The war in Iraq intruded on Dawn Stark's morning walk along the Truckee River, and on Bill Peltier's cheeseburger and fries breakfast at Mel's Diner. It consumed Santiago Cruz's thoughts as he shopped for a new pickup at Reno Ford Chrysler, not to mention Justin Street's date with Amanda Zimmerman at the Borders bookstore cafe.
They were all going about business as normal -- Stark's stroll along the Truckee River, which runs like a ribbon through Reno, is a rite of spring as sure as a robin's song -- but the newest normal means that for just about everyone, there is a sense of dread and foreboding.
"This war means I can't really be happy," said Stark, a retired elementary school teacher, "even though I really have nothing to complain about in my own life.
"When I see casino buses with tourists, I think, 'You've got to be kidding! Stay home and hug the people you love!' even though I know we need them, and that people need a break from war news."
"We can't really talk or focus on anything but the war and all its implications," said Street, a recent graduate of the University of Nevada. Zimmerman, an art student, nodded across their cafe table and held up the current issues of Newsweek ("How Bloody?"), the Economist ("The Fog of War") and U.S. News and World Report ("Attack Mode"). All had soldiers on the cover.
Here in Reno, there already was enough bad news to go around here. The snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains that frame the city, the river that runs through it and the neon barrage of the gambling palaces can't obscure the boarded buildings, empty lots and motel "vacancy" signs that tell the world northern Nevada's self-proclaimed "Biggest Little City in the World" is in a bad way.
Even with the championship tournament of the Women's International Bowling Congress taking place in the thick of downtown, the streets are almost as empty at 2 in the afternoon as they are at 2 in the morning.
Perhaps that is why, in talking war over two days with about two dozen people on the streets of Reno (pop. 180,000), nearly everyone -- supporters of the Iraq invasion or the doubters -- expressed the overwhelming feeling that the war has become too much to bear.
The war has people nervous, troubled and cranky. Almost all mentioned they worried for the loss of lives -- both allied troops and Iraqi civilian lives -- but they had myriad other concerns.
Some people said they thought the war, though necessary, would make the economy worse, and thus seal the fate of Reno. (Two Sands Casino employees -- a maid and a waiter -- said tourists have become fewer and tips smaller since the talk of war heated up in January, causing them to worry for their jobs and families.)
Others said they were more worried about terrorism against Americans here and abroad, what with suicide bombings and all. Others, like Grant Hiller, a part-time automobile salesman, complained that the media created a situation in which "every little nuance of the war is televised and scrutinized and criticized -- to the detriment of the troops."
"I mean, give me a break," he said. "The war is, like, two weeks old and people are calling it another Vietnam. Give the generals a chance to do their jobs. It makes me so angry I have to shut the TV off."
He is not alone in being frustrated by the nonstop war coverage on television.
Cruz, an electrical contractor, said he is channel-surfing all night long to avoid war news. "I can't stand watching CNN, especially," said Cruz, adding that he taught himself English watching the channel when he emigrated from Chile 10 years ago.
"With CNN," he added, "There's the zipper on the bottom telling you about movie stars, and then there's the reporter telling you about the battles, and then there's the screen showing you the bombings and the soldiers and the bodies. It's all too much."
Jennifer Garcia, a senior at the University of Nevada-Reno, is against the war. She worries that Americans are not getting the full story, despite the 24-hour news.
"When this is over, however many weeks, months -- or, God forbid, years -- what will we find out that we don't know now?" she asked. "I find myself worried abut this. I fear for our country. I fear that we will pay for this war in ways that we can't even imagine right now."
She was sitting at Mel's Diner, with "Rock Around the Clock" playing loudly on speakers over the counter, and Bill Peltier, a ski instructor from Salt Lake City, sitting two stools down, listening.
"I fear that the antiwar people are going to turn this into another Vietnam," he said.
"And I fear that America is going to be all alone in the world because we're letting Bush get away with murder," Garcia said.
"I guess we should have just let Saddam get away with murder," Peltier said, raising white-blond eyebrows.
"This is what I mean about not getting the whole or real story," Garcia said. "First, this was about 9/11. Then it was about weapons of mass destruction. Then it was about liberating the Iraqis."
"Does there have to be one reason?" Peltier said.
He and Garcia debated some more -- and could have gone on -- but they decided to shake hands, agreeing they would try to forget about the war for a little while, if their minds would let them.