My daughter’s voice sounded faded, dry, and thin on the phone.
That was all the excuse I needed. I missed her, badly. So I decided to drive out, pick her up, take her back to our home in Boulder, and then drop her back at her place when she was ready.
She’d been under lockdown in Los Angeles for more than six weeks. In Los Angeles, for good reason, the quarantine included parks and beaches along with bars, cafes, clubs, stores, and restaurants. All that amounts to house arrest. Necessary, but draconian.
I myself seemed to have grown roots. Dank, thick, gluey roots. I don’t think I travelled outside of a five mile radius from my house from March 13 on. I only used pick up services and delivery. And although Boulder’s a beautiful spot on the planet, even the pines and Flatirons can grow stale. Not to mention my backyard.
House arrest, virtual or not, is a tougher punishment than I realized.
We — my son, my daughter, and I — all needed a break.
So my son and I hit the road on 31 May. Here’s some snapshots from travel in the time of the corona.
Kum & Go® Convenience
If you haven’t been in a convenience store for a few months, it can put the zap on your head. All those rows of salty snax. All those searing lime greens, cherry reds and arctic blues. The mercury lights, cold and bright, bring it all to peak garishness.
And no one in all the busy crowd — well, no one except for me and a very old man in a pink polo shirt using a walker — wore a face mask. I suddenly had a small sense of what Howard Hughes must have felt like.
This scene would be repeated. Sometimes, customers shopping for Red Bull or Fritos would wear masks, but never more than half.
We pulled over in to hit the rest stop in Parachute, Colorado. As we swung in, we passed a ragged woman holding a cardboard sign. She sat on the grass in shorts that were just slightly too short, her legs baked to a nutmeg color tinged with red, her brown hair streaked to brass by the sun. Her feet were bare. I walked by, and turned my head away. As you do.
Parachute’s okay. There’s a good sandwich shop in what was once a gas station. Kid Curry, an actual, historical desperado, robbed a train nearby. An olde-timey frontier atmosphere hovers in the air, like a half-remembered TV Western. But the whole vibe of the rest stop was creepy in a weird and particular way.
Walking back to our car, I saw the homeless woman again. A man in a cowboy hat had motioned her over to his shiny pick up truck. He didn’t seem like the type to give alms to the homeless, so I watched a little more closely. They chatted longer than would be usual.
Then she climbed into that gleaming truck. He pulled away with her seated in the cab next to him.
Already, in late May, mirages hovered on the Interstate.
Billboards outside of Las Vegas advertised shows that never happened. I felt sorry, in a vague way, for Gladys Knight and the Pips whose performances were cancelled. Animated messages promised that a casino was “Las Vegas STRONG” and that they would be reopening soon. The models in the animation wore face masks as they played the slots.
The Trump Hotel shimmered in its own gilded haze, a bit away from the strip. It seemed arrogant, ugly, and ersatz, but perhaps I was projecting.
At the drive up Perks! coffee kiosk in Cedar City, a young barista was so cheery, polite, and sweet that it seemed as if Doris Day were reincarnated.
At another breakfast stop, this time in St. George, we pulled over for burritos at a cafe in a strip mall. The place was New West: Coltrane on the stereo, plants, and a hippy dude with long grey hair behind the counter. He wore a mask. Of course.
The burritos were fresh and tasty. As we enjoyed our breakfast, a very thin woman and a very fat woman sat at a table and vaped and complained about their manager at Albertsons. Across the parking lot, a guy walked into the market. He’d strapped 9mm automatic with a camo finish to his waist.
Oh yeah, I realized: Open carry. So that’s what it looks like.
In Green River, Utah, we stopped for lunch at the Chow Hound. A young guy, perhaps 22, with a shadowy mustache and a big belly waddled in. He and his pal enthused about a large Dodge Ram truck in the parking lot with a lot of specific knowledge about rims and suspensions. Proving, I guess, that you can flex anywhere as long as you know the rules.
The bulletin board in the cafe featured memorial cards, notices from the local gun club, and a flyer from the extension agent offering help during the time of Covid-19. Forms of assistance included guidance with filing unemployment claims and classes on making family meals on a budget.
The sky was blue. That was the first shock. Not just blue, but cerulean, the color of a new born’s eyes, the shade, in fact, of the California dream itself. No smog, not even a smudge of beige anywhere.
Jasmine scented the air, and wisteria bloomed. Traffic dropped to nearly zero once we crossed the county line from San Bernardino into Los Angeles.
Stores up and down Sunset Boulevard were shuttered as were hundreds of others along the gentrified and un-gentrified streets. Many had plywood nailed over the windows, often with variations of Black Lives Matter or #BLM spray painted on.
Other themes painted on the empty doors and windows included calls for peace, justice, harmony, and portraits, often very good, of George Floyd. The graffiti and improvised signs seemed sincere and not just a “performative” tactic to discourage looting. (But then, how do you measure the sincerity of spray paint? By how pretty the colors are?)
We didn’t stay long. The nearly empty streets felt as if an accident had just happened. You felt an aftershock, despite the lushness of flowers blooming behind stucco walls.
We ordered cappuccinos and cold brews at Intelligentsia Coffee in Silver Lake. Before, the Mediterranean patio teemed with people, mostly young, who looked both smart and athletic, along with inked-up hipsters and with alluring women who surely will be famous actresses soon.
Now, ordering coffee was like cashing in a money order at a sketchy convenience store. Everyone queued up at the correct six-foot distance. The barista, masked, took our order from behind a thick plexiglass shield. The seating was closed. But it worked out. We perched on a planter by a closed boutique and savored the coffee in the clear sunshine.
No one, not even a homeless person pushing a shopping cart, walked by.
On our second, short visit to LA, we visited Santa Monica Beach. My daughter couldn’t believe that the drive took half the time it usually does. We also found a great parking spot, in itself a minor miracle.
It was perfect — upper 70s, nice breezes, the water pleasantly chilly. Paradise. It suggested how LA must have been back in the 1940s and 50s, before the smog, the angst, and the riots.
Behind us, a Black guy and his white girlfriend spread their beach towels. Another white guy spread his towel not far from them. When he left, he approached the couple and said, “I am so happy for you.”
They looked up, guarded but polite.
“What you’re doing — is so important. I respect it so much. Black lives matter,” he said, and trudged away.
They waited until he was far enough away to give each other The Look: the look that expresses shared incredulity and faint revulsion.
The next morning, early, my son and I headed home to Boulder.