Guest Blogger: Lexie Kelly

After four days of cooking Walmart food over an open fire, repeatedly smacking our heads on various faux teak surfaces, and rising with the birds to the much-beloved Alexis Martino version of “Morning Has Broken” (complimented by a rare MP3 recording of Luke Hopping’s rendition of “Man From Laramie”, a throwback to the M-Term days of yore), we returned to civilization in style, checking into the beautiful Santa Monica branch of Hostelling International. Bearing the unmistakable influence of the Neo-Playmobil Art Deco movement of the early 1990s, the hostel graciously received thirty sweaty adolescents and our mountains of luggage. After a captivating exploration into the delicate and complex dynamical power balance between Alexis’s activist impulse and not-so-subtle neuroticism that played out on Santa Monica boulevard as we attempted to load the RVs full of sleeping bags and leftover gourmet food to send to Goodwill (“Okay! That’s all! I can’t take anymore! You’ll have to walk it over yourselves!”), we saddled up and set off for the land where the freaks never sleep in spite of the enormous THC content in their systems: Venice Beach.

In Venice, we met street performers, homeless war vets, and more than a few self-proclaimed harbingers of the Second Coming. Everyone promised us the cheapest sunglasses that side of the 405 and the sickest tattoos in the wild West (Ross Kadri and I were tempted to get matching ones of Noam Chomsky’s face, but held off because a) that would be a capital violation of M-Term policies and b) we’ve decided we want to wait for Daria Schieferstein to join us). One denizen of the boardwalk who had a lot to say about the American dream was Dale Rogers, a Southern transplant who came out to California following a family tragedy and the financial collapse and has been living on the beach for the past three years. Of the state of union, Dale lamented that Americans just aren’t as kind to one another as they used to be, and favorably compared Venice to his hometown in Arkansas for the sense of hospitality that pervades among the beach regulars. Judging from the number of free consultation offers we received from professionals with names like Dr. Kushlove, we think it’s safe to say that the spirit of communitas is alive and well in old New Venice.

Back at the hostel, we were treated to a lecture on the history of Hollywood and the current state of the film industry by Alexis’s old school chum, Stuart Volkow, a jack-of-all-entertainment-trades who works as a producer and a professor at UCLA and dabbles in writing and directing on the side. After the initial shock of learning that Thomas Edison bore an uncanny resemblance to the late great Kimble Humiston, we relaxed and allowed ourselves to be absorbed by tales of indie intrigue, studio wars, and revolutions in technology and social media. Students of media that we are, Stuart’s talk provided for us examples of folks who, through hard work and determination, realized the dream of public success and upward mobility, as well as evidence of how film and television contribute directly to the construction of what we think of the “American Dream”. Stuart even threw out a few key tips for the aspiring actors, writers, and directors among us (God only knows who they are).

We returned to the land of civilized dining in style, heading off to the Santa Monica Airport for some Asian fusion cuisine at Typhoon. Owing to my palatal penchant for white things and white things only and my instinctual aversion to tropical storms, I was understandably nervous going into the experience, and even more so once I found out that I was to be seated at the “grown-ups’ table” (!). At Earle’s behest, however, I loosened up and tried some dishes generally outside of my comfort zone, including spring rolls, chicken satay, and something called “Heiny-Winey Shrimp” (this is his phonetic interpretation, not mine). In this way, I feel I embodied the truly American paradigm of the “cultural melting pot” (or at least, I ate some melting pot stickers). Dinner with Stuart and his friend Jay Tavare provided an opportunity for me to whip out my Ross pedagogy (something I rarely get the chance to do in the real world, surprisingly) as well as to hear another fascinating take on “the biz”. Jay recounted his experiences as a Native American actor and his personal mission to preserve important elements of traditional tribal identity, improve conditions for Native youth across the country, and portray his roles with historical accuracy and cultural integrity. Born on an Indian Reservation, adopted by a Jolie-Pitt-type multicultural family, and sent to British boarding school, Jay’s American story was one of reconnecting with his roots as both a Native person and an American expat. An engaging speaker, Jay also excited the aforementioned Hollywood hopefuls with stories of his death-defying acts on CSI: Miami and confidential information regarding the size of Nicole Kidman’s waist (don’t tell anybody, but it’s really small).

