Review: Voice of Empire

This collects the series of columns celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the Denver Post newspaper. It offers a brief overview of the paper’s history, and, by extension, Denver and Colorado. 

It’s a colorful story. Frederick Bonfils and Harry Tammen bought the failing daily. Then they applied their skills as grifters, circus owners and hucksters to transform it into a gloriously yellow slab of entertainment. No headline was too wild, no story too sensational, and certainly, no promotion too crazy not to try. 

(Consider hiding a sexy showgirl “Eve” in the “Eden” of Rocky Mountain National Park and having a contest to see who could find her first. Or this headline from a slow news day; “Does It Hurt to Be Born?”)

William Hearst studied their formula and applied it to his chain with equal success. Some straight journalism did appear on the pages of the Post. Accidents do happen, after all.

Much like the city, the Post became more respectable and orderly in the post World War II era. Palmer Hoyt took over the job as editor and publisher in 1946. He made the paper over into an objective, nationally recognized example of fine journalism. Hoyt was a power player, promoting sensible water policy (a big deal in the dry West) good governance, and a centrist approach to politics. 

Author William Hornsby wrote this book in 1992 when the biggest threat to the newspaper was the local TV stations. No one could predict the impact of the internet and digital media. Still, the Post managed to negotiate the new landscape pretty well until an even greater threat arrived.

A venal hedge fund with zero commitment to journalism, much less the city or the region, saw a juicy little prize. They gutted Post, slashing costs, selling off its assets and leaving it a hollow shell of its former self.

The Post survives, barely.

This is a short book, but probably more for an enthusiast or a specialist. More thorough histories for general readers cover the same territory, and Bill Hosokawa’s Thunder in the Rockies offers greater depth for people wanting all the details of the history of the Post.

1917 by John Dos Passos

The only good that came out of the first world war was the literature. The generation that survived that particular slaughterhouse — and some that didn’t — wrote brilliant poems, memoirs, and novels. Keith Douglas, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Robert Graves, Erich Maria Remarque, Ernst Jung, Ernest Hemingway… and that’s just the beginning of a very long list.

One Man’s Initiation: 1917 by John Dos Passos belongs up on the shelf with the best of them.

It’s an episodic tale about an American volunteer with a French ambulance unit (yeah, pretty much like Hemingway in Italy). We follow Martin Howe from his voyage to France, through a series of actions, a brief leave in Paris and back once more to the trenches and the non-stop abattoir. 

This sequence of vivid scenes bring the horrors of war home. The settings are significant — that is, it’s not simple journalism or memoir but the search for the poetic truth underlying the events. This structure — disjointed, fragmented, poetic — must have reflected the experience of the soldiers at the front. The prose is beautifully rhythmic, powerfully descriptive and effective in every way. You feel the bombardments, the horror of a gas attack, the bitter disappointment of an anti-climatic leave, the pleasures of comradeship, as well as the brutal and overwhelming absurdity of the war itself.

This powerful and lyrical novella offers you an incredibly intense and compressed picture of men at war. It’s absolutely worth your time.

Two Cheers

(photo by Robert Mapplethorpe)

We seem to be on the verge of discovering what democracy means in an ignorant society. The next decade could make the execution of Socrates by the Athenian democracy look like chump change.  – Glenn O’Brien

This was the first election when nearly everyone I knew spoke of civil war. My conservative relatives cleaned their weapons and stockpiled ammunition. My liberal friends bought handguns and shotguns for the first time and signed up for lessons at the gun range.

That, all by itself, made it extraordinary. I’ve never experienced anything like it.

Now, it wouldn’t be the first time violence broke out around the results of an election. You could call the Civil War itself the largest election dispute of all time. The Colfax Massacre during Reconstruction was another. American history is darker, more chaotic and, in certain ways, more glorious than we generally know. But we forget.

Several articles did remind us about the collapse of Kosovo — how it all fell apart so quickly and how the next thing you knew bearded men in fatigues were murdering you in the woods nearby.

