At around six on a Wednesday morning, I pulled off of U.S. Highway 99 at the Earlimart exit and stopped at the Thunderbird Café. I was a young kid sitting at the counter, drinking my coffee, getting a teenage hard-on at the waitress's cleavage, and feeling way young and way into seeing the true story for myself.
As I look out at having my coffee that morning, I miss the fact that there is no real café here at all. This is a breakdown whore bar without a liquor license. Even at six-o'clock in the morning you can see three of the red letters in the neon "Thunderbird" sign out front don't work and two parts of their "bird" do that on-off, on-off, on-off electrical shkkkkkssskkkkkkss flicker thing in random parts of its feathers. As for food? You got eggs, toast, pancakes and such in the morning and meatloaf sandwiches at lunch. But if you are too young, you can't use their bathrooms at night.
This is a place on Highway 99 thirty years ago -- trucker's territory -- midway between two places that dispatchers only care about when the load hasn't been delivered somewhere else. Local cowboys frequent too. And there lies the rub. We are right in the middle of the Great San Joaquin Valley -- the pre- modernist lifeline between America's North and South that is owned by folks ready to shoot anyone. This is a place for morning coffee with no questions asked. Walk gently 'cause you're the last one here.
For me, a Valley kid, I got it immediately. Close by, great coffee, some danger, some truth, and the smell of unwashed sex swirling around everyone but me. More real than high school, this is cool. So I'm saying to myself "This is one great café!"
No beard (or facial hair at all, really) but grown-up enough to have a cowboy hat and pick-up truck. And, by the way, no one has told me yet that it is not perfectly sensible to say to these folks drinking their morning café: "We all have jobs to do - one way or the other. For me, the job is to figure it all out through the power of the Valley's heat and dust." In response, pretty well everyone says "SHUTUP ASSHOLE." Oh, O.K. I sit down.
Almost at the same time, I see a truly evil eye, supported by a curled dog lip and two-hundred-fifty pounds, from a guy sitting at a table by the door that simply, fundamentally, and at a beast of the jungle level -- does not like me. My head moved to the right and there is a quick nod from the short-order cook behind the counter to confirm. Clear message from the Messenger of Death: "The waitress's cleavage is owned by me, the guy by the door, and if you don't believe me, ask the guy who's making the goddamned coffee. O.K.? If you don't get it, I will kill you." Not a word was said but I got the message loud and clear.
O.K., O.K., O.K., I am sitting still, eyes down and looking at what guys look at when they are young, horny, confused, and humiliated at the same time. Guys never lose. My eyes dart, and my revenge is subtle. I end up knowing that she really doesn't like him because she gives me a free donut. The donut is good but she hides her cleavage when she gives it too me. There is still a chance. I like her tits and she's turned on by my innocence.
So while I finish my donut and coffee considering that maybe donuts, tits, hard-ons, and death have something to do with each other, this guy next to me starts talking. About one thing and another and after awhile, he asks me what I'm up to. Another cup of coffee and a cigarette (or maybe two) later, it's like we're talking about the difference between donut holes and donut wholes, what's important to me, what's important to him, and we're both asking the same kind of questions and we're both talking about the same kind of stuff. Then he moves on to what young people like me are really thinking about these days. So I say, "For me, the job is to figure it all out through the power of heat and dust in the Valley" or something like that. And he says, "Yeah, I know what you mean." And then the Waitress brings him a donut as a solemn and ancient Goddess of acknowledgment of the time these two somehow share as one. Cool.
So, when we finish the coffee, this guy says, with no fame, "My name is Lefty Frizzell, what's yours?" I tell him, and he says that he appreciated the time we had together and wishes me good luck with the heat and dust and all that stuff. I picked up the check and I just assumed that he would take care of the tip.
