Tales From the End of the Bus Line is a long-distance collaboration between daughter/father Megan and Bill Broughton to collect the many adventures of Bill’s young adulthood in Van Nuys, California. Installments (and photos that should or shouldn’t see the light of day, if we’re lucky) are penned by the two of them.
It was Saturday morning and Bob and I were in his pick up truck headed to Twenty-nine Palms. This was not a pleasure trip – there was a twenty-seven cubic foot side-by-side refrigerator in the back, and we were schlepping it out there for Debbie’s grandmother. I understood why Bob was doing this; he and Debbie were living together at this point, in her mother’s house in North Hollywood. Combine this with the fact he owned a pick up truck and was strong as an ox, it would make perfect sense he would be doing this. I just wasn’t absolutely clear on why I was there. I vaguely recall talking about this the night before, at the Robin Hood after work, after I had innocently asked, “Whatcha doin’ tomorrow? “Do you remember that couch we moved for your sister?” he’d replied.
Road trips are good for hangovers, though, since you have little enough to do except look out the window at the scenery. I think we were on the 10 freeway, headed east towards Palm Springs, home of the super rich who think that 125 degrees Fahrenheit is a comfortable temperature. The number of Freeways going out that way has increased in the years since then, but it had to be an even number, because we were going East, and the even numbered ones go East and West. (I didn’t know this growing up; New Hampshire has only two freeways, the 89 and the 93. Since both go North and South, they have odd numbers, so I didn’t have a frame of reference for that. New Hampshire is a skinny state. If you built a freeway across it you might run out of road before you got up to cruising speed. And you wouldn’t call it a “Freeway” in any event, since it’s a “Turnpike” where I came from. And smile when you say that. ) Anyhow, we were half way out to Palm Springs, with Debbie and her Grandma following us in her car, when two things happened, not quite at the same time. The first was that we decided to have breakfast, so I reached into the cooler near my foot and pulled out two cans of Budweiser. I wrapped the fake Coke labels around them, (these were wonderful little inventions that were made of aluminum, looked like a flattened coke can, and had little magnets that attached to your beer, making it look for all the world like you were enjoying the pause that refreshes, and not pounding down a hangover cure while driving down the freeway. I have no idea if you can still buy them) and handed one to Bob, saying, “It’s the most important meal of the day.” A few minutes later we hit some rough pavement or something, there was huge “thump” from the back of the truck and the front wheels came up off the ground for a moment. Bob pulled over onto the shoulder, and we got out to find the refrigerator had fallen backward and was resting on the tailgate at about a thirty degree angle. Debbie and her Grandmother had pulled over behind us; they got out of their car with the same disapproving look on their faces.
We pushed it upright and tied it down again, a little more securely this time. It was wrapped in several moving blankets, so there wasn’t too much damage. The only loss was a can of beer that had got slightly squished, had sprung a leak and was hissing, so yelling, “It’s gonna blow, save yourselves!” I popped the tab and emptied it by the side of the road, getting a laugh out of them, anyway. Note this meant there had been a full can of beer rolling around in the bed of the truck. Wow, the old days, seriously. Nothing much happened after that until we stopped for gas just before Palm Springs, and took Route 62 North and East to Joshua Tree and Twenty Nine Palms in the Little San Bernardino Mountains. This is the same place that U2, and before them, Gram Parsons, went for inspiration. God alone knows why. There is nothing there, and I’m saying that generously. Maybe that’s the secret – no distractions, and your manager won’t let you come home until you’ve got an album in the can. It worked for both of them, anyway.
Debbie’s future inheritance sat on a five acre lot in the middle of a series of crisscrossing dirt roads. A cute enough small two bedroom house, the only structure as far as the eye could see. And if you had good eyesight that was quite a ways, San Bernardino County being larger than many states, New Hampshire included. I asked why there weren’t more houses and Bob put it succinctly, saying, “Would you live here?” “No way,” I replied “If I owned this place and Hell, I’d probably live in Hell, and rent this place out. It would take someone as crazy as Debbie’s grandmother to live here.” We got out of the truck laughing, and I’m afraid Debbie’s grandmother took umbrage, as she was pretty certain we were laughing at her. We tried to put her off by asking what had made her move out here, with nothing around for miles. She explained that the land was free; that if you marked out five acres, built a house, showed a picture of it to the Office of the County Assessor, and stayed there for ten years, then the government gave you the deed free and clear. She and her husband had moved there after the World War Two, had Debbie’s mom there, and lived in the desert until her husband passed away. I asked her why more people didn’t do it (hey free land, right?) and she told me that many folks had tried, but they couldn’t stick it out. Also, there were lots of folks who just marked off the land but couldn’t build a house. Eventually, she said, her husband came up with the idea of just painting their house different colors, maybe tacking on a fake chimney, taking a dozen pictures of it from different angles, charging people a Benjamin, and mailing the pictures to the County.