Well, we all love drama. It hasn’t come to that, not yet, anyway. I rehearsed a few heroic scenarios of my own. I tried to imagine how the battles could happen, and I realized how unlikely it would be that a squad of Proud Boys would materialize on my doorstep, their knuckles dragging on the ground, ready to launch a cleansing. It wasn’t likely. Modern life offers few chances for unequivocal, violent, and correct action. 

No High Noon for me.

Although I would prefer to die heroically and not drooling in diapers, I also am grateful that my country maintained its composure and didn’t erupt in bloodletting. 

Last Tuesday, I went to bed convinced that Trump won. I resolved, grimly, to soldier on. And I was enraged: at the perennially dysfunctional Democratic party, at the pollsters who made a sucker out of me a second time, at the establishment press for missing what’s really going on, and then at the Trump voters themselves.

How could they vote for Trump? I didn’t understand, and I’m not the only one with that blind spot. Most of the establishment press and a lot of my friends simply can’t make the leap to understand why you’d vote for that guy. I asked a few people who’d likely be Trump supporters who might be able to articulate a point of view. No luck. Politics are so poisonous now that even relatives avoid the topic completely out of fear of offense or of being offended or perhaps out of simple consideration.

I occasionally read conservative blogs and news sites. I try to venture out of my mental silo. Through Herculean efforts of imagination, I almost understood some of the motivations of Trump voters, and they’re not all bad. Unchecked globalism is harmful for working people. NATO doesn’t make any sense, unless you’re on its payroll. Christians are persecuted abroad and ridiculed all out of proportion, and no one seems to recognize that. The police do have a role to play in cities. The woke among us can be severely annoying. Then, there’s abortion.

(By the way, Trump’s still not the worst president we’ve had. George W. Bush, who launched a war of choice, authorized torture, and murdered hundreds of thousands of innocents along with way, puts the Donald to shame. )

Yet, even with those points in Trump’s favor —and believe me, I’m working very hard here to see the other side— but even with those arguments in place, they’re not enough to balance out his documented corruption, lies, and incompetence. Not even close.

Yet, in a television-addled country that is so bamboozled by the masquerade that parades by its screens 24/7 that it mistakes reality TV for the real thing, the possibilities are endless and ugly. So winning 70 million votes is shocking, but not surprising. 

The DNA of my country is complex. Puritanism wraps around prurience yielding Stormy Daniels and Jerry Fallwell. (Then there’s Jerry Fallwell Junior who blended them both.)

P.T. Barnum had it all figured out

But a constant theme is the slick con man and the gullible rube. Mark Twain made a lot of hay out of that, it’s even in our other great national classic, The Wizard of Oz. P.T. Barnum — among others — grew rich. So rich, he could reveal his secret: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

That’s the only conclusion I can come to. It is a snooty one. It brushes aside some of the reasons I listed earlier. Resentment plays a role, too. 

But, wait!

Via Le Monde: urban areas with a population of more than 2 million vote Biden

The all-time best explanation, the one that still holds up, appeared in Cracked, of all places. David Wong sums it up as city vs. country. It was true in 2016, and still applies to 2020. Two nations, divided by a wretched media and pop culture. You should read the article. (That city/country divide explains a lot of international politics as well — look at Poland and Turkey for starters.)

So I didn’t buy the predictions of a landslide. I held my breath every time Biden spoke ad lib, dreading some senile slippage that would doom his campaign. Trump clearly had his 43 percent locked up, no matter what.

Election day came, then the week that followed was excruciating. Biden played it cool; Trump blustered. 

American champagne. Okay, okay: sparkling wine. It’s pretty darned good.

On Saturday, starting at 9:31 am, people starting cheering outside my window and huge bursts of firecrackers popped, then crackled again as others beat pans and howled like wolves. Now, nothing ever happens in my neighborhood, ever. Oh, you might hear a few firecrackers on the Fourth of July, or noises at midnight on New Years Eve. But, this is not Naples. Yet, a huge celebratory pandemonium broke out even in my suburban park. Downtown, people danced in the streets all day and into the night.

