Monday, November 19, 2012

Road Time

You've been on the road much of the day, striking out into territory you have not visited for some time.  The gradual shift from southern California urban, mountainous and green, giving way grudgingly to scruffy patches of desert covering, reminding you of teenage boys trying to grow enough beard to look older.

Well past Victorville and heading east, you are aware of something missing.  Your first and several subsequent temptations are to wonder what important thing you forgot to pack.  Reading glasses?  Your cell phone.  A quick pat to the pocket reassures you about the glasses.  The cell phone has been telling you to be alert for various turnoffs, and so it is not the phone.

Then you realize what the missing thing is.  Trees.  You are truly in desert now and as if to prove it, you pass several separate sites where homes or businesses have surrendered to what must be the monumental boredom of living here.  And of course t e sun, causing paint to peel, the grain of wood to shrivel.

For some days now, you have been writing in this platform about the days and years and times you spent working the concessions with the Foley and Burke Shows, the memory of one event triggering things not so much forgotten as tucked aside, waiting for discovery.

Being on this road, which is now renamed as I-40, recalls the most protracted trip of your then life, moving along this same route when it was still US 66, filled with two great staples of nostalgia, the road signs for Burma-Shave, and the succession of truly awful attractions advertised by the gas stations along the way.

You'd thought a good deal about these attractions as you drove yet another highway, what used to be Route 99, the spine of the Central Valley.  Some of the awful attractions were free wildlife exhibitions, which more often than not turned out to be a few tired snakes or toads, the occasional lizard, and perhaps a few arthritic rabbits, stuck in makeshift cages made from milk carriers or fruit boxes.

There were two-headed calfs and other biological outrages, petting zoos, and even an artificial trout pond.  When you first saw these things, you knew straightaway that they had nothing to do with any reality you'd been attached to.  You thought of such places when you were "with it," traveling with the carnival, because the Midway itself is a cheap illusion, so cynical in the final analysis that you came to realize you were in a large sense an innocent abroad in a larger Midway, and didn't you want to extend your own illusions to potential readers in much the same way you thrust baseballs at passersby, urging them, "Let's try the ball game."

Things are, of course, what they are as well as metaphor.  The road cannot help being a metaphor, that humming ribbon of concrete between cities along the Central Valley.  The Midway cannot help being the Midway.  On your own turf, you have some power to tantalize others with the illusions of being with it.  The moment you are off the Midway, you are no longer powerful, you are a mark.

"I can't see that college has done much for you,"  Ronnie told you more than once.  "I don't mean that to bring you down.  What I mean is, I see you being smart in ways you might not have got from college.  You could as easily have got them from the Show."

You were tempted to tell him that being with it had not taught him anything about cars or the individuals who sold and repaired them, but such observations only increased his anxiety to find another "perfect" tuna salad sandwich.

At one or other of the "tear down" nights, when the entire carnival decomposed, deconstructed, transported itself sometimes upward of a hundred miles, only to have to set up again, you'd lost a wrist watch.  True enough, being a gift, it had more of a sentimental value than a practical one, to the point where you resolved to replace the lost watch with something more reflective of how well you were doing "with it."

Almost as though he could read your intentions, seeing them as some bar code on your forehead, Papa Louie thought he had a watch that would be the equal of any you could find in the jewelry shop you'd intended to consult in Salinas.  The price was at just the level to convince you that the watch was authentic, not some clock variation of the Cadillac Papa Louie had sold Ron.

"I won't take a cent from you,"  Papa Louie said, "until you've worn the watch for at least two days, then come to agree with me that it was made for you."

Things developed without a hitch, Papa Louie even insisting on yet another day of trial,  Two weeks into your ownership of this handsome Longines Whitnauer with a metal bracelet and luminous dial, you happened to join Ron's friend George, at the cook house, where you were both in urgent need of coffee.

"You won't think it rude of me to ask,"  George said, "but did you by any chance--any chance at all--acquire that wrist watch from Papa Louie?"

"As a matter of fact--"  you began, but George was already out of his seat.

"Son of a bitch,"  he said, several times.  "I want you to know I consider you completely innocent."  He strode toward the Midway with a murderous stride.

Sitting in your pet friendly motel in Kingman, you are not far from I-40, close enough for you to be aware of the occasional swish of a passing car on Andy Divine Boulevard.

This road, this desert, this metaphor is nothing like the Routes 66 or 99 of your earlier days; this desert is still purple in the lengthening afternoon shadows.  This desert is still a bitch to be heading west on at about five or five thirty, when the sun is not merely in your eye, it is an anarchistic presence, making everything else seem to fragment.

This desert, once precious because it was lonely and mysterious, has your goddamned iPhone chattering at you about remaining on I-40 instead of taking a turn-off even you know not to take.  There are no advertisements for amazing discoveries, only reminders that real estate prices "out here" are a thousand times less than they are in Los Angeles.

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