I left the Thunderbird Café at about seven-thirty that morning and proceeded further west out on County Road J22. Woody talked about a ribbon, well, this is just a straight-out flat rip between two fields of cotton. After a few miles I noticed that the size of the cotton was getting smaller and there were more and more empty spaces thrown around into the flat planted fields. Not empty- empty spaces exactly. For sure, the plants were getting smaller and smaller, but there are contoured gaps of something missing in the endless view of flat green and white tops of this year's crop.
About five miles out, all the cotton plants on both sides of the road start to shrink a little. Finally they are about half the size expected a little further north in Tulare County.
Then, real fast, the missing cotton loses to the alkali flats.
There is no basic value to this space to anyone. Artists don't paint it, poets don't find it, brains revolt, and the backwood of guitars warp and bust. The Great Salt Lake Desert has something going over the alkali flats 'cause at least it is perfect visual emptiness. The alkali flats is down right, over the top, ugly land. There is no symmetry. There is no vision of the moon on earth. There is no nothing, there is no something. It's just ugly dirty graying soil doing a dry hump on something older with little rocks and other shit in it.
Fact is, it's all not to blame. Somehow, God pulled the covers off this whole territory when mountains got too tall on the Western Coast to stop the pacific flow of the tides and then the snow water stopped coming down from the East to fill this space with nothing but water, water and more water. There is no mattress after you strip the covers off this old Tulare Basin. It is complete exposure of the water's bed at the bottom. No mattress, springs, or frame. You have two-hundred feet of water as your cover for over three-million years, then there is nothing between you and your worst enemy. I can't sleep with this nightmare and I can't wake up. Ugly now. But not entirely pissed off. This place is, however, a little annoyed at anyone coming around any more.
The sun shines in many different ways, Here in the alkali flats, the sun shines closer to earth. This is a heat that keeps the morning drunks out of the territory. This is a heat that makes checker-board marks on your chest and back in exact replicas of the cotton weave of your t-shirt. This is a heat that is as serious as a Black Hills Snow Blizzard but is more subtle 'cause it doesn't show its presence till you start giving reciprocal sanctuary in the back of your boots to ants with names.
You have a choice with this heat. You can get mad, you can become mad, or you can get a cowboy hat, accept the whole thing, and then move on.
So I'm trying to decide my options with this heat and am feeling pretty special because I already have my hat, and I'm seeing first hand that the whole story about the desert being an ocean upside down and feeling good about being out of the rain is so incredibly lame. O.K.. There you have it. Somehow vastly more in tune with what counts out here in the truly ugly desert than those L.A.- type folks could even hope to experience. I'm feeling cool (and maybe a little groovy as well) driving along saying "Come out here for awhile and find your horse with no name! It's so goddamned hot that both you and your stupid horse would be dead before your made it over the pass into Bakersfield."
It's only eight-o'clock in the morning and its ninety-five degrees, ready to go up to a-hundred-fifteen for the tenth day in a row. The asphalt and my truck's tires are already sticking together in a heat melt as I drive on this little two lane road. Tires and road are making a pleasant slurping sound of connection and Sam the Sham comes on next. I'm out of my negative L.A. pull and everything is pretty O.K. when my cigarette ashtray starts smoking up a fit and stinking up the cab like crazy.
Now normally, when you dub out a butt in your truck's ash tray, it just goes out. But, in this case, it didn't. Now I already know that the basic problem here is that I never empty the ash tray of my truck. Not because I am lazy. I can see that it's full, most days I can find some time on my hands, and I understand that a full ashtray is much like a full garbage can. I mean, after you go through the whole story of pushing and stumping your garbage can to get one more piece of shit in there, you realize that, overall, it's just simply easier to take the can out there every so often than trying to fight the physics of containment.
No, it wasn't that I didn't understand the benefits of emptying my ashtray.
I didn't empty it because I figured all the cigarettes butts in there were cool.
