Shooting The Desert: House of the Moon, Part VII

House of the Moon VII.jpg
Homestead, Mojave National Preserve, June 2012 | Photo: Rubén Martínez.

Last week at Al's we heard our first mention of the "gentrified desert." Here, in our penultimate excerpt, we remain beyond the buzz and speculation of the real estate boom of the 2000s, hanging in two deserts that ultimately have much in common: with the scruffy bohemians that helped to pioneer the art colony, and at Al's Swinger, the working-class watering hole, where an elder's passing marks an important transition.

As the scene at the Beatnik grew, Ted began to think of a bigger stage for it, which led to inaugurating a daylong outdoor event he called the Chuckwalla Music Festival (named for a large desert lizard), consciously staged as an alternative to the increasingly commercial alt-music festival at Coachella in the low desert. He chose a date in May, thinking, like the Coachella organizers, that the temperatures would be mild. By the time my turn came to take the stage, at about three p.m., the temperature was well over one hundred and the modest crowd had sought shade under trees behind the stage, leaving the musicians facing an empty, dusty lot.

A year later, Ted decided to hold the event in Pioneertown, a few miles north of Joshua Tree. He chose the outdoor patio of the venerable Pappy and Harriet's, which seemed to be a classic Old West rustic bar but was originally built, along with all the other buildings on Pioneertown's main drag, as a Hollywood set (for, among many other movies, The Cisco Kid). A musician who went by the name of Arjuna played an astoundingly long, segmented Tibetan horn, accompanied by an aging British rocker called Clive on an electric guitar he made sound like a sitar. Throughout the evening a woman dressed in gauzy tie-dye danced with a hula hoop. Accompanied by Raj Mankad, an Indian-American cellist and former creative-writing student of mine from Houston, I fit right in with the circus. Like Arjuna, Raj practiced the Eastern art of Tuvan chanting, a technique that allows the human voice to sound more than one musical note simultaneously. At any other time, I would have judged all of us as silly dilettantes indulging the basest of colonial stereotypes. But we were in the desert, and isn't this what the desert sounded like? The kaleidoscope was in fact a measure of the desert's history, or at least parts of it. Consciously or not, the soundscape we rendered was rooted in the sublimity and the violence of that history -- from Oñate at Acoma to the Indian Wars to the hippie communes, from Huxley finding the godhead in the Mojave to a mushroom cloud billowing over the yucca plain in Nevada.


I walked into Al's one summer evening and there was no one behind the bar. I turned to find Tammy sitting alone in a corner booth. Al was dead. "Se murió mi señor," was all she could say, which is difficult to translate, because "señor" can mean so many different things -- gentleman, mister, master, savior. Perhaps Al was all those things to Tammy. The funeral service was held in a sweltering Baptist church in Twentynine Palms, filled with Al's regulars, and there was a big potluck held at the bar afterward. It had been a long time since there had been that many people at Al's Swinger and there never would be again.

Story continues below

Al Ardison's passing let loose the inevitable drama over the future of the bar. Tammy tussled with Al's close friend Andy, another black Marine. Andy's wife was, in keeping with corps tradition, Southeast Asian. He put her to work behind the bar alongside Tammy, and over this Tammy seethed. She wanted to maintain the bar as a shrine to her señor and to continue to wield the only public power she'd ever known, that of the bartender who is the gatekeeper and the keeper of the peace and the conductor of the jukebox and the karaoke mike. Al's son, Darrell, played mediator between Andy and Tammy for a while but made no promises about the future. Tammy did not have the money to buy him out, and she did not know or had too much pride to ask anyone who did have the money.

I imagined that the bar would soon disappear and I did not want it to. So a few weeks after Al's death, Elia Arce was behind the camera, and Tammy in front of it; I was directing a documentary. It was early evening and Tammy was about to begin her shift.

We began in her house, a one-bedroom bungalow kitty-corner from the bar. She had done her hair up in cornrows and was wearing bifocals with huge round frames, like Sophia Loren. She had just showered and was finishing her makeup.

Elia panned around the apartment. An altar on the living room wall: both ex-husbands, children, grandchildren. "You've never been in my house, have you?" Tammy asked. I hadn't. This was great material!

Tammy was in a good mood, ready for her close-up, to present her world to the rest of the world. (We'd told her that the documentary might air on the local PBS station where I had worked before my fall.)

