John Steinbeck would have loved Slab City.
It wasn’t on his route. It’s rarely on anybody’s. But on an abandoned military base in the desert of southeastern California, there are some highly colorful characters among the snowbirds and squatters who call it home, for now.
Dubbed “the last free place,” Slab City is a collection of loners, losers and lovers, of the freewheeling and the freeloading, of people on the run or simply on vacation, of vagabonds and vagrants, of the rebellious and the rebounding, of dreamers and drifters.
It is full of tumbleweeds — and many of them are human.
Steinbeck — between his compassion for the destitute, his distaste for bureaucracy, his sense of social justice and his love of a good story — would have found the barren desert fertile ground.
Here’s how another author, Jon Krakauer, described it in his book, “Into the Wild:”
“The Slabs functions as the seasonal capital of a teeming itinerant society — a tolerant, rubber-tired culture comprising the retired, the exiled, the destitute, the perpetually unemployed. Its constituents are men and women and children of all ages, folks on the dodge from collection agencies, relationships gone sour, the law or the IRS, Ohio winters, the middle-class grind.”
There was no teeming when Ace and I rolled through on Thanksgiving; likely, most residents were inside enjoying the same big dinners people in real houses have. We spent most of our time — after driving around the community of RV’s, campers, trailers and live-in school buses — trying to coax what appeared to be an abandoned Chihuahua, laying on a huge pile of help-yourself clothing, into taking a treat.
Slab City is named after the concrete slabs and pylons that remain from the days that the land was part of a World War II Marine barracks, called Camp Dunlap. After it shut down, some servicemen remained, and others — seeing it as a place where one could both be free and live free — arrived.
It’s estimated that several thousand campers use the site during the winter months. Several hundred people live there year-round — tolerating the brutally hot summers in exchange for free rent. There is no charge to park a rolling home in Slab City. There’s also no electricity, no running water and no toilets, portable or otherwise.
To Imperial County, and the state of California, it has been a thorn in the side, but at the same time — because of the tourists it and neighboring Salvation Mountain attract — it contributes to the economy of surrounding towns.
At one point, the state considered turning it into an official state camping area, and charging fees, but because it includes Salvation Mountain — one man’s unauthorized monument to God — that was seen as too much of a link between church and state.
Instead, the county and state seem to be taking a hands-off approach — not kicking anybody off the land, but not going so far as to supply even portable toilets.
Meanwhile, Slab City has managed to cement itself into American culture.
In addition to appearing in the book and subsequent movie, “Into the Wild,” Slab City served as a setting for one of Sue Grafton’s mystery novels, “G is for Gumshoe.” The Shooter Jennings music video, ”Fourth of July,” was partially shot there, and British photographer Leon Diaper focused on it for his documentary series, ”The Last Free Place.”
At the same time, it has evolved into a community, with its own social organizations — people that get together in real life, as opposed to on the internet. It’s not all peace and harmony. Conflicts arise between the year-round permanent residents, and those just passing through, especially those passer-throughers prone to leaving their garbage behind.
Some think it needs more rules; others say that’s the sort of thing — like taxes and rent and police — that they came there to get away from.
It’s a fascinating little social experiment — every bit as unplanned as the formation of the nearby Salton Sea, and every bit as impromptu as Salvation Mountain, which we’ll tell you about tomorrow.
Posted by John Woestendiek November 28th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: america, animals, california, camp dunlap, campers, campground, community, dogs, free, into the wild, john steinbeck, jon krakauer, military base, pets, popular culture, road trip, rv, salton sea, salvation mountain, slab city, the last free place, trailers, travel, traveling with dogs, travels with ace, travels with charley, unauthorized
PETA is pulling a fur-free ad campaign that used the likeness of first lady Michelle Obama without her permission.
PETA said it used photos of Michelle Obama in an anti-fur campaign because the first lady does not wear fur. But they never received authorization to use her image.
Michael McGraw, a PETA spokesman, told the Associated Press they pulled the ad, which also featured Oprah Winfrey, Carrie Underwood and Tyra Banks, “to show good faith.”
At the same time, PETA is urging the White House to take a stand against another unauthorized use of the First Family’s name — the debut last week of the Ringling Bros. circus’ newest performing elephant, “Baby Barack.” In a letter Tuesday to the president, PETA President Ingrid Newkirk urged the White House to demand a name change for Baby Barack.