Cigarette butts, regardless of whatever, are simply a cool thing. The more, the cooler. To have an overflowing ashtray in my truck was not only cool it was direct evidence of just how cool could be beyond those girls in high school that just didn't grasp the infinite truth of smoking a lot.
In this particular case, however, the ash tray was really smoking up so much that it was interrupting the whole line of my thinking and becoming really stinky.
Now there were a few options here.
First, I jabbed my fingers about on top of all the accumulated butts in a random fashion assuming that the fire was underneath and that I would smother the problem. That did not work, if fact, it seemed to make the problem worse. I had not felt that clear burn on the end of a finger that had, for the most part, found such problems before. Next, I simply knocked the top layer off of the overflow on the passengers floor board, and, given that it was rubber, any problem that was a problem wouldn't cause that much of a problem, but, nevertheless, went to the second level of random finger smothering. The smoke was starting to fill the cab.
The third option, which is really not an option, but must be exercised when there are no other options and there is a coincident, and totally unintentional requirement to do so, is that you pull the truck over to the side of the road to see what the problem is.
So, given that all criteria were present, I pulled my truck over and looked into the matter.
"There's a friggin' fire in my ashtray!" Jesus! No problem.
The solution is very simple.
Rather than fingers, one must use the butt of one's hand to grind the bottom smokers out from the top down, making sure that you aim toward the edges of the given ash tray. Then, after there is no more smoke coming out from the top, once again, knock any remaining "cold" cigarettes off onto the passenger's side so you can press down the little button in the back that releases the ash tray from its holder.
Open up your door, look around, and empty everything on the road and stomp them all out for sure. Reattach the ashtray, close the door, and drive on.
Now, of course, in retrospect, this is a pretty bad thing to do. But, I figured the old ugly lake bottom wouldn't mind, may even appreciate it, all things considered. So I lit another cigarette and moved on.
About eight or so miles out of Earlimart there is a train track and choice in the road. One can continue straight to Alpaugh, make a right and eventually end up in Fresno, or make a left and go to Allensworth. On the right corner is a little adobe building stuck in the middle of a flat brown dirt parking lot. In contrast to any other building, there is nothing particularly unique or interesting about this little place except one, very striking fact. It stands by itself, all by itself, as the only place that sells anything at all out here.
I turned left, followed the tracks, and went to Allensworth because it was time to stop. But, even if it wasn't time to stop, I had to go to Allensworth because that's where my job was these days.
Now, Allensworth is a fairly remarkable place.
Inspired by the highest ranking black officer in the Civil War, Colonial Allensworth's idea was to create a completely new community in the Wild West back about ninety years ago. In his vision, this would be a great city that would be owned and run by American Negroes. This concept attracted a number of remarkable, good (and some bad) folks that shared the vision and moved to the middle of a desolate desert with nothing but what they had. His idea apparently worked for a while and is now cast as a seriously important "state park" with a guard and gate, even its own Internet site
But way before it all become so official and Blacks and Whites become so clear, I arrived in Allensworth and saw a bunch of scattered stick houses arrayed across gray-brown soil across the flat truth of being here for no good reason. Way out of the range of any A.M. rock-n'-roll radio stations -- no water -- dead center in the middle of some other story that didn't make a whole lot of sense any more. When once there were many in a thriving town with an eye to the nation's future, now there were fifteen black and eight Mexican families living off of welfare, pensions, and day labor. Most days, regardless of what Ramparts, or The Guardian, or even Chavez said, bottom-line, nobody did much of anything any more for a bunch of good reasons.
A year before I'm here, my dad and I had a fight over something or another with my mom ending up over my body on the floor protecting me from his further victory. I guess my mom won, 'cause he stopped at that point. Which was really important at the time.
A little while later, he gets involved in this "Allensworth Story" based on a few of their men talking in his office about there being no more water anymore down there. So, he gets involved with a Farmer's Home Administration self-help loan thing, and they win some kind of proposal and get this money to build a new water system out there. The cut of the deal, however, is that the Feds only provide money for the goods, the people that live there have to do all the labor.
