Sunday, May 2, 2010

No Past Necessary

Flagstaff, Arizona

Monday, May 3, 2010

Spent three days in Palm Springs, California, then over to the Los Angeles area and after that a quick stop in Las Vegas. Each state deserves its own blog entry, but things are moving too fast for that.

I'd like to thank Uncle Ed for his Palm Springs hospitality. Besides showing me around the city, he took me out to the Salton Sea and up into the mountains to a town called Idyllwild.

If you're famous in Palm Springs, when you die they name a street after you. I got off the freeway onto Gene Autry Trail in the middle of a dust storm. On the way in I passed Dinah Shore Boulevard and Bob Hope Road. In Palm Springs and all the neighboring municipalities along California 111--Palm Desert, Cathedral City, Ranch Mirage and so on--the motto is Live Long, Play Golf, and Die, sort of a riff on the Vulcan benediction from Star Trek. In fact, driving along i11 is sort of a star trek of its own. Surrounded by mountains.

There's something about Southern California that an outsider can't put his finger on. Not that there are anything but outsiders there. Or rather, insiders who came from somewhere else. It would take about a week and a half to fit in as if one had been born there. No past necessary. I've lived in places where you don't officially belong unless you've been in town for five generations. Not in California. No accents to speak of, no traditions to uphold, no mysteries to penetrate. Just get in your car and hop on the freeway and drive. Get there, get out, and stay.

Maybe it's the feeling you get that you've been there already, all your life. In the movies and on TV. With the Lone Ranger and Tonto and John Wayne in the dusty desert back lots, with Sean Penn and Robert Duvall in the hot ghetto streets of LA, with Eric Estrada on the endless miles of crowded highways, with Jed Clampett and Granny in the terraced hills of Beverly.

A twisted two hundred fifty miles to the northeast, past arid mountainsides and flat empty deserts, lies Las Vegas, the strangest city in America. There's no excuse for it, really, especially now that there are Indian casinos in every corner of every state. But it keeps getting bigger and more bizarre and outdoing itself for unmitigated tastelessness year after year. This is a city that simply could not have been imagined by the likes of Nero and Caligula and one that would have seemed like a fond pipe dream to the denizens of Sodom and Ninevah. Beside the gluttonous and greedy neon and steel of the Vegas strip Walt Disney's goofy imaginings look trite and amateurish and comparatively classy. Illegals stand on the sidewalks handing out cards advertising call girls. Senior citizens with walkers pump Social Security money into slot machines. Vacationing middle Americans galumph through the streets sipping brewskis and looking for the next buffet. Las Vegas is a city that celebrates shlocky former boy sopranos, louche German animal tamers, washed up comedians. And of course Elvis. Elvis the bloated, the purple, the dead on the toilet. Michael Jackson's death was the perfect career move for him, Vegaswise. He's just getting warmed up.

Having said all that I hasten to add that I had a great time in Las Vegas. I met Laurine, who was there on a business trip, and daughter Katie. We stayed in a modest suite in the Venetian, which was only about the size of a small Cambodian village. And I won more than I lost in the casinos.

After all that the utter practicality of the Hoover Dam seemed trivial. Hydroelectric power? Is that all? No gambling? No decadence? I slipped over it and out of Nevada and up into the mesas of Arizona and it was like shutting the door on a frat party and walking over to an ivy-covered library. Quiet and meaningful and clean, at least by comparison.


Anonymous said...

Your Uncle Ray highly disapproved of gambling but we won't tell...

Peter Teeuwissen said...

My parents, too. In that respect they were smart, even if their objections emanated primarily from religious prudery. I don't know about you, but my upbringing has permanently deprived me of the ability to derive much pleasure from gambling, which I suppose acts as a kind of safety valve.