From there, it was back to the hostel for showers (our first warm ones in days!) and shootouts (I am growing dangerously used to the sound of empty cap guns firing [I hereby publically threaten to rescind my prom invitation to both Jordan Schwimmer and Will Greenberg if they do not stop snapping those things]). Because I am a huge fan of cognitive dissonance (I run on angst like America runs on Dunkin’, or like those life-saving technologies allegedly run on Energizer batteries), I really enjoyed my first day in Los Angeles with Ross, and I’m really excited for what the next few have in store.

More from TorC

Politics, Spaceships, and Delightful Ditties  by Isabella Rowe and Caitlin Cummings

In the quiet town of Truth or Consequences we ventured out in search of local gossip, little did we know that we would discover uniqueness in a forgotten town. We first stumbled upon a beauty salon and went inside; a customer getting her hair done told us that the real gossip we would find would be from a man called John Mulcahy, a local politician running his campaign for town supervisor, and was down the street meeting and chatting with people. As we approached, we noticed that the people Mr. Mulcahy was chatting to were both very few and very lively.

Mr. Mulcahy had a wide, vacant grin and a surprisingly limp handshake. After an immensely artificial chat where Mulcahy bragged; or as he put it, “gossiped”; about Truth or Consequences’ superior hot springs, the stiff politician proudly mentioned the small town’s up-and-coming commercial space industry. He seemed shocked and taken aback that New Yorkers such as our selves had never heard of the program that he was convinced would create an economic boom within the small town. In his steadfast opinion, with NASA out of the way, privately owned spaceships are going to become the “next big thing” and increase the revenue for a town that has felt the consequences of a rough economy.

We then moved on to a young couple eating donuts and drinking coffee provided by Mr. Mulcahy, and they explained that they came solely for the provisions. Jamie, a weaver, and Kyle, a painter, had walked approximately 389 miles from the bustling town of Phoenix Arizona to the rather smaller “town” of Truth or Consequences New Mexico. They were frequent walkers and had trekked many places all over India and within the United States. They were overt hippies, dreadlocks, baggy clothes, and all; however, they spoke intelligently about themselves and their humble life in Truth or Consequences. They walked miles to a town with hardly any people; they explained that the serenity of the simple town inspired them and enhanced their artistic ability.

There were a couple of other characters we only talked to briefly; one man, whose suffering in war estranged from society was very eager for us to take his picture. He was brimming with spirit, energetic, and talking excitedly to everybody, and at one point sang touchingly.

Everyone there was memorable in their eagerness to engage with the strangers, their warm-heartedness, and their physical appearance. People’s laid-back, relaxed postures, and humble clothing styles were very distinct. Even as we walked back to the hotel we caught the eye and received the greetings of passers by. It was clear that the people of Truth or Consequences were not accustomed to teenagers walking around with cameras and various types of equipment. By discovering these people we were also surprised, because we had not realized how special life could be in the small and strange town of Truth or Consequences.

