[This soiled dove was from Cripple Creek, CO.]
We watched January turn into February in Silver City, New Mexico. A former mining town from the 19th Century, was a place where miners, tired and in need of a drink and a little love to purchase, would come up from the valleys and down the mountains…and find paradise amidst the prickly pear cactus.
And, the first person many of these rough and dusty men sought was Madam Millie. I’ll get back to Miss Millie in a minute.
By association with everything about the Southwest USA and our neighbors to the south, Mexico, our 51st state, the last thing we expected was a winter storm that would freeze our water line, render us helpless in the 13 F weather, keep our inexpensive (read ‘cheap’) Wal-Mart space heater churning full-time, unable to cook (dirty dishes, remember), flush the toilet or even wash our hands, instead we resorted to pouring a noxious (and according to California Law) carcinogenic liquid, RV antifreeze, made from glycol and a few dozen chemicals down into our fragile plastic gray tank (dish water) and black tank (icky-poo stuff from the toilet) to keep them from bursting. We seemed to be stuck inside Silver City with the Palm Springs blues again.
[That was a long run-on sentence. Not all my fault. It’s my inner William Faulkner trying to get out.]
So, what did these American Nomads do to pass the time? We went to the Silver City Museum. It was a beautiful Victorian building that was once the home of a restless guy who wanted to make a fortune in Silver. I naturally gravitated to the shop in search of yet another Ideal Tee Shirt, a coffee mug and a book(s). The first book I spied was titled: “Madam Millie”. It was the story of Nellie Clark, who worked her way up from the mattress to running the most successful brothel in town. (She died as recently as the late ’90’s, I believe). In another book I found in the local library, “Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains”, by Jan Mackell, I had a chance to read about the history of the girls who followed the miners, plied their trade, were murdered, died of disease, wandered off to another boom town, married clients and lived in luxury, became school teachers…or simply lived as a widow or spinster in a town that eventually mined all the silver that the hills could produce.
Millie Clark had the proverbial heart of gold…her girls would hide Easter eggs for the poor children of Silver City and Nellie was known to give away lots of money to charity and food to the needy. I was fascinated by the book because local history, however tawdry, is what I seek to learn about when I travel. The brothels were, without question, an important aspect of the Old West. The “Red Light” book was researched and written by a woman historian. I’d be reading it right now, but the $25.00 ( + tax ) price tag put me off. I walked out with a tee-shirt, a mug, a guide to the wildflowers of the Southwest, and a mental image of working girls (some slender and beautiful and some plump and plain) and sweaty cowboys and miners drinking whiskey and beer in the saloons and honky-tonks along Bullard Street. (I should mention at this point that there was a madam in one of towns of the west who weighed over 300 pounds! She was extremely popular, and to this day, the town celebrates her with a festival in her honor…her name escapes me.)
[Brothel tokens. Source: Google search.]
Thoughts of tight corsets, buckled shoes, flowers in the raven-hair, ribbons, rouge and lipstick and thick perfume filled my mind as I sat in a distressed leather seat of the public library to get warm and to allow Mariam a chance to answer work-related emails using a strong WiFi signal…something that was a bit dicey at our RV park.
[A popular brothel in Cripple Creek, CO. The madam stands at the far right with her hands on her hips. Source: Google search.]
The warmth of the library made me sleepy. I put my head back and let my mind drift into a very delicate state of half-dreaming…
I was sitting in the Buckhorn Saloon. Sitting on my knee was Ivy…the loveliest example of womanhood one was to find west of the Pecos. I had a sack of silver nuggets in my pocket, so her affections were assured. I had a tumbler of whiskey on the table in front of me alongside a glass of cool beer. It tasted nothing like Bud Lite. Outside, on Bullard Street, the dust of a hundred horses and half as many wagons rose in the air. I heard gun shots. Two miners had stood in the middle of the street and were arguing over the honor of a painted lady. When the gun smoke cleared, one guy remained standing. He turned to look for Irene, but she had gone off with the preacher’s son.
