A couple of weeks ago, I challenged myself to come up with a story I’ve never told before. I’ve written about 7.2 million published words (I know, right?), and probably a quarter of them were devoted to telling mostly true stories of my childhood, my family life, my adventures, and my encounters with animals large and small. So is it possible that I’ve told all my stories? Must I only mine the future?
First of all, there are many stories I’ve never told, and never will tell. Most of what went on in 1971, for instance — that’s never going to see the light of day. And that time with the Xerox machine and the disused sauna and a large stuffed muffin — forget it. Although, caution: Stuffed muffins are flammable.
So I found one:
The year was 1979. I was the editor of New West magazine, based in Beverly Hills. New West was owned by Rupert Murdoch, but he didn’t care about it. He’d bought it by accident when he acquired New York magazine.
Later he confessed to me that he’d once bought an airline by mistake.
Anyway, Rupert left me alone. I could do what I wanted, as long as it wasn’t obscene or libelous — unless “obscene or libelous” caused a notable circulation spike. I had fabulous editors; I had great writers; I had a few ideas. In 1979, the magazine was nominated for four National Magazine Awards. That was a very big deal back then; it was sort of like winning an Oscar.
And I won one. The story was “Hell on the Wheels” by Moira Johnston, about defects in Firestone tires. Within three months of publication, Moira was testifying before Congress, her shredded tire by her side. The editor of the piece was my beloved executive editor Rosalie Muller Wright. But, hey, I was there too, waving my hands in an encouraging manner. And my name was on the citation.
The winners were announced at a gala lunchtime event at the Plaza Hotel. The industry was there. I shook hands with many masthead names and a few demigods. “David Halberstam, why yes, of course I know who you are…”. Sadly, I did not get to go on stage to accept the award. Joe Armstrong, the New York-based publisher, decided to take the credit. Not that I’m bitter. My one and only chance to…oh hell. It was really Rosalie’s award anyway.
But then Joe handed me the Ellie.
The Ellie is the Alexander Calder-designed stabile (as opposed to a mobile) that is given to each winner. Calder didn’t call it anything; someone else thought it resembled an elephant and named it. It was a heavy bit of hardware, and it had pointy ends. My first thought, as I was standing there hefting it in the swirl of people in the huge loud room, was that it would be a perfect instrument for murder. I may have been looking at Joe Armstrong at the time.
An hour later, after we’d made a call to the home office and shared the love, me and Ellie hopped into a cab and rode downtown. Ellie rested on my lap; I kept stroking her curves. I got out at 80 University Place and rode the struggling elevator up the fifth floor. I carried the award through the newsroom, and people applauded, just like in the movies.
I was at the Village Voice, which was the place in New York where I felt most at home. I sat near M. Mark and Karen Durbin, two of my favorite women, and I loosened my tie and told the story three or four times. I was in the part of journalism I loved, the big ugly room with the congenial pals and the droll remarks and the casual insults. Word-drunk people deep in their addiction.
I hauled the Ellie around all night. It sat on a coffee table and a regular table and a bureau and, eventually, on the floor. I loved my Ellie.
I had to give it up the next day. Publisher Swift Lockhart needed to show it to advertisers as he sought a little prestige business. (I know it seems like I had three publishers, but, you know, long story. Long boring story). I saw it again in his office. I posed for pictures with it.
Then it disappeared.
I figured Swift stole it. I think he thought we didn’t deserve it. He didn’t care for us much, although he was as smiley and glad-handy as a guy can be. He was from Mad Men-era Madison Avenue, where geniality in the face of pretty much anything was the norm. He had secret demons, I was sure.
I learned later that he thought I’d stolen it. I wish.
Twenty-two years later, I was killing time in Santa Fe and I entered a small pawn shop on a side street near the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. I was mostly looking for deep shade, and the shop was dark and cool. In the back room, I found a leather-bound trunk about the size of a dishwasher. More from curiosity then for any real reason, I asked the proprietor…you’re not believing this, are you? It would be a great story, but it never happened. Life is filled with disappointments.
