I return to Laughlin like a doomed salmon – driven by compulsion more than anticipation – and first thing the San Diego Freeway is impossible. Again. It takes me five minutes to go a mile. And as I roll past the fender bender a soft rain begins to fall.
No, that last sentence is all lies. In the first place the cars are made of plastic so nothing is bent. Both cars look like broken toys. And there are no gentle rains on a motorcycle on the freeway. By the time I get to Irwindale, near the end of the 605, the bits of gravel and the drops that sting my face lose rhythm and I get soaked. I grimly push onto the 210 and then the 15. Climbing the Cajon Pass, just as I cross the San Andreas trench, I overtake a couple on a pair of bikes. She on her Sportster is leading him. Her face is hidden by her Darth Vader helmet but I can see that she is little, thin and all fringe. Her jacket and chaps are fringed. Her seat and saddlebags are trimmed with fringe. She looks like a cloud of locusts.
And, that finally makes me smile.
The sun is almost shining in Ludlow, 190 miles from the coast. The Chevron “satellite is down” so I can’t pay at the pump. I have to strip off my helmet, pull out my earplugs, go inside, wait in line, leave a credit card, pump my fuel, go back inside, stand in another line and pretend to be a nice man while the clerk learns how to do his damn job. He is a slow learner and I am no longer smiling. I am almost back on the interstate when I remember I left my earplugs in my hat. Then while I look for them a guy about my age checks on me, nods politely and guns it. My earplugs are gone. I have spares.
I have been chained to the left coast. I haven’t been this far east in 18 months. It was a dismal year and a half and the worst of it started right here so I’m eager to split from this stinking gas stop. I twist my right hand and leave my ghosts behind. I have been outrunning ghosts most of my life. I gradually creep up to a buck and don’t look back.
After I pass a little pack of Carnales, I spy the guy who nodded to me on the ramp. He is riding a dresser and I haven’t seen a cop yet but after I pass him I slow down to match my speed to his. I assume most dressers are equipped with radar detectors. I don’t know positively because I have never owned a dresser but I know they have fairings, windshields, floor boards, highway bars, cup holders, radios and GPS receivers so why wouldn’t they have radar detectors? I assume they also have toasters.
This is the most boring stretch of desert I know and my dresser companion and I cover the last 90 miles to Needles in an hour. Then he goes to the Mobil and I go to the Chevron and we never see each other again. I pay $5.09 a gallon and the Chevron satellite is still down. Somewhere, back there with my ghosts, the shoulder strap for my T-Bag is keeping my earplugs company.
The Moet Of Tap Water
There is a line to check in to the Aquarius. Las Vegas tap water costs four bucks for two bottles. I stand in line to pay for my bottle.
“Two bucks, right?”
“Two-fifty,” the woman replies.
“It says two bottles for four.”
“You have one bottle. That’s two-fifty.”
I’m thirsty and hungry. The Burger King is gone. I stand in line for Subway. The sandwich associate or Sandinista or whatever Subway calls its entry level employees makes a show of putting on clear plastic gloves before he begins to prepare my meal. I am guessing he has seen a training video. Then after he runs out provolone he goes into the back room for more. Then he goes back to my sandwich without changing gloves.
“That’s a sterile doorknob, right?”
“Never mind.” I am too hungry to complain.
I study the dark clouds from my window. “Oh yeah. This is going to be lots of fun.” Then it starts to rain.
I turn on the TV. Southern Nevada is the motherland of personal injury lawyers. “Were you injured on the job?” “Were you involved in an auto accident?” “Don’t talk to your insurance company before you talk to us!” “Let us fight for you!” “Pay nothing until we settle your case!” The economy here is based on gambling, usury, bankruptcy, foreclosure, credit counseling and personal injury lawsuits. I am simple minded so I want to blow up this economic engine and start over. I think the federal government should just print more money. Inflation would wipe out everybody’s debts and make everybody’s personal property worth more. Half-baked notions like that are one of several reasons why I am not shouting on television in a $2,000 suit.