I’ve never experienced anything like that, either.

I myself happily whooped, banged my pan, and honked my car horn. Ding dong, Donny’s gone. An overwhelming sense of relief washed over me. We drank champagne and exchanged ecstatic texts with friends. The time of the great gilded orangutan was drawing to a close.

Sunday, I had a slight hangover from mixing champagne and margaritas. It lead to melancholy thoughts. Like these:

The media is broken. The owners learned they can make more cash by pandering to their target audience’s prejudices. This is as true of The New York Times and CNN as it is of Fox. And they’re massively profitable because of that.  (Hate, Inc, by Matt Taibbi is a well written and deeply researched book about this if you’d like to learn more — and suffer from depression.)

Great journalist I.F. Stone. We need more like him.

Try watching Fox News, or at least, just listen to someone who does. Or, check out Sinclair media, which runs small-market TV stations across huge swaths of the country. If you compare that with what’s on NPR, you’d conclude that they’re covering two separate universes.

A corrective to this could be a vigorous, old-school approach to journalism which can delve into a topic and offer complexities along with the headlines. One that acknowledges its biases, but tries to pursue objective truth and find out what’s going on down on the streets or out in the cornfields. 

Instead, we fly blind. We choose sides. We hear and read crafted agendas, not sloppy and inconvenient truths. Oh, and I’d like pet unicorns for everyone. That would be nice, too. Prospects for either one of these are pretty low, though. Speaking of which:

No one agrees on what facts are. “Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams said. We seem to be even more obstinate about ignoring them. This is suicidal. Without some commonly shared sense of reality, democratic politics are impossible. 

Americans live in a country that’s split 50/50. It almost doesn’t matter who runs. In 2016, the Democrats ran the most unpopular politician ever to seek the presidency. She lost the Electoral College, but won the popular vote.

In 2020, after years of outrage, scandals, an impeachment, an economic collapse and a botched response to the pandemic, Trump gained votes among women and minorities. He held on to the 43 percent of Americans who’ve always approved his job performance. He’s even bigger in the rural swathes of America. No one really budged.

Either party could run a naked raving hobo for president and win about the same percentage of the vote. (Actually maybe they both did. At least, it looked like it on the night of the first debate).

We need to invest billions more in education. High school graduates should have a basic command of English. College graduates should be able to make a decent case for their contentions. I could go on, but we’d both get bored. It’s obvious, heartbreaking and, increasingly, dangerous.

When I believed Trump had won, I took comfort in the idea that the country is larger and stranger and greater than most of its leaders have ever been. That’s still true. Biden will likely act sensibly about managing the pandemic and the environment. And that’s good enough for me.

Life of a Klansman

This is a tough read. Reconstruction, the period after the American Civil War, is a period no one likes to think about. Whole libraries have been written about campaigns in the Civil War. About Reconstruction, not so much. Of course not. Because that period ended in a shameful, dishonorable defeat, and no one likes to think about losing.

From John Dolan, I learned to think of the Civil War as really being two phases: the famous, official one filled with generals and huge battles and gruesome butchery. We won that one, and Lincoln freed the slaves. But then the second phase came — a guerrilla insurrection, using attempted coups, subversion, terrorism and the deliberate slaughter of innocents. 

We lost that one. It would take a massive civil rights struggle, the gifted leadership of Martin Luther King and all of LBJ’s dark arts to strike a balance one hundred years later.

The Klansman of the title is Constant Lecorgne, the great-great grandfather of author Edward Ball. Lecorgne fought in both wars on the side of white supremacy. His life is the spine of the book, one that unites subjects that’d make for important books on their own: Creole society, race theory of the 1850s. the beginnings of jazz, the role of blackface. Heroes appear in the story, but Lecorgne, almost comically inept, isn’t one.

He belonged to a social tier you don’t read about much. White, but not rich. A slave owner, but not a land holder. He inherited a few slaves, the way you or I might a grandparent’s condo. His slaves lived out back in a house and did chores for his family. One was a young mulatto woman, who was worth nearly double the price of the others. You wonder what her chores might have included.