Day 11: Guns, Germs, and Steel: a Short History of Our Time in Vegas

Most Ross students are acquainted with Jared Diamond’ Guns, Germs, and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. They’ve read countless excerpts, written essays, and have probably seen the the PBS documentary more than once. However, it would take a day in Sin City before the lessons of Jared Diamond truly came alive.
We began our day at the Mob museum, where we were first introduced to the first of the three themes that would come to dominate our last full day in Vegas.  Highlights included a fake tommy gun, where we were anxious to discover which members of the group had the shooting chops to become members of the Mafia, and a interactive exhibit where several of us took the oath of Omertá (Mafia code of silence) by pricking our virtual trigger fingers and bleeding on to a burning drawing of a Saint. It was at that point that we began our lives by the gun, and we began to hear the echoes of Guns, Germs and Steel.
Upon exiting the museum, it is rumored that a member of the group “ralphed” (Earle-speak for Threw Up), and thus the Germs component of Diamond’s thesis was materialized.
After the museum the group spent time in the Neon graveyard, photographing, interviewing, getting (henna) tattooed, before deciding to break off into two groups. The first of the two groups spent time in a Vintage store, experiencing a little more of Vegas’ colorful history. The other headed back to the Strip, specifically to the New York, New York Hotel and Casino, with a single mission: to experience the giant steel roller coaster. As we were thrown through the air at speeds up to 67 mph, we internalized the importance of steel in Las Vegas entertainment.
Our day, and the lessons of Jared Diamond came to a close later that afternoon, when we made the trip out to the Las Vegas Gun Range, and put our marksmanship skills to the test. Welcomed in by the store manager who had recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, we were presented with a selection of firearms ranging from M16s to Grenade Launchers. Under the close guidance of the store’s firearms experts, and their impeccably trained work dog, we spent an hour learning firing at paper targets, and having shooting competitions. Although Aldredge was the official victor of the  competition, Caitlin Cummings, a native of Shelter Island, demonstrated impressive marksmanship and prowess with five different machine guns, and emerged from the day as our resident sharp-shooter.
As Catilin posed beside her mutilated target for a photo, and the group piled into S.U.Vs to return to the strip, we felt as if we had lived Jared Diamond’s history. We had fired guns,briefly encountered germs and been flung through the air on a steel track. Thanks to Jared Diamond, we can now understand Las Vegas, and are prepared to venture out into Death Valley tomorrow.

 

Heading into Death Valley

This morning we are picking up our RV’s and heading into Death Valley for a couple days.  We will not have consistent Internet access, so I will leave you with another bit of Gossip from TorC to read.  Here is the winner of our TorC collaborative project entitled “Absorbing Desert Flower” by Tina Bozsik and Emily Watson.

In the dusty town of T or C, as the locals call it, there lies an oasis.

Deep within the confines of Main Street resides a place where life is eternal. As if it were a mirage the wonder and majesty drew us ever closer, and closer until we found ourselves opening the door to “Desert Flower” the local florist shop. Greeted with a refreshing “hello, may we help you, “quenched the thirst of what we were searching for, a story.

If only walls could talk, Desert Flower’s would speak of a 1940’s saloon, a beauty salon, a dentist’s office, a restaurant, and a clock repair shop, says the owner Terry. For the past thirty-two years, she has maintained her flower shop whole-heartedly; even at the beginning it was only her hobby. She now believes her shop is as necessary for her as water is in the humidity of the desert.

Her dedication and determination has earned her not only business, but also the ability to say, “ other than the Bank, we are the longest surviving business here. Everyone else just comes and goes.” No wonder she is still going strong since 1981, in a town of approximately three thousand people eight- hundred of them ordered red roses from her on Valentine’s Day.

A certain responsibility comes with the distribution of flowers in T or C, Terry thought to herself for an extended moment. At a point in time Drew Berry Moore stayed in Tor C. Terry was eager to explain that during this time she received an unexpected call requesting flowers for the movie star. But, other times are less exhilarating. Terry explained with tears in her eyes,  “One year before Valentine’s Day a little boy around ten years old came into my shop to by flowers. He had about four dollars in his pocket, which wasn’t enough for anything. He explained his mother was dying. I had to give him flowers. I made him a thirty to forty dollar bouquet, but never saw him again.” Looking off into the distance, Terry filled with emotion as she thought about the little boy in her town. She is an emphatic professional, and emotionally committed to each customer’s order.

Terry’s overall friendliness has the ability to make her flower shop into a well-visited part of town, and when asked about the three customers that came to the shop while we
spoke with Terry and her daughter, they explained that they “know everybody here.” Terry and her daughter have lived in T or C for many years, and have built strong and loyal relationships. Tom, Yoshi, and Jessica three locals wandered into Desert Flower each with their own agendas. Whether it is dropping off post, a bill, or buying flowers Terry welcomed them kindly. She had nothing but good to say of anyone who walked into her shop, or anyone in the town of T or C.

Terry only expressed negativity towards T or C when she began to talk of summer tourists. The tourists flock to their town, because of Elephant Butte Lake, the tenth largest lake in America. During the summer season she and her daughter get away to their cabins in the mountains. They both want to have their usual peace and quite easily found at home. Terry and her daughter are unique; they never felt the need to permanently leave T or C, like most young folk decide to do after high school. They explain that, “ young people want to move away, but they don’t realize they will always come back. There are just things that they cannot find anywhere else. The lake, the mountains, and their families bring them back.”

