[Paleopsych] NYT: Parked in Desert, Waiting Out the Winter of Life
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Mon Jan 24 21:51:01 UTC 2005
Parked in Desert, Waiting Out the Winter of Life
NYT December 17, 2004
By CHARLIE LeDUFF
[Continuing in my coverage of ways to keep down the cost of providing for
those made unemployable by robots. I still want to know what standard of
living social justice requires that productive pay the unproductive.]
SLAB CITY, Calif. - Directions to purgatory are as follows:
from Los Angeles drive east past Palm Springs into the
bowels of the Mojave Desert. Turn south at the stench of
the Salton Sea. Proceed down Highway 111 to the town of
Niland, a broken-down place of limited possibilities.
Turn left on Main Street and head down the road to the
railroad tracks where the law sometimes waits, as though
the tracks were an international boundary.
"Where you going?" asked the deputy, Frank Lopez, on a
recent night, even though the road leads to just one place.
Bored stiff, the deputy spun a ghost story about
drugged-out crazies, a cult in a blue bus, a child
molester, a man who sleeps with rattlesnakes, a mobster on
the lam, and old people, flocks of old people who have
traded in their picket fences for a mobile home and a life
on the drift.
"The best thing to do," he said, "is to turn around."
Five miles down is the sign, "Welcome to Slab City,"
marking the entrance of this former World War II military
base. The only suggestion of life this night was the
flickering of campfires. At a makeshift mission, some men
stood around a fire, casting silhouettes with a vaguely
Among them was the pastor, Phil Hyatt, who shared some
coffee and a few paraphrased biblical passages. The
Pentecostal preacher excused himself and shambled back to
his trailer. First the shoes came off, then the coins went
on the nightstand. The bedsprings creaked and then he
Pastor Hyatt, at 69, has inherited the burden of living.
His wife, Audrey, died this year after suffering a stroke
here in the desert wasteland. The memory of her scent is
"Ah, he's lonely, and it's tough to see it," said Rusty,
73, who sat at the pastor's fire, warming himself. Rusty
looked and smelled like a bum - the price paid, he said,
for freedom. "Nobody particularly wants to die out here in
the desert, but the living's free."
Slab City is not so sinister as it is a strange, forlorn
quarter of America. It is a town that is not really a town,
a former training grounds with nothing left but the
concrete slabs where the barracks stood. Gen. George S.
Patton trained troops here. Pilots of the Enola Gay
practiced their atomic mission, dropping dummy bombs into
The land belongs to the state, but the state, like the law,
does not bother, and so the Slabs have become a place to
park free. More than 3,000 elderly people settle in for the
winter, in a pattern that dates back at least 20 years.
They are mostly single, divorced or widowed - a whole
generation on the road, independent, alone. In this place,
to be 55 years old is to be young.
There are no amenities; no potable water, no electricity,
no sewerage. Groceries can be picked up in town at the
grubby market whose managers do not seem to mind that
hundreds of people fill their jugs from the water tap. Mail
is routed to a post office box - Niland, CA 92257. Gasoline
is bought in distant towns like Brawley; prescriptions and
liquor are bought in Mexico. Sewage is held in storage
tanks or holes in the ground.
The north side of Main Street is Poverty Flats. The south
side, the suburbs, where the relatively well-to-do
motorhomies have their dinner dances and clubhouse
Cole Robertson lives in the Flats with his wife, Mabel. Mr.
Robertson, 72, is a retired construction worker from East
Texas who cuts an intimidating figure, sitting shirtless,
with one rheumy eye, a watermelon physique and a cotton
fields vocabulary. An argument with a neighbor last year
ended with one of the Robertsons' trailers in flames. That
is how law is dispensed in the Flats, vigilante style. One
man was dragged to death a few years ago, another shot in
the kneecap last year. Occasionally, the deputies do come
around, usually in the day to exercise a warrant or to
remove children who have not been seen in school for
months. But normally, justice comes at the end of a
matchstick in the Flats.