The Run attendance looks off to me. The television corrects what my eyes see. This happens frequently to me. Thank you TV. River Run amounts to 10 percent of the Laughlin economy, I learn. And this year official registrations are 40 percent higher than they were last year. So everything is great. I never register for this run. I don’t know who does but I suspect many of the people who register are new.
I pull out a notebook and start to scribble. I try to think of something to write about this place that I haven’t written before.
Sunshine and Laws And Riots
The sun comes out that afternoon. The parking lots begin to fill and I vow to make a new, improved and more cheerful start. Every couple of car lengths I see the same sign that announces the prohibition of “the following behaviors, in accordance with the law…. Clark County Ordinance NRS 210.210 Open or Gross Lewdness. Ordinance NRS 201.220 Indecent or Obscene Exposure. No colors, weapons or chemical agents allowed on property and grounds. No Glass or Aluminum Containers on Casino Drive.” Even the dismal shopping mall across the street is flashing “No Colors” on its big television sign.
I wonder what it is that has all the authorities so scared.
The obvious answer, the standard journalistic answer, is that there have been two casino shootouts that divided along club lines in Nevada in the last ten years. Two in ten years. A decade ago the Hells Angels and the Mongols got into a deadly confrontation in Harrah’s at the other end of the Drive. Six months ago, Vagos and Angels fought in a casino at the opposite end of the state. Both fights were tragedies and both have been cynically exploited by cops and prosecutors. The casinos also have to protect themselves from opportunists who see the lawyers who promise instant riches on TV.
And, this weekend is the 20th anniversary of the riots in LA which were not so much about race as they were about freedom from police, freedom from exploitation and freedom from the law. Those so called race riots in April 1992 have haunted every biker event since. In South Central the cops turned and ran because they were outnumbered. The police were shamed and pride has led them to pander to the worst fears of the timid and the weak. It is remotely possible that the sort of people who come to Laughlin for River Run might actually take over this little city, drink all the beer then head north to take over Vegas like the Lord Humungous’ motorcycle and dune buggy horde in Mad Max 2 The Road Warrior. The police, as everyone knows, believe this is inevitable unless they get more toys and a raise.
Of course all good Americans are willing to give up a few minor freedoms just as long as the police promise to keep us safe. Unlike what they did at the corner of Florence and Normandie two decades ago in South Central LA.
What Laughlin Means
What gathers in Laughlin – and Sturgis, Reno, Daytona and Laconia – every year is a convention of postmodern conservatives. This new conservatism has very little to do with politics and it is different from the standard definitions of conservative or liberal or red or blue. To steal a phrase from Canadian journalist and sometime Republican speech writer David Frum, this is conservatism as “an alienated cultural sensibility” rather than a political philosophy. Outsiders may not understand this alienation and the alternative set of rules it inevitably creates.
The motorcycle outlaw world, as evidenced by the extent to which it has been exploited by cable television, is becoming an important social phenomenon. The few sociologists and anthropologists who have studied this blossoming of Americana usually describe what they see as either a “counterculture,” like the hippies, or as “saloon society” like the heartless world Stephen Crane described in his early novels.
It seems to me now that everyone here is at one with the Hells Angels, Mongols and Vagos and all these civilians differ from patch holders only in the extent of their commitment to this alienated identity. They did not join. So their lives did not spin off in radical new directions. So they may not quite belong. But they are here.
Most of them, like the increasingly influential and important Kurt Sutter, continue to wonder “what if.” Everyone here is an admirer of the clubs that fought in this state and the Pagans, Outlaws, Sons, Warlocks and the Sons of Anarchy simultaneously. And they represent a revolt against both liberals who try to shove their idealism down other people’s throats and conservatives who still think that what is good for Chevron is good for America. Everyone here looks at the current state of the nation and of their own lives and wonders what if.
Laughlin, like FX, is one of those places where this national longing becomes a commodity.
Maybe tomorrow the wind will let up.