Terry and her flower shop have been steady constants in the lives of many habitants of T or C. Her role in the community is integral, raising the spirits of others with her own joy and elevating the happiness of those who already are cheerful. Like water is irreplaceable in a harsh desert climate, so is Desert Flower to the town of T or C.

Day 9: Las Vegas

We are told that the actions of today must stay here; consequently, here is the full video of Canyon de Chelley, and more TorC gossip:

Wrong Way
by Isabelle Turits and Rose


The stereotypical assumptions applied to the personnel and areas associated with the word “incest” are the exact imagery Mr. Walker Harrison, manager of the Family Dollar, in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, wanted to evoke. The constant selfish and corrupted intentions of the descendants of the town’s five founding families, whom prevent new businesses from developing in order to ensure the success of their own, has flabbergasted the gentleman.
The town’s small population is a result of this political manipulation and competition
which divides the limited individuals into two types of residence: those who stay in the area to care for their relatives , as is the case with Mr. Harrison, and members of the founding families whose inter-breeding relationships controls the town’s economy.
According to Mr. Harrison, this lord and serf lifestyle did not always govern the town. While the dominance of the founding families was always present, it did not permeate every aspect of the community. Growing up, Mr. Harrison had no need to leave the boundaries of the town, for all daily health and entertainment needs could be satisfied by the local business. He would laugh with his friends at the skating rink on the edge of the river and occasionally check in with the local eye doctor when needed. Now, members of this town must travel 75 miles south to accommodate any specialized needs, as most of the old business, including the skating rink, have vanished, unable to compete against the founding business, with such a small customer pool. Individuals who do not have elderly family members move away as soon as possible and the few visitors quickly realize the lack of employment opportunities is no foundation for a confortable life.
When asked whether it were possible for the town to eventually dwindle away, Mr. Harrison stated it was unlikely because “they”(referring to the founding families) “keep breeding.” That is, the continuous incest among the main families and preservation of their desire to continue businesses passed down through generations, binds them to Truth or Consequences .This sense of family obligation is not reflected in their reputations, as Mr. Harrison expressed he has seen these families “shun” immediate and distant relatives for sexual orientations and physical or mental disabilities that are not acceptable by preset standards. Mr. Harrison moved out of his hometown at age eighteen and returned three years later to take care of his parents, whom had lived in Truth or Consequences since 1988. This is when the gravity of the decreasing state of his town fully development in his mind. Unfortunately, he believes that there is very little the community can do to change this fact, as 90 % of local businesses are owned by the founding families. Mr. Harrison’s father recently passed away and he stated that as soon as his mother dies, he’ll leave and never come back, declaring it is impossible to live in an environment “where you can’t grow as an individual. ”

Day 8: Truth or Consequences

This is the first in a series of journalism assignments from TorC:

“We have this Indian curse,” says Truth or Consequences resident Rich Strezo from his usual seat in Happy Belly’s Deli. “An Indian man said…back fifty years ago or so, that there would be no success here for the white man.”

Although most TRC residents seem to have forgotten the curse, it does not seem to have forgotten them. A town that sits on some of the most sought-after hot springs in the country, Truth or Consequences has its share of eccentricities. It is a town that once shared the spotlight with a national T.V. show, and many years later has fallen into anonymity. Yet this small, American town still has its share of stories to offer.

The best place to look for the secrets of TRC was Happy Belly’s Deli, which, at 10:30 on Monday morning, was one of very few open businesses. It was there we encountered Rich Strezo. A native of Chicago, Mr. Strezo has been a resident of Truth or Consequences for half a lifetime. He does not own a computer and has raised a family in the town, eventually becoming so attached to the place that he is currently living separately from his wife, who chose to return to Chicago. Over his bacon and french toast, Mr. Strezo told of several governmental slip-ups, citing a misspelled “Welcome to Truth or Consequences sign,” and an incident where the government, attempting to remind citizens to change their clocks for daylight savings, mistakenly advised the entire town to set their clocks behind in early March.