"There ain't no rules," Mr. Robertson said. He told of his
neighbors, an aging man who lives with his voices in the
rundown bus, a geriatric transvestite, a no-good who
strapped his kid to a tree and left him in the sun.
A few years ago, a man tried making scrap metal from an
unexploded aluminum shell he found at the bombing range in
the nearby Chocolate Mountains. He succeeded but at the
cost of his own life. His legs had to be picked from a
It was in this anarchy, eight years ago, that Pastor Hyatt
stumbled upon his life's purpose. He discovered the Slabs
quite by accident. He and Audrey had packed up their whole
life, sold the house in Lebanon, Ore., left their jobs at
the titanium plant where he was a shift foreman, said
goodbye to their children and to their obligations and
struck out on the road.
He was not always a good man, he admits that. He had a
temper and hard fists. But he came across a band of rolling
revivalists that first year on the road, and followed them
to Minnesota. He was ordained by the World Wide Ministries
without ever studying at seminary and seems a little
embarrassed by this.
Stuck near Niland, the pastor inquired about a place to
camp in an R.V. for the evening. A stranger told him about
the Slabs, five miles down the road.
Upon seeing the privation and sadness and isolation, the
preacher and his wife believed that the Creator had given
them a second life. They built the Slab City Christian
Center out of modular housing and began to preach and feed
October through April, when the weather is clement and the
Slabs come to life.
When people were found dead in their trailers, the pastor
and his wife were there with a Psalm. They gave children
rides to the hospital. The Hyatts paid for the work from
their life savings. But Audrey was felled by a stroke in
February and passed in May.
When she died, the pastor's self-assurance faltered and he
found that he had become one of the lost, emotionally
stranded with one foot in hell and the other on an ice
"I didn't really understand before how much I needed this
place," the pastor said. "I need it especially this year.
Rusty. Rusty's been a good man to me."
The pastor and Rusty make the most unlikely of friends. The
pastor, a clean-cut man with a bristly haircut and clean
strong hands. Rusty, the doubter who cleans his shirt once
a week in a bucket. Rusty, who tells about a prepubescent
military career. Rusty, whose smell and language come from
the stables. Rusty, who came in on a bus and says he ran a
militia out of this camp for 12 years in case the Mexicans
invaded from the south or the F.B.I. from the east.
"Everybody can't fit in to the middle-class life," said
Rusty, who wore a military shirt and cap, military boots
and long fingernails as thick as seashells. Suffice it to
say, Rusty does not want people to know him and does not
disclose his last name.
The evening was cold and dark, the air thick with the
smells of burning salt oak as Slab City went to sleep. A
Frank Sinatra record played somewhere across the salt
flats. The thunder of bombs clapped on the far side of the
Chocolate Mountains. Rusty smoked by himself in his
broken-down camper with the flat wheels and camouflage
netting. A lamp burned in the pastor's trailer.
Rusty talked about a daughter who did not want anything to
do with him; a wife he reckoned was working a truck stop
somewhere between California and Texas. But Rusty is human.
He dreams of a rich woman from the south side of the Slabs.
They wear makeup, those girls over there in the R.V.'s.
They use toilets instead of buckets. They have class. It's
never going to happen, he says. "I'd love to have company,
but I can't dance anymore," he said. "I got old legs, but
I'm a good conversationalist. But those women over there,
they're stuck up. Middle-class stuck up."
The senior citizens on the south side of town travel in a
sort of lonely-hearts club tailgate. They are alone, having
suffered a late-life divorce or the death of a longtime
partner. Their vehicles are big, expensive Coachmen and
Fleetwoods and Ramblers and the like. They work as a sort
of neighborhood watch, and the denizens of the Flats do not
cross the imaginary line.
The majority of the society is women. They come to the
Slabs because it is free and close to Mexico, where liquor
and prescription medicine can be bought cheap. They are
educated, savvy about life and competent mechanics.
Donna Lee Cole is a member of Loners on Wheels, a rolling
singles club with chapters across the United States. Mrs.
