Wandering American Culture

There was a phantom on the highway. Just east of San Bernardino, a ghost shadow strolling across four lanes of I-10 at two in the morning. I saw his brief outline in my headlights. He wore a tattered blanket over his head like a shawl. He looked dirty, and was dragging a trash bag. The 18 wheeler on my right blew its air horn and flashed its lights. At 90 mph he was there for a brief second and then gone. I wondered if I hadn’t seen him and changed lanes would I have accidently run him down? And just where the hell was he going at two am in this deserted part of the world?

I’ve been staying out in the desert east of Los Angeles in the small town of Desert Hot Springs. For the last two weeks I’ve been house sitting for friends while they’re back East visiting relatives. It’s a somewhat large house with a backyard and a pool. I’m in the downstairs guestroom. With its own hallway and bathroom it’s about the size of my apartment. I’m not used to lording around all this space. I’m not used to not hearing my neighbors scream. At home I wake up to the roar of passing Harleys, dogs barking and loud obnoxious music. Out here the wind blows, and there’s silence.

This time in the desert has given me the opportunity to start writing the new book. It’s a book I’d thought I wouldn’t write, or to be more honest, a book that at first I wasn’t that interested in writing. I had other plans for the next book. Plans that I may still get back to. But the idea for this book came when I was writing a chapter for my memoir. There was a time in my life when I worked for punk bands, as a roadie, and then a road manager. The chapter dealt with a small portion of that time, the very end, and it wasn’t a very good time. But that’s not why I’m hesitant to write about it. Unfortunately it’s more a case of not being able to remember everything. And if I’m going to write a book about touring I prefer to work from complete memories. I like to have the whole story in mind before I start to write. Usually I knock out the gist and flesh in the details. I know where it begins and where it’s going to end. With nonfiction this usually isn’t a problem. But writing about this part of my life I hit areas where I just don’t remember. There’s huge blank spots where I’m stopped dead in my tracks. I was pretty damn loaded about 90% of the time. The other 10% I was asleep – maybe. In a room full of fucked up people I was probably the most fucked up one there.

So you can see my dilemma. Right now I’ve got the beginnings of four chapters – tales from tours I’ve told a million times. Yet they’re only each about 2000 words and then I’m stuck in the murky parts where who knows what the fuck happened – obviously not me. I’ve outlined a dozen other chapters and like a lot of my writing once I start to dig in the memories flow. But it’s becoming clear I need to interview some of the other people who were there. I’m hoping their memories will help jolt mine. Although I was talking with Anna Lisa, my ex, and she was going on and on about a time I sort of remember, a time I should remember, and it was a complete blank.

I was thinking maybe I could write it as snippets of memory, or like flash cards of the past. But unless you have ADD or the attention span of a goat wouldn’t it be too vague and unsatisfactory to read such small amounts tacked onto each other?

Trying to piece it all together, I sit on a lounge chair in the backyard with a notebook and collect my thoughts. During the day it’s hot as hell. Some days it’s been 110 degrees or more. When my brain is fried or I just can’t think, I take a dip in the pool and sit in the shade drying off. It helps with the memories. It helps me think.

Besides that I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and worse, watching TV. Which is something I don’t do a lot of. I have a TV at my apartment, but it isn’t hooked up to cable. I only use it to watch DVD’s. I’d rather read or watch a movie than television. Although everyone I know says cable shows are better than movies. I’ve seen The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and The Wire. But I’m not sure I would say they’re better than movies. I still like to go to the theater. I love the big screen, the surround-a-sound, even the idiot behind me yammering on his cell phone. I like to munch bad popcorn, breathe in the stench of hot dogs, and hold my piss until my back teeth are floating. That’s the way to see movies. That’s having some fun.

But this house has a huge TV sitting in the middle of the living room hooked up to cable – minus the premium channels like HBO. A huge TV that mocks me, like it’s saying, “Oh, so you don’t watch TV?” And then I grab the remote and flip through 70 channels of the strangest shit I’ve ever seen. A pudgy spike-haired hipster cooks über scary mega-calorie food. A game show hosted by a cab driver as he quizzes his passengers in his New York City cab. A grotesque steroid infused mullet-wearing bounty hunter and his equally over-enhanced wife chase “criminals” on the lam from the bail bondsman. A family of dark-haired voluptuous women bicker with one another in Los Angeles. A bunch of supposed social rejects feign interest in driving trucks up and down a shitty frozen road through the tundra of Alaska.

Noticing that I was wasting time, a lot of time, I made a rule. I wasn’t going to watch TV during the day, only at night, and only after I’d completed a fair amount of writing. But then the weather turned. It got hotter. It was 116 in the shade and there was no breeze. Hiding inside with the AC on, I opened my MacBook Pro and stared at the screen. It stared back at me. I made a face. It remained nonplussed. Nothing. I drew a blank. I sat there on the couch sweating, and thinking, and sweating. And then I turned on the TV. MSNBC was having a weekend marathon showing back-to-back hour-long episodes of Locked Up: a series filmed inside various prisons where they interview inmates and guards and document all the drama and insanity. It’s a weird sick voyeuristic extravaganza. A celebration of everything that’s wrong and right about modern television interspersed with ads for every stupid product imaginable. I sat mesmerized all day as the sun moved across the sky, the temperature lowered and my eyes began to ache.

When I finally turned off the TV I couldn’t move. The only sound was the whir of the air conditioning. For some reason I was starving. I thought about food, the kind I would never eat. Like Burger King, diet Dr. Pepper, Reese’s peanut butter cereal, frozen yogurt bars, and Olive Garden’s all you can eat pasta.

I grabbed the car keys and headed out to the grocery store.