Constant Lecorgne was, essentially, a loser. He seems to have excelled at nothing except for reproduction, resentment and violence. His long slide down the social ladder ended up with his widow doing menial chores for a few pennies — the same ones his slaves used to perform. 

He joined the Klan to get back what he’d lost. In his case, it meant spilled blood and terror for black people, but no change in his grubby life.

Ball writes well. He uses a wide range of sources to show the horrors and banality of slavery in the South and the subsequent imposition of white supremacy.  I learned a great deal about ante bellum New Orleans and even more about the horrors and massacres of Reconstruction.

Evil, we think, has glamor. That’s what novels and movies tell us; all the best roles are villains. But you can be cruel and boring. Evil and dull. Lecorgne was a failing carpenter, a useful idiot for powerful white men.

Just as Ivan was another mouth breather until he got the gig with the Party and got to put a revolver up against the head of a kulak. Or the way Klaus was machinist until he became a guard at Bergen Belsen, or how even old Adolph himself was just a lazy house painter who farted too much.

They’re all little people, these bullies, small and mean, and Ball’s book reminds of us of how vicious a loser can be. And how disastrous the consequences are when those thugs serve racists, ideologues and cheap hustlers who are just a few notches smarter and richer than they are. 

Play It as It Lays

No one writes about dread with the elegance of Joan Didion. The evidence: Play It As It Lays, her novel set in an angst-filled Hollywood in the 1960s.

(And: that the sense of free-floating anxiety that she writes about so well? It never felt more immediate than now.)

It’s one of the greatest novels of existentialism ever written. Our protagonist, Maria, faces dread and despair. She is brittle, sensitive, attuned to the depths of mood that swirl about her. Maria fights for her damaged daughter. And even the depths of her own despair, she remains courageous and compassionate.

She knows the abyss and the threats latent in life. She knows night terrors and emptiness as real as the desert between Barstow and Las Vegas. And with — or despite — that knowledge, she makes a choice. The only choice that really matters, as Camus said.

Play It As It Lays is less about plot — although it has one, and Didion deploys it skillfully — than it is about mood, a series of psychic states and fragments woven together by landscapes and slicing encounters. 

Never less than faultless, Didion’s prose sends you to a place of dreams, to half-conscious states of drunkenness and to the lobbies where snapping nerve endings brush up against frigid air conditioning and even colder laughter.

Among other conditions, she makes you understand, on the surface of your skin, what it is like for a beautiful women to be the cynosure of men’s eyes and desires. The terror of it.

Faced with grief, with losses that cut to the marrow, with nothingness itself, Maria comes through at the end. Just as Sisyphus, Jake Barnes, Meursault, and Ralph Ellisons’ Invisible Man do. 

And just as we must do ourselves.

(The novel was filmed with Tuesday Weld as the lead. That’s where I found the images for this post. I’ve only seen a few clips of the movie: L.A. freeways, and a delicate blonde at the wheel of a Camaro shot with telephoto lenses. And that’s perfect. It’s enough; I don’t want to see anymore. Some films are better left imagined. What’s a shame, though, is that I read that Sam Peckinpah wanted to direct it. And that makes you ache at the loss of what might have been a great film.)

The Bomb

Hiroshima02

When I lived in Paris the first time, I taught English. Most of my students — all but one, in fact — were Japanese.

My friend Eric, smarter than me and very kind, too, suggested that I target Japanese expatriates in Paris.

It worked. Students signed up to learn good American conversational English, and I earned enough to buy red wine, Président camembert, roll-your-own tobacco, as well as yogurt and beef heart. And that was enough for me.

One of my best students was Yukinori Tanada, a man of real brilliance and impeccable style. He’d trained to be an architect, then transitioned into management consulting. He treated my girlfriend and me to magnificent meals of sushi or canard roti, and even drove us to the town where van Gogh died. In short, a prince.