"Now, Tammy, can you walk out the door for us?" She came out holding a Styrofoam box that contained her dinner. She stopped, looked at the camera.

"Don't look at the camera," I said. "Just keep walking to the bar, you know, like you're going to work."

She frowned. "What is this, some kind of movie? I'm not an actress. Though I do look a bit like Elizabeth Taylor." She laughed loudly.

Watching the video years later, I was shocked by the brilliance of the light, the implacable glow of a Mojave summer afternoon. In the frame, the mountains are beige flecked with mustard and gold, thick blues in their shaded folds, violent browns. You can feel the heat in the shot. The summer light makes the faces and hills resplendent, although it also overexposes, turning things garish. The shadows shift from pastel to jaggedly dark, tearing open the landscape.

Tammy wore black sandals. We heard the rubber soles crunching over the grit on the old potholed asphalt. She crossed swatches of dirt on the road -- remnants of monsoon flows or the sand the wind brought from the dunes on the Marine base.

"Whoops," Elia said. She had noticed that our shadows crossed into the frame, looming over Tammy.

We followed her in real time all the way to the bar, only a minute or so by the clock but interminable on the screen.

A two-shot, Rubén and Tammy opposite one another at the bar. He is
wearing a white T-shirt and very faded blue jeans, brown motorcycle

boots. He is smoking (Camel Lights).

The JUKEBOX PLAYS James and Bobby Purify's "I'm Your Puppet."
Just pull my string and I'll do anything, I'm your puppet . . .

Rubén tells Tammy to show us the kitchen where Al used to prepare
his famous catfish dinners, which Rubén never tasted because he
arrived too late on the scene.

Everything is as Al left it. Salt and flour and spices and fish sauce. Old
grease on the black steel burners. Elia lingers on the stove, takes several
angles. She finds the pilot light, but resists an extreme close-up. She
stays medium, the flame looking fragile.

Tammy enters. Gone is the lighthearted gregariousness. She avoids
looking either at me or at the camera. Instead, she stares up into the
corners of the ceiling, meekly, as if expecting someone or something to
strike her.

Offscreen, Rubén, speaking in Spanish, asks Tammy to tell of the days
when Al used to cook.

Tammy delivers a monosyllabic response.

Rubén presses.

Again, she resists.

(Insistent, switching to English)
Let's try that again. One more time.

(Exasperated, in her accented English)
This is where he cooked his catfish, okay? He cooked until he got sick and couldn't cook no more "¿Me entiende?"

She stalks out of frame.

Elia, again on the pilot light. It does not waver.

Rubén, the interrogator, dragging his subject toward the point he wanted to make. I saw myself do it again and again on the old tapes as we tried to film Tammy: leading questions, hectoring, coaching, directing. It was obvious enough what was going on. I was alone in the desert, listening to the rush of my own blood. I wanted Tammy to keep me company. I wanted to keep her company. I wanted to see myself in her story -- so badly, that I fed her the lines.

Tammy had not come to life in the frame or in my words because I'd gotten in the way. At the time I thought I had undertaken a righteous deconstruction of frames and gazes that erase, distort, and insult the marginal subject; implicitly I'd identified myself as one, something I had been doing for a long time. It was my gainful employment (that I profited from my own marginality and that of others is a classic American contradiction). In the cruder manifestations of the occupation, I was a bean counter, scanning the mastheads of newspapers and magazines to tally the dearth of Hispanic names. In its more sophisticated guise -- after hanging out in academic cultural studies circles -- I performed close readings of texts, looking for evidence of subjection. I found it, of course, everywhere.

The problem is that such a critique does not necessarily restore the subject. Cruelly, it can continue the erasure. It is the devil's bargain we enter when we frame a subject -- in a book, film, painting, play, song. The frame will always exclude, distort, however we might yearn for the real.

Was there a way to allow the subject to represent itself?

This much was real: Tammy lived. She worked in a place called Al's Swinger, a watering hole for the margins of the margins. It was the first black-owned business in the Morongo Basin. On the best nights, I did not think of Tammy or the crowd at Al's as subjects to represent, or notice the different races commingled. Instead, I thought of how we'd all wound up here. I was so moved by the stories. I thought about what we'd fled "down below" and how some of us had finally stopped fleeing and made a home.

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.


Dig this story? Sign up for our newsletter to get unique arts & culture stories and videos from across Southern California in your inbox. Also, follow Artbound on FacebookTwitter, and Youtube.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading