Arizona: Lost In America


We were heading for Truth Or Consequences – possibly without capitals.
We had been in LA too long, and lasted three hours on a jaunt to Tijuana which had incorporated three crashes, one arrest and an occasion to bribe a police officer. So we turned right, went out into the desert, and kept going, heading across Arizona towards what the locals call “T Or C”, New Mexico.
Our route had been meticulously organised – using a system of heading for places with the names we liked best. We were looking for Enterprise and Modesto, Jean and Hurricane. Blue and Luna, Maverick, Mobile, Eureka.
It’s some other world out there. Open the map and it’s as if some peculiarly poetic lunatic has covered the page with their favourite words, the type of haiku you find on fridges: Carefree, Bumble Bee, Strawberry, Snowflake, Superior, Inspiration, Happy Jack, Octave, Constellation. Names like Sparks, Chloride, Edith, Beaver or Bowie confirmed the suspicion that all that sun and space, heat and freedom, had affected the desert’s inhabitants irredeemably.
T Or C had been Hot Springs until a Radio Show competition and a vote on April Fools Day.
When I asked the cashier about Truth Or Consequences, he said it was “real big for those golf cart races the senior citizens have.”
Never mind New York or LA, this is the real America, for crazies, where anything is possible. Everything looked like a movie. The desert looked like a Western. The towns looked like David Lynch and The Coen Brothers were actually making documentaries. People had movie characters’ names and spoke in dialogue.
Late night drug stores all seemed to be begging to be held up. Freight trains crossed the prairie. Tumbleweed really did exist.

AMERICAN RENTAL: Hertz Reconstruction
We were driving a Chrysler New Yorker, which Hertz had generously offered us after we had, rather less generously, dented a couple of the cheapest cars money can hire. With demand exceeding availability, they upgraded us to something like a stylish Rolls Royce, complete with removable steering wheel, quadraphonic stereo, and a computer information panel which told you what temperature it was (outside), how many miles you could go before you last before you ran out of petrol. In the desert, you needed something like this.
We customised it in an underground car park, to make it look meaner, gently clipping the wings, stripping some of the plastic coating on the bumpers until a mass of rubber tentacles tipped loose, like metal whiskers. We called it The Silver Catfish.
In Tijuana, the Silver Catfish was still TOO fine. Ploughing past the car parks before the border, we headed into mayhem, where insurance does not apply, and rather too many of the locals were TRYING to have car crashes with us to make a quick buck. A hasty U-turn prompted the arrest and the bribe. It felt very clichéd (a Touch Of Evil revisited), realising even the law was lawless.

Anyone can kill you in America. In the desert, in Hunt and Jackpot, Valmont and Loving, in Pie Town and Crow Agency, the disparity between Normal and Crazy were all but indistinguishable.
The car radio reports and local papers were full of stories like:
– the 15 year-old who murdered a sailor and wounded two others had 55 prior arrests.
– In Florida, 5 college students were murdered in two days, only identifiable by their dental records. Money magazine had recently voted the region the 13th most desirable in America. Unlucky for some. One girl’s breasts were removed and placed on shelves as bookends. Another was decapitated and her head left spiked on the turntable of her stereo. A note ‘CATCH ME IF YOU CAN’ was stuffed in her mouth.
A kid called Trauma had led a gang of subway muggings, randomly slashing their victims’ pockets open, arriving at the station chanting their gang’s name: “FTS ! FTS !”
Fuck that shit.
The headline in the paper as we had our all-American breakfast (eggs sunny side up, hash brown, OJ, all the coffee you could drink) covered the entire front page.

American adults had children’s names: Rip, Skip, Sandy, Randy, Chuck, Lanny, Lenny, Lonny. And that was just the women heh-heh. Friendly people introduced themselves.
“My name’s Bob Dippy.”
“And I’m Terry Blankets.”
Bob was a Sherriff’s deputy. Deputy Dippy.
In turn, ours seemed inadequate and, frankly, disappointing.
We checked in to American motels under names which were more… entertaining – borrowed from the papers or the TV: Blaze di Stefano, Cary Zackoucnaglu, John Zak, Drum Hadley, Vince Morocco, Art Rasco, Kent Shockneck, Larry Changes, Jimmy Ohmiller, Wolf Drexler.
The motels had bed massagers, a rusty machine costing 25 cents. The massager rumbled and shuddered like a concrete mixer and gave you a bewilderingly unpleasant sensation for several hours, keeping you and the other residents awake.

In the desert, there are a million small strange towns full of wacky, wild, weird Americans. Real Americans. Good Americans. They talk about the weather, about cars and guns. About the NFL or the NRA. You end up looking on the bright side, because they do. You find yourself wishing people “have a nice day” and meaning it.
They were so innocent. When they asked me my name and I said, “Clay Bender”, they believed me. I said “Gary Sick” (actually Jimmy Carter’s campaign manager), so I could say “I’m Sick. Gary Sick.” Occasionally, I felt bad about adopting the name of deceased Albert Eyebath.
Outside a branch of Carl’s Jn (where dyslexics and illiterates go to get their burgers), we met a woman with a battered tangerine and turquoise Dodge Sedan. She was wearing a tangerine and turquoise trouser suit. We joked to her about dressing like her car.
“Sometimes I like to do that,” she admitted sincerely.
“It cheers me up.”
It cheered us up too.

Taking her lead, we resolved to buy new outfits every time we saw a Thrift store, dressing in silver as often as possible. We bought red flannel smoking jackets, lime green and yellow chequered golf trousers, violet silk shirts all for $ 2-3 bucks. The thrift stores were in strange people’s strange sitting rooms or garages. One woman showed us in, stepping over two dogs, three children and four cats. On one wall, painted on an enormous banner were the words BEWARE TOM LARD. HE IS A VERY DISHONEST PERSON. When we made the mistake of asking what he had done. She just growled.

