Southwestern Gothic

Unlike Bobby Cooper, I haven't had two of my fingers cut off. And I'm not driving a red '64 Mustang that's about to blow a hose. But, like the character played by Sean Penn in Oliver Stone's U-Turn, I'm heading for Superior.

It's 60 miles from Phoenix, which sounds longer than it actually is when you drive there. It takes about an hour, and it would take less if the roads weren't so treacherous. It's as if the roads were designed by some evil genius who wanted to cause accidents.

And, as I near Superior, I know there have been accidents. The intoxicating beauty of the mountains takes on a sinister meaning when I notice the little crosses planted at the side of the road, crosses in memory of people who have died here.

I drive up Main Street, past the small wooden building that serves as Superior's town hall. There's nobody on the street. The buildings have a desolate, abandoned look, even the ones that aren't. But the place isn't ugly--there's a melancholy seductiveness about it. I cruise around the surrounding streets--which means the whole town--and only see a couple of cars.

Los Hermanos Lounge is right by the highway. A poster on the window reads:
Are you bound by drugs, alcoholism, depression, gangs, suicidal tendencies, family problems, cancer, AIDS, witchcraft, etc.

Jesus Christ is still the answer!!!
Tent Deliverance Crusade
424 Main Street
Sounds like Superior is a happening town.

I go inside, sit at the bar and order a beer. I give the bartender a five-dollar bill, and she gives me four ones. She hasn't made a mistake. In Superior, beers are a dollar each.

The place is quiet. I'm the only white person. The bartender is Hispanic, and so are the half-dozen customers. Two guys are playing pool, but they keep stopping to look at me. Then one of them walks toward me. He's big and he isn't smiling. I take a deep breath.

He punches me on the shoulder, but he's not trying to hurt me. "Don't look so sad, bro. It can't be that bad," he tells me.

I smile at him.
"Is your beer cold enough?" he asks.
"Can't be that bad, then."

The bartender's name is Jenny. She looks like she's in her 30s, a heavy woman with a pretty face. I ask her about the movie. She tells me that people think it was good for the town, but some people are angry because the movie makes it seem like most people in Superior are white, when it's really a Mexican community. She has a point; of the 3,000 people who live here, 60 percent are Mexican.

The bar gets busier. A girl comes and sits on the stool next to me. She greets me with such familiarity that I think we must have met before, but we haven't. Her name's Melissa. She's in her early 20s, with shaggy dark hair, olive skin and beautiful, haunted eyes. She's sexy as hell. She's also very drunk.

When I ask her about the movie, she smiles in a dreamy, spaced-out way and murmurs, "It opens on October 3. I'm gonna go see it." October 3 is two days away. She talks about how little there is for somebody her age to do in Superior. "I hike and take care of my kid." The kid is 18 months old.

She sits very close to me, pressing against me. I feel the warmth of her body, smell the warm fragrance of her breath. I say something about the tattoos on her hand and arm. "I've got 11 of them," she says. I don't ask where they are, but I enjoy imagining.

She keeps asking me why I'm in Superior. I keep telling her, and she keeps asking again. I don't know it at the time, but this kind of weirdness is common to certain of the townsfolk. I haven't found that out yet, so I just think it's because she's so drunk.

It turns out her boyfriend's here. I don't know whether he just arrived or has been here all along. It doesn't matter. What matters is that he's here and he doesn't seem to like his girlfriend talking to me. He's sitting at the bar alternately watching the pool game and glowering at me. He seems to be friends with the pool players. If he thinks I'm hitting on Melissa, I might have a serious problem.

Melissa picks up on that. She says she'd better go talk to him. She goes and stands beside him. She talks earnestly for a while, putting an arm around him. Then they leave. I'm disappointed and relieved.

Charlie Jiminez comes over and talks to me. He's middle-aged, works as a miner, and has lived in Superior all his life. Does he like it? "Very much." He says his daughter, Mia, was Jennifer Lopez's stand-in. When I ask about the controversy, he tells a different story than Jenny. He says it's not about race, but morality. People are worried by the movie's R rating. They're disturbed to hear about the sex, especially the incest. They didn't know about that when they welcomed Stone and helped with the movie.

He talks about how wild the town was in the '70s, when the mine was booming. "If you'd come in here then, you'd have had trouble. They'd have looked at your earrings and your glasses and said to you, 'Get out of here, you fag.'"

Superior was built on mining, even to its name. It was called Hastings until the Lake Superior Mining Company began operating there. The mining got off to a sporadic start with silver and gold as its economic base until it finally gained lasting prosperity by mining copper ore.

