December 24, 2002

Last night one of our fine Boeing aircrafts dropped me rather violently into the asphalt fields of LaGuardia Airport. Thank heavens, I'm back in NYC.

Flying wears me out. Not just being in a plane, but the whole tedious thing: lugging bags around, standing in long lines, eating awful fast food, waiting for one thing or another, waiting for the fuckos in front of me to grab their carry-ons and coats from the overhead so I can leave (or board), the crying babies, the tiny seats and lack of elbow/leg room, the flight attendants who come around with the sodas and measly bags of pretzels that will keep passengers busy long enough to divert their attention from the "World's Deadliest Plane Crashes" show they saw on cable the night before.

Two days of my trip were lost to Delta Airlines. The rest of the time I was visiting a relative in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was okay blah silver and turquoise jewelry blah blah mountains and high desert blah blah green chiles on everything, even bagels. Impressive and freaky the first day, monotonous by the third.

We drove around a lot; we got out to Santa Fe twice and had terrific (New) Mexican food at the Shed (we went there on both visits -- spicy carne adovada and green chile stew the first time, posole stew and and mixed green salad the second). I was promised that New Mexican food would beat the pants off of anything passing itself off as Mex cuisine in New York, and although what I had at the Shed and Albuquerque's Los Cuates (where I was introduced to the wondrous sopapilla, a sweet fried bread similar to the East Indian poori) was first-rate, I thought it was as good as the best authentic Mexican food I've tasted in Manhattan.

On the ride back from our second visit to Santa Fe, I was feeling a little tired of the endless sprawl of dust and rocks. I only brought a dozen or so CDs with me, not too much that would qualify as "mood music," but the one album I'd played so far that brought out the middle-of-nowhere time-stops-dead nature of the high desert was, surprisingly, Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers. Surely it's a long way from early-'70s Memphis to noughties Albuquerque, but both environments can be equally disorienting, throwing a stranger out of her known continuum and on to an expansive monochromatic plateau -- this one with petroglyphs, Spanish signs, and fast food chains she's never heard of. But so anyway, on the ride back from Santa Fe I pulled out the Clash's live album From Here to Eternity from the CD case in my bag. And I was jolted out of the exhausting dream-plateau -- I see the Clash as the badass outlaw victors of a nineteenth century cowboys 'n' Indians showdown, and that's exactly where From Here to Eternity took me. If a private musical revelation can be the highlight of a trip, that was it.

I believe in fate and all that. It's interesting how I can look back at certain events in my life, and with present affairs in mind the past makes sense. It's more than hindsight; it's piecing a puzzle together. Earlier this year, I was visited in NYC by a North Carolina friend who really loved the Clash (his band had done a Clash tribute show, in fact, with my friend in the Joe Strummer role). I had found out that Strummer and his new band the Mescaleros were doing a five-night stand at St. Ann's in Brooklyn the same week Will was in town. But for whatever reason, I held off on buying tickets. That weekend, the night before the Saturday show (the last show of the Brooklyn engagement), we went to Irving Plaza to get our tickets. We needed three: two for us, one for another friend. We were told that there were only two tickets left. Well, okay, I bought mine, and Will stepped aside so we could discuss the ethical considerations and potential repercussions of going to see Strummer without his friend. We finally decided to get the one remaining ticket and figure it out from there. But when he got over to the box office, that last ticket had just been sold. Of the three of us, I was the only one who got to see the concert. I felt terrible (I offered to sell him my ticket, but he refused), but I went and had a great time. I'd never seen Strummer before; I felt lucky that I'd been able to catch that final Brooklyn show, since I was pretty sure he wouldn't be back this way for a long time.

