The Gadsden Hotel in downtown Douglas AZ is like nowhere else on Earth. Situated just a few blocks away from the US/Mexican border and behind the fortified wall that was built by George Bush to keep the illegals out, it’s hard to know if you’re the prisoner or the free person. Somehow, we all feel illegal here in someway. We’re all at risk. We’re all expatriates from somewhere. Home is a convenient construction to help us feel secure. I doubt Douglas could truly feel like home to anyone though. Nothing feels secure here. Borders and the economies that drive them change with time.
A young man wearing a Border Patrol uniform and paramilitary boots steps out onto the street. He’s followed by his little blond daughter. Just a loving dad and his kid walking through the edges of a war zone. Being on the wrong side of a payoff or drug deal will get you killed. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time will get you killed. No one is safe or innocent when the whole system is unethical and corrupt. The only thing that is real is how this little girl looks up at her father and feels love for him. She feels safe in his presence. The youths attempting to jump the steel fence a few blocks away have no guarantees.
It was getting late when we saw the Gadsden Hotel. We were looking for tacos. We weren’t sure if it was really a hotel or just a hotel turned into residency apartments — you know, no kitchens and week by week leases. You pay or you get kicked out. Turnover is incredible, but some of the tenants seem to stay forever.
Surprisingly, when we walked inside to see what it was like, it turned out that the Gadsden was an actual working historic hotel. It has a beauty salon, a quaint little tavern and a full restaurant. We asked how busy it got. The clerk said they had maybe six visitors a week. Doesn’t seem you need a reservation. We smiled at each other knowing that we have to come back. We took a couple quick handheld photos before we left.
With all the Christmas decorations up, it made me wish that we could just ditch everything and spend a quiet romantic Christmas alone here together in the Gadsden. Just me and Kim. It would just be us and the ghosts walking the dark hallways. There is one empty room after another. There’s a beautiful view of a brick wall outside the window.
The most notorious ghost in the hotel is said to be Pancho Villa — the famous Mexican revolutionary. Villa was supposed to have had a map to his hidden treasure tattooed on his head. The ghost seen walking the halls of the Gadsden is said to be that of a headless man dressed in black.
Now that the stress of Christmas has passed, I really need this getaway more than ever. I don’t care about the decorations or the celebrations. I don’t care about the guns, the ghosts or the border guards. I just need to get away from everything and spend time with my love.
They came in and beat the shit out of me. Then they broke out all the doors and windows in my house. The wind blew icy rain inside my bedroom and the wallpaper rotted and started peeling off the walls. Black mold had been hidden underneath.
My clothes were tattered and covered with blood and dirt. I dragged myself outside. The sky was brooding, filled with heavy dark clouds. The winds picked up as if the clouds were preparing to unleash more torrential rains.
Dead sharp grass was waist deep as I ran from the house to the tumbled down shed at the edge of the property. There were only 3 walls intact. A dirty mattress lay beneath a broken out window. Someone had once slept here. A tattered sleeping bag was bunched up by the mattress.
I had been so beaten and battered inside the house, it was all I could to to lie down on the mattress and pull part of the dirty sleeping bag over myself. I don’t know if I actually fell asleep or whether I was just partially unconscious from all the blows. I had just covered my face as the intruders punched and kicked me. I laid there on the floor motionless when they left me.
Just at the very moment that I was losing consciousness and everything seemed peaceful, the largest of the intruders stomped into the shed and shouted, “Get your ass out here you piece of shit!”
“I can’t get up,” I said.
The intruder grabbed me by the shirt and tried to make me stand up. I just slumped back down onto the floor of the shed. There had been asphalt tiles on a shallow pad of concrete, but after the winds knocked out the wall, everything was buried in dirt and debris. A pile of spiny tumbleweeds filled the corner.
“I’ve already had too much,” I tried to say.
“What’s that, ass-wad?” The intruder mocked.
I lapsed into delirium. I couldn’t take anymore.
“You have to put me in the box,” I said.
“They told me I could go back in the box if everything got to be too much.”
“What the fuck are you talking about homo?” The intruder yelled at me before back-handing me across the face.
“When everything gets to be too much, I get to go in the box. The box is three foot square and made out of smooth concrete. Once I’m inside they slide a concrete lid on it. I can’t hear or see anything,” I tried to explain.