We wrestled the fridge out of the back of the truck and got it up on the porch, asking Debbie if she had the key to the front door. “Got it right in here!” her Grandmother exclaimed, then dumped a coffee can full of keys onto the porch. “It’s in here, somewhere” she said. “This keeps it safe from someone stealing it” she explained. I smiled, not daring to laugh, and went to the cab of the truck for some liquid patience. An hour passed, in which we tried every key twice, and were no closer to an open door than when we started. We finally popped open a louvered bathroom window and got in that way. The inside, while not spacious, was nice. If it had been somewhere else, it would not be a bad little cabin in which to live. We got the old refrigerator pulled away from the wall, setting in the newer one, and put the old one into the pick-up. There were a few chores that needed to be done, as no one had come out there for a couple of years. I remember replacing a few boards on the roof of the porch, and painting a few places, but they had done a really good job on building the place, give ‘em that, and it was in good shape overall.
We stopped in Yucca Valley on the way home for lunch. Debbie’s Grandmother insisted on paying, so I got something small, out of respect. I asked her why she did not move from her trailer in Sun Valley to be back here, and she said it was too remote for an old lady living by herself, but maybe one day she would come out for an extended visit. We rode home (on an even numbered freeway), getting back to North Hollywood about the time the full moon was rising.
Debbie and Bob did not stay with her mom too much longer, getting a place of their own and getting married, which will be another story for another time. Her Grandmother did not go back to Twenty-Nine Palms, for an extended visit or any other. She started seeing things that were not there; and even more dangerously while driving, not seeing things that were there, and she had to go into full time care. Those years are closing in on me now, as I am staring sixty in the face, and the type font size in books is getting smaller at the same rate the music is getting too loud. I wonder if I will grow nostalgic for the Valley of Industry, and the house I grew up in. The town I was raised in has disappeared into the past. Maybe it is time to start telling a few Tales From the Other End of the Bus Line, before they, like Debbie’s Grandmother and her desert home, are also gone forever.
Joshua Tree’s popularity as a day trip for Angelenos, and CalArts students in particular, can be explained by reasons dad’s stated and implied: its emptiness is regenerative as well as vaguely (romantically) lawless. It’s not like I ever had beer for breakfast while driving around out there (wow, Dad), but there is something about the searing desolation that could definitely bring that out in a person. Short of that, it is an environment of calm welcome whose explanse is overly emphasized by the dirty gems of Los Angeles to the west. I don’t have to wax poetic to what I assume is the choir about the neverending desert light and the excitement of boulder playgrounds.
Between post graduation hikes and still mornings spent hunched between rocks, tracking elastic shadows, my favorite impression of Joshua Tree is that of a dear friend. She has never been but hopes to find Selena’s Amor prohibido doors tucked away in a crevasse, ready to be dusted off and reinstalled. There is something just otherworldly enough about Joshua Tree to make this, in several minds other than her’s, a plausible scenario. I can think of few things better or more Wonderland but those doors at home, settled into the dust year-round alongside perhaps an old beat up, abandoned refrigerator.
The more dad writes, the more concrete the “my parents were cooler than me” phase of life becomes (an arrival which, if you ask them, is maybe unpardonably late or at least absurdly mercurial). Cooler but dumber, that is, which I guess we can call “the 1980’s.” But maybe what’s really to blame here is the discontinuation of those faux-coke bottles and/or nature vs. nurture, i.e. man is bar-guilted into helping friend with shitty task, man doesn’t strap fridge down, fridge falls at 80mph, Peter Pan – er – man grows up and has kid, kid is incrementally more developed and female to boot, etc etc. That illustration of evolution works well enough for me, and I suppose this give and take is more than fair.
Parental ribbing aside, Dad’s somber reflections paired with the lighthearted remembrances of youth are difficult for me to reconcile. I wonder if he only has these thoughts while writing or if this is part of his oral experience as well, and how much was lost on me as a child when I was too young to imagine him as ever being so little as me. I think Tales From the Other End of the Bus Line could provide those final pieces for us both.