Highway Town

When heading inland from San Francisco to Prescott, Arizona, I began stopping at a dumpy little place in Mojave. As far as dumpy little places go, it isn't bad. Actually, a dumpy little motel that is clean is a good find when you're a man traveling alone. What do you care about bedspreads and scented carpets? There's a fan, admittedly clanky, in the bathroom to remove evidence of smoke, and three pieces of cheap cloth: your basic washcloth, hand towel and bath towel. Some people would heap scorn on the bath towel for it's modest size and lack of absorbency, but those people are spoiled rotten.

There are other places I could stop, I guess, and certainly since the time I began staying at this dumpy little place on the strip, that shakes when the train goes by, my choice has ceased to be economic and now has more to do with relationship. I feel at home there.

When I pulled in there was a Chinese kid chasing a Mexican kid down the walkway. "Is that your boy?" I asked the Chinese owner. "He's really growing up." He smiled, obviously pleased with his progeny, and motioned for me to come look at the new hardwood floor being installed back in the family quarters. He and I have become acquainted over a period of years. He even gives me a working remote most of the time and waves away any obligation to fill in the auto license number.

The working remote and cable television are the heart and soul of a good cheap motel room. He gave me the room in the corner so that I had only one common wall with somebody else. I could turn up the gunfire loud enough to compete with the trains going by just across the highway. The first action adventure I tuned to was a Steven Seagal movie called "Glimmer Man."

The setup wasn't that different from Batman and Robin or Superman and Jimmy Olsen, or any of the other formula tough guy movies. You've got your invincible top gun, in this case Seagal (Jack Cole), and you've got your good natured partner, Keenen Ivory Wayans (Jim Campbell), who admires the big guy a bit more every time he saves his bacon.

What's so wonderful about these top gun characters is that they have no emotional reactions, no fear, no self doubts, none of that adrenalin that makes real life cops pump 50 rounds into a Puerto Rican in seven point two seconds because he was holding a flute. Nope. In one scene this cat rappelled down the side of a big hotel, grabbed his partner off a ledge, where he was hanging by his fingernails, and crashed through a window to deposit him in a room. "Police business," he said to the shocked old lady tenant.

Then he jumped back out the window and rappelled to the ground floor to catch the bad guy, who was using the elevator. By the time the bad guy got to the lobby, Detective Jack Cole was propped comfortably behind the desk, reading a paper. This was very dramatic because the bad guy didn't at first realize his situation. When the newspaper dropped and I realized there was gonna be gunplay, I felt an all American excitement right down in my balls. This stuff is a testosterone shot straight to the control centers.

Earlier in the day, when I was driving down the Central Valley, I was listening to Public Radio, and there was an interview with somebody who had written about the making of "Deep Throat." It was a time in the 1970s when the combination of humor and the American fascination with oral sex made the cheap, mob-backed film into a monster hit. The Supreme Court, in Miller vs. California, came up with a new definition of obscenity which would block the release of popular pornography by Hollywood. The key was, "the average person, applying contemporary community standards," can bring down any movie.

Of course a lot of communities have standards contemporary to the iron age. Another requirement was that a work is pornography if it lacks serious artistic or literary value. As Lenny Bruce said, "Now it's a crime to be utterly without artistic merit. If you show guys who can rip off a piece of ass with class, that's art. But if you depict factory workers, who are not expertise with stag shows, that's a crime." (The Berkeley Concert)

In other words, Hollywood operates by national and international distribution. If they are subject to being sued and jailed in the heartland, they can't distribute. This effectively checkmated Hollywood's distribution of explicit sexual materials.

The depiction of the body being defiled by insincere sexuality, which was a threat to the sanctity of reproduction, and to the wholesomeness of the family, became illegal. But another kind of pornography was still available, and under no threat of community standards anywhere. That was the depiction of graphic violence against the human body. The orgies moved into legal ground, with a relentless depiction of symbolic sexuality, such as we saw at Abu Ghraib.

So here I am enjoying watching Seagal play the part I recall from my childhood. I was always lost in fantasies of my invincibility. I had lots of creative ways of destroying an enemy. Now I realize those imaginings were probably spawned by a hatred of the humiliation I suffered at being forced to comply with an overly zealous discipline. If I was like Seagal, I would just walk into any room and make everybody I didn't like disappear. Fuck them. If they get in my way I'll do something fancy, like shooting them in the kneecaps or ripping off their balls and forcing them to eat them with a glass of merlot. This violent pornography might not be an aged and subtle whiskey for the hormones, but it has a testosterone kick to it.

Once I was grown these fantasies of invincible power receded into a realization that they belong to the world of a child, so that even though I like watching Seagal, I don't respect him any more than Pee Wee Herman, another purveyor of childhood fantasy. The difference is that in America, sex really is dirty, and violence, including mutilation and total control fantasies, are not. Nobody was going to break into the room and confiscate the film, no matter how many heads exploded from hollow point bullets or how many bones and joints were graphically destroyed.

In Mojave I am reminded of when I was a kid, and of those main streets in highway towns where I worked in gas stations and cafes. The people coming through from the coast were a mystery. Where did they get the money for those cars? There was no money in those towns for anybody who didn't own the land or have a license to practice medicine or maybe law. There was no status for a young man except maybe his acquiring, usually with the help of a cosigner, some symbol of masculine power, like a 426 Hemi. Now it's a Hummer or a muscle truck. The American penchant for self-importance is seemingly insatiable.

I suppose I could afford to stay at one of the "estate" motels, with the stone and glass facade. I've noticed one in Mojave, away from the tracks. I'll stay there when I'm not traveling by myself. I'll bet they have showers that are above your head, spraying down, instead of the one that hits about your chest. I don't care. I can duck down and get under the spray. I can noodle on the guitar and eat shrimp fried rice from next door.

And after I fall asleep the trains are just the melody of a highway town.

Posted: Sun - March 13, 2005 at 03:16 PM