Cole says there are at least 10,000 people who belong to
this subsociety of aged hobos, people who drive around in
search of nothing except tomorrow. They tend to be women,
she said, because women live longer than men.
Her first marriage ended in a bad divorce. Her second
husband, David, died of cancer 11 years ago. She waited for
the children to insert her in their lives, but the children
were living their own. She waited for the telephone to ring
and it never did. So she cashed it in and hit the road.
"I decided I wasn't going to watch my life waste away," she
said as the afternoon social began to congeal and the old
men emerged from their trailers hitching their belts over
their navels, wiping their lips with their forearms, coming
on with dopey smiles as they approached Mrs. Cole for their
Though the group's motto is where singles mingle, there is
little physical love, much to the complaint of the men.
"Most of us are from a family that used to be," explained
Mrs. Cole, 61, a petite widow from Alpena, Mich., with
bobbed blond hair.
"I'm thankful for a place to go, but I'm sad to end up like
this," she said at the club's evening happy hour, where two
ladies were playing a guitar and an accordion. She eats
dinner alone in her own R.V. with all the amenities, the
water and septic tanks, the stove, solar panels,
television. She is never home for Christmas, and the
children receive a check that says "Love Grandma." She
never drives in neighborhoods with houses that have bars on
the window, and if things get especially tough, she parks
at the local police station. Her life is her own, she says.
Generally, it is good.
"We women aren't looking for a man," she explained. "The
divorcees walked away from a bad situation and don't want
another one. The widows draw Blue Cross and their husband's
Social Security and would lose it if they married a new
man. So you don't bother. You're just looking for some
Besides, Mrs. Cole says, look at the quality of men, no
offense. "They're bald and paunchy and toothless. I'm old,
but I'm not dead.
"If a Mr. Right came along, well then, I suppose."
lonely-hearts clubs have happy hour and social mixers,
dances twice a week and trips to town for steak dinners.
Still, the Elvis generation goes to bed early and goes to
"I was married 46 years," says Tina Faye at the afternoon
mixer at the L.O.W. slab. At 80, Mrs. Faye strikes an
exotic figure, lean, rouged, coiffed, with a voice as thick
as apricot nectar.
"My man told me to go on if I was to outlive him. So I took
to the road. But I feel him sitting there right next to me.
I can't let him go."
The mood is a bit sad until Ruth Halford, a
74-year-old-widow with a silver permanent, pipes up. "I'm
not sad about anything. I don't owe nobody nothing. I
scratch my plans in the dirt. I'm not looking for anybody.
The only person I'm in love with is me. Right, girls?"
This is maddening to the eligible bachelor, like a dog
chasing a pork chop on a string. A waste of a perfectly
"Those girls, they get to being independent and they don't
need men," said John Clairmont, 77, a retired truck driver.
"You can never get them to come home with you."
The evening dissipated. The sun set a violent red. The
lonely hearts played cards and listened to the old records.
The gossip went around the tables.
The pastor's wife was one topic. Mrs. Cole promised to go
see the pastor on Sunday and take him soup. "Such a shame,"
she said. "They were together a long time."
Mrs. Cole and the pastor would make a handsome couple,
someone said with real feeling. The others agreed.
In the morning, Pastor Phil awoke alone, put his change in
his pocket, put on his shoes and shared coffee around his
fire. Rusty was there. So were others from the north side,
the stumblebums and the alkies.
The pastor talked about random things from his life with
his wife. The snowstorms and eggs in a rooming house. The
smell of her hair. Ceramic snowmen she collected. Her face
lighted by the dashboard lights. Recipes the children do
not ask for. Grandchildren who, chances are, will not
remember her name. Death in the desert in some nameless
place without longitude or shade.
"That's the tragedy of old age," the pastor said as his
eyes welled once again. "I'm alone. I'm derelict without
Rusty stared at his feet. One guy asked for 20 bucks. An
old transvestite drove by and waved.
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