Indian Canyon Drive. A due south straight line of cracked two-lane blacktop, leaning telephone poles, turbine windmills, and nothing else. The road cuts through the desert from Route 62 out of 29 Palms into Palm Springs. The view slightly distorted by the shimmering heat. Just shy of civilization it all looks like the backside of the moon, or at least a Nevada landscape. In the 110 degree afternoon sun a man covered in dust with a large backpack walks along on his way to nowhere. There is nothing for miles on either side of him. Why is he here? What’s his story? And where the fuck is he going?

Desert Hot Springs isn’t Palm Springs. There’s no big money. No Hollywood stars, or Vegas Rat Packers, or Sonny Bono look-a-likes. Once a tourist destination for its odd collection of hot spring health spas the surrounding community has been hit hard by the financial crisis. In the flatlands around the downtown area there are blocks where every other house is vacant and boarded up. “The Corners” is a neighborhood where drugs are openly sold. Known as “Parole Central,” the city is used as a dumping ground for the state of California’s unwanted parolees, the community being too poor to complain.

I stand in line a Von’s supermarket and watch local meth-head drama unfold. A toothless leather skinned mom in a wife beater and shorts with three screaming kids dressed in dirty t-shirts buys ice cream bars, corn chips, soda, white bread and bologna with food stamps. When the cashier tells her she doesn’t have enough to pay for it all, she omits the bologna. The oldest girl yells and gets smacked. A man walks in. I’m guessing he’s dad, or at least a facsimile, because he yells at the girl to stop crying. Covered in tats and wearing baggy clothes he looks like Eminem, with a bleached blonde buzz cut, sporting gold chains and a cell phone clipped to his belt.

“No Colt 45?” the man says.

The woman shrugs. The kids are silent. The man yells, “fuck!” and storms off. I watch them leave the store. The cashier says something about that being a shame. I’m not listening but I’m looking at the cashier. She has to be at least 70 and color coordinated with a white pompadour and white polished fingernails. She’s constantly talking. It’s like some monologue that has nothing to do with me or the other customers.

The older couple in front of me unloads their shopping cart. It’s full of lite frozen dinners, vitamin enriched sugarless fruit juices, calcium fortified low fat milk, a loaf of low carb bread, diet Pepsi, and breakfast cereals sporting “whole grain” labels. The woman smiles at me. The old man watches the cashier and holds his credit card aloft waiting to run it through the machine.

I put my vegetables and fruits on the conveyor belt. When it’s my turn the cashier looks at my items and strangely doesn’t say anything. I pay and walk outside into the setting sun. After the heavily air-conditioned grocery store, the heat feels oppressive.

Exiting the parking lot, I pass the toothless leather skinned mom holding up a cardboard sign that reads, “Anything helps. God Bless you.” Her three kids are huddled on the sidewalk eating ice cream bars. Behind them the man sits in a battered pickup truck talking on his cell phone.

At the main intersection I take a left instead of a right, intending on driving around before going back to the house. A small Mexican boy stands at the curb and spins a large sign for a pizza place. A fat bearded guy in a motorized wheelchair whizzes by in a hurry. Two girls with babies on their hips wait for the light. An El Camino on 22″ rims rolls past honking his horn.

Five minutes of driving and the town gives way in a hurry. The desert stretches out across the valley to the Santa Rosa Mountains. In the distance I can see the traffic on I-10, and then farther away is Palm Springs. At an intersection with a gas station and a half empty used car lot I decide not to go any further and turn west into the sunset to head back.

A dusty road, sparsely populated, the nearest house a quarter mile away. A young black girl with braids, maybe nine or ten years old, walks along the dirt shoulder with a backpack on and a lunchbox in her hand. The sun has almost gone down behind the mountain range and it will be dark soon. What is she doing out here by herself? Don’t her parents care? I want to pull over and ask her if she’s okay, does she need a ride. It feels wrong to just do nothing. But I’m an ex-felon. I don’t live here. I’m afraid of how this would look to anyone in authority and instead of taking a chance of my actions being misinterpreted I keep driving.

My friends who own the house feed the local birds and animals. Part of my job is tossing seeds to the ever-hungry horde. I throw a large scoop full out the backdoor. The yard becomes alive with activity as quails and bunnies scamper towards the food. Fat pigeons and mourning doves stop their weird mating dances and peck the ground. A chipmunk pops it head up out of its hole and charges into the feeding frenzy.

People talk of nature as if it is some beautiful nurturing thing. Yet if you watch animals feed they have no problem pecking out the eyes of the weakest to get them out of the way. I once watched a documentary on the birthing of seal pups and their first push of life into the ocean. Only to be devoured by killer whales who tossed their limp bodies around like they were playing with toys, before chomping them down whole.

We’re all somewhere in the food chain. Some of us lower, some higher. But really it depends on the food chain you’re a part of. There are people stuck in whatever it is they’re doing. Others willingly participate with no choice but what they have. And still there are those that have checked out completely – so far left field they’re barely a blip on the radar.

Tomorrow my friends come home and I drive back to Los Angeles. The newspaper says there’s a heat wave. Which in LA means 95 to 100 degrees. After being in the desert this will be nothing. I’m grateful for this time I’ve had to write and the generosity of my friends for letting me stay here. But I need to get back to a city that has health food stores and real restaurants. I feel more comfortable with city noise and irritating neighbors. I miss walking to get coffee and the morning paper. I like to see street people, the local thugs, and tired hookers coming home from a hard night.

It’s dark outside, the sun has gone down, there’s a gentle breeze and the North Star is bright in the sky. A bunny hops around and I watch it for a second, then stare at my computer and begin to write.

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