegas but without the glamour, wealth and excitement. The city is known for gambling, big factories like the Tesla Gigafactory, close by Lake Tahoe and not much else.

Unfortunately, we are the closest family she has. Well, the closest family that goes to see her. She previously lived in New York, working as a lawyer for the government in the World Trade centre. Harriet luckily was not working on the day of 9/11. She then moved to San Francisco for a few years. I remember visiting when I was very young, noticing how all of the cupboards were locked shut just in case of an earthquake. That night we went out to a pizza place and my sister asked me to try break a piece of paper she was holding with my head. I did but smacked my head on the corner of the wooden table. Terrible trip. Harriet has been in Reno, roughly, since that trip.

When we go to Reno we usually try not to leave it last on our route. We will often spend some time in San Fran and then drive through Sacramento to Reno. It is one of the most beautiful drives. Once the Tahoe State forest starts, enormous lush green pine trees line the road. The trip is even more magical in winter when everything is covered in snow. The trip then takes a little turn once you drive into Reno. You roll down a hill and gradually see a hole start to form. The land turns to a sandy yellow colour, trees turn to shrubs and the hills look like the cheeks of a wrinkly old man. This dust bowl isn’t empty though. Around the sides are sprawling suburbs, further inside are large malls and fast food chains, and in the middle are the well-lit casinos.

These casinos are not natural. Casinos are not natural. You walk in and are greeted by free drinks, the smell of cigarette smoke, soaked carpets with the flashing lights from all the magical money machines. Yes, I have been under 21 for every trip so far, however with Harriet by my side I could pretty much go anywhere. Every staff member greets her as she walks through, she talks about each room as if it is part of her house. The loyalty points on her card pay for our room in Harrah’s, her favourite hotel. Harrah’s, like other Casinos, does not close, so people can come in and quickly lose their concept of time. They are glued to the screens and lack the ability to notice anything else. I often feel like I am the only real person in there. The staff are robots and the gamblers are zombies.

A subtle point is what they wear; everyone is just in regular clothes. People are wearing their jeans with joggers, old t-shirts and maybe a big puffer jacket around their waist in winter. This is because these casinos do not represent a novelty but, rather, a second home for these gambling addicts. This is one of the toughest parts for me. I am an outsider and I know how terrible gambling is, but these people feel at home here. Harriet’s only real friends are from the casino. When she is there, she feels important and a part of something bigger. She has pride in her life and we do not try to take that away as it is her only tragic purpose.