Out in the Central Valley it is not uncommon for people to drill over a mile or so straight down to bring water up for their lives, crops and livestock. Allensworth, however, had needed to drill down a little further than this since a lot of other farmers closer in to the snow seep of the Sierra Nevada had already irrigated with it, drank it at parties, and pissed it away.
Now more than a mile in the earth is a long way down deep hole. Pretty soon, Allensworth's well started sucking and sucking and sucking. Finally, it sucked so hard that it broke wild with its sucking. Started to suck rocks. Started to suck dirt. Started to suck gas and all kinds of nasty shit. After sucking for so long, it found a small little chunk of real water stuck away a million or so years ago underneath some big old nasty stones buried way deep under some other nasty rocks. It sucked and it sucked again until finally, the cool true splash of water rushed up into the air above.
"Damn this water stinks and tastes like it'll kill ya"
Turned out, this was exactly right. It had produced water, but water with enough arsenic in it to truly gag everyone and thing that drank it. Some said that the well had tried too hard. Others just said shit, shit, shit, and shit again.
While I had no real opinion on either side of the sympathy/shit issue, at the time. my Dad had very strong thoughts about blacks and whites.
"All men bleed red blood," he'd say as Huey and Bobby raised their fists on TV. Some kind of flashback to WWII I guess. He's pissed off at pretty well anything otherwise in the sixties. But black blood, white blood, his neighbors blood, his son's blood were all O.K. as long as they were getting chopped up and dying in some kind of combat. Whether it be Nam or the city streets of Oakland. It's all the same to him. Survival in hand-to-hand combat is the thing. Otherwise, you fuckin' deserved to die. Cowardice was a greater sin than a stupid and meaningless death.
So anyway, while I could see the sense in the whole black/white/red blood angle, but couldn't for the life of me understand why I should go to Viet Nam to die, I took the turn to Allensworth because I really had no choice but to work for my Dad on some federal project to bring water back to this part of the desert.
The basic idea of the job had two parts to it. First, according to the federal contract, I was supposed to organize the "full labor potential" of fifteen black guys and eight Mexican guys to build a new water system in the middle of the desert. Second, the basic task was to dig around twenty-one miles of three-and-a-half foot ditches around and through the town, clean all the clods out of the bottom of the ditch with a shovel, lay-down some PVC pipe, melt the pipe together with this weird blue glue under female-female couplings, and then cover it all back up with dirt. I focused on the second part of the job 'cause it seemed easier.
To dig a twenty-one mile ditch, you first need a six foot, hand-held dirt trencher. This is a machine that looks like a big chain saw that you walk behind. All the controls like up, down, go, and stop are on the handles. You turn it on, lower the blade, and dig motherfuckin' ditches. So what's so hard about this?
First day on the job. About half the town, about twenty people or so, are out to see the official launch of the project by watching me start digging the first fifty feet of trench.
Two things I thereby started to learn:
1. It is really hot here.
2. You don't turn a six-foot dirt trencher by pushing the handle in the direction you want it to go.
The second fact was more important that the first 'cause I already knew it was really hot out here. The power of the second was real clear 'cause I'm heading towards the end of where the ditch is supposed to go and I'm supposed to make a right turn and head off down the next road or run into this guys chicken coop. So I start to push the thing to the right but this sucker isn't moving an inch one way or another except straight ahead. Well, after the machine continued its digging across the road, churned up this guy's chicken coop, laid a perfect, dead-on line trench through his driveway, mowed through a manure pile, and then got caught up with some old buried barb wire that whirled around and around its snout for a while and then finally jammed the machine down, I learned that it is very important to know what you are doing before you do it.
