Sunday, September 27, 2020

West Janssen . Deaf Drummer

The day we left the Grand Canyon we drove south to Williams, AZ. I had forgotten about the drummer Peggy saw by the side of the road nine days before. This time when we’d almost reached Williams Peggy asked, “Did you see the drummer back a couple of miles?” I replied that I had not. It's good to have a spotter. I hesitated to turn around as I am wont to do. I am not a patient photographer. But I yielded to my better self and went back to see the musical novelty.

Sure enough a couple of miles north on the east side of Highway 62 a guy was dozing behind an impressive drum kit. Before him was a sign saying Deaf Drummer in Facebook, Donations OK. After all of my years of street photography I’m still leery about approaching subjects directly. But the Donations OK on the sign signaled the drummer’s willingness to be photographed. I folded a ten spot and put in my shirt pocket. As Peggy and I approached the musician looked up and greeted us.

I asked, “How’re you doing? Do you mind if I take your picture?” and handed him the ten. He said. "Not at all. Go for it.”

He picked up his sticks and began to play to the baseline in his head, so I’d get some action. After five minutes or so we began talking about the unlikely concept of a drummer that can’t hear. It's something I've read about but hadn't witnessed.

I asked, “How do you do it? Do you hear something.”

He responded “No. I’m completely deaf. I feel the vibration of what's being played.”

He told me that he could even tell the kind of music: country, rock, blues, you name it.

“How did this all happen?” I asked.

He told me that he grew up in Sunnyslope, a suburb of Phoenix. I said that I knew it well since both Peggy and I had Phoenix roots.

He continued that his mother was deeply religious and that they went to church every day. On one of those visits he saw a set of drums and began to play them.

His mother asked. “How did you learn to do that?

He told her he didn’t know. He just could.

She replied angrily, “Don’t lie to me in the house of God.”

When we were ready to leave I thanked him and gave him my card. He picked up a piece of note paper and wrote “West Janssen” his personal Facebook page and "Deaf Drummer", his group page. I said I’d Friend him and post any worthwhile images. He thanked me, stood up and approached me.

He said, “It’s really hot. Would you get me a big soda? There’s gas station two miles south toward Williams.”

I told him, “Sure, I’d be happy to. What kind do you want?”

He replied, “Dr. Pepper” and reached into his pocket.

I waved it off. "No. I'll get it."

We drove to the station to fill up and returned with an icy soda.

I’ve been thinking about happenstance, of chance encounters. I’ve been contemplating the miracle of learning one unique human being's story. West Janssen exemplified that miracle. I want to learn and share more stories. You have to be there to get the story. Then you need to listen.

West and I started a Facebook conversation. 

West posted that "The country singer Erica Sunshine Lee had bought me those drums for me as my other drums were literally falling apart....she stopped by just like Steve and I guess I inspired her enough that she gave me a phone call one day and made a donation and traveled many miles back to me and literally gave it to me."

I responded, "Thanks for adding to your captivating story, West. Sometime I'd like to learn more."

West told me, "Ask any questions and I'll tell you a story...I have a story behind every story that leads to a story. And none of it is made up or a fish's all truth...I do need a writer."

You are a writer, West.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Time will tell

Juniper at Mather Point

Peggy painting at Yaki Point

Whether it’s because I really don’t like monumental subjects or don’t feel that I can photograph them successfully, I find myself resorting to lesser subjects when photographing the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Oh, I’ll toss a few canyon vistas at you but it’s the tangled shapes of junipers at the canyon’s edge that get my attention. I’m writing this post on Saturday in hopes of getting in a longish run and being packed for the drive home first thing Sunday morning.

Juniper and canyon vista

Long mesa from Pima Point

I’m energized by the fact that I’m running as if I hadn’t broken my hip three months ago. My balance is off kilter, however, and my fear of heights has come roaring back. It's always bothered me but this is abject terror. It tried to hike the South Kaibab Trail midweek and nearly froze at the two thousand foot precipice four feet to my right. I'm lucky I didn't crawl back up the hill.

The realization that I can do whatever the hell I want to do when we get back to Taos makes me giddy. Of course, that’s always been the case. I just haven’t taken advantage of it. This time, I tell myself, it will be different. And the siren song of the open road beckons. Gotta dust off the forty year old Porsche.

Peggy painting a twisted juniper at Pima Point

Peggy's wall at the Kolb Studio. Part of the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art and the centenary of the park

I'm pleased to report that though the final tally is not yet in, sales at the Celebration of Art have been strong despite it being for the most part a virtual exhibition. Peggy's second quick draw painting sold immediately Friday evening and her online auction piece sold after a number of bids. And that doesn't account for her 30" x 40" studio piece which may have a buyer. That sale would be sweet. And there are another eight paintings that will be for sale at the Kolb Studio and online until January. I'm wicked proud as we say in Boston.