I was really too tired to explain this. My sentences trailed off into half spoken slurred words.
“What kind of freak are you? You aren’t even worth it,” the intruder scoffed as he kicked me in the back with his heavy work boot.
My wet shirt was ripped halfway off my body. The flesh on my back burned where it had been struck by the boot. The intruder spit on me and walked out of the shed muttering more abuse. I sat on the floor hugging my legs. I put my chin between my knees and kept my eyes closed. I didn’t want to see where the intruder went or if he was returning.
I pulled myself into a ball and imagined I was in the box. The air was warm and it was dark and silent. There was no way out and no way that anyone could get inside. As long as I didn’t touch the sides of the box I couldn’t tell where I was. I couldn’t feel how trapped I really was.
When I was really still, I could be anywhere. I walked through a field from my childhood and ended up in the woods. A small stream cut through it. Leopard frogs jumped into the small
pool where the stream took a bend.
Up above the bank, the small round leaves of wild ginger spilled over the edge. Their bright new green leaves flashed in the gentle breeze that made it down to the forest’s floor. Behind the patch of wild ginger, stately primordial ferns rise up. The little leopard frogs slyly poked their heads out of the water from a distance. The scene became its own pristine world. It made me wish I were only three inches tall and living in a small den under the tree roots.
If you’re mindful of your steps while walking through the forest, sometimes you’ll feel the crush of an old tin can that is buried somewhere underneath the blanket of last season’s fallen leaves. Things have been buried in the earth many years ago. Even though the forest looks pristine, at one time much of it was farmland. Even though there is no trace of the old farm houses, the small dumps the owners left behind are still there if you can find them.
Once you locate one, it usually isn’t hard to start digging up the old stuff. Most of what you find is rusted or decayed, but some of the glassware comes out intact. When you dig them out, the little cobalt blue medicine bottles seem the most precious. If you look closely, most will have an “M” inside a circle designating that it was made by the old Maryland Glass Corporation. This had been located in Baltimore. Most the bottles were for Phillips Milk of Magnesia, Bromo-Seltzer and Noxema — three products I have never used, even though they still exist today. The bottles I found in these dumps are probably close to a hundred years old.
I also liked finding the really old half pint booze bottles. The ones that took corks. I liked the idea of always having one in your pocket in case you needed a belt. Rip the cork out with your teeth and pour back the whiskey. When I got older, I wondered why anyone would bother with a half pint anyway. A few good slugs and it’s all gone. When I drank, I wanted to feel like I would never finish the bottle — even though I always did. Who needs sleep when you still have booze to drink?
Booze is just another promise of freedom — it makes you feel as if you are nearly free. You can almost get there. All it will take is one more drink. Then you pass out on the floor or in some strange doorway on the way home. Unconsciousness is not freedom though, so you have to start all over again the next day. It’s an never ending story.
Once, when I went really deep into the woods, I found the jackpot dump. I spent hours digging up amazing bottles. I even found a milk glass pill box. It seemed like it could hold magic. The metal top was pretty badly corroded, but it still closed pretty well. It seemed like a real artifact to me. It was early summer, but very hot. I had so much stuff to take back that I took my t-shirt off and tied the arms together to make a bag. I stuffed it full of bottles and other trinkets.
By the time I was ready to leave, the sun was getting low and the shadows long. Everything looked different. I headed back in the direction that I thought was home, but suddenly everything looked strange and different. I tried to stay calm and walk in a straight line. I went over one little hill after another. Each small leaf filled valley started looking like the last. I couldn’t restrain my panic and clutched my sack of bottles and took off in a run.
I ran as fast as I could. I held on tightly to my sack of booty as long as I could, but at some point I had to just let go of it. I hid it under a large ragged oak tree. I felt confident that I would be able to find it when I came back. I passed a tumbled down triangular corral that was falling to the ground. It could have been built here fifty years ago for all I knew.
The shadows grew deeper and I ran faster — dripping with sweat and fear. I came over a small hill and realized that I had been here before. I had come around full circle from where I had started. Now it was getting critical to get out of the wood before it was dark. Even if there was a moon, scant light would penetrate the broad leaf canopy above. I would be left wandering in near darkness.
