An American Carnival: House of the Moon, Part VI

For Sale- Al's Swinger. Twentynine Palms, 2012.JPG
For Sale: Al's Swinger. Twentynine Palms, 2012. | Photo: Rubén Martínez

Last week we toured the sand dunes above Twentynine Palms, where civilians and Marines meet in a simulacrum of the Persian Gulf desert. Here we return to Al's Swinger, a hangout for Marines and the High Desert working class, which suddenly find themselves wondering about whether the new arrivals to the desert are a harbinger of gentrification and its discontents.


So how did you come to live up here?" I asked Tammy. "Ay, mi vida," Tammy sighed from behind the bar. It was a summer night, and I was her only customer. The blades of the swamp cooler were clanging above us. "No quieres oir toda la historia porque es tan triste . . . si te la cuento toda, me voy a poner a llorar." If she told me her whole story, she said, she would start to cry.

Above her head a King Cobra sign glowed and buzzed. Next to the cash register stood a little Satchmo statue and a donation jar for the NAACP (Al had been a past president of the Morongo Basin chapter). She had been orphaned in Panamá, Tammy said, then adopted by a family in Wichita when she was twelve; she had been married twice.

In her description, the first husband, a black Marine who brought her to Twentynine Palms, seemed like a homosexual, a troubled bisexual, or just an asshole. He'd admitted to an affair with a much older man and had kept up a correspondence with him after the physical relationship ended, but still he'd wanted to stay in the marriage. A woman of conservative Catholic values, Tammy had demanded that he see a priest. But when the priest had asked Tammy to forgive her husband and start off fresh, she'd felt that he was taking her husband's side. She'd never gotten over his affair. After the divorce, she'd married another Marine, also black. That marriage lasted eighteen years, most of it purgatory.

The abuse, she said, was emotional and physical. One beating put her in the hospital, and she testified against her husband from a wheelchair. Tammy thought about leaving town but decided that he should be the one doing the moving. She would lead her own life. She got an apartment, worked at a restaurant on the base, waiting tables. One night she and a girlfriend came to check out this hole-in-the-wall place off Highway 62. Th e first thing Tammy saw upon opening the door was a shrieking drunk holding the bartender in a headlock. Tammy walked right out, but she returned later. Al gave her a job in 1980.

"He was a like a father to me," Tammy said, "and I was like his daughter. He treated me with respect."

Tammy's emotional wounds healed at Al's, but she did not treat her body kindly, smoking and drinking and eating badly. Now in her early fifties, she often had severe bronchial infections, a harbinger of the emphysema to come. "I feel old and tired," she said.

I'd arrived at Al's Swinger well past its heyday, I was told. The building was coming apart. The roof leaked, and the glass in the windows had been pecked opaque by generations of sandy desert winds. The countertop of the bar itself was cracked (some of this damage Tammy had inflicted when she'd slammed down the equalizer to make a point). The felt on the pool tables was ripped. The floor tiles were separating. The swamp cooler smelled like a swamp. The building was so drafty that it held no cool air in summer and no warm air in winter. No wonder Tammy was always getting sick.

But there was karaoke, a cheap setup on a distorting boom box. Tammy would hog the mike behind the bar, singing "Tú, sólo tú" over and over to an audience that included both young Marines and VFW elders.

One evening Tammy asked me about a miraculous Mongolian mushroom that she'd heard cured just about any ailment. Could I get a hold of one? As it happened, many of my New Age artist friends swore by that mushroom, and I brought her one from Los Angeles, along with instructions on how to cultivate it and use it to make tea. Within weeks Tammy's complexion brightened, she had a burst of energy, she lost weight, and her bronchi cleared. She started stepping out from behind the bar, mike in hand, twirling to a cumbia by Selena, showing off her new figure. I was healing, too, in fits and starts. I was clean, though not sober.

But soon the drug addict made his appearance, scoring (where else?) "down below." Each time I fell I swore I would never do it again, and I didn't, for weeks or months at a time. In the dawn after an all-nighter, I would walk out from my shack in the sand and into a world where every surface vibrated with color. The air was metallic in my lungs, though, and I knew the sight was a simulacrum. The awareness was crushing, because I couldn't bear the thought of relinquishing its terrible beauty.


Early on, the migrant flow was barely perceptible because it was so modest and we were concentrated on survival. In any event, my scruff y cohort didn't have the money to put into the upgrades that would become the hallmark of the housing bubble.

My tribe came because it was cheap. In 1998, I paid $275 a month for my little home in Twentynine Palms; Ted and Elia paid even less for their dilapidated shack above the wash. We marveled at the prices. We started to look at the real estate ads in the local weeklies, the Hi-Desert Star and the Desert Trail:


Cute rustic cabin in Landers. Water available. Spectacular vu of Mt.
San Gorgonio. $10,000.


The bohemians started to think of becoming homeowners.

A couple of years later, I noticed a small house for sale a few blocks away. It had a slanting roof, burnt-orange plaster trimmed with blue, a yard handsomely landscaped with desert succulents (rather than the more typical sloppy, invasive tamarisks). The lot was a couple of acres and included a large outbuilding of corrugated tin, even larger than the main house. This, I immediately imagined, would be my creative studio. There I would write books and songs, record music. I called the number on the sign and took the tour. The interior was as clean as the exterior. There was a fireplace built of round desert stones. The asking price was $69,000, and the property had been on the market for months. I was told that the seller was "motivated." The agent said she'd give me the keys for a $5,000 down payment (plus closing costs). But, of course, I did not have $5,000. I did not even have $500. I was clipping coupons for London broil at Stater Bros. A year after I saw it, the house sold for well under the asking price.