It’s been a time of loss in America. Two heroic human beings have left our midst. First, civil rights icon John Lewis departed this earth and now Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said goodbye. Lewis was unrelenting in his pursuit of the equal treatment of black Americans. He was a saintly soul. And Bader-Ginsburg who felt the sting of a different kind of prejudice, that of being as woman and of being Jewish, fought ferociously for the equality of women. Both are losses that I feel more deeply than any that I can remember. We are poorer for their passing.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

One Grand Birthday

The night before a recent birthday I was a pissed off old man. I’d lost half of my 78th year to a drumbeat of injuries and my back barked like a junkyard dog when we walked up and down Williams, AZ’s Main Street looking for a take-out meal worthy of a condemned man. Failing that and still unwilling to eat in a restaurant, we found ourselves sitting on our king size bed eating super market chicken wings and packaged salads accompanied by a single bottle of amber ale and a glass of the Barefoot Pinot Grigio, the world’s worst, too sweet swill. We left the rest of the bottle for some unfortunate housekeeper. Celebratory it wasn’t.

Not being able to enjoy the conviviality of a good restaurant or bar really sucks. On a birthday it's criminal. That only added to my peevishness. 

The next morning Peggy and I enjoyed a birthday brunch consisting of a supermarket yogurt parfait and a Starbucks egg, ham, and cheese muffin thingee which we ate in the car before buying groceries for our ten days at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Oddly, that was hilarious.

Peggy’s ten-day invitational painting event, The Grand Canyon Celebration of Art, is why we’re here. I piloted the much needed support vehicle. One CRV couldn’t possibly carry all her finished work, frames, canvasses, and personal gear. Plus, it was an excuse to get out of Dodge.

he icing on the cake is that our son, Garrett, and his wife, Michelle, were with us for the weekend so he and I could celebrate our birthdays together. His 53rd was September 8 and my 69th was September 11. Hey, I was 69 on September 11

Our incredible time with Garrett and Michelle included a birthday bash of microwaved dinners, salad, and a remarkably good Tuxedo Cake from the Safeway in Williams. Are we seeing a trend here? We shared that bounty in our trim little studio apartment in the Park’s Albright Training Center.

They are such thoughtful gift givers. I was truly touched. Michelle’s gift, Rick McCloskey’s photo book Van Nuys Blvd 1972 took us back to the place we lived from 1968 through 1970. That was the heady time of muscle cars, short shorts, and Wednesday’s Cruise Night on Van Nuys Boulevard. Our house was two blocks from the terminus of the Cruise at the corner of Van Nuys and Victory Boulevard. I can hear the rumble of monster V8s with glasspack mufflers to this day.

The Cruise was the place to be seen in the Valley, the place to cruise chicks and showcase your ride. Horsepower was the currency of the era. The era ended, I discovered in McCloskey’s book, by the start of the 80’s. The skyrocketing price of gas, gas shortages and complaints from the business community slowly ended, “what was once the spontaneous use of the public space by so many young people.” McCloskey’s remarkable photographs froze that tradition in time.

Cruise Night was a vital part of coming of age in the fifties for me. In Phoenix we cruised Central Avenue, the main north-south ‘boulevard’ in center of the city, before parking at Bob’s Big Boy which offered carhop service. Cruising was a right of passage for a teenager in 1958. The goal was to pick up girls though in my case it ever happened. I’ll blame it my tan 1950 Ford four door sedan with a flat head six. I’m embarrassed to this day.

I will not share the specifics of Garrett’s gift because it was so extravagant and loving that it brought lump to my throat. I am fortunate to have such a smart, caring, and principled son. I can say, “I am not worthy,” and mean every word.

The significance of his gift feels like a sea change, the one in which a father and son become peers. It’s a proud moment and an odd transition at the same time. For 50 some odd years you imagine that you need to protect your kids long after they're more competent and accomplished than you are. Then at some magic moment the pendulum swings the other way and they start worrying about you and your shallow (one hopes) decline.

And while I'm bragging about Garrett and his smart, caring and principled wife Michelle let it be known that Sunday they did a rugged nine mile hike down to and back up from Skeleton Point on the South Kaibab Trail. Then they added a rim hike at Yaki Point for a total of 23,000 steps and 13 miles according to Michelle's Apple watch. She said her pulse averaged 148 on the uphill stretch of the Kaibab.

I'm almost glad they didn't invite me. I'd probably still be at Skeleton Point. That was a transitional moment, too. It was the first time in my life I wasn't sure that I could keep up with the youngsters.The first time I didn't just know that I could. That's a realization I have to examine closely. Can I or can't I do that physical act anymore?

I'll find out shortly.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

110 Degrees in the Shade

What started out as a photo excursion to Joshua Tree National Park in the heart of the Mojave Desert turned out to be the discovery and exploration of a scattering of decaying houses strewn across the Morongo Basin. These unlikely habitations are the detritus of a blighted land giveaway that was perpetrated from 1938 through the post-war years. The contrast of J-Tree, a veritable oasis, to the desiccated patch of scrub that is called Wonder Valley is as stark as the conditions the homesteaders confronted when they set foot on their piece of paradise. The winds howl, the sand sifts through porous walls and the scorching sun beat relentlessly on these latter-day pioneers.

