Mountain Cityby Gregory Martin
By the end of Gregory Martin's unsentimental but affecting memoir, only thirty-one people live in remote Mountain City, Nevada, and none of them are children. The town's abandoned mines are testimony to the cycle of promise, exploitation, abandonment, and attrition that has been the repeated story of the West. Yet the comings and goings at Tremewan's, the general… See more details below
By the end of Gregory Martin's unsentimental but affecting memoir, only thirty-one people live in remote Mountain City, Nevada, and none of them are children. The town's abandoned mines are testimony to the cycle of promise, exploitation, abandonment, and attrition that has been the repeated story of the West. Yet the comings and goings at Tremewan's, the general store Martin's family has run for more than forty years, reveal a remarkably vibrant community that includes salty widows, Native Americans from a nearby reservation, and a number of Martin's deeply idiosyncratic Basque-descended relatives. Martin observes them as they persist in a difficult but rewarding existence and celebrates, with neither pity nor regret, the large and small dramas of their lives and their stubborn attachment to a place that seems likely to disappear in his lifetime.
The New York Times Book Review
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My uncle Mel is telling a joke.
"This old Basco from Winnemucca got tired of herding sheep and decides to fly home to the Basque Country. He takes a seat on the plane, settles into it, and then a little before takeoff a stewardess comes over and says, `Excuse me, sir, but this is first class. Your seat's back in row twenty-six.' But that Basco says, `My name is-a Aitor Uberuaga, and I am-a going back to Bilbao. And I like-a this seat right here!'"
Mel's finger points down and pokes the checkout counter firmly, as if the store were the plane and the counter the seat in first class. Melvin Basañez is short, a little chubby, and has salt-and-pepper hair and a large, slightly hooked Basque nose. His accent now is that of his father, a man who at fourteen came from the Basque Country to northern Nevada to herd sheep. He came without speaking a word of English and in fifty years never learned to read or write. In fifty years he never once returned home.
"The stewardess doesn't know what to do, so she gets the copilot, who comes out and says to the Basco, `Sir, I'm sorry, but this seat has been assigned to someone else. Your seat's back in row twenty-six. It's a fine seat.' Well that Basco's pretty steamed up by now. When they're off alone with all them sheep, they're not used to getting bossed around. So he says again, `My name is-a Aitor Uberuaga, and I am-a going back to Bilbao. And I like-a this seat right here!'"
Mel's finger is this time pounding on the counter and his eyes are gleaming.
"So the stewardessand the copilot go back into the cockpit, and after a minute or two, here comes the captain. The captain leans over and says something to the Basco which the others can't make out, cause the captain's talking to him in confidence. Then, when the captain's done, the Basco nods his head, slaps the captain on the arm, and goes back and takes his seat in row twenty-six.
"Now this surprises that stewardess and copilot, and they ask the captain, `What'd you say to him that made him change his mind?' And the captain says, `Well, now, you got to know how to handle them Bascos. I told him that this section of the plane wasn't going to Bilbao.'"
The Frito-Lay man laughs, looking up from the jars of salsas and dips he's been stocking. Gramps and I shake our heads, trying not to grin, and my aunt Lou turns back to the produce case from the aisle where she was standing, listening. And for a short while Tremewan's Store rests suspended in the atmosphere of the joke, the same joke Mel told Jerry, the UPS man, the day before, and Bert, the school bus driver, the day before that. It's eight-thirty in the morning in December, and no customers have yet arrived. The soda pop case hums. Outside the two wide front windows, in the store's reflected light, magpies gather on the opposite shoulder of the highway where earlier Gramps scattered the day-old popcorn. The ignition of the Frito-Lay truck catches, its diesel engine turns over in the cold, and the magpies startle into the predawn dark. Inside, Mel, Gramps, and I haven't moved from our spots by the front counters, and Lou is the only one working at something, but leisurely, picking out the tired grapes and placing them in the pocket of her green apron.
Mel turns to me, grinning, and says, "Did you catch the new wrinkle?"
I hadn't, but I was going over the joke again in my head because I knew Mel would ask.
"I thought her up back in the deep freeze this morning: `Well, now, you got to know how to handle them Bascos.' That line of the captain's, that's a new one. I think it improves the story quite a bit."
My uncle Mel has a Basco joke for nearly every occasion, and he tells them so often that they become highly refined. The store's five cramped, overcrowded aisles are decorated with evidence of his sense of humor. Mounted on a wall above a rack of bright orange clothes is a camouflage cap with a set of antlers growing out its top: BASCO HUNTING HAT. Hanging from a hook next to a few gardening tools is a plastic bag full of Cheerios: BASCO DONUT SEEDS. On another hook above the bread and pastries, the looped plastic off a six-pack of beer is stapled to the end of a wooden ruler: BASCO FLYSWATTER.
The Basco never makes out too well in these jokes. In a culture where much of the humor relies on a more familiar race or ethnic group for the butt of its jokes, and in a culture where these jokes are almost always told by someone from outside that group, the Bascos provide their own butts for their own jokes. Case in point: Lou recently won a horse trailer in a 4-H raffle. Lou and Mel don't own any horses and neither has ever been a rancher. Lou just thought she'd enter to support the 4-H. When Lou found out she'd won, the first thing she said was, "Well, I don't have a horse, but I got part of one."
In response to this, Mel later said, "You know, it's not clear what she meant by that. She could have been talking about either a part of her or all of me."
Lou smiled and said nothing, which made it more clear.
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