Several months into my sojourn in Paris, a close friend visited. Emily’s an artist, a spontaneous and intense personality. Also, it’s fair to say that she owns more curiosity and sincerity than tact. Or at least, she did back then.

I took the opportunity to host a party with my Japanese students and her in my cramped apartment on rue St. André des Arts. My other students were less polished than Mr. Tanada, less cosmopolitan, but sincere and very sweet, and they all spoke English well.

Although we ended up knee-to-knee and the conversation had a stilted and oddly literary quality, we had a fine time. My friend and my actual girlfriend must have seemed exotic to them. Emily, a green-eyed blonde, towered above all the Japanese students, male or female.

In the freedom of gestures and her movement and conversation, she suddenly seemed completely American to me — in the best way. My actual girlfriend, an alluring Russian beauty, was quite charming herself, and she enchanted the boys.

Things went well; the wine flowed. It pleased me to see everyone getting on, speaking English with facility, finding topics in common.

Then Emily leaned down to the knot of Japanese and said, looking at them from under her brows, “Do you hate us?”

Silence.

“Do you hate us for dropping the Bomb?”

Even deeper silence.

Eyes shifted. All the bonhomie vanished, blown out the window like smoke in the wind. 

After an incredibly long pause, Mr. Tanada spoke up. First he clarified: which bomb? 

The nuclear bomb.

Mr. Tanada pulled out a Dunhill cigarette and offered Emily one, which she took. He lit it for her.

“Do you know about the fire bombings in Tokyo?” he asked. 

She nodded.

“I think,” he said, softly, “a bomb is a bomb. And you are dead either way.”

Read: Berlin in Lights

kessler by tim roessler

My diaries embarrass me. I keep a notebook, which is a different beast. But a diary? No way. It’s pure torture to read any of my scribbles.

To write well off the cuff and in the privacy of your own mind — now that’s a feat of character, of talent, even of soul. And while those qualities are rare, many fine diaries exist. Samuel Pepys, Eugene Delacroix, André Gide, and Paul Léautaud all wrote so well that their journals make a fascinating body of work on their own.

Count Harry Kessler belongs to that exclusive club. Kessler was a diplomat, a publisher of fine editions, a co-librettist for Richard Strauss, a connoisseur of art and music, a colonel, a Prussian aristocrat, a committed democratic socialist, and, most importantly for us, a fine writer.

His journals from 1918 to 1937 cast a cool and penetrating eye on the fall of the Kaiser, the splendors and decadence of 1920s Berlin, and the rise of the Nazis.

He knew practically everyone worth knowing. Kessler offers sharp-etched portraits of Albert Einstein, George Grosz, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Aristide Maillol, and Josephine Baker, to mention just a few. But he wasn’t a mere social butterfly. He had principled break ups. Perhaps the most painful for him was with Richard Strauss over the latter’s enthusiasm for dictatorship.

For all his sensitivity, Kessler was a cool customer. During the 1918 revolution, his entries describe machine gun bursts and sniper fire as mere annoyances. Perhaps his sangfroid was not only because of his aristocratic values, but also because he had recently returned from the front lines of the war. After that storm of steel, what’s a few extra shots? His reserve is all the more striking because Kessler’s diaries were not meant for publication. Even in the privacy of his own journal he was brave.

Perhaps because he had to be. Right-wing assassins killed two of his closest associates. He pushed for social democratic reforms –deeply unpopular in some powerful circles. Later, he’d be exiled. Kessler describes it all with dispassion and a total absence of self-pity.

He writes vignettes that are like haiku in their compression and clarity. And, inevitably, you find out some history, too.

The entries from the late 1920s are especially heartbreaking. So many people in so many countries wanted to make a better world, to establish lasting peace, and to move civilization forward. You could find good signs everywhere. Then, slowly and suddenly, the Fascists took over.

Yet, you learn, up close, that the great tragedy wasn’t necessarily inevitable. The Weimar Republic, despite everything, was working. Hitler, far from being an evil genius, was a mediocre creep whose own stench of failure actually helped him blunder into power – helped by theoretically clever power brokers who thought they could use him. Kessler, though, saw right through him, knew the danger he represented, and opposed the Nazis from the beginning.

