December 17, 2004
Parked in a Desert, Waiting Out the Winter of Life
LAB CITY, Calif. - Directions to purgatory are as follows: from
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. The Slabs.
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 sinister feel.
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 cried.
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 everywhere.
"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 sea.
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
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 trailers.
Cole Robertson lives in the Flats with his wife, Mabel. Mr. Robertson, 72, is a retired construction worker from East
"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 tree.
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
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 cube.
"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
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
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 daily squeeze.
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 company."
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."
The 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 bed alone.
"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 beautiful woman.
"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 her."
Rusty stared at his feet. One guy asked for 20 bucks. An old transvestite drove by and waved.