Never the Twain shall you meet

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” once wrote literary giant Ernest Hemingway. But where did Mark Twain come from?

The answer is clearer than most of the fabulism that surrounds an author of such renown. Twain was a man equally connected to the Old South as he was to the Old West, specifically the Old West of the gold and silver rushes. So, my drive to Virginia City, Nevada. was permeated was the excitement of boy meeting his idol. Sure, it’s a touristy town. Staged gunfights? Check. Staged mine tours? Check. Staged train rides? Check, check. Despite all that, Virginia City is also the birthplace of Mark Twain. Not the birthplace of Samuel Clemens mind you (he was born in Florida, Missouri, 1835), but rather, the birthplace of the writer Mark Twain (1861). It was in that small town, at the local newspaper, The Territorial Enterprise, that Sam Clemens first signed a humorous travel yarn as Mark Twain. The rest of his story is the stuff of legends.

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, published in another paper in 1865, might have ultimately launched his cometlike career, but it was in Virginia City on that little Main Street that Mark Twain first began.

This was not my first trip there. I had paid my $5 and visited the town’s Mark Twain Museum (located in the basement of a tourist shop) several years back. When I had then emerged from the rickety steps after viewing the copy desk, the clerk had said to me, “Pretty disappointing, huh?”

“Are you kidding?” I replied. “Mark Twain was here. In that room, at that desk.”

The clerk had shrugged her shoulders. Five dollars well spent, I thought then.

This time I walked up to the front door of the museum only to notice the large handwritten sign that read “Museum Closed.” And by the looks of the building, realized it might be closed permanently. I was crushed. I consoled myself by wandering up and down the street, realizing that while my journalistic side might remain unfulfilled, the bartender side of me would be OK, because the ratio of bars to shops on that little street is two to one.

I wandered down and across the street, dodged a tumbleweed (literally) and ended up at the bar located in the entrance of the Silver Queen Hotel & Wedding Chapel (you just can’t make this stuff up). At the front door was a diorama with Mark Twain sitting at a copy desk with a placard that read “Original Site of the Offices of the Territorial Enterprise.”

Wait. What? Wasn’t that across the street? I asked the barkeep about it.

“Nope, the offices were here. That was the museum over there.”

I wandered back across the street and read the historical placard on the front door. “Near here were the offices of the Territorial Enterprise.”

Near here? Like down and across the street in a building that is still standing? The bartender in front of me chuckled (as did the bartender inside of me) but the journalist on the outside fumed. I had fallen for the oldest trick in the book. I had read the words, but I hadn’t understood the words.

In the bar business understanding the wording is crucial. Especially on a liquor label. That way you can distinguish the difference between “made from” and “made with.” One means it has a tiny fraction of a particular ingredient, and the other means it is wholly that ingredient. Which, if arguing about relative quality, might be incredibly important. Smoke and mirrors have long been part of the alcohol industry. So, putting a regional name on a product that only has an office or a P.O. box in that region has become common. Or using the name of a landmark water source, which in fact is just local city tap water. Finally, one must realize that being “bottled” somewhere means that it neither from that area or even made in that area.

All of which occurred to me as I sat at bar in the lobby of the Silver Queen.

“We have local liquor here too,” said the bartender after some moments of conversation. He placed the bottle in front of me and I studied the label closely.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

-Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

-“If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything,” is a common quote attributed to Twain. However, it highly doubtful Twain ever wrote that, because it does not appear in any of his extensive notes, papers, or books. Just saying.

-The newspaper where Mark Twain worked is now a bar. I wonder if the universe is trying to tell me something?

-I want my $5 back.