Saturday, November 15, 2008

Desert Center

It was summer of 1992, I believe, when I tagged along with Groundwork on one of their first trips out of state -- Fourth of July weekend shows in San Diego and somewhere in Orange County.

The trip was pretty star-crossed from the start. At the Che Cafe show that started it off, I blew pretty much all my disposable cash on Man Is The Bastard and Ebullition records, ensuring that by the end of the trip I'd be sneaking food out of garbage cans. Cops showed up at show's end because people were setting off fireworks. We'd been led to believe -- either through youthful naïvete or false promises -- that we'd have a place to stay in San Diego, but that didn't happen and we ended up sneaking all six of us (the four Groundwork guys, me, and fellow roadie Jerid -- who would end up becoming their bassist and then second guitarist later) into a motel room. At the Orange County show, no one knew Groundwork's songs at all -- they only had the split 7" and an Italian-released ep out at the time -- and no one got into them except for Kent McClard, dancing alone in front of the stage. By the time we headed back to Tucson, spirits were low.

We were in two vehicles -- four of us in singer Brendan's hatchback, two in Jerid's truck. After the O.C. show, we decided not to put our lodging arrangements in anyone's hands, and just drive back to Tucson (not a short trip, by any stretch of the imagination).

Somewhere east of L.A., in the middle of the night, those of us in Brendan's car passed Jerid. He was waving energetically. I waved back.

About fifteen minutes later, someone noticed that Jerid's truck was nowhere to be seen. Hmm. "He waved to me," I said, helpfully.

We stopped to let the truck catch up. This was pre-cell phones, of course. Fifteen minutes or so more, we cut across the median and headed back, to find Jerid and whoever else was in the truck sitting by the side of I-10, not moving forward. "I was trying to signal to you guys!" he said, with some anguish. I kept my mouth shut about the waving.

We hailed a passing tow truck and followed him to the nearest town, which did not -- oddly -- have a 24-hour garage. It was dark and dead. It was Desert Center.

* * *

We woke up early the next morning, the sun already on its way to mercilessness, and took stock. Desert Center wasn't the oasis its name hints at, more a dusty little circle, with a few small houses and trailers and businesses half-heartedly surrounding the perimeter. There was no shade to be had. We sat around for hours, a bunch of 19-year-olds with no outlet at all for our energy. We had two sources of entertainment: a Hustler magazine that someone had picked up early in the trip, and a copy of "The Enquirer," the Krishna zine that the guy from Inside Out and 108 did back then. When we had been in California, Dave Mandel gave it to me as a joke. We read both desperately and repeatedly, searching for any sign of life beyond Desert Center. By the time we finally left, every photo in Hustler had a mustache drawn on it, and the religious yammerings of "The Enquirer" were sounding pretty good.

The garage opened after what seemed like hours, and they came out to look at the truck, still sitting in the middle of the little town. We went off to wander. Unfortunately, there wasn't much to see. Six teenagers with shaved heads, No For An Answer t-shirts, shorts, and high-tops wandering around in a dejected circle, looking for anything to occupy us in the hours to come.

We wandered into a little general store -- it was run by a woman relatively close to our age -- about 25. Compared to the rest of the town, she was our age. She talked about the area with the desperation of someone who wanted to get out but couldn't. We opened the cooler and stood in front of it, enjoying the cool air.

Back outside: the garage didn't have the part. They'd have to order it. It would take days. We couldn't all fit into Brendan's hatchback. Jerid's father was called -- he would drive out to help us with our stuff, about a six-hour drive. Those of us who had been in the hatchback decided to stay, in a show of solidarity. Later, we all privately admitted we wanted to take off, immediately.

We sat outside, going slowly crazy. The sun was like nothing I've ever felt. We would crawl in the back of the hatchback and lay down until it got too stuffy. Britt and I covered ourselves with blankets in the back of the truck. At one point, I heard a high-pitched animal keening coming from Britt's blanket, as he rocked back and forth.

We wandered more. We returned to the store to talk to the clerk some more -- I think all of us were now looking at her in awe. A woman! One looking more and more attractive by the minute! She described her life of getting blackout drunk every weekend and expressed awe that none of us drank. We started to admit that if we lived in Desert Center, our strictures against drinking would probably relax. We looked in the cooler some more, mystified by a bottle of Clamato -- none of us were familiar with the product. To this day, it holds a certain exotic allure for me.

By the time Jerid's father arrived, we were starting to turn on each other -- snapping at the most minute slight. We piled into the cars and headed away as quickly as possible, five of us, at least, not worrying about the fate of the truck (they collected it a few days later). We drove back to Tucson, conversation sporadic.

As Tucson emerged on the horizon, by this point very late at night, we saw rare funnel clouds over the northern end. One final bad omen on a cursed trip.

I never went on tour again.

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