I started running in a slightly different direction. I run up and down little hills. While running down a gentle slope, I caught my foot on a fallen sapling that was hidden beneath the leaves. There was nothing to catch hold of and I fell down the hill face first into the soft leaves. I let myself go. I decided nothing was going to happen to me even if I had to spend the night in the woods. Little green shoots grew around me. From where I lay on the ground they looked like tiny trees. Again I thought how much I would like to live here if I was only three inches tall.
I imagined the small houses that people build here one hundred years ago. The houses that the people lived in who made the little dumps that I dug up to find bottles in. I looked at the small sticks laying among the leaves and imagined I could build a tiny house from them. No one would even know I was alive. I built up a complete fantasy of living here — away from everything. It was beautiful and peaceful.
In the twilight, I pulled myself off the ground. I wasn’t worried about anything any longer. I just started walking. I kept walking. I walked until I made it out of the woods. It was as if nothing had ever happened.
A beat up Reliant K car rolled down the dirt road pulling a homemade flatbed trailer. It kicked up a giant cloud of bad smelling dust. The car slowed down as it passed. The ex-con driving it stopped to look at me standing in the desert with my camera and tripod.
He put his head out the window and tried to ask me something. F-16 fighter jets ripped through the air overhead. I couldn’t hear a word he said. I looked at all the prison tats on his emaciated tweaker body. The velour car seats were black with sweat and grease.
We were looking for the backside of a gravel quarry. We thought it would be beautiful in the twilight. The sun was just setting. We took a dirt road that was marked “No Trespassing, Permit Required.” The gate was open. We’ve been down this road before.
I couldn’t help feeling vulnerable standing in the middle of the desert next to this ex-con. If he threatened me with a pistol or knife, he could easily have robbed me of my camera and wallet. Maybe worse. Under these circumstances, you can’t show your fear.
I pointed to the aircraft and made signs that I couldn’t hear what he was saying. His girlfriend didn’t look at me. I wondered how she had ended up with this ex-con. They were both young.
There was standing water in the wash, left over from the recent rains. People use the wash as an illegal dumping ground. The ex-con’s trailer was filled with broken down furniture. I didn’t know if they were here to dump it or whether they were carrying it to start a new life somewhere. There were pockets of double-wides and trailer homes in the distance.
When the fighters jets had passed, the ex-con asked, “You taking photos for the newspaper?”
“No,” I said, pointing to my girlfriend, “we just like drivin’ around taking pictures of stuff.”
“Oh,” he said.
We gave each other the nod, signifying that it was all cool.
The pair navigated their K car through the mud and trash and drove off into the sunset. Just like in the movies. I hoped the two would get that new start wherever they were headed.
A few steps away, we were hit by the smell of death. What I saw was the rotting leg and hoof of a horse. Nearby the ribs laid in a tumble. I didn’t get too close. The smell was terrible. It wasn’t a complete body. I wondered if someone had butchered the beast and only dumped parts of it here or if it had been dropped intact and wild animals pulled off pieces from the carcass and dragged them away to eat in seclusion.
What struck me most was how inconsequential the end of this life had been. No ceremony, just dumping the body at the side of the road. I imagined my own remains left to rot and disintegrate like this. I was alright with the idea.
On a geological time frame, nothing matters. Everything we do and everything we are will return to the earth without a trace. Life is now. The young couple driving their junk furniture through the desert had all that really mattered — a connection to each other. Experiencing life together. Sharing what we see and what we have with someone else is everything. Being alone is nothing.
The storm was impressive in magnitude. It blotted out the big sky. Icy cold wet Pacific Northwestern winds blew thick clouds across the desert playa south of Wilcox. This is where we found this small house. Flooding occurred as if it was nothing. It took no notice of us. The land had been shaped by it. Only a periodic occurrence, people forget how devastating it can be. They say we needed the water. This is the type of weather that drives people indoors.
It was time to get out of town. My boy had worked hard in school and I wanted to reward him. I was done with work. We needed time together. I asked him where he wanted to go and all he said was, “Somewhere we haven’t been.”
I said, “Ok, let’s go someplace in New Mexico. We’ll bring a map.”
That’s all we knew.