I never did see Ellie again. The magazine got bought, the staff scattered, I moved to San Francisco and got another job. But it was a great afternoon.
This is another story, but it’s more in the way of a cautionary tale. The years was 2015. I was meeting my friend Mary in San Francisco. We were going to have dinner at Dobbs Ferry and then see the Pop-Up Magazine, as conceived by the energetic people at California Sunday Magazine, which is the closest thing to New West since New West.
There was traffic. There is always traffic from the East Bay to the city, and I had allowed for it, but not enough time. I shoulda taken BART, but I didn’t, which is too bad because it’s going to fall apart within a decade. Have you noticed that public transportation systems all over the country are breaking at more or less that same time? The DC Metro is going to have to close for nine months or more, and BART is basically the same system. Was I saying something?
So the traffic was bad, and NPR was boring, and I began fretting about Mary, sitting in that restaurant nursing a white wine and fending off strangers. I did not want to text her, because I am a slow texter and I did not want take my eyes off the road. Ah, but Siri! She’s always giving, giving, giving. “Text Mary,” I said, and summed my current plight.
Finally I got to the restaurant. “Did you get my text?” I asked her. “I got your text,” she said. She showed me her phone. I have preserved the text in all its glory.
“Yes well I’m in San Francisco anyway I think the best thing for out party right now if you have 247 Republican Kevin.”
Would you not worry about a friend who sent you that text? Would you not be concerned about cognitive impairment? Indeed. So here’s the lesson: Never text with Siri when the radio’s on.
One more brief thing. I’ve seen a lot of theater this winter, and the hands- down winner is “The Heir Apparent” at the Aurora Theater. Farce is so hard to do well; it requires a deep commitment to silliness. When that happens, though, the results can be hysterical. The actors are all splendid (I mention in particular Katie Rubin), and the script by David Ives is wonderfully anarchic. Closes May 22; tickets available.
Word had gotten out about the Super Bloom. It had rained an unexpected amount in Death Valley, and the flowers were out, all the flowers, and the valley floor was spectacular. Oh boy, we said, and made plans.
All of the motels in Death Valley were booked (word about the Bloom had spread quickly), so we had to go further afield. We saw some stuff and did some stuff, but it was all just a warm-up for the Bloom. We’d seen a total eclipse of the sun; now we were doubling down. The desert comes alive! Nature fecund and profligate! I’ll do that.
As you drive down I-5 (or up 99), the signs proliferate. “Food goes where water flows,” “Is growing food wasting water?” “Over 1.2 million California jobs depend on agriculture,” “No water no jobs” and, even more succinctly, “Pray for rain”.
(Let me mention the least appealing advertising slogan I have ever encountered, on a billboard for a furniture store north of Fresno: “Come see our stool samples”).
There was a lot of rain on our way down, but all Californians knew that El Nino is a chimera. It seems like a lot of rain, but Lake Isabella, east of Bakersfield, still looked like a large puddle surrounded by barren mudflats. There was a lot of rain in the desert too, hence the Bloom, and there’d been flash floods in places, but the land was still dry and unforgiving
Death Valley was not the site of a famous scene of starvation or disease; there was no mass die-off on the valley floor. It is said that the name came from a careless remark by a young boy attached to the first party of settlers who came through those parts — they were lost, of course.
They came to the lip of the Valley after months of traveling through unknown territory. The first words spoken on that promontory are not known, but I assume they were something like, “Holy Christ, are we ever screwed.”
I went into a convenience store search for Chapstick. The girl at the counter waved her hand. I saw an imposing rack of tubes, way more lip ointment than I would have ever thought possible. Aloha Coconut, Mango Sunrise, Cake Batter. The clerk said, “it’s the owner. She’s the queen of Chapstick.”