Yesterday morning, around 6:30, I woke up and turned on the hotel TV. I was bleary-eyed and not paying much attention to the nonstop MSNBC news crawl at the bottom of the screen, but my eyes were there long enough to see the slow procession of letters that spelled out "JOE STRUMMER, FRONTMAN OF PUNK ROCK BAND THE CLASH..." (at which point I gulped and said "Oh no, please tell me he's not dead") "...DEAD AT 50." I shrieked so loud I woke up my mom, who was sleeping in the adjacent bed. She was afraid terrorists had blown up New York while we were away; when she learned that it was just another headline about a dead rock star, she went back to sleep. I was shaken, though, and the lack of information about his death freaked me out even more. I thought about my friend, who'd lost two of his other punk heroes, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone, within the past two years. And I felt yet another pang of guilt that the St. Ann's ticket went to me instead of him -- but I still believe that there was significance in my procurance of the next-to-very-last ticket for the very last time I'd ever get to see Joe Strummer on stage.

But the New Mexico trip had some good parts.

-We got to cross the border into Arizona. (Classic because I have a running tab of the U.S. states I still need to visit, and setting foot into Arizona, no matter how briefly, means I can strike a line through that list entry. Dud because all I really saw was a store called "Indian City," a roadside megamart of Native American tchotchkes -- replicas, actually, like cheap slingshots made for kids, and Indian headdress with hot pink synthetic feathers, and ceremonial kachina dolls, mass-produced for tourists. There were dozens of these stores along the way. The hand-painted, rustic-looking signs on the road every few feet reminded me of the signage in New York's Catskills region, where you can still see advertisements for farmstands, ghost resorts, family-owned businesses, and summer camps.)

-We got to see the Tesuque, NM mountaintop estate belonging to my mother's boss and his wife -- she's an art collector, and every cranny of their house is filled with Southwestern art, some of it ancient and quite authentic. Their caretaker showed us around; the tour ended with a brief trip through the backyard "sculpture walk" out to the estate's piece de resistance, a gazebo perched on the edge of a steep cliff with a knockout view of the mountains and valleys.

-On New Mexico's Turquoise Trail, there's a remote mountain town called Madrid. It was a ghost town until intrepid hippies took it over in the early '70s, and most of those hippies are still there today. It's a tiny village with a population of some 300 residents; word has it there's no running water. But there's a bed & breakfast, a bookstore (where I picked up a used copy of Nick Tosches' excellent Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll), and a coffee shop where tourists can buy the usual t-shirts and hot sauces with cute names. I liked Madrid much more than the self-conscious Santa Fe (the Georgia O'Keeffe museum was the straw that broke the back of my boredom threshold).

-Gallup, NM is almost entirely Navajo. On our drive through, we listened to the radio station of the Navajo reservation, which played Native American music (some rock and country, some native-language folk/religious music) and advertised local businesses (the DJ kept reminding a contest winner to "come pick up [his] space heater within the next five minutes"). We stopped for lunch at Furr's, a cafeteria chain similar to the Morrison's restaurants of the South. The first thing we noticed at Furr's was that we were the only white people in the restaurant; everyone else was American Indian or Mexican. That particular intersection was pretty much it for a hundred miles in terms of places to eat and shop, so the weekend pilgrimage (coupled with the last-minute holiday rush) caused a massive traffic jam. It took us 45 minutes to get off the highway and into the nearby Furr's parking lot.

We saw two movies in Albuquerque: Gangs of New York and Far From Heaven, both of which we liked a lot. I overheard something funny in the theater for Far From Heaven. A middle-age white woman was sitting behind my dad and me. A few scenes into the movie, she turned to her friend and asked a question in reference to the film's supporting character -- a thirtysomething, educated black man that many foot-in-mouth liberals would stoop to call "articulate" (a/k/a "Sidney Poitier syndrome"). I've had conversations with people about this phenomenon -- the case of the one or two nonthreatening black entertainers it's okay for suburban white housewives to coo over. There's one man, one Oscar-winning black actor from recent years, that always gets brought up when my friends and I joke about these matters.

The actor in Far From Heaven wasn't anyone famous; no one I'd seen before and certainly no one a non-moviebuff would be able to place. But the woman behind me tapped her friend on the shoulder and whispered audibly into his ear, uttering that very same textbook example:

"Is that Denzel Washington?"

Later that night, when my dad and I saw distinguished (and, it must be noted, black) correspondent Ed Bradley on CBS' 60 Minutes, I asked, "Is that Denzel Washington?" We erupted into side-splitting laughter for the next ten minutes.