Sometimes the best places are the places that are nowhere.
This abandoned gas station was near the Arizona / New Mexico border. It was trashed worse than most places we go. Bullet holes and empty booze bottles were the lasting scares of its hard life — now over.
I joked, “I have some sleeping bags in the trunk, maybe we should just stay here tonight.”
I like the idea of just heading off on the road and disappearing. Of course, the filth and the feces puts a damper on my romantic visions of riding the rails and cooking can goods over an open fire. I sometimes think of doing this at the side of a dirt road somewhere in between the interstate and the rail lines.
My son just looked at me thinking, “Right dad, like we’re actually going to stay here.”
He likes the adventure. The danger. Seeing new things. Finding things that most people pass by. It was a really great trip.
The owner of this house probably thought the arsenal of high power rifles that he kept in the safe would protect him from anything that came his way. Sniper scopes and suppressors lie in the burned out remains of the house. The fire spread too fast for him to get out before everything went up in blazes. There were probably live shells going off the entire time the house burned. What good is a gun for protection without ammo? In Arizona, when people have ammo they typically have massive amounts of it. Perhaps it kept the firefighters away.
All too often, the danger comes from within and not from the outside. Like a walled complex during a plague, the fortresses we build for our protection all too often become our undoing. Once the poison gets in, the walls become our own prison.
As an untrained forensic investigator, I looked for clues in the charred remains of the structure. Besides the barbeque, I spotted a large gas burner. I think of drunken Thanksgivings and deep fried turkeys gone awry. Holy shit! What a blaze they can make. Thanksgiving is right around the corner.
Thanksgiving always makes me think of how far away I am from everything and everyone — like what it must have been like living in this little prefab house outside Wilcox, AZ. There are no tables set. There is no place to go. There is no one to say grace.
Before I had kids, I used to make turkey sandwiches on Thanksgiving and go hiking with my dog deep in the San Gabriel mountains above LA. Everyone had somewhere else to be and I would be alone. The stillness of nature was beautiful.
Now I make pumpkin pie for my kids and remember my grandmother. She’s the one who taught me how to make a good pie crust. The only secret is to use ice cold water and stop cutting the dough when it forms pea shaped balls. My grandmother always smelled of pastry flour and spices. She had a smile and laugh that as a kid made me happier than anything else.
The MGB sits under the collapsed carport with the tools to fix it still lying around the rusting carcass. The blaze was so intense that all the glass melted and pooled on the red hot metal before the whole mess cooled and solidified in the state that it now lies.
When we were teeenagers, my best friend had an MGB just like this one. It rarely ran. If it even looked like rain it would just die, leaving us wherever we happened to be. The delusion of British prestige mocked us with it’s shiny smiling little grill under the maroon bonnet. We were looking for a way into the world, but ended up being left to stand alone in cold dark drizzling Detroit nights.
Over the years, we learned to fix almost everything on our cars. What we lacked in finances, we made up for with ingenuity and tenacity. It was a long fight — patching together dreams that time continued to tear apart. All cars end up in the junkyard no matter how special they feel when you step on the gas and let yourself believe that they can take you anywhere — somewhere new and beautiful.
Sometimes it takes a catastrophic fire to destroy everything so you can really let it go.
The flood hit Southern New Mexico in early autumn. Roads were washed out and trees knocked down. A wall of mud filled with rocks the size of fists from the past burst through the small notch canyon. It was only one fissure in the psyche — the barrier between then and now. All brought down by the rushing water. Debris gathered debris and overtook everything in its path. Only the strongest withstand the forces unleashed. After the fury of the storm, everything is left in a different state. Drugs and Alcohol are less effective. Hastily settled matters rest where they lie. Pools of tranquility are the last vestiges of what has passed. Stillness is scattered here and there in the path of destruction. Letting go of everything and finding beauty in the now is the only hope, even when the road to get there is broken.
Most people look forward to travel photography so they can take photos of new stuff. I take the same photos no matter where I go. In fact, I strive to take photos that are completely free of locality.