Baby Barack made his debut last week in Tampa.
The White House has said it does not condone the use of the first family’s name or images for commercial purposes. Last week, the Weatherproof outerwear company agreed to pull an ad campaign built around a photo of Obama at the Great Wall of China in which he appeared to be wearing a jacket made by the company.
Posted by John Woestendiek January 13th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ad, advertising, baby barack, barack obama, campaign, carrie underwood, circus, elephant, fur, fur-free, image, jacket, likeness, michelle obama, oprah winfrey, permission, peta, president, pulled, ringling bros, ringling brothers, tyra banks, unauthorized, weatherproof, white house
My outlaw art exhibit, a scheme dreamed up in a bar two months ago, came to its last-minute but highly successful fruition, in that same bar, last night.
Here’s the story. Two guys own a bar on Fort Avenue in Baltimore. Long ago it was called the End Zone. When they bought it five or so years ago, they reopened it as the Idle Hour, a more upscale — but not annoyingly so — establishment. I passed by it everyday on my way to the park, and the owners became friends with my dog Ace. I became a semi-regular customer.
As a semi-regular customer, I, like a lot of other customers, noticed that a man often appeared in a window across the street — staring out, often for long periods of time, from his second-floor room above what was until recently a hardware store.
While nobody knew much about the man — commonly referred to as The Window Guy — he became, among customers, an instant legend, and a source of intrigue. His frequent appearances at his window led customers, who could see him through the Idle Hour’s front window, to start speculating — both on what he was up to and what his story was.
Often, he’d appear in his T-shirt or no shirt at all. While a lot of upscale establishments might be mortified and embarassed by such a spectacle, in full view of their customers, the owners of the tavern, though part of the gentrification that has and continues to take place in the neighborhood, took it in stride. As they’d shown by giving the bar, which had been through several incarnations, its original name back, they’re they types that have some appreciation for the neighborhood’s history, for its traditions, and for the curious mix of textures — from polyester to silk, from knit Izod to “wifebeater” T – that is south Baltimore
They also have an appreciation for art, and every month or so they feature the work of a new artist on their nail-hole riddled, wood-paneled walls.
How cool would it be, I thought to myself, and then shared with a select few others, to sneak in an exhibit, without the owners’ knowledge, in which every picture on every wall was one of The Window Guy?
For the next couple of months, I took my camera with me, and surreptitiously photographed the Window Guy when he was at his window, and out on the street. Conspiring with the bartending staff, I learned there would be a lull between exhibits — Lindsay Petrick was taking her work down, and agreed to do so a couple of days early, leaving a small window of opportunity until Jes Contro puts her art up.
On Friday, while the owners were out, I put up more than 30 framed photographs of The Window Guy, managing to get them up in an hour thanks to help from some friends — particularly the Baltimore Sun’s Sam Sessa , who I’d invited to see the exhibit but instead ended up hanging much of it, and Beau Seidel, who earlier Friday helped build the set for Bruce Springsteen’s concert.
As a practical joke, it went off without a hitch. Both owners walked in to see the previously bare walls covered with Window Guy art. While I was a little worried about how they might react to the unauthorized exhibit, both seemed to get a good laugh out of it. More surprisingly yet, it was a major hit, with about a third of the photos being sold on opening night — almost enough to recoup my investment.
One person even called it “very post modern,” which, since I’m not sure what that is, I will take as a compliment.
The exhibit is entitled “John: The Man in the Window.” Other than knowing his first name, I intentionally didn’t research John’s background, or talk to him, because the exhibit was more about mystery, speculations and assumptions than about the reality. But I’m thinking the reality — learning about the man behind the enigma — might make for a good sequel.
Though I intended it as a one-night-only exhibit, the owners decided they will keep it up for a few more days — so feel free to drop by and see it. Chances are, while looking at the photos of The Window Guy, you’ll see the actual Window Guy as well, who, at this point, isn’t aware that there is an exhibit hanging in tribute to him across the street.
The Idle Hour is located at 201 E. Fort Ave.
Posted by John Woestendiek November 21st, 2009 under Muttsblog.
Tags: art, baltimore, bar, beau seidel, bruce springsteen, exhibit, fort avenue, guerrilla, idle hour, imagination, jes contro, john, john woestendiek, lindsay petrick, mystery, photography, photos, sam sessa, south baltimore, speculation, the man in the window, unauthorized, window, window guy