“riverrun,” spelled just like that, is the opening word of James Joyce’s widely praised, rarely read Finnegan’s Wake. It is a story – if it can be called a story – of death and resurrection, “gracehopers” and “ondts,” drunkenness and sobriety and it is based on a 19th Century, saloon society song. “A gentle Irishman mighty odd” named Tim Finnegan dies and is resurrected at his wake through the magical power of whiskey.
Mickey Maloney ducked his head
when a bucket of whiskey flew at him
It missed, and falling on the bed,
the liquor scattered over Tim.
Now the spirits new life gave the corpse, my joy!
Tim jumped like a Trojan from the bed,
Cryin “will ye walup each girl and boy,
t’underin’ Jaysus, do ye think I’m dead?”
I get stuck on the notion that America is now Tim Finnegan and events like Laughlin are the whiskey.
Also, it is noon and I am a little drunk and sleepy.
This River Run, like Finnegan’s wake, is a reunion and an adventure. And because Laughlin must sustain itself it is also a rip off. Weary of friendly slots and tap water that costs $10 a gallon, I wander off into the great flea market that truly defines this event.
Examples of outlaw iconography are everywhere. There must be as many pastel work shirts in Laughlin as there are stars in the desert night. They all have their sleeves ripped off and the shoulder seams are perfectly frayed. They are an obvious homage to American Chopper’s Paul Teutul Sr. who is a biker that corporate and police and personal injury America can all understand. The back of one of these shirts brags “Talk Shit, Spit Blood.” Clearly, there is now a marketing niche comprising Americans who are tired of taking shit and who want to punch somebody in the mouth. Mainstream journalism may not be ready to acknowledge this yet but Kurt Sutter clearly gets it.
Many of the souvenir shirts have a familiar pattern made of a top rocker, a bottom rocker and a patch that advertises Laughlin, which for at least one weekend a month is Nevada’s top bitch money maker. The shirts that imitate three piece patches are perfectly acceptable here. Only the real patches are illegal. Only authenticity is outlawed.
I think this event, which requires the marshalling of an army of police lest the partiers take over the party, strikes me as the grandchild of spring break in Palm Springs or Fort Lauderdale in 1960 – as outlaw motorcycle clubs are the adored grandchildren of 1950s juvenile delinquency. So I look for Troy Donohue with Sandra Dee on the back of his Ironhead. I hunt for Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. But all I find are poorly disguised undercover cops. “Hey! You! Smile officer!”
I settle onto a stool in an outdoor bar festooned with brassieres. It is called the “If You Love America You Will love This Bar.” I have been drinking again so I can’t decide if something of national importance is happening here or if this is just another imitation of West Hollywood on Halloween night. Or for that matter if the evolution of Halloween in West Hollywood is something important.
As is always the case at every biker event, nobody has ever heard of Rebel or his stinking web site so nobody will bribe me for publicity. So I have to give the publicity away for free. Daryl at the Jerky Jerks booth will not give me a free pound of jerky. The Jack Daniels booth still insists on charging me $4 for a shot of Jack, fifty cents more for Gentleman Jack and $4.75 for a shot of the stuff from the oldest barrels. I loudly announce that I don’t always drink bourbon but when I do I prefer Rebel Yell.
I tarry at the booth that sells fully assembled Sons of Anarchy cuts. It is called Lil Joe’s Legendary Leathers. I ask the owner, whose name is actually Mike, if he has sold a lot of these things. He says he has and that he mostly sells “to collectors.” That reminds me of the ghouls who bought Apache and Navajo artifacts around 1910. I imagine a scene from Antiques Roadshow in the year 2115 when a bio-hybrid who looks like a frog will patiently explain to an old, human woman that the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club was actually a television show. So the artifact her great-grandfather passed down as an heirloom wasn’t really associated with actual outlaws. But, “at auction” he would still expect a “cut like this in excellent condition” to bring $3 million.
