Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Lemonade Skies and Tangerine Dreams

Dawn in the desert. The beautiful sunrise brushes finger-thin rays of lemonade pink against the still sleeping snow-capped mountains. Occasionally there are fleeting glimpses of coyotes on the golf course returning from their nocturnal hunt. Those hours just after dawn seem to draw out an interesting assortment of desert characters (human and otherwise) intent on enjoying the cool of morning before the heat of the day. 

Many desert communities down the Valley hide behind their miles of stucco walls, ficus hedges and other obstacles to a glimpse inside. Not so with Palm Springs. Hollywood East, as it is sometimes called, is a different kind of animal. Most resort communities sport the ubiquitous gated enclaves of look-alike signature homes surrounding a golf course where every home has a swimming pool in the backyard. Those enclaves of understated wealth are sprinkled with a flavoring of palaces to fine dining and expensive shops with one-of-a-kind amenities meant to separate the cake from the chaff. Palm Springs is all that but much more. It’s what separates this desert town from so many others.

Photo Credit:  Melvin Hale
Over the past several decades, Palm Springs got so outdated that it became hip all over again. What was once old mid-century modern architecture is now hip and all the rage among modernists. Tired old motels have been revamped, remodeled and now charge ten dollars for a bottle of beer. 1950’s throw-away furniture fetches a fortune in design stories and replicas fare just as well. Old is new again and thus hip for those born twenty to thirty years ago. Early morning in Palm Springs is a perfect example of this paradox.

In Palm Springs it takes a lot to turn heads. For example, there’s nothing remarkable about a hundred and fifty thousand dollar Bentley parked in front of McDonalds or the elderly owner inside sipping his cheap cup of coffee-with refills. Or the ‘classic’ 1964 mustang convertible parked in front of True Value hardware. A hipster arriving at ‘The Rowen’ wouldn’t turn an eye with his vintage corvette.

Gardeners and pool boys file in and out of convenience stores for their unhealthy snacks and caffeinated beverages. At the other end of the lifestyle spectrum, joggers and bikers perform their morning ritual before the rest of us finish that first cup of Joe.

Trail riders are deep into their morning ride along the wash. Not far away, mountain bikers churn up the sandy bottoms for traction. 

Desert rats scramble up shale and rock mountain paths that twist and turn up toward the sky. Centenarians are on the golf course for their sunrise special and then haunt the coffee shops before most of us are even awake.

In the beginning there was only Starbucks. Now several other coffee shops have carved out a sizeable notch of the early morning caffeine addicts. Koffi started the trend. Now Red Collar, Old Town La Quinta Coffee and many more have claimed their own patio in the rising sun.

There is a particular Starbucks on the outskirts of downtown Palm Springs that always seems to attract a smattering of circus performers minus the circus. In the early morning hours, before the rest of us are beginning to stir in our beds, these shadows of the night emerge from the darkness and slip into their caffeine-induced second home. One local character, Saint Joseph, was usually among them.

St. Joseph always seemed to hold court around same time and always the same corner. When I first started coming to the desert years ago, I would find Saint Joseph in his corner chair, counseling and administering to the daily needs of his flock. The only variable would be his entourage for any particular day and the visiting dignitaries who stop at his office for a brief exchange of wisdom before melting into the night once again.

Joseph was an older gentleman, probably in his mid-seventies. He was always cheerful, ready with a smile and a laugh. He had a pleasant demeanor that never varied with the seasons. He was a counselor, adviser, cheerleader, friend, listener and seeker of the good in everyone he met.

For many people, Joseph was their early morning elixir for what ailed them on that particular day. Unlike the old men who gather at coffee shops around the world to blather on about nothing and expose their ignorance with Monday morning quarterbacking, second-guessing politicians and berating the government, Joseph was articulate, thoughtful and intelligent. He listened to their wishful sometimes confused tangerine dreams.

His entourage varied from day to day as did his visitors. There was usually some old curmudgeon who would be bitching about something and always countered by Joseph’s calm response. Joseph was the man’s patient sounding board.  

There was the handicapped young woman confined her wheelchair. She moved around by using her crutches as walking sticks. She had the sad eyes of a fawn that has just lost its mother.  

There was the muscle man, built solid as a rock, who walked a toy poodle. The dog was his trusted companion and he loved that animal. Mr. Bojangles anyone. Dogs were always a part of the daily entourage. There’s still a dish of water for them outside every morning.

The conversations varied by the day. One time it might be the local news sprinkled with criticism of national politics. The next might be the weather; summer is hot, the rest of the year is wonderful. The conversations would be open, honest and usually bent toward the left which was not surprising considering the community that hosted them. Other coffee shops might have better coffee but none had their own St. Joseph.

The Rowen Hotel
Not far away, early morning downtown Palm Springs presents a different tone and vibe. In its heyday, L.A. had the Sunset Strip and Chicago had its miracle mile. Minneapolis has its Nicollet Mall and Eat Street. Many cities across the country have their own branded tentacles of food, drink, lodging and entertainment. 

Palm Springs has done them one better with its own small-town village atmosphere cloaked as a 21st century hot spot. Throw in a summer splash party or two and it’s become a poor man’s version of ‘Caligula’ for the masses…as long as they’re preferably under thirty years of age.

  Even in the early morning hours, the new town is a happening place once again. After years of economic stagnation and entertainment limbo Palm Springs has risen like a Phoenix. Palm Springs is fast becoming just about the hippest hot spot this side of Brooklyn, Silver Lake and West Hollywood. West Coast hipsters, designers, remodelers, artists, musicians and actors are all rediscovering what their forefathers knew all along. They’re finding that wrapping those warm blue pools with a healthy shot of alcohol can bring out a hedonistic nature in the best of us.

In the heart of downtown is the Rowen Hotel; a central showcase for the brand new downtown Palm Springs. The new hotel is meant to anchor the many new downtown projects underway. Next door, 

The Palm Springs Art Museum continues to draw large crowds to its special exhibits. A pocket park will soon be constructed between the two enterprises. Walkability is a key ingredient here to attract the masses; tourist and local alike. 

The city is even carving up areas around downtown and giving them distinctive labels such as SOPS (South of Palm Springs), the Backstreet Art District and the Uptown Art and Design District.   

There is something magical here with the surrounding mountains, desert-scape, warm winter months and hip happenings all over town. Palm Springs is now a virtual cornucopia of cultural, artistic, sensual, musical and intellectual stirrings for just about everyone from the art culture-types to the more modest of minds. 

It all seems to be happening here and I’m lucky enough to be ‘cruising along’ in the middle of it.

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