Palm Springs and the Movies – Paul Pescador
I drive into Palm Springs, it’s early January and I’m down to see a friend from high school, someone I haven’t seen in years. I’m also there to see family, as my previous trip home, a quickie which only lasted 48 hours, didn’t go over well with my mother. On my way into the city, I pass by the Cabazon dinosaurs; these large sculptures, a 100 ton Tyrannosaurus rex and a 150 ton Apatosaurus. These structures have been used as backdrops in many films, including Paris, Texas (1984) and The Wizard (1993). I drive by hundreds of windmills alongside the mountains. I used to go hiking up those mountains. The last time I was in middle school and went with my father. We got separated from our hiking troop and were lost for hours. We were eventually found by a park ranger, after a minor search party had been sent out for us. I continue my drive and pass by Toucans, a tropical-themed gay bar, and a California Pizza Kitchen, you know what that is, and I meet my friend on the downtown strip. She insists that we go crystal shopping, so we go. She buys a clear one, which is suppose to help her with anxiety and will cleanse her chakras; and I buy a purple one, because I think it’s pretty.
We walk by Forever Marilyn, a statue by Seward Johnson of the actress Marilyn Monroe. Originally installed in Chicago, Seward’s Marilyn and was moved to Palm Springs in 2012. The 26-foot tall Marilyn stands in the center of downtown in her iconic white dress from the film the Seven Year Itch (1955). She leans forward trying to hold down her skirt. I watch as tourists take photos in front of the sculpture; I see teenage boys stand underneath and stare up at her underwear. All of this takes place while a homeless man sleeps directly behind the statue. No one acknowledges this man; the tourists position their cameras so not to include him in the frame.
Palm Springs is filled with public artworks dedicated to former Hollywood celebrities. There is a bench for comedian Lucille Ball and a statue of former assemblyman, mayor and singer Sonny Bono. You drive around streets named after Bob Hope, Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra. My elementary school was named after Gerald R. Ford, who lived in the neighborhood. I remember when they were naming the school, my mother was pissed. “They are only naming it after him so that he will come for the opening of the school. He wasn’t a good president!” For years after he died, there was a billboard which sat along the 10 freeway that said “Gerald Our Ford”. These stories of past celebrities were myths for us. There is a hike one could take in Cathedral City that would lead to a former film set that had become housing for retired midget actors. We were warned to never go up there, as the retirees were quite protective and would shoot you with salt guns if you got close. This legend was passed from child to child, with all the seriousness and the delight in fear that children possess.
I grew up twenty-minutes from Palm Springs in the quiet city of La Quinta. As a child, La Quinta was a sparse region that became the largest growing city in the country during the last housing boom. When I was younger, there was nothing around my house for miles except the vast desert. My brother and I would walk to the corner to catch the bus. We were always the first ones to be picked up in the morning and last to be dropped off at the end of the day; we lived that far out.
I never thought about the Coachella Valley as a vacation destination, it was home to me. I remember several friend’s parents worked in landscaping or hotel management. When someone now mentions a hotel they have stayed at in Coachella, I’m reminded of my high school prom, when we tried to sneak into the Marriott pool and got kicked out for not being guests. I also remember when in elementary school they shot an episode of Save by the Bell at that Marriott. I now try to think of as a vacation getaway, sitting poolside, but then I am reminded of the extensive financial and environmental resources it takes to keep the illusion of this oasis alive. On a trip home, a friend comments on the sprinklers constantly going at a hotel. They are on at all times. I never noticed this before. I remember as a kid knowing that Indian Wells was one of the richest cities per capita in the country, richer even than Beverly Hills, since it did not need to have low-income housing as it was an incorporated city. A loophole.
Everything in the desert is painted peach or beige. Things bleach easily from the harsh sun. Paint peels and needs to retouched. In undergrad, a lot of my friends would go to the Coachella concert, which takes place in Indio. After an exhausting weekend they would ask, “how was I able handle the heat?” I would say, “I wouldn’t. During the summer, I just didn’t go outside”. My mom called me a few months back. She had been working in the garden. Its ten the morning and she’s breathing heavily into the phone. She is dehydrated and thinks she might have had a minor heat stroke. As a kid during the hottest days of summer, which would reach well over 120, we would jump from the AC house to the AC car to the AC mall or AC movie theater in order to stay cool. Occasionally we would go the ice skating rink, which I was terrified of. My older cousins would tease me that if I’m not careful I might fall, and my fingers would be cut off by the other skaters. During the summer, my mom would have to drive with a towel covering the steering wheel in order to not burn herself. Every time I go back now, I always forget how dry it is, my skin will chap quite easily and my hair will dry up.
You drive into the desert and you are presented by dust storms. I rarely drive in at night because my car will rock, sometimes pushing me out of my lane and close to another car. As a kid, I would get bits of tumbleweeds or stickers stuck in my socks and would hurt when I walked to the bus. In high school, I refused to walk to school even though it was a block away. I didn’t want to get my shoes dirty. At that age, I would go to Palm Springs with a few of my gay friends. We would try to get into the gay clubs, which consisted of significantly older men; mostly tourists visited these places. They would smile at these young high schoolers as we tried to get in with fake IDs, which were merely a piece of paper that had been laminated at Kinkos. After getting turned away, we would go get froyo or go to TGI Fridays and then to Denny’s, which was open late. I was too shy to talk to other men; my friends were much more aggressive. One friend used to wander around this empty street called Warm Sands, which was a cruising zone, but stopped going after he thought he got STD from a hand job.
About a year ago, I receive an email from a friend from high school who I hadn’t spoken to in years. She is now a local historian and wrote me to tell me that she stumbled upon an article that I might find interesting. The article is from the 1940s and is about a Mexican, whose last name was Pescador; his body was found in Coachella, he had been hit by a car. I ask my dad about this over coffee, his eyes widen – it was his grandfather. My dad’s side of the family has been in the desert for generations. They mostly work in produce or the trucking business. My mom came to the Coachella Valley to pick cotton. Her family came while she was in high school from Texas in order to find work. She was picking cotton and grapes at the time of the Cesar Chavez protests. I recently asked her if they were involved in the fight. She said that they were too young and poor get involved. Once they got settled, my mother and her seven siblings attended high school in Indio, while my grandma worked in a cannery and my grandpa painted cars. My grandma never picked up English and I struggled with Spanish. Even though Spanish was my first language, I denied it most my upbringing, as I went to school with mostly white kids and wanted to fit in. I remember trying to relearn it in high school, but without the proper accent, the way I did as I kid. I tried to learn Spanish like all the white girls, as they struggled to roll their r’s with their thick valley girl accent.
When I think of the desert, I think of the differentiation between class and race, which varies so much from city to city. I think of high levels of teen pregnancy rates, meth use and meth labs. The Neo Nazis, military base, migrant works, and the gays. I think of suburbia. I think of the ladies in gold shoes and gold hats. The tourists, the snowbird, which are those who only stay during the winter and the desert rats, which is the rest of us who never leave the heat.
I open the newspaper this morning and the Forever Marilyn sculpture is being dismantled. It’s on a multi-city destination and is moving on.