A fair criticism of me as a writer would be that I am ‘scattered,’ ‘unfocused,’ ‘directionless,’ and just plain ‘distracted by the world around him.’ Others might see me as a prodigious producer of a preponderance of written material in many different forms. I plead guilty to both charges and can only shrug my shoulders in admittance that I am all of those things and probably more.
So if I’m heavily weighed down by a long list of projects-in-progress, why would I even consider writing yet another play at this time? Ask anyone addicted to running, work or a plethora of other addictive habits why they do what they do. The answer is usually because ‘they have to.’ So, simply stated, I have an idea for a play that’s been burning a hole in my brain and it needs to be released.
The storyline began simply enough when several years ago my editor came to California and suggested we take a ride down to the far eastern end of the Valley to a place called Slab City. Of course, to get there we first had to pass by a dead sea and a place called Salvation Mountain. It gets even weirder from there.
This was the first time that Sharon and I encountered the underbelly of the Coachella Valley. These are the parts of the Valley that most tourists, visitors, and locals-alike never see or care to visit. You won’t find them listed in ‘points of interest’ or top tourist destinations…and for good reason.
This is where the ‘under-served’, ‘don’t want to be found’, ‘unaccounted for’, and ‘those on the lam’ come to hide. It also presents a warm, inviting cocoon for artists, bohemians, addicts, and the like to congregate and flourish.
Our trip began safely enough with a return to the Salton Sea. That briny morass of faded dreams, high hopes for the future and dead fish scales underfoot. The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake measuring more than 35 miles long and 15 miles wide in spots. It has a surface area of over 380 square miles and sits at 332 feet below sea level. The sea was created back in 1905 as the result of an accidental break in a canal cut into the Colorado River. For 16 months, the river ran unchecked into the lowest area around; the salt basin which became the Salton Sea.
By the mid-fifties, the Salton Sea had become a major recreational water resort area for Southern California. But two hurricanes; Kathleen in 1976 and Doreen in 1977, caused such wide-spread damage to neighboring farm lands that the runoff caused a major increase in the salinity of the sea. That, in turn, caused major fish-kills and bird-kills and created such a major issue with noxious odors that residential development came to a stop.
It will take years, perhaps decades, before the sea might possibly return to its past glory. More feasibility studies will be made, more funding sought and grand schemes hatched. The possibilities for commerce, recreation and development are enormous.
Salvation Mountain is one of the premiere examples of folk art in the middle of nowhere America. The site has become a mecca for those influenced by and intrigued with this kaleidoscope of painted hills, crude cave dwellings and religious scripture. The cave’s paint can and hay bale construction would challenge even the most daring of spelunkers.
The artwork is made from adobe, straw, and thousands of gallons of lead-free paint. It was created by the late Leonard Knight (1931-2014). A deeply religious man, Knight created an art piece that encompasses numerous murals and areas painted with Christian sayings and Bible verses. Knight’s philosophy was built around the ‘Sinners Prayer.’
The old mountain carver is gone now and replaced by Jesus People and their small hugging kids. Many visitors bring paint to donate to the project and a group of volunteers has been working to protect and maintain the site.
Slab City, otherwise known as ‘The Slabs,’ is a snowbird campsite used by recreational vehicle owners alongside squatters from across North America. It takes its name from the concrete slabs that remain from an abandoned World War II Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap.
It’s estimated that there are about one hundred fifty permanent residents (squatters) who live in the slabs year-round. Some survive on government checks, others just want to live ‘off the grid’ and a few come to stretch out their retirement income. The camp has no electricity, no running water, no sewers or toilets and no trash pickup service. Sounds like a dry run for the apocalypse.
Despite the free shoe tree on the way into town and the free library, most of the residents have sectioned off their trailers, tents and sleeping bags with tires, pallets, or barbwire. Free is free unless it comes to their piece of the desert then even squatters want their personal space recognized…along with their art.
No trip to Slab City would be complete with a swing by East Jesus. East Jesus has been describe-ed as an experimental, sustainable art installation. It’s is a colloquialism for the middle of nowhere beyond the edge of services. Made from discarded material that has been reused, recycled or repurposed, East Jesus encourages visitors to imagine a world without waste in which every action is an opportunity for self-expression.
I think West Satan is a simply a suburb of East Jesus. I found this second art gallery-in-the-sun fascinating and mind-expanding. It was like tripping out without the acid and a glimpse into the lives of those who don’t want to be a part of ‘any scene’ here in fantasy land or the rest of the world. All of which leads me to the reason for writing my next play which is entitled: Bombay Beach Club.
I’ve always been intrigued by a sun-bleached tattered cluster of trailer homes strewn alongside the Salton Sea half way to Slab City. Its name, ‘Bombay Beach, North Shore,’ always seemed like the perfect title for a play. I had to swing by just to satisfy my curiosity.
With apologies to Slab City, Bombay Beach isn’t much of an alternative. Its housing seems beaten down by the harsh summers and its distance from civilization. We drove down its main street and intended to stop to ask directions until we looked into the dead-eyes of one young woman shuffling down the gravel roadway. One stare was enough for us to gun the engine and ‘get out of Dodge.’
That was all it took for my pea-brain to begin churning out images and scenes and even some dialogue. It was one fleeting snapshot of an odd-ball collection of characters gathered someplace nearby. That momentary image burned a strong impression on my creative stance and has been there ever since.
Now, years later, that vapid fleeting image has crystalized into a storyline (in the form of a new play). ‘Bombay Beach Club’ is now edging out other projects to garner more of my attention. Its gestation period is almost over and ready for birth into my next play. The tag line is simple enough: ‘Bombay Beach Club; a coffee house for crazies…or is it.’