But the mine closed in 1982, and things are quieter. People work in the mine at Globe/Miami, or else they commute to the Valley. There's little trouble for the town's seven police officers to deal with. Mostly theft and domestic disputes.

It's 7 p.m. and I get the sense that Los Hermanos is as busy as it's going to get. I ask Charlie about other bars, and he writes down some names for me. I head out.

The Triple X is on Main Street. There's only one other customer, an old man. The bartender talks easily with me, gives me a beer on the house. I ask where the rest room is, and she points to a door. I find myself outside in a yard, then see another door. That one leads to the rest room, which is incredible. The door doesn't lock, and the cubicle itself doesn't have a door. The biggest bluebottle I've ever seen--so big it actually has a face--is buzzing around in sanitary conditions that must make it feel like it's in paradise. But the toilet itself is so clean you could eat off it, though I don't.

Back in the bar, Jim, the other customer, makes fun of me because I keep forgetting how cheap the beer is and keep handing over too much money. He says I can crash at his place any time I want to.

Another guy comes in. I ask him about the movie. "I don't know," he says, laughing. "I was in jail when they made it."

I go and see the movie the day it opens. It's not as bad as Stone's earlier Natural Born Killers. But it contains every cliche of the noir genre, and it's so over-the-top as to seem like parody. Being a fan of noir, I was able to guess every single twist and turn. Stone isn't entirely to blame for that. The screenplay was adapted by John Ridley from his novel Stray Dogs, which is bad enough to make you laugh out loud.

But the novel isn't set in Superior. It takes place in a fictitious town called Sierra. When Stone wanted to use Superior as a location, the town insisted that he keep the name.

But that's all he keeps.
There's nothing noir about the real Superior. It's American Gothic. It's not the small town of Jim Thompson's novels, but it could have come from the imagination of Harry Crews or David Lynch on happy pills. At its worst, it's not sinister--just grotesque, sometimes arousingly so.

Next day, I'm standing at the counter in the town's public library, waiting for a book. The woman standing beside me, the only white person I've seen so far, fingers the gold bracelet around my wrist and says, "I like that. It's very nice."

When I leave the library, I walk to the burrito cafe on Main Street. The waitress touches my bracelet. "That's really nice."

In the evening I'm back in Los Hermanos. No sign of Melissa or her boyfriend. The bartender tonight is an old lady named Florence. She's been here for 46 years and had eight children. One of them, Angela, is 40. She comes into the bar and sits beside me. I ask her about Superior, but I have a strong Scottish accent and she can't understand me. She looks at her mother and says, plaintively and without irony, "Make him talk like me." Florence explains that she can't do that, that I can't help how I talk.

Angela seems to get it. Then she grabs my notebook and pen and writes furiously in it for about 20 minutes. She reads it aloud. None of it makes any sense. She's scrawled something about the children of Superior and their education, but what she's trying to say isn't clear. She rips out those pages she's written on and then gives me back the notebook. She talks about the movie, which she hasn't seen. At first she's really positive about it. Then, for some reason, she gets angry and starts damning it.

A guy comes in, having just been to see the movie. He hated it, hated its ugliness and distortion. He's lived in the town for 35 years, but there's no work for him here now, so he works in construction in the Valley.

I drink some beers with him and his cousin. "This used to be a hell of a town, a hell of a mining town," he says. He's a Vietnam vet. "I want you to write this, man--a lot of veterans came from this town. When they were called to duty, they went. Then they come back and people call them baby killers. A lot of them went mad for a while. I did." He runs a hand over his graying mustache. "I was lucky I had Superior to come back to."

"This town has good and bad people," says Florence. "But, for a place so economically depressed, it's a family. When somebody dies, others raise money for the family. You lose a member of the community, it's like losing a member of your own family. It's become a bedroom community. What that means is people live here and work elsewhere.

"We have our crime, but I'm not afraid to walk down Main Street at 4 a.m. I don't mind the movie. It's just a fairy tale, and not a very good fairy tale, either."

It's a Friday night, and the bar is fairly busy. But, although I stay until closing time, I don't meet anybody else who's seen the movie. There isn't a theater in town, and most say they won't make the trip into the Valley. They'll just wait until the video comes out. Nearly everybody was excited by the presence of the filmmakers, but not many are too concerned about the end result.

If Oliver Stone had wanted to make a better movie than the one he made, he should have made one about the real Superior. When Los Hermanos closes and I head back toward Phoenix, slowly, to avoid becoming another cross by the roadside, I know the movie got one thing half-right: Superior is a hard place to leave, but only because you don't want to.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address:


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