In 1938 the Federal government established the Small Tract Act, an extension of 1862’s Homestead Act that opened huge swathes of the American West to homesteading or acquiring land for a nominal cost. This, it was believed, would encourage the development of a dubious expanse of "disposable" land.

In the case of the original Homestead Act of 1862 any adult citizen who had never borne arms against the U.S. government could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land in return for “improving” the land by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. The Small Tract Act had more modest goals. The government sought to dispose of land it deemed worthless, some of it in the parched Morongo Basin between Palm Springs and 29 Palms, California and eastward from 29 Palms on Highway 62. The Small Tract Act authorized the lease of up to 5 acres for full time or recreational use. If a small dwelling were built on the parcel, the land could then be purchased for $10 to $20 an acre. The house had to be under 400 square feet. There were abundant takers but after several years of living in the harsh Mojave Desert where temperatures routinely reach 115 degrees and without water or electricity, many homesteaders soon abandoned their dreams and left their tiny abodes to return to the earth. More than 2,000 of these rudimentary dwellings dot the forbidding landscape today.

We stood in the rubble beneath a half missing roof and listened to the wind whistle through cracks in the plywood and tarpaper walls. We walked silently through the three rooms of the 250 square foot shack where a family once lived and dreamed. I say family because there were clothes still hanging in the closet, there were a child’s doodles on the kitchen wall and a baby doll lay on the concrete slab in front of the entry. By the looks of the clothing in the closet and the age of the appliances we deduced the dwelling had been inhabited within the last five years. Who were these people? What compelled them to give up their dreams? And why didn’t they take their possessions with them? 

Houses like this one came to be known as Jackrabbit Homesteads, so named for the rabbits that found shade in the shadows cast by their walls. Much of the fraught development of these homesteads occurred in the post war years when Los Angelinos sought paradise in the bleak desert and recently discharged soldiers, sailors and Marines were drawn to the hope of home ownership on the cheap. Retired military personnel were given preferential treatment, and many rolled the dice. An significant number of women signed up for the program.

The 1944 issue of Desert Magazine referred these latter-day pioneers as “Folks with the blood of pioneers—or of poets—running strong in their veins, will regard the task as a grand adventure. I know of Los Angeles people who spent most of their weekends building a stone cabin on their claim.” I like the word ‘claim’ in the context of this land rush. The term recalls the Forty Niners of the mid-19th century.

Along California State Highway 62 and beyond the banal sprawl of Yucca Valley, the bleak Mojave spreads before you. The empty desert is punctuated by the shapes of small houses left to decay. Most of these curious dwellings that fleck the flat expanse of nothingness east of 29 Palms are situated in so-called Wonder Valley, hyperbole by any measure. The residue of the small-scale land rush is the hundreds of mysterious homesteads, mostly derelict but occasionally occupied.

Off late there has been a surge of interest in the homesteads. And the life the homesteads promised in the forties and fifties is attracting a new kind of seeker, many of them artists and other creatives craving tranquility and revival.

Exploring these abandoned dwellings is like visiting a cemetery. You find yourself communing with the spirits of those who once called this home. Some are completely empty and were left to the elements decades ago. Some of these pioneers left behind all their worldly possessions, furniture, appliances, even clothes on hangers in the closet. It’s otherworldly. Vestiges of lives lived populate these odd buildings: a chair, a sofa, a stuffed animal, and a baby doll. You wonder why someone would leave everything behind. The wind speaks through glassless windows, missing roofs and cracks in the walls. Visiting these sad monuments is faintly voyeuristic. There is quiet discomfort standing in the silence of dashed dreams.

It's eerie standing in the skeleton of something that was lived in; where meals were shared, and love was made. Resignation erased hope in this very spot. Then the laughter and anger that happened within these walls disappeared into the creeping sand of the unforgiving Mojave.

For a special few the desolation and emptiness spell freedom. That which is ugly to most imparts the worn beauty of loss and abandonment to others. The new seekers fill the gaping void.  

One struggles to understand the dreams, the failure, and the loss. It’s sobering yet oddly freeing. You imagine a simplified existence with aloneness as your partner. There’s a raw history that permeates Wonder Valley. These skeletal remains continue to be reclaimed by an intrepid few.

The abandoned Jackrabbit Homesteads are forbidding on some level. There’s low-level fear and a palpable creep factor. What if this wreck isn’t empty?

Not everybody appreciates the unfinished stories of the Jackrabbit Homesteads. To some the abandoned relics sully the landscape. To these residents the ramshackle hulks are a blight that needs to be erased. There’s a grassroots effort to demolish the fallow cabins. The program has already raised $500,000 through a government grant to raze the empty homesteads. Already the owners of 113 of the 145 targeted shacks have agreed to tear them down on their own. The goal is to remove all the empty cabins within 18 months. The objective according to one of the organizers of the effort is “to give the impression that the place is clean.”

And so, like all things, the photographic inspiration provided by the Jackrabbit Homesteads may have vanished by the time you read this story. The silent message is that when you see a subject worth photographing and a story worth telling, do it then. It may not be there the next time you visit. Time waits for absolutely nobody.

This is a lightly edited version of my next article in Shadow and Light magazine.