The loss of Kessler’s Germany – one of broad cosmopolitanism, of insane refinement, of deep culture, of wild innovation in every art, and of tentative hope, is among the many tragedies the Nazis inflicted on the world.

To wrap up, here’s a quote to you a good sample of Kessler’s style – his perspicacity and aestheticism. Kessler’s visiting the Imperial Palace, occupied by rebel sailors. As he wanders through the ransacked rooms, he notes:

But these private apartments, the furniture, the articles of everyday use, and what remains of the Emperor’s and Empress’s mementoes and objets d’art are so insipid and tasteless, so philistine, that it is difficult to feel much indignation against the pilferers. Only astonishment that the wretched, timid, unimaginative creatures who liked this trash, and frittered away their life in this precious palatial haven, amidst lackeys and sycophants, could ever make any impact on history. Out of this atmosphere was born the World War…

Kessler’s diaries are worth reading for so many reasons. Observations like these, filled with a sort of moral aesthetics are just one.

Marked by masks

We walked into the Kan Kun Mexican Restaurant in Beaver, Utah, to order take out dinners. My children and I wore masks.

The hostess, a Latina who also wore a face mask, glanced at our own masks then handed us menus. 

The restaurant was half full with many tables taped off to comply with social distancing rules. Fox News droned on a large TV monitor over the cash register. 

Two families with four or five children each plus some grandparents sat at long tables. One was entirely blond, the other Hispanic. Three retirees with faces like beef jerky were crimson with sunburn. Three young guys in camo cargo pants and t-shirts sat next to a window.

I know how all these people looked, because nearly all of them stared at us. Not long, but just for that extra beat that makes you wonder if you have, say, toilet paper stuck to your shoe, or an open fly, or a Satanic symbol tattooed on your forehead.

People in Utah are nearly universally courteous. So they simply gave us that long, lingering, and slightly disapproving look, then tucked back into their burritos and quesadillas and resumed their conversations.

Fox News showed video of a demonstration. It was during the early days, when bad actors would torch a franchise or two or loot the Louis Vuitton in the Grove Shopping Centre. It was shot to look like the Mau Mau Uprising, only with designer boutiques in the background.

“I’m sure glad I don’t live there,” one of the camo guys said.

My daughter, who is a sensitive type, said she’d meet us outside and left.

Strangers in a Strange Land

We encountered variations of this reaction across Utah and Nevada. We didn’t stop often, having no reason to. But we would use a restroom in an In-N-Out Burger restaurant. Or we’d drift through the aisles of a convenience store, or place another to-go order.

And everyone — each tow-headed child, each grizzled rancher, each softly rounded wife —turned to stare at us. Not for long. No, not much longer than an extra second, because that would make the stare rude — but long enough.

Over and over, it was like the cliché scene from old Westerns where, when the Stranger swaggers through the swinging doors of the saloon, the locals stop palavering and glare.

To be fair, the virus had not hit many counties in Utah. Also, right wing broadcasters have ridiculed masks. One commentator even said it was a sign of “submission” to wear one. Another claimed it was only the first step in a plot to rob Americans of their freedom. Our president is famously averse to putting one on, and some people still take him seriously.

So I thought about face masks. Sadly, I didn’t have any ideas other than the obvious ones that you’ve probably read on social media already. 

But: If we can politicize and make tribal such a simple, obvious step, one that’s cheap and easy, although inconvenient, one that’s backed by science and now by experience, then how will we ever manage the much harder issues we confront?

Corona Road Trip

photo by tim roessler

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.

Parachute, Colorado

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.

 

Las Vegas

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.

Utah

convenience store photo by tim roessler timothy roessler

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.

Los Angeles

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.

hotel room photo by tim roessler timothy roessler

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.

beach photo by tim roessler timothy roessler

The next morning, early, my son and I headed home to Boulder.