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It went back on the market two years later and sold for close to the asking price of $190,000; it was flipped only a few months later for $280,000. I tortured myself by driving by it repeatedly. Often as not, it was vacant, because it was a country house for city folk. If I'd bought when it was first for sale, I wonder if I would have withstood the temptation to flip.

We could see that there were more and more of us. A dozen became a few dozen; the intimate circle of friends gradually widened and swallowed concentric circles from down below. Visitors became part-time residents, became full-time residents. But Tammy's crowd didn't hang in Andrea Zittel's desert, and Ted Quinn thought Tammy was cool but never became a regular at Al's.

From the start, the crowd at Al's saw us--Zittel, Ted, myself--for what we were: a new colony. The first time I heard someone use the word "gentrification" was at Al's; a boulangerie had opened in town. "Artsy- fartsy types," I remember someone grumbling.

But a wholesale displacement of the Morongo Basin working class did not arrive with one boulangerie. Some historians refer to the "long boom" of Western development, persistent growth--with slowdowns, of course, some of them precipitous--across not just the last few decades but hundreds or even thousands of years. Most Western cities and towns experienced periods of growth followed by plateaus that eventually led to more growth. There are plenty of ghost towns to visit throughout the West that seem to stand as testament to horrific busts, but these bits of fossilized history are not reflective of the overall regional economic history.

Demographically there have been cataclysmic changes: the death of millions of Native Americans, two mass deportations of Mexican immigrants (the Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s and Operation Wetback in the 1950s). On a whole other scale, locals have been displaced by newcomers during the birth of art colonies and other spates of gentrification, but Native Americans are still here, as are Mexicans and every other variety of westerner. If anything, the West also shows a long, steady arc of becoming ever more demographically complex, Arizona's most recent nativist turn notwithstanding. Which, in the context of desert gentrification, means that integration and segregation are occurring simultaneously. In other words, there is more of everybody out here, but in clusters defined by race and class, not to mention divided by the artistic representations the boom produces, or that help produce the boom.

Twentynine Palms proved quite resistant to change--the boulangerie itself lasted only a short while before it closed its doors. There was the matter of the adjacent Marine base, which wasn't going anywhere. On the contrary: the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center had become one of the most important military training facilities on the mainland because it perfectly mirrored the geography and climate of the region that is the current locus of U.S. military operations overseas. There were only so many artists who would find a close view of MCAGCC, in addition to neighbors who had just returned from several consecutive tours, conducive to the creative process. This is what made the village of Joshua Tree the most highly prized real estate of the high desert. Mountains and an upsloping mesa north of town largely blocked the view of the Marine base. The larger detonations were still audible, but that was much easier to live with than a full audiovisual representation.

We needed a gathering spot besides the Monument and Fred's Rancho de la Luna; we needed a place where you could have some food, coffee, or a beer. It wasn't Al's and it couldn't be the J. T. Saloon, which in the pre-boom period was mostly reserved for bikers and Marines. So we moved into the Beatnik Café, which saw a succession of owners over the years. The scene was anointed with Ted Quinn's open-mike nights, which attracted an unexpectedly mixed crowd. The gatherings, which took place every Wednesday, were very much Fellini-in-the-desert, with performers and performances by turns brilliant and bad, kitschy and naïve, bold and exasperating and touching. A twenty-year-old Marine just returned from Iraq sang a raw version of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War." A girl from the local high school earnestly covered a Bright Eyes song. A middle-aged man with thick glasses held together by Scotch tape played bizarre lines on his electric bass, unaccompanied, exploring a musical language only he understood. Shawn Mafia, a former undertaker who dressed and sang like Tom Waits, performed numbers about drifters, grifters, and floozies. And there was Ted himself, his voice hitting high, boyish registers on upbeat, melodic numbers (very Beatles-y) about love and peace. But his real strength, it seemed to me, was on the darker pieces, tirades against the Man in one form or another. He delivered these with a low, scary growl that hinted at more than just righteous rage, although he rarely confessed to his own darkness in song. At the Beatnik, people would spontaneously pick up a tambourine or sit in on drums, whether they knew how to play or not. The crew was charismatic, mentally unstable, lonely, AWOL, recently divorced, on the lam.

It was an American carnival.


Read the previous installments of this Artbound exclusive series:

1. House of the Moon

2. Sex, Drugs, and Drying Out in the Desert: House of the Moon, Part II.

3. Local Colors: House of the Moon, Part III

4. High (Desert) Art: House of the Moon, Part IV.

5. Civilians on the Battlefield: House of the Moon, Part V

Visit Rubén Martínez' website for more information about the author


Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West. Available August 7, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Rubén Martínez. Published by Metropolitan Books, a division of Henry Holt & Company, LLC. By permission of Susan Berghoz Literary Services, New York City and Lamy, NM. All rights reserved: no further duplication, distribution, display or sale without permission.


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