The Payne of It All

"Hold on, I just took my pants off--it's kinda hot in here!"
This is what Les Payne yells from inside the camper that rides piggyback in the bed of his '83 Chevy Custom Deluxe pickup that sits on the sloping edge of a dirt parking lot in Nothing, Arizona. According to Les, the truck is called the Red Devil--"That's the name I give it!"

Actually, the parking lot pretty much is Nothing, Arizona; besides the Chevrolet home of Payne, it holds a small store, a garage, three mobile homes that look anything but mobile, a few long-dead vehicles, a stray cat with no name and two dogs that are almost always asleep. That is where Nothing ends and nothing begins in earnest, for beyond this are only miles of desert and Highway 93 stretching to Wickenburg in one direction and Wikieup in the other.

The camper door swings open and Les Payne, pants belted in place, emerges. He makes his way across the lot, a thin, grizzled, bent 78-year-old imp of a man who moves with a jaunty step over to a decrepit picnic table. He sits. He reaches up with a hand holding an unlighted Camel and rubs the dozens of white hairs living on his cheeks. He speaks:

"Sorry I haven't shaved. I usually shave every three days, but I'm getting bad out here. Coyotes [pronounced ky-oats] don't care! Well, what's up?"

He spits.
Here is what's up:
The name "Les Payne" and this almost nonexistent place called Nothing are soon to be known nationwide, at least to those who watch television, have access to the Web, or read Time, People or Entertainment Weekly magazines. A company called Health o meter, in conjunction with Culligan water, has launched an ad campaign selling Nothing as a metaphor for good-tasting water. A taste, or lack of it, that can allegedly be achieved by using the Health o meter water pitcher.

According to the print ad, the device "reduces a lot of the stuff that makes tap water taste funny. And once that's gone, water tastes the way it should. Like nothing."

The photograph in the ad shows a thin, grizzled man lifting a pitcher. He is standing in a dirt lot with a sign in the background that says "HEY! Nothing Pop. 4," and is identified as "Les Payne, Mayor of Nothing, Arizona."

"I know nothing," the copy reads. "Must be why they asked me to talk about this water pitcher."

Except this is not Les Payne.
And the photograph of this pseudo Payne is strikingly similar to one of the real Les Payne--same pose, same place, sans pitcher--that ran in a New Times story I wrote about a year and a half ago. I was thumbing through People the other day, and this ad with the faux Payne caught my eye.

So I went back to Nothing to find out everything.

Betty Kenworthy is killing the afternoon by sweeping the desert back out the door of the Nothing store with a dry mop. This seems to be a pointless and herculean task, but there is apparently little else to do here.

Betty, one of the four residents of Nothing, is Texas-friendly--"I come up here from San Antone and got stuck"--and leans against the mop to answer questions as the sun sets behind her head, blinking through her yellow curlers. Betty has the habit of dropping first names of people you've never heard of with complete familiarity, the way you might say "Madonna" or "O.J."

"Les musta told 'em he was mayor; Buddy figures that's what happened, but we don't know. They'd already paid him before they found out he wasn't the mayor. Scott paid him $100 to use his name. You know, we don't even have a mayor. And if we did, it'd be the Big Cheese," she says with a conspiratorial nod. (Buddy = Betty's husband and owner of Nothing. Scott = someone from the ad agency. The Big Cheese = also Buddy--"He's the one that's got the say, but he don't talk much.")

So how did this thing come about?
Betty lights up a smoke and puts down the mop.
"Scott called from Massachusetts [pronounced Massa-two-chits] on the radio phone, and wanted to know if we still had the horse trailer. Now, Buddy didn't even know what the heck they was talking about. Well, what they was talking about was the Hey Nothing sign. He had seen a picture somewhere. So then they sent Lonnie out here from San Francisco, she flew out here to do the scout locations." (Lonnie = someone else from the ad agency.)

"It cost 'em quite a bit, they catered us out here, even. Won't never happen again, I can tell you that, probably. As a matter of fact, the catering company come out of Tempe. It was quite the ordeal."

Betty digs out a handful of Polaroids to verify the catering incident. Sure enough, off in the bleak desert distance there are six or seven people crowded around a truck eating something. It looks like whoever snapped the pictures was standing about 60 feet away.

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