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February 26, 2024

Out to Slab City

By Pete Armetta

Joel stood in the aisle of the thrift shop looking at the bric-a-brac on the shelves, but had no plans to buy anything. He wasn't able to stomach his situation any longer, and coming here was part of his action plan. His argument last night with Catherine was the last straw. Why won't she believe that this time he means it? He's going with or without her.

Out to Slab City.

He saw the sign in the back of the store indicating customer service and followed it to a counter and queue. He stood in line, not sure if he was just wasting time. He didn't have much at home -- most of the house was furnished by Catherine. But he did have that nice sectional downstairs. And the big-screen TV, that oughta fetch a bundle. Oh, and the historic Civil War photos, they're worth something, though maybe not to these people.

Joel couldn't believe at age forty, his life was taking this turn.

"Next!" the portly and jolly-looking woman said behind the counter.

Joel stepped up. "Do you folks buy furniture?"

"Yes sir, we do. