Say what you like about Van Buren, there's no denying that a leisurely cruise down this crippled street is not without a certain horrific charm. Even beyond the dazzling side show of cheap whores, beyond the tanned, thin, tattooed, shirtless guys emerging from run-down courts and jaywalking into heavy traffic, there are the motels. The Arizona, the Liberty, the Deserama, the Lone Star, Fantasy Land. Places that used to host America's weary vacationers, on the way to ooh and aah at the Grand Canyon or the Painted Desert, back when the only drugs you could buy on Van Buren Street came from a pharmacy. These courts, inns and motor hotels were once homey, manicured way stations drenched in neon and Western motif.
Swimming pools, refrigerated rooms, swaying palms; it was like spending the night on a putt-putt golf course. Now, of course, the pools are long empty, what palm trees are left look more like telephone poles, and the design themes have disintegrated into a universal look, something between dump and tenement. But then today's "tourists" aren't too concerned with appearances. They're usually renting by the hour.
At 2515 East Van Buren, across the street from the Arizona State Mental Hospital, for example, stands the Log Cabin Motel. Twenty dark red, white-trimmed cabins. Made of logs. An emblem of sturdy pioneer spirit. Part of the great American psyche. Birth structure to Abe Lincoln, home of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Grizzly Adams, namesake of one of the greatest maple syrups this country ever produced. And, right there in the middle of the drugs and the hookers, the garbage and the crime and the drunken sidewalk cowboys, the Log Cabin Motel refuses to die.
So I had this brilliant idea. Spend a night in a log cabin. I had visions of the way things used to be: Ward Cleaver-like fathers rousing Beaver Cleaver-like sons at some mid-Fifties dawn. "Rise and shine, boys! We're off to the Grand Canyon!" They'd load their plaid luggage out the cabin door, into the Rambler wagon and roar off, waving goodbye to the pleasant, cheery motel manager who'd been up since 5 a.m., hosing down the driveway. These days, it's probably easier to get a venereal disease than a good night's sleep at the LCM, but somehow I had the warm notion that the place was not utterly wretched, that the spirit of Ike-era good times might still be lingering somewhere in the faded redwood structures. Of course, the place is sad and decaying, but on a Sunday evening a few weekends ago, I had no idea what I'd find. There was a beautiful sunset, and my heart was light and filled with the excitement of a new experience as I packed my little overnight sack with pen and paper and enough money for beverages and snacks.
As I stepped out the door to head cabinward, my wife threw me a quizzical glance and said something that I would hear in one form or another from almost everyone I was to meet--cop, gunman, prostitute, drug addict.
"What exactly do you think you're gonna find down there?"
You don't have to be a cultural historian to figure out which signs are old and which are new at the LCM. Above the office door there is a rusted hulk of a thing that spells out "Gifts-Sportswear" in broken neon, words that have been meaningless here for decades. Next to the office door there is a very contemporary plastic sign with big red letters that scream NO LOITERING NO TRESPASSING NO SOLICITING. That's where I meet Tim the photographer. We're going to enjoy this rustic experience together. Separate cabins, of course. We enter the office and are confronted by ourselves. Well, the images of ourselves, reflected in the bubbly plastic one-way mirror hiding the front-desk clerk. And here is the first serious clue that the Log Cabin Motel no longer is a place where Mom and Dad might bring the children--a big sign saying NO CHILDREN ALLOWED. There were other hints:
NO CAMERA ALLOWED IN ROOM
X-RATED MOVIES CHANNEL 4
ALL NIGHT $35--2 HOURS $25--1 HOUR $20.
We opt for all night. A voice with a thick Asian accent comes out of the thin slot in the mirrored glass, telling us cabins are available. Fancy that. We hand over the cash, but only after signing a registration card bearing this statement: "I will be exposed to adult motion picture entertainment. Among both natural and unnatural sex acts, I will be exposed to sexual intercourse, cunnilingus, fallatio [sic], homosexuality, etc . . ." I lunge for the pen and quickly scribble in "Fife Symington."
From the outside, my cabin, Number 1, doesn't look too bad. I mean, despite the wear and tear over the years, it's still fairly quaint, someplace Bing Crosby would have checked into for some Forties musical. Then I unlock the door, and it becomes very apparent that I am not in some Forties musical, and the only reason Bing Crosby would be staying here now was if he were some kind of lust-crazed pervert in need of a room for a quick round of cheap sex.
The best way to describe the inside of this sin den is to say that it is a place you don't want to go; it's 100 square feet of spent desperation and half-assed evil. Brown carpeting sporting stains and coagulations of varying shapes, sizes and densities. Cheap white drywall. Ripped curtain. TV mounted on the wall. It is sticky. You know what the air smells like when you open a refrigerator that's been closed and unplugged all summer? Exactly. I turn on the air conditioner, which makes the air loud instead of cool.
Tim's cabin, Number 2, is a different story. Here, the essence of log cabin is still alive--if not particularly well. The walls are the original dark varnished redwood, and the odor of stale sweat and cigarette smoke is not too overpowering. I try to imagine what it used to be like. I do this for about 15 seconds and give up.
What to do now? Maybe my wife was right. Maybe this was just a pointless exercise in unpleasantness. We sit out on the steps of my log cabin as the last golden rays of the sun sweep across the fake brick water well and the Log Cabin Motel sign. The sign is painted with faded green pine trees and has shards of dead neon tubing hanging from it. Someday someone will take this thing down and sell it as folk art for a lot of money in Los Angeles or New York.
An older woman strolls by wearing a tee shirt a few sizes too small. "Real Women Love Jesus," it says. A hooker--sorry, ho--walks by, a Rubensesque black woman with a bovine gait and a package of Kools sticking out of her shorts. She looks about as bored as we are. And then, like the Wizard of Oz emerging from behind the screen, the owner of the mysterious voice behind the one-way mirror makes himself known. Actually, he's a diminutive Asian man with a slight gut and beige polyester pants stepping out of a side door to light up a smoke. We shake hands with Taiwan's own Jim Chien, current manager of the Log Cabin Motel, U.S. of A.
Jim has had many predecessors since the LCM was erected back in '39. Folks with names like Marion Pike, Mrs. H.W. Overell, Walter and Elenor Sayers, L.J. Ackerman, Norbert and Barbara Warpach, and Al Kasney. People who didn't have to worry about patrons unloading weapons into rooms, or if the porn was coming through clearly on the set in cabin 8. Jim's job is no piece of cake, but it's the best thing he could get, he explains, with his limited command of English. Yet he knows things were different, once.
"One man tell me, he come here 40 years ago for honeymoon, nice then," says Jim, dragging on his Marlboro. "But now, they all drunk. People come here to make fun. One room, it was filled with grease, everywhere grease, everywhere you touch. Vaseline. On the TV, on the ceiling. You walk in, you slip, you slide. I don't know how they make fun with grease."
He looks down the row of cabins as a lowrider burns past bellowing a shifting soundtrack of bass-driven hip-hop. "Time has killed the beauty. But the wood is still good." A pickup truck pulls up, and Jim heads back to the office. A guy goes in while his female friend waits in the truck; he comes out and they motor down the driveway, park, and slip into cabin 14 (there is no cabin 13 here; that would be bad luck). They do not unpack any luggage. They come out and leave in just under 15 minutes, probably not bound for the Grand Canyon or the Painted Desert. Jim returns, tells us what that was all about. "He said he needed shower. I charge him 12 bucks." So much for the Cleavers. We coerce Jim into letting us check out the room, in search of--what? Grease? The lights are on, the bed partially unmade, there is a towel crumpled on the night stand. We all stand in the doorway taking in the scene as the TV broadcasts channel 4's hard-core humping and pumping to a cabin filled with nobody. Mark Psomas is the Norm Abrams of the Log Cabin Motel, the man responsible for fixing walls, sinks, showers, toilets and whatever else gets destroyed by cabin dwellers on an almost nightly basis. He and his wife, Beth, live here, as does Jim and his family, a little group of people just doing their jobs so that others may stop in and screw by the hour. Psomas shows us the cabin he's refurbishing. ("The bathroom's too tight, but to build this today would cost a mint. These are inch-thick redwood planks.") Outside night has fallen, and the procession of whores is picking up. We step out of the cabin as Jim, ever the gracious host, offers refreshments. "You like pop?" He returns with Diet Pepsis and hands out butts. "Have cigarette, we make fun." So here we all are, making fun in the driveway of the Log Cabin Motel. It's all pretty innocuous; it seems we're in this little enclave of humanity having a swell time. Hard to believe.
"I wouldn't say this is a violent place," says Psomas as I marvel at the seedy tranquillity. "I would say it's more kind of stupid. Some people come in and do some off-the-wall things for no apparent reason at all; I've run across a couple people here that appeared to be dangerous and weren't. It's not really that bad. Most of the time people just come here, and they go in their room, and they're there. You don't see them again until they check out."
Which, of course, is usually a matter of minutes.
But there is one guy who was there when we arrived, checked into a cabin with a nice car parked next to it. A guy who stuck out like an incredibly sore thumb. He had approached Tim and me earlier, walked up drinking an orange soda, decked out more for a Love Boat cruise than a night in this place. Big straw tourist hat, spotless pastel tee shirt, baggy white pants and spanking new white tennis shoes. No socks. He'd asked what we were doing. I told him we were reporters, and he said, "Anonymity. That's what I like about this place!" and stalked off.
Psomas filled us in. "That's Gordon. He's a pretty decent guy. He's married, he's on the road a lot and he comes here and relaxes."
He comes to the Log Cabin Motel at 2515 East Van Buren, with round-the-clock smut, hookers and johns slamming doors at all hours of the night. To relax.
Huh? It is 11 p.m. Tim and I are back on the steps of my cabin making friends. There is Ann, a chunky, 40ish woman who stops to ask if we have an extra beer. We do, and she hunkers down to pass the time. Here are a few things she says: "I have to work. It motivates me."
"I can't eat when it's this hot."
"I know what it is! You guys are only here to jack off!"
"I wouldn't stay in this fuckin' place. Hey--they have nice refrigeration in there?"
"I've had an exciting life. If I ever wrote it, it'd be a best seller!"
Then, after a pretty, giggling prostitute struts by, "I like that one girl, she's got a beautiful personality."
A skinny fellow with a bag of 40-ounce beer saunters up; he's affably drunk, and dressed in a black D.A.R.E. shirt. His name is Michael and he tells us he's staying at the Log Cabin and has been hanging on Van Buren since the Seventies, since he was a teenager. Like Ann, he says if he wrote his life story, it could make a million dollars. For some reason, he doesn't want us to tape-record him, which is good because he has very little to say. Michael tells us he's a "working man," and proves it by revealing a blood-donor card. Type A plus. After a while, he drifts away.
As the moon rises higher over the humble cabins of log, as the street and sidewalk traffic on Van B. get heavier, the surface of everything just seems to get stickier. Wads of discarded gum loosen up, oil spots and dark splotches of unnameable substances spilled when the sun is out come to life and begin to stink and sweat. And I do, too, sitting there on the steps.
And that's when Gordon comes over for a chat.
Still in his Love Boat duds, this time wrenching an empty soda bottle back and forth in his hands like he's molding clay. We begin to talk with this man who supposedly comes to the Log Cabin for its relaxation potential.
Now here is what he's really doing here:
Somewhere in the Valley, Gordon runs a successful headhunting agency and is married. But by his own admission, he periodically retreats to the LCM to service his eight-year addiction to a drug he requests I not specify ("I'm not antidrugs, I'm antiaddiction"); he's been here for two days so far. For a guy whose unsolicited opening salvo to two journalists was a request for anonymity, he certainly has a lot to say. His line is part 12-Step-confessional rap, part white-man-who-knows-the-streets braggadocio.
"I'm here for drugs. And pornography--anyone can say what they want about that, but I personally find some of it exciting. But my addiction is drugs.
"I don't plan these trips; I went to K mart and bought cheap-ass clothes. I came down without a toothbrush, a razor, without anything, so I had to go to the store. And you know what pissed me off? You can't get anything you want at Circle K. You have to buy the large toothpaste, da da, da da, da da. But right at that damn place on the corner, they have a bag where you get the little of everything for five bucks. Now I hope I never utilize that information again and never need to know it."
But how does a man just leave his wife for days on end?
"I don't have to explain myself," he says. "It's sad--let's call it what it is. She would have a fit if she knew exactly where I am. I mean a fit. Part of me believes what she doesn't know ain't gonna hurt her, because I know who and what I do, and it's really not a big deal. And she's got a great life. She'd rather put up with my bullshit, as long as she has the materialistic bullshit. . . . My wife's a twit."
Then Gordon talks about the prostitutes; he doesn't actually do anything with them, but apparently appreciates their company in a sort of Toulouse-Lautrec way. Takes the ladies out to breakfast and such. "Oh, I do enjoy that. I can understand the crack-head ho's who work and smoke and work and smoke, and they're stupid, and they ain't getting anywhere. But they're not all that way."
Gordon goes on about how he's learning to confront judgment. "[It's] a real recent thing for me. Maybe it's because I don't like myself right now. If your world is rocked several times, things you believe--things you think you know--are rocked, it makes you question everything. And I have been a pretty judgmental, condescending, arrogant son of a bitch. That's not against my nature."
I have to admit, whatever I thought I might or might not find at this place had nothing to do with a story like this. Gordon says he wants to quit his alternative lifestyle, get away from his addiction. I ask him if this is the last time he'll be signing the register at the Log Cabin.
"I hope so, truly hope so," he says with a smile that could mean anything. "But I'm tired of disappointing myself, so I shouldn't say it anymore. Just do it."
Remember Michael? Well, after we bid our friend Gordon good night, Michael of the D.A.R.E. tee shirt materializes. And, from the amount of slurring and the level of pointless subject matter emanating from his mouth, one could determine that he is, as the saying goes, fucked up. But that doesn't stop us from enjoying his company; at this point in the Log Cabin Experience, I figure it's best to just let nature take its course.
After much verbal wrangling, Michael finally allows Tim to photograph him, inside my very own hellish log cabin. They both come back out, where I'm still on the steps. Then our pal Mike says he wants us to "get his story," but he wants to do it back inside the cabin. The cabin is hot, the cabin stinks, the cabin is impossibly loud with the worthless air conditioner blasting away. I say we can talk outside. This goes back and forth for a while, until Tim, usually a friendly man, makes a slight verbal faux pas.
He says, "Fuck it!"
Michael does not like this.
Tim rightfully apologizes. I tell Mike to forget it, but it's too late.
Something in Mike's physiological makeup has sparked a synapse that has unleashed a brain wave that has made the decision to order his hand to do something. And that is to pull out a semiautomatic weapon.
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He wrenches the thing from underneath his shirt in the front of his pants while beginning a sentence that I don't wait to hear completed: "Well, if you bullshittin' me, then . . ." As a police detective put it days later: "So you booked?"
Yeah, we booked. Me around the corner, Tim down the Log Cabin driveway. When I stopped booking, I was behind a bungalow in the court next door, the Sun Villa. I'd never had a gun pulled on me before. I didn't lose control of my bowels or anything, though I found that I had run about 100 yards clutching my beer in one hand and tape recorder in the other, and was now standing behind someone's apartment laughing in the dark. What a man. I peeped around the corner and saw a side view of Michael slowly loping down the sidewalk, Tim's expensive, professional tripod and camera in hand.
I went back to the Cabins, and Tim was not only still alive but standing there with Jim Chien, on the cellular phone to the police. The cops came, took the report, left. Tim wanted to go looking for his camera, figuring the incident was merely a grudge holdup, and Michael had ditched it somewhere close by. I demurred. Maybe writers are bigger sissies than photographers, but there's something about bullets that scares me. And apparently the gun was loaded; a couple of hours later, the police say, Michael robbed someone and shot him in the stomach.
I went back to the front desk, back to Jim Chien for my $5 room-key deposit. I looked at myself in the bubbly mirror as a five and a ten slid through the slot. I heard Jim, gracious host to the end: "You not stay all night, refund! See you next time.