Mike wants to sell me a vest. He explains that his company makes most of the prop vests for the television show. “Most of the guys like this one” he tells me as if he is confiding inside information. I really want a motorcycle jacket made of ostrich leather with rattlesnake skin accents but Mike doesn’t have one of those in stock. I want to kill and skin the snake myself anyway. And, he also has never heard of Rebel or his web site.
Every day I see many small children and it dawns on me that they are not tagging along after their parents. They have begged their parents to bring them here. “Just a little longer,” a boy sitting on the sidewalk drinking a bottle of water asks either his mother or his very mature girlfriend. Many of these kids are seven or eight, which is about the time some social psychologists think children make their “early decision” about what their destiny will be. So if I understand that idea correctly this weekend some percentage of little kids will look at all this, at me, and think, “Wow! That’s what I want to be when I grow up!”
A woman at a booth advertising Las Vegas Bikefest makes me spin a cardboard keno wheel and hands me a key ring. Another woman hands me a plastic document case with an advertisement for a personal injury lawyer on the front.
In places like Laughlin I tend to wear biker witty tee-shirts: Which is to say bikers find them witty and most people find them offensive. One day I wear a shirt with a drawing of a voluptuous stripper hanging on a pole over a caption that reads “I Support Single Mothers.” Another day I wear a shirt with a drawing of a skeleton riding a chopper through the desert over a caption that explains “It’s A Dry Heat.” And, for days on end I wonder why people keep staring at me.
During one elevator ride I actually ask a guy, “What’s your problem?”
He mumbles, “no problem,” pushes a button and gets off at the next floor. A couple of floors later I think I may have actually just given this guy the only thing I have to give away – a story. Or maybe I have just embarrassed the poor man.
“Fine thanks and you” I tell a cop who stares at me as I walk across a casino floor. I am wearing the stripper shirt. The cop seems unable to decide if my shirt is gang related and if so how. It is a black shirt with a white drawing and white lettering. He stares as if he is calculating the odds that my shirt indicates I am a high-ranking Mongols pimp. Or possibly an Iron Order pimp. In which case I would be okay.
I hear the constant growl of Harley-Davidson motorcycles in my room on the 15th floor. The randomly modulated rumbling soothes me. But down on the sixth floor the growls might even be painful.
About nine I get stoned and shuffle out to see if Casino Drive is jumping. It is not. The kids are gone. The pedestrian traffic is worse than the traffic in the street. It is the slowest River Run Saturday night I have ever seen.
I keep getting stuck behind waddling fat people with sore feet. One fat guy is wearing an olive drab tee-shirt that proclaims “Get Army Qualified. Never Give Up. Bless The Army.” I am as patriotic as the next guy but I have to stifle the urge to tap him on the shoulder and tell him his shirt is wrong. The way I learned it was “Fuck the Army.”
I am wearing my Dry Heat tee shirt. A little woman stares at me. Her eyes grow wide. I try to get out of her way but she still manages to plant her right breast right in my chest. Her companion seems not to mind. A minute later I decide that she was trying to find out if my shirt is, in fact, hot and dry.
I spot a middle aged woman wearing a pair of jeans that have a pattern of perfect, horizontal rips up both thighs. She is obviously pleading for some manly man to rip her out of those pants and save her from her life of faked orgasms. I spot several young Conans, men in their 20s wearing tank tops and Fabio’s hair. Half of them are with women who look like amazons and the others are with clones of the young Barbie. I see a girl in a dress who looks like she is 15 and a happy woman in a shirt that summarizes her personal philosophy as “Show Up! Raise Hell! Leave!”
There are packs of sloppy drunk women. One in skin tight jeans and carrying a toy guitar cannot find the elevator button for her floor. A blond with a granite face wraps her hands around an invisible Kalashnikov and pretends to wipe out everyone she sees. “BAP-BAP-BAP-BAP” floats out of her stone cold grin. “BAP-BAP” she chatters at me. Then she aims deliberately and finishes me off. “BAP!”
Maybe I will think of something to write next time.