Deep into Apache country, we stopped off for Lucky Strike, Hershey Bars, movie food. I was wearing a brown shirt printed with walnuts and a pair of white patent pimp shoes. (I had trousers, I just don’t recall them.) At the porch of the Chaco Canyon Nageezi, an Indian stood, propped in the corner like a hat stand, dusty hat pulled low over his eyes, beaten up leather trench coat buttoned up to his beaten-up, leathery face. He said one word, “cocaine ?”
The next Trading Post had Hopi Indians selling Fools Gold to fools like us. The Gents toilet sold French Ticklers and Screams. We decided if they were good enough for the Indians, they were good enough for us.

At every gas station or dead-end diner, there were leaflets, posters, handwritten appeals for America’s missing. Mothers, children, families, couples, single men… photographs and sketches of young and old, sometimes paired with their abductors, like a sort of sick Mr & Mrs.
The posters gave you their descriptions, their hobbies, their attributes (“a generous person”, “a person who will always listen to other people’s problems”, “a patriot”). You felt you knew them. You felt you MISSED them.
Woodrow Wilson Grimland, aged 40, had just wandered off, into the desert, leaving his daughter-in-law and his dog and his car in the parking lot. Liza Marie Macbride was missing “involuntarily” said the posters. There was a reward – “between $ 50, 000 – $ 100, 000” which seemed a little vague.
People were disappearing across America, which was worrying. Maybe that was what we were doing.

The dashboard told us it was 100 degrees. Outside was even worse. For long periods, we had the AC on full and the windows open. The Silver Catfish wondered what hit it. This was not Beverly Hill or Rodeo Drive, more like Raising Arizona or Paris, Texas.
The desert was vast. The straight roads carved across it like scars. Perfect cacti littered the plains like stubble. 40 foot Saguaro cacti loomed like 3-D crucifixes. Some times it glowed red. Then it changed to moon rock, black like Star Trek polystryene or dried river beds from The Searchers. Flat, low-top meatloaf mountains waited for Indians to appear on.
At night, shooting stars pinged across the windscreen, like a cartoon, violently fast, violent silver.
A huge sign said SCENIC VIEW like you could miss it.
There are so many stars in the desert; galaxies within galaxies. On Interstate 17, a huge sign said “SURPRISE”. I put my foot down, wondering what the surprise was. It was a town.
A giant billboard was offering Rattlesnake eggs. In Deming, one of the several musty Thrift Shops stood out for the fact that the most prominent display out on the pavement was a dustbin full of crutches. “The town Rock Shop” was, disappointingly, closed.
Another sign said ADOPT A HIGHWAY. We said ‘alright. We pulled in when we saw BUFFALO FOR SALE and asked what a buffalo went for these days.
“’Bout $ 5000-6000. Depending on who’s buyin’ and who’s sellin’.”
The odd overturned car lay burnt out, smashed in, axe holes in the side. The Silver Catfish shuddered.
Out in the desert, sat a single, silver trailer, like one of those shiny, post-modern toasters. We did not stop to say hello.

We had had enough. We checked into one of those terrifying motels that you see in Touch of Evil or Wild At Heart.
We had company. In a bar full of truckers and scary rednecks, two American blondes had been eyeing us up all night. Finally, tipsy, American Sex staggered our way. 
“Are you guys from England ?” one asked with anticipation. We nodded.
“Do you guys REALLY drive on the left hand side of the road ?”
They collapsed into hysterics. “Un…real.
The situation needed saving. “Girls,” I said, defiantly. “Have you ever heard of Screamers “
One of the girls was called Video. She called up her dealer Shockhead. V did so many different drugs, you could only conclude she didn’t really LIKE drugs. (Most of us stick to the ones we know will do the trick.) She had turned into a one-woman market research survey into alphabetti spaghetti: DMT, E, D118, GBH, MDMA, LSD, PCP, Special K, M&Ms. She had so much cocaine sex she stopped enjoying it. The only way she could get off was to get dusted on rum and angel dust cut to hell with formaldehyde.
“Come on, try some, she said. It was, she said, like growing and shrinking all at once. Was that good ?
We lay in bed and watched television. A man in the advert complained that his Bacon Burger never had enough bacon. Someone had come up with the Bacon Bacon Burger. It had extra bacon. The idea of the Double Bacon Burger or Super Bacon Burger was too complex, too vague.
On Geraldo, “Rich Kids Who Kill Their Parents”, an ordinary boy had taken a hammer and a meat knife from the kitchen and literally removed his (rich) mother’s face. Aged 13, he got 5 years…
We stayed tuned for Women Who Sport The Bald Look.

The static from the Catfish was giving us such electric shocks that we would involuntarily scream “FUCK !” every time we got out of the car, alarming women, cats and babies.
By the time we got to the outskirts of Truth Or Consequences, the roof was dented (after a rock throwing contest), the window locks broken and the bumpers in tatters. A variety of grasshoppers, locusts and other insects were pinned to the radiator grill like trophies.
The windscreen wipers were broken and the windshield had traces of blood across it from the day a bird had flown into it. The backseat was a tip consisting mostly of coke cans, beer bottles, LotaBurger bags, National Enquirers and Bear Claw doughnuts.
The catfish choked and stopped. The dials had frozen. The speedometer said we were still doing 70. I opened the hood. Bits of fan belt had unravelled and wound round the engine. There was green liquid spewing out on to the road. We had killed the Silver Catfish.

To be continued.