The Mexican guy who lived there was apparently so pleased in the sight of my education that he pulled out two seven inch cigars and showed me how to bite and spit out the tip. We stuck them in our mouths, he lit both of them up with a kitchen match, and we started puffing and looking at each other. We're standing there puffing and smoking and looking at each other for a while and then his wife brings out a couple of beers for us. Popped the top, although it was around ten- o'clock in the morning, and everyone watching seemed pretty pleased at the moment and several folks came over to say they were glad I was there.
So. Third and fourth lesson so far:
3. Don't drink beer during the day -- wait until the night, go frog hunting, then lay out on the top of your truck looking at the stars. Otherwise, at least turn the trencher off and go home before you start drinking.
4. Turns out, if you want it to go one way or the other, then push down on the right handle to go left, push down on the left handle to go right.
I never accepted the premise of the fourth lesson. Fought it all the way around and through town.
Cool stuff. But since I am not black, Hispanic, African-American, or anything but a young white guy, after finishing the last trench three months later, it was time to move on.
Oh yeah, about the little adobe building on the corner.
I was too much a chicken-shit to ever go inside by myself, but I did accompany one of my neighbors one evening to get him a pack of Pall Malls at around evening time. My neighbor was an eighty-three-year-old retired seaman that, for obvious reason, had chosen to live out the remaining years of his life at the bottom of this ancient lake.
I drove back over the tracks, went down the three miles, and pulled into the dusty parking lot. He told me to stay in the truck and keep the motor running when we got there. He got out and walked over to the building and stood outside one of the small cracked windows that had some kind of red blanket over it serving as a makeshift curtain. As I watched from the cab, pretty soon, the front door opened, he went in, and was gone for what seemed like too long.
O.K., now what?
I can stay in my truck and wait, or I can go in looking for: I don't know, really.
A bunch of guinea hens run up and around and just almost bang into my tires.
It's definitely starting to get dark.
I'm thinking that darkness is one of the few true pleasures of this territory. And as time has gone on from there, I have often remembered an air filled with the sounds of thousands of madly chipping crickets mixed with the smell of eucalyptus trees, the hint of field grass from the foot hills, old cattle manure, and dust filled with the promise of the ocean. It was somehow all so honest and lean. Those nights enveloped and soothed and still call back to dreams about anything being possible. But that kind of thinking is bullshit now.
Right now, an old fifties jimmy pulls into the lot and two small, wiry Mexicans wearing torn straw hats get out, don't look at me or anything else, and head straight in.
So what am I doing here sitting in my truck with the motor running?
I'm getting a little nervous over my choices.
About a minute later, my Allensworth buddy comes out and he's got his Pall Malls and a couple of sixteen-ounce Burgermeisters that stick out of a small paper bag. He jumps in the truck, lights up, first off complains that they are stale, then pops one of the beers and says that it tastes like warm spit.
"O.K.," I say, " What's up?"
"What's up? Her name is Carmela. She works for some old Mexican guy. Used to be a black guy, but now its just for the Mexicans."
"What's just for the Mexicans?"
"Hoochy-couchy boy. They got liquor in there too."
"Don't really see any love in that equation" sounded dumb even as I said it then. I was too scared at the time to say anything else. But my buddy starts to tell me about the way the government is secretly replacing tobacco with cabbage and such and so the conversation turned to other topics.
As we drove on back over the tracks drinking our beers, I found myself mixing old Zorro movies and the sounds of a flamingo guitar with two small drunk Mexican guys with their hats in their hands, paying their money after jerking off inside Carmela, and then leaving smelling the eucalyptus trees this night.
Not really a lesson, but something was learned for sure.
After I let my buddy off, I turned back onto the road to Earlimart, went past
the adobe house with the pick-up still sitting out front, past the Thunderbird
Café, took the entrance ramp to North Highway 99 and headed for my
home in Visalia, forty miles up the road.
© 1998 D.L. Zimmerman, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
Even though I left California's Great Central Valley over twenty-five years ago, every so often I find some of its dust in my back pocket and remember the sun's power to make everything equal.