      From here Mr. Strezo began to delve deeper into the politics of his town. He began with a story of the “Town manager,” who was convicted of a felony in California. After becoming a fixture in town politics, the Town manager became wary of his political opponents, and began to employ dirty tricks to remain in office. Mr. Strezo cited an incident in which the town manager presented a competing candidate with a stripper, and proceeded to film an ensuing lapdance. The video was posted to the internet, and then recalled when the edited footage was found on the town manager’s computer.

This story is written on the streets of TRC. Many local stores sport neon-green signs reading “Defend.” A sign that originated as an advertisement, it soon became a symbol of town displeasure with the actions of the local government. “The signs,” told Strezo, “are short for Defend our Town,” and act as a reminder to the citizens of TRC that they have the power to overthrow their corrupt representatives. It was later pointed out that there are members of the town who take this concept too far. “They’re the cave people,” said a woman from behind her register at the Deli. “They are the people against everything the government does.”

From the mobile-home-hotels to the staged lap dance, Truth or Consequences is a town that is unsure of its future. The people seem fundamentally unhappy with their government, and are unsure of the town’s identity. Some have gone as far as to cite the name “Truth or Consequences” itself as a vehicle for the separation of the town from its history, and are campaigning on Facebook to revive the ancestral, Native American name, of “Hot Springs.”

Herein lies the curse. The town seems to be seeking leadership; someone to fill the void that was left when “Truth or Consequences” the game show went off the air. Some believe that a return to the deep, native, roots of the town will restore an identity, and break the curse. Others, like Mr. Strezo, see the answer in an overhaul of the local government. Whichever way is correct, the occupants of Truth or Consequences seem entirely committed to their little piece of the New Mexican state. It is why the cave people protest, and why Mr. Strezo is separated from his family. Perhaps, if all the hopes and dreams of TRC could be summed up in a single object, it would be the graphic on Mr. Strezo’s business card itself:  a mobile home traveling across the desert at dusk, augmented with the words “Rich Strezo. Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Livin’ the Dream.”

By Emma Betuel.  Photos by Victoria Battista

Day 7: Pie Town and the Very Large Array

 

On another long drive, this one from Gallup to Truth and Consequences, we drove through scarcely populated areas.  Fairly quickly the group started noticing signs for a place called “Pie Town” and began to make jokes over the CB radio.  When it appeared as though we would not be driving through it, Jedediah announced a single tear had fallen from his eye, while others joked the town may have “Deliverance” qualities and lure unsuspecting guests in with its name.  We did, however, end up driving through Pie Town, and our wildest dreams could not have conjured what we found.  Pie Town is located in Catron County, and the locals tell us this county is about the size of Massachusetts and has a population of just over 3,000.  When we arrived we increased the population of Catron County by close to 1%.  The center-piece of this town is an establishment named “Pie-O-Neer”; a small diner that serves dozens of different pies. Kathy Knapp, the owner, gave our overwhelming group of thirty-four hungry travelers one of the most hospitable welcomes I’ve ever experienced.  Apparently Pie-O-Neer has two speeds, Normal and Pie Festival, because when we walked in, Meghan (one of the friendly employees) said, “we’re going to have to run this like we run the Pie Festival”.  We each ordered a slice (choices included New Mexico Apple, Sweet Potato, Blueberry, Sour Cherry, Pecan Oat, Chocolate, Pear and Ginger, and more), and sat down.  We stayed and talk with Kathy and any local who walked in for a couple hours.  At one point the song “American Pie” came on the radio and a group of students started, quietly, singing along.  By the time we got to the chorus the entire restaurant was singing, including a local named Frank with an appropriately deep voice for the line “this will be the day that I die”.  Some students were walked by a young boy on a tricycle to his Grandfather’s wind-mill museum down the road before we finally had to leave, but not before Earle grabbed one more piece of pie for the road.

 

Bob Sundown

We thought that the highway adjacent windmill museum curated by an eight year-old boy who has shot more bullets already than I will in my entire life was the highlight of our drive through one of the most vacant counties in America, but we hadn’t even scratched the surface. As Skelly adventured through the local community with unsurpassable enthusiasm, he stumbled upon a momentous find. Nestled away in a small clearing about 500 feet from the local campground, Skelly found a home that can only be described as miscellaneous. Perched on an old rusty trailer, the ramshackle abode was mostly composed of rotten wood, scrap wire, and found tarps. We peered through the makeshift door with both trepidation and restrained excitement. Inside was another world.