On my recent business trip to Tewksbury Massachusetts, I was struck by the distinctly New England landscape and neighborhoods. Whenever I got a break from work I headed out on the road just to see what was around me. I was somehow drawn to Lawrence. It is a small manufacturing town built along the Merrimack river. Like most New England manufacturing centers, it was built along a navigable river for ease of moving goods and supplies in and out. There was a time when barges were a vital form of transportation. Rail service soon augmented river transport. Rail lines still cut through the heart of Lawrence and trains continue to rumble by with regular frequency.
Lawrence is pretty. Well kept houses cover the wooded hills above the river valley. The remnants of past large scale manufacturing plants line the riverfront. These were the lifeblood of the city, but the large stately brick smokestacks that rise above the town are all now dormant. The brickwork is still impressive though, causing me to think of the men who built these structures high into the air — brick by brick — from primitive scaffolding.
A quick google search turns up the fact that over a third of the city’s population is living below the poverty line. While Lawrence is certainly struggling, it is hardly a dying city. The shopping centers are not dotted with empty spaces. There are no vacant houses. In the more run down areas, auto mechanics and body shops seem to be doing a brisk business. Most of the empty manufacturing plants in the city center are being cleaned up and converted into art space and hipster lofts. I guess, this would probably annoy me if it was more successful, but it isn’t. Walking around the old part of town I get the sense that it is still a mixed economic and racial local community and not an isolated gentrified urban gated community. Often urban renewal projects end up dividing an established community into those who have and those who have not.
So while walking behind buildings and over bridges, I can’t help asking myself for the thousandth time what I’m doing it for. If I can find almost the same nooks and corners everywhere I go, what’s the point? What am I looking for?
The answer has to be that I’m looking for myself. Somehow, the way I see things helps me see myself for who I am in the world. Just as people are not able to see themselves when they look in the mirror, I cannot see myself, but I cannot help but to try. We are always searching for ourselves even if we don’t know it. Why I think I’ll find myself in alleys, trash heaps, tumbled down brick structures and clingy vines is anyone’s guess, but these are the places that draw me in. I feel at home in these places. I find comfort in their familiarity.
The essence of a diamond cannot be seen in the rough. it just looks like a lump of matter. It takes a skilled craftsman to cut the diamond along the boundaries of its internal atomic bonds to reveal its intrinsic nature — the part that is perfect and beautiful. We can never see the atomic structure of a diamond with anything but an electron microscope (which doesn’t produce a particularly beautiful picture), but when the diamond is cut, we can see its inner sparkle as we examine it between our fingers. This is when we can catch a glimpse of what it is inside.
In a way, all we can do to define ourselves is to find the boundaries of our essential selves. There is no way to capture who we are in a piece of art or photograph. There is no way to pin ourselves down using words. The best we can hope for is to carve out the boundaries of what we are and what we are not. Somehow this can give a hint of what makes us “us” and not someone else. Somewhere in this is the spark that the right person might see when they look into our eyes. This is how we fall in love.
Love requires the suspension of logic — the suspension of definition. Love requires the suspension of everything that we cling to for support and security in life. We have to let go of the known and leap into what is not known.
On my way home, I am stuck sitting in the claustrophobic center seat in the airplane. I hear the men sitting behind me ordering one Jim Beam after another. They drink in silence. I remember how that first slug of whiskey burns your mouth and how once you get it down the alcohol warms every molecule in your body. I remember the feeling of hot cheeks and the split second of feeling alive because of the booze in my stomach. I held onto the promise that the booze would make everything ok , at least for the night. Getting through the night seems like all that matters sometimes. I remember thinking the booze would wash all my problems away.
I also remember how after a few, I’d have to find someone to hold onto just to help me hang onto myself. Everyone knows how drunks sound when they are talking past each other. They express love or hatred as if it hardly matters which was which, but we know that no matter what they say, it’s just passing time. They are just drunk. It’s like a nightmare or a dream. We may feel life or death intensity, but in the end we know we’ll wake up — somewhere. Dreams end and we wake up. Sometimes all we can do is pick up the pieces.
But these men never say a word. I guess they are shutting down. They have given up on finding themselves or finding anything else. They savored each burning sip of their whiskey and rely on that burn to feel alive.
I gave up on booze a long time ago and am still looking for myself in alleyways and empty parking lots. There is a lot to find when you start looking. When you’re really lucky, you can even find love — and kiss under a lone street light or in a drainage ditch.
