Soda fountains, rest stops, barber shops, motels: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s California travel journals, 1961.
TIRED OF THE FOG AND COLD? COME TO CALIFORNIA’S RIVIERA—
Sailing, Water Skiing, Swimming, Seaside Dining—
A DESERT PARADISE AT THE GREAT SALTON SEA
October 28, 1961
Henry Miller was right. “Some other breed of man has won out.” Some strange breed has taken over America. I sit in a soda-fountain on the main street of El Centro, California—inexplicably I have ordered & have eaten a Mexican Combination Plate—tacos, enchiladas, and all that. Outside, at the curb, sits the junk of American civilization—cars, cars, cars. On the jukebox inside, a Mexican crooner with a tear in his voice … An hour north of here lies the Salton Sea. I have not figured out what “El Centro” could be the center of. Not the universe. The Salton Sea may offer a clue. The Salton Sea is in America. In California, in fact. Very strange. I still have to get there.
I have two hours before the bus to that Sea. I go to the public library. It’s Saturday afternoon, and it’s closed. Naturally. People that work during the week naturally have no time to go to the library on their day off. I must think of something else. I go to a barber’s, that should take at least half an hour, maybe more if I divert the barber with witticisms or dirty jokes. No luck. He whips me thru in a little over ten minutes, including a swipe at my eyebrows and sideburns, which I duck. He drops the comb on the greasy floor several times and wipes it off on his pants and continues. In the meantime I listen to him haranguing the other barber (who looks like a local football player) about how to skin a buck & how to remove its horns & how much you can count a full-grown buck coming to in net weight after it’s skinned. The other barber keeps saying “Yeah—yeah” like a little halfhearted football cheer. I have a feeling that if I had got this young football barber instead of the old geezer and had a hunting license to show him, he would have cut my hair for free. As it is, I have to pay for my scalping. (The old geezer keeps nicking me every time he gets to a good part of the description of how to skin a buck.) When I am down to “net weight” he steps back with a sour grin, as if to say it’s a pretty sad carcass.
The last hour in El Centro is pure Nowhere. In the bus station there is not even a place to sit down. Everyone must be itching to get out of El Centro. I spend the last twenty-five minutes contemplating a rotary ventilator that’s going round on a building next door. That’s a long time to contemplate a ventilator, turning about as slowly as the earth itself. I should have said the last twenty-two minutes. Three minutes before the bus is announced the ventilator inexplicably stops. This is not allowed. The air-conditioning must work. What are we to do now? On the station newsstand is a paper that says the U.S. will have men on the moon within a year. And on the lunch counter in the bus station is an “Answer Box.” It says:
Ask Me Any Yes or No Question—Deposit Penny—
Hold Lever Down to Read
I am wary of knowing the answer to the most important Yes or No Questions. We’d rather not know the answers to some, such as Will I Die? Yet we know the answer ahead of time, so how can we ask it as a question? How can we, that is, without such a wondrous philosophy machine as this, which allows us to pose the possibility of more than one answer. I put the penny in, but do not hold the lever down. I run off to the bus. Suppose the machine lied to me—what then of El Centro?
Should I approach the Salton Sea as if it were the Holy Land? I see at the upper end, on the map, there’s a place called Mortmar (Dead Sea). The map also says the Sea is 235 feet below sea level. Desert & sagebrush all around …
Bus driver says, This Is the Place. I get down. Bus disappears & here I am in desert … miles beyond Death Valley. There’s some modern shacks & three motels down by a big puddle, a dozen palm trees around, about a mile from the highway. I walk over there, with my musette bag, thinking I must look pretty forlorn. Everyone here has CARS! Roads run off straight into desert in all directions, like a Florida development gone under in the thirties, sidewalks lost in sand. So this is the famous resort. It’s the final Dead Sea Level of America. I find a variety store-bar called the Sans-Souci. Inside is a drunk loudmouth of about fifty and a platinum blonde who looks like she’s been thru all the mills and talks tough. The drunk is saying: Well, if you waz ever in a war, you’d see something. She says: I ain’t gettin near no war! I’m not thinkin of wars, I’m thinkin of PRISONS! What makes you think of Prisons, he says. NEVER MIND, she says … Sans souci, like I say …
All night the wind blows sand across the Sea against the “beach house” I’m in. There is no beach but there are “beach houses.” The water in the sea has shrunk toward the center of it. On the other side is a mountainous crenellated desert. And Christ walked on that water? Anything to get away …
Every journal is a confessional. If it’s in the first person, it cannot help but be. Unless the author of it lies to himself—and that makes it even more of a confessional. For some reason, travel brings out confessions one would never make at home. I am trying to draw the rake of my journal over the landscape. Perhaps I will uncover something.