A jerry-built chimney descended from the peak of the colorful roof into the nest below, where it met with a clichéd trash can. Next to this impromptu space heater was an old Coleman grill accompanied by a small stack of microwave pizzas. Aside from this small kitchen confined to one corner, most of the limited space was designated for sleep and storage. The still unknown inhabitant did not have much. All that he could call his own were a pair of boots placed neatly in the center, a soiled pillow, a few knickknacks, sparse cutlery, and a decrepit copy of Steps to Christ. However, Kenny’s sharp eyes spotted a pill bottle in the back, buried by dirt and dust. The faded label revealed the identity of our mystery fixation.

SUNDOWN, BOB                                                                                                             TAKE 1 TABLET BY                                                                                                      MOUTH TWICE DAILY                                                                                                             5 days

SULFAMETHOXAZOLE TRIMETHOPRIM

A quick Googling told us that the pills are antimicrobials, and not the addictive prescription drugs that had come to mind at first. The eccentric home surrounded by three American flags and a wire suspending homemade tomahawks provided a portrait of Bob Sundown, but we did not know this man, not even a little.

I had eaten my pie quickly, and so by the time the rest of the group had gone off to see the windmills, I found myself with an inordinate amount of time on my hands. I went back into Pie-O-Neer, which now seemed remarkably desolate without the throngs of teenagers. I sat down at the counter and asked for a Dr. Pepper in order to engage the kind waitress. I didn’t quite know how to ask about the hobo from across the street, but all I had to say was “Bob” and the stories began to flow. Bob Sundown was the spirit of Pie Town. Kathy Knapp, Pie-O-Neer’s appropriately kind owner and pie-maker, took me by the hand with a mother’s grip and led me to one of the many walls dotted with newspaper articles and old photos. My first glimpse of Bob Sundown’s face was poignant to say the least. As I stared at the faded image thumbtacked to the wall, Kathy detailed me his features.

“One eye, no teeth, and a colostomy bag.” she said, “He loved to make silly faces for the children.”

Bob Sundown lived in Pie Town during the summer months, but migrated south to Arizona in the winter, as his bungalow wasn’t exactly insulated. As if he were Kokopelli manifested, Bob was an indisputable sign that the warmer months were on their way. He would blow into town like the west wind, his mobile home towed by two donkeys, and the sleepy town would come alive.

“People were just naturally drawn to him.” Kathy continued, “Children ran alongside his donkeys while he taught them about the power of nature. He kept himself alive with his knowledge of the local herbs and natural medicines.”

Bob’s knowledge couldn’t help him towards the end. Plagued by illness for most of his later years, Bob passed away in the winter from 2009 to 2010. When Kathy told me that, a friend of hers named Cyndi Lee, who had known Bob on a truly personal level, overheard and came over to speak to me. The praise, admiration, and emotion in her voice when she spoke of Bob was overwhelming. She told me that he had fought in the Korean War, during which his legs were riddled with machine gun fire. The doctors told him that he would never walk again, but at the time of his death he didn’t even wear braces. She told me that his wife had died in a car accident nearly fifty years ago, and since that day he has traveled around the Southwest by donkey.

“He always used to say, ‘That’s just a bunch of words.'” Cyndi said, “He believed that open spaces could open your mind and there wasn’t really much of a point in keeping track of time.”

Cyndi started to tear up and Kathy put a hand on her back and gave her a hug. I stood there, observing this incredibly emotional moment, petrified. I couldn’t react. This man had so thoroughly influenced a community that his memory still brought tears to their eyes.

“I loved Bob. I remember him feeding one of his donkeys a pie right out front.” Cyndi said, “Everyone loved Bob and this community will always remember him.”

I excused myself at that point with a handshake and a kind word for each woman, claiming that my school group was on its way out, but really I needed to wipe away the moisture that had glossed over my eyes. I think I will remember Bob Sundown as well, but I know his memory will always be alive in Pie Town.

– Jon Lesser