I was corresponding with an old friend via text while traveling on business. I made the comment that I hated business travel. My friend asked me why.
Feeling somewhat introspective, I answered, “I hate being alone.”
Since the two of us often correspond about art, love, sex and life, he gave the comment a bit of thought before saying, ” Wait, to do art is to be alone!”
I shot back, “Art is what I do to get through being alone!”
Our correspondence moved on to other things, but while flying cross country, the topic kept coming up in my mind — being alone, why I do art and the connections.
When I’m feeling particularly down on the world, I’ll often joke, “The only thing I hate more than people is being alone.”
It’s one of those jokes that is too painful to be funny. Of course, most the time we spend in the company of other people is still just time spent alone. Superficial interactions, while better than nothing, still leaves you you nowhere.
With these thoughts I let myself doze off on the aircraft. I had nothing but existential dreams, trying to make contact with one person after another — none of whom could understand a thing I was trying to say. There was no contact. We were just individual people occupying space near one another.
I was woken up by violent turbulence and the plane being thrown around in the air. The young girl sitting next to me was terrified by me. I am a reasonably muscular man with a brush cut after all and I have a certain presence I suppose. It is pretty rare for anyone to be so put off by me though.
After becoming aware of the intense pain I was inflicting on her just for being there and trying to look out the window to see the clouds outside, I resigned myself to reclining in my my seat and looking up at the ceiling. Then I closed my eyes and thought about how much I missed my girlfriend. It was a long flight.
With my eyes closed, I also further pondered my motivation to create art –everyone has their own history. When we shut off and fall inside ourselves we cannot see anything outside ourselves. Art is both a way to explore who we are when we’re alone and a means for making contact with others. When art captures some facet of the essence of being human, it will resonate with people we share it with. We can reflect on being human as a shared experience — a way of feeling not alone.
Sometimes our art is a silent scream. We are screaming out that we want to make contact. Scream out that we exist. In a way, I was screaming something out loud as I sat and wrote this on the filled to capacity aircraft — fighting my overwhelming claustrophobic feelings of needing a way out and not even be able to let myself look outside the window!
Aloneness comes not just when we close off the world and sit behind a locked door, but when we let the world spin by and allow and are locked inside ourselves. So self absorbed that the world outside is not even a distraction. We can be sitting in the Department of Motor Vehicles waiting for our number to be called and be struck by a random emotional trigger that we associate with something around us. This can be made into art –the abstract association of a feeling with something seemingly unconnected to who we are.
Somehow I always feel that I find myself somewhere between my body, the emotions I feel and the things that I see and how I see them. I am both the observer and the photographer, but as in physics, you can never know both the true position and velocity of anything. One or the other. We can never know who we are as ourselves while in motion, in life or living. When we are engaged we are one thing and when alone another. We have to let go to live and disengage to experience ourselves as we are. Art and writing can preserve glimpses we have of ourselves when we are alone. Somehow we are really everything all together, but we cannot be aware of it all at one time.
If life could be your art, there would be no reason for producing art. If pure experience was art we would not need to create objects. Art becomes possessions that weigh us down — adding to the clutter of life.
Art can also be a beautiful escape. Something to think about when we are disengaged from the world. Passengers of life looking out the window as places meaningful to others pass by and we have nothing but imagination to place ourselves within these spaces.
We see an empty chair and imagine what it would feel like if we were sitting there. What an alternate life that centers around that chair and that space might be like. We can also imagine ourselves meeting someone who may walk into this dream space. In the end we want to be connected and not a loner producing objects with implied importance.
My plane finally landed. Most the passengers who could, were already standing. The young woman and I accidentally found ourselves face to face while gathering up our stuff in preparation to deplane. We didn’t smile or acknowledge each other in any way other than not looking away. Since the flight was over, the girl’s perceived threat from me had passed. Before getting up, I had to unplug my phone charger from under the seat.
I held it up and smiled, saying, “It’s great that they have plugs for charging devices on these planes now. I do everything on my phone and it won’t hold enough charge to get me through such a long flight.”
She smiled and said, “I know, isn’t it?”
I got up, turned my back and walked away. We had both spent the entire flight doing stuff on our electronic devices. Whew!