To tell the truth, to tell the truth! Well—this is the most depressing journey I have ever been on—Imagine having to spend one’s life condemned to passing from one motel to another, one hotel room to another, all of them alike, first class, the same spotless sheets, the same glasses in sanitary wax paper, the same little soap bars individually wrapped, Gideon Bible in the drawer, no one to speak with but hotel clerks, wives running motels in forlorn corners, bus drivers. Loneliness of millions living like this, between cocktails, between filling stations, between buses, trains, towns, restaurants, movies, highways leading over horizons to another Rest Stop. Sad the bundles in bus station waiting rooms, sad the frizzled women sitting next to them, the old couples on benches talking in old languages, the wetbacks with satchels they repack in men’s rooms. Sad hope of all their journeys to Nowhere and back in dark Eternity … In the middle of the Journey of my Life, I came to myself in a dark wood.
A vision of America, yes— Everything seems to be at a complete standstill. People, movies, the arts, politics, the land itself, everything marking time, halted, asleep or dead or—what is going on, anyway? Is anything going on? What will be the next development? Boom boom, is that it? Is that what everyone’s waiting for, that why everything seems suspended, demoralized? I’ll take another bus and let you know the answer …
By the Salton Sea, in the night, the rest of America does not exist, out there, nothing left but this undersea place, where they don’t even know when the buses are scheduled to go by on the highway. Maybe there aren’t any more buses, perhaps the one I took was the last bus in America, and it rushed off over the last Frontier. On the map it says there’s an Indian reservation to the west of the Sea. I see nothing but desert & barren treeless mountains … Whole tribes of Indians shook hopeless feather lances & disappeared over the horizon, to reappear centuries later at the corner of Hollywood & Vine, feet up and smoking wild cigars like Saroyan Armenians … At the Salton Sea, nothing took their place—NOTHING. And San Francisco, USA, doesn’t exist, my family, wife, dog, baby, home, bookstore, buddies, friends & lovers don’t exist, at the Dead Sea Level of things … This whole episode is an American nightmare. Yes, I will have to admit it, I am carrying Henry Miller’s Air-Conditioned Nightmare in my pocket, in the pocket Avon edition, published by the Hearst Corporation, which is the most ludicrous irony of all. The Hearst Corporation, up to now the symbol of all the worst features of America which Miller castigates in his Nightmare. I wonder if Henry had any control over this reprint, or if they’ve even sent him a copy, and what he thinks of this. He may have to write a sequel as of 1961. (Or perhaps Kerouac will do it? It happens Miller digs Kerouac and has told him so, enthusiastically.) Anyway, everything Miller said about America in his Nightmare twenty years ago, has come true—and more he never imagined.
Even at the Salton Sea, the face of death has its smile. In the morning the wind is still blowing but the sun is bright, and life is stirring. Even at the bottom of a well, there’s life. A little vignette, a tableau presents itself at the resort Coffee Shop & Bar. The bar part is locked but there’s already a man in a new cowboy hat at the door, banging on it, yelling “When Do the Bars Open Up Around Here?” It is eight a.m. & the bartender comes out & says “God Not Already—I Just Closed Up!”— The man in hat has his cowboy Cadillac out front—a convertible with a dog in it— He plunges into bar, bolts a drink, plugs “South Pacific” on the jukebox, starts whooping for a second drink, his dog hears it outside, barks, jumps out of car, pees on palm tree trunk. In the meantime a good-looking little blonde drives up in other beatup Cadillac & leads her blind fat mother into the coffee shop for breakfast …
“When Do the Gas Stations Open Up Around Here?” I hear the cowboy shouting … That’s life in the American West, 1961. Let me out, I’m way down here at the bottom of the well, below the Sea … I’m the cowboy and I paid eight dollars for this fancy resort beach house and I want some action along with it, even some Beauty, I want my money’s worth, I’ll take a lot of showers, use up all the soap and towels, drink out of both sterilized water glasses, turn on the air-conditioning, the refrigeration, the heater, flush the toilet a lot. I’ll go swimming in the Pool even if I freeze to death doing it. (“Please do not urinate in the Pool,” the sign says.) I’ll spit on the floor as I leave, leave the lights on, forget to leave the key, and then mail it back from another state, postage-due. “Just drop in any mailbox,” it says on the tag, “Postage Guaranteed.” I will. I leave notes in the empty drawers in my room: “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here” and “This Is The End of the World.” What better way to enliven life at the Dead Sea?
