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:

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.