The weather was changeable. We drove through rain in the Kern River Valley, through falling snow on our way to Benton, through a pretty good sandstorm on our way to Olancha. The extremes are part of the point; there’s nothing like watching a desert lightning storm sweeping down from the horizon. Big skies create a grander scale; even a contrail can look apocalyptic.
We had a good soundtrack in the car, everything from Washboard Sam to you-know-who. Nice to roll along the two-lane with old friends.
We found Benton Hot Springs, which is absolutely in the middle of nowhere. It’s a geothermal oasis, no doubt a great comfort to travelers finding themselves in, well , the middle of nowhere. The hot springs are fresh, and they don’t smell of sulfur; the breakfasts are large and tasty; the innkeepers are young and friendly; and a cat named Sylvester may spend the night with you if you play your cards right.
There are hot springs all over the Great Basin; it’s just that this one has soft beds and heated floors. Bonus: Never any water shortage.
It’s impossible not to think about water when you’re in the California desert. Take a little apolitical trip to Mono Lake, admire the tufa, and get caught up in one of the great battles of the 20th Century: Los Angeles (very big town) versus the Owens Valley (small and not politically connected). Result: Los Angeles stole water for decades against fierce local opposition. Owens Valley finally won the war, but Mono Lake had dropped 45 vertical feet, lost half its volume, and doubled in salinity.
The famous tufa at Mono Lake (otherworldly towers of calcium carbonate) have been around for a while, but they’ve been much more exposed recently; their appearance is a symptom of the lake’s destruction. Mono Lake owes its salvation to sundry environmental groups, so maybe cynicism is not appropriate in all situations.
We got to Death Valley and heard the bad news: The Super Bloom was over. The rain and wind of the previous weekend had beaten down the blooms. We mustn’t expect anything spectacular. Flowers, sure, but we should have been there last week.
We are adaptable travelers; we can make do. We search the hillside for flowers and found a bounty of species. Let me just type their names because I love to hear them: desert star, desert gold, desert trumpet, desert sage, desert five-spot, turtleback, panamint daisy, gravel ghost, fremont phacelia, shredding evening primrose, tufted evening primrose, brown-eyed evening primrose.
I love the idea of the little seeds sitting underground, whistling thinly through their lips and trying to get some sleep. Year after year, nothing happens. All of a sudden, water! Time to push through the soil. Time to make others of your kind. Time to spread your array for an awe-struck world.
I’ve been coming to the desert all my life. My father lived in Pear Blossom for a while, and I visited in the summer. The nearest house was half a mile away; I used to run with the two dogs among the mesquite and the creosote bushes. Later on, Tracy and I would visit Joshua Tree in the spring, and the desert turned romantic. The mountains silhouetted against a red sky; coyotes beginning to howl; the botanical perfume in the morning almost strong enough to wake you up.
I always forget how spacious the desert is, how accommodating. If you live there, you can be anyone you want. Beyond civilization, back in the harsh wilderness, undefined and undefinable; people live for that.
Now I only visit in the spring or fall. If it got to be 134 degrees, as it did in Death Valley once, I imagine I’d be clinging to the air conditioner and begging for mercy.
Of course, it’s a dry heat.
We stayed in a town called Shoshone. To check into the $60 motel, we had to fill out a three-page form, initialing promises not to smoke, not to bring a pet into the room, not to run in the pool area. I said, making a joke, “this is like applying for a passport.”
“Yes it is,” said the woman behind the counter, giving me a level stare. “yes it is.”
The last day we were there, we drove down south of Badwater, because someone said there might be flowers down there. For many miles, only a smattering of flowers. Then we turned a corner and saw it, a field of gold. It was everywhere, climbing up the hillsides, swaying slightly in the wind. Desert golds, mostly, but also a lot of other stuff.
I have no idea whether this was the Super Bloom or not. Let’s just call it the Very Good Bloom. It was, you know, magical.