I have to go back to El Centro to get to San Diego. I arrive back at the bus station there with a half hour in which to get something to eat before the San Diego bus leaves. I sit down at the same place at the lunch counter. There’s the Answer Box staring me in the face again, right where I left, same instructions:
Ask Me Any Yes or No Question—Deposit Penny—
Hold Lever Down to Read
The Pickwick Hotel, San Diego
The Pickwick Hotel is the grim prototype of the most desolate second- or third-class hotels in the land. It exists because America exists, and even a great country needs drainpipes. The Pickwick Hotel is at the bottom of the drain. It’s not that it’s the cheapest joint in existence and it’s probably not the worst. If only these walls could speak—what true and tragic tales they could tell of life in the Land of Freedom and Justice for All. The lobby is stocked with live cadavers of one sort or another, the worst of these being the manager himself and his avaricious assistants, the desk clerks (nylon women in their early forties) and the bellhops with gray faces, looking like they hadn’t meant to work there at all but just got trapped passing by on a bus years ago. The other fixtures in the lobby are a race of octogenarian residents—the “steadies” of the establishment—old cronies with canes and old old old women with crutches and goiters and hearing aids who spend their evenings sitting in the plastic easy chairs staring ahead of them, wordless, or looking with blank stares at the three caged parakeets the hotel has trapped behind some wire mesh at one end of the horribly “modernized” lobby. Passing through is a transient floating population of bus drivers and passengers, Mexican farmworkers, commercial travelers, sailors, and Okies, plus a continuous flow of broken-down Grant Wood couples on vacation. That’s only the street level of this charming oasis graced with Dickens’s famous name. The real glories of this Travelers’ Rest lie above. (Getting topside in the first place requires my paying for the room in advance, the harpy at the Desk not considering my knapsack to be “baggage.”) Entering the elevator, I am drawn upward by an old woman who has no feet and resembles an owl in captivity. This wretched creature sits strapped to a little platform on castors and seems to have her hand tied to the elevator door. Behind her, on the floor, is a conglomeration of paper bags and baskets in which can be seen various articles necessary for her functioning—from toothbrushes to a shoehorn. As we groan upward, toward the fourth floor, I look over her shoulder and see she is reading a clipping titled “Fifty Years Ago Today.” …
Now we come to the Room itself, a real little piece of a great American vacuum, this empty room. Walk right in, don’t be afraid. (The bellhop, who insisted on carrying my knapsack, raises the shades, opens a window on nowhere. Is There Anything Else, Sir? No! He departs.) I look around. Beautiful. What else could the bellhop possibly have provided? Forlorn bed with hole in pink comforter! (Comforter?) Old-fashioned easy chair recovered in pink-brown plastic! All night, below the window, the Greyhound buses roar & warm up, shift gears, roar off, roll in, while loudspeakers bellow. Four floors up I am launched every ten minutes in a new direction—Dallas, New Orleans, Tijuana, Los Angeles (pronounced Loss-Angle-less), New York. All night I’m changing from Chicago, Mexico City, San Francisco. All night I am being paged by somebody’s mother who misplaced me in another depot.
In the morning I am not there any longer. My nature abhors a vacuum.
A Walk to La Jolla
I am now walking along the beach from San Diego to La Jolla, a distance of some ten to fifteen miles or so. I don’t suppose anyone has walked this whole route in a long time. It is almost impossible to walk in Southern California. Everyone has a car, and you are not supposed to walk. Try it around the San Diego outskirts or in Loss-Angle-less, for instance, you’ll find out. Once you get off the downtown streets, there just aren’t many sidewalks. Naturally you are not allowed to walk on the freeways which connect everything. Nothing else connects anything. And don’t carry anything like a knapsack, you’ll look suspicious … As I was saying, I was walking along the beach. Even on the beach you can’t walk far. Whenever I get tired I stop off in one of the public beach restrooms along the way and sit down on the john and read another chapter of The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Twenty years & America hasn’t changed a bit. Except everything is different. Russia has just dropped its fifty-megaton bomb in the Arctic and the face of America is changed, even before the fallout gets here, already it wears a different expression.
Excerpted from Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1950-2010 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Copyright © 2015 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Copyright © 2015 by Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
Born in Bronxville, New York, in 1919, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is an American poet, painter, liberal activist, and the cofounder of San Francisco’s hallowed City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. He lives in San Francisco.