[Bullard Street in Silver City, NM]
The gun shot made me jump in the library chair. Someone had dropped a book on a table nearby. Mariam was busy in a quiet cubicle so I told her I was going for a walk. I needed to clear my head. I was confused as to what time it was, what day it was, what year it was…and what century it was. I walked over to Bullard Street. SUV’s and sensible KIA’s lined the curbside. I went into the Tiny Toad saloon. Guys with beards and laptops sat around drinking craft beer.
I went and picked up Mariam and we drove back to the RV park and sat shivering until the space heater had the inside temperature up to the mid 50’s. We decided we’d rest a bit and, because we had no water, we decided to go listen to some music at Diane’s restaurant and bar and have dinner.
The guitarist, who had a gray beard and wore a harmonica neck brace, was playing a Jefferson Airplane song. It was followed by Wild Horses by the Stones. I thought it was time for Dylan, and, like he could read my mind, he played Mr. Tambourine Man. Our waitress was a young woman who wanted to be a jazz singer. She wore no rouge on her cheeks.
“…play a song for me. I’m not sleepy and I have no place I’m going to.”
But, I did have someplace I was going to…back to our camper…the one with no running water.
I was confused by the old and the new in this town that capitalized on the old and the new.
“See our old houses…see our ghosts…feel the sense of history” said the pamphlets. But, all we found were pottery shops and jewelry counters.
We went back to the Tiny Toad to have a night-cap. This wasn’t like the saloons in the faded pictures I saw at the museum. Miners with their boots on the foot rail, the spittoons, the foamy mugs of beer, the pretty girls of the night at the edges of the photo, standing for a moment at the center of the attention, and then off to the fringes of the picture frame. Like they were in life, on the edges of society, young and beautiful in their youth, but often forgotten when age or disease pushed them from the parlors of velvet to the shack on the hill.
I looked at a pair of celery stalks in a jar on the bar in front of me. The veggies got me to thinking…
“What’ll it be today, Clem? The usual red-eye whiskey and beer?”
“Naw, Frank, I’m dusty from the trail. Think I’ll have a Bloody Mary this morning.”
At the other end was a gum-ball machine (did I miss something by not going to Bartenders School?.) I shrugged and ordered a real man’s drink. I motioned for the barkeeper to approach. I cleared my throat and boldly asked for a Hot Toddy.
[In an old-time saloon?]
[In an old-time saloon?]
As I was trying to sleep that night, I kept thinking of Nellie and her girls. I read that Nellie was buried only about five miles from our RV park. Were there flowers on her grave? I thought about one of the girls who was murdered (details are unclear), but unlike the death of a prostitute (then and now) that usually went unnoticed, the girl’s sister came and claimed her body and took it home for a proper burial. Most of the girls, I suspect, drifted away when the mines began to close in Silver City. When they died in another boom and bust town, did anyone shed a tear for them? I recalled reading about a madam in Cripple Creek, who, when she died, was given the largest funeral the town has ever seen. But the thousands of others? Those females who lived by their perfume and charm…?
Did anyone say a prayer for their poor souls? I feel a deep sorrow for those broken-spirited, homeless, drifting, nomadic restless souls…they usually die alone. That has to be the worst way to leave this beautiful life and this unique planet.
When we drove out of Silver City the next morning, we crossed the Continental Divide just a mile or so from town, from Nellie’s house, from the museum, from the Tiny Toad Saloon.
The Continental Divide is a geographical line. But among the lives I had been reading about, there were divides of all kinds. When it rains, the water flows either to one ocean or to another. People live lives like that…anything that comes down on your soul, can make you flow one way or another.
But, in the end, we all end up in the same ocean that contains all our collected dreams and all our collected sins and all our collected virtues.
When the town decided that one of Nellie’s brothels was to be torn down and replaced by the new Post Office, one old-timer told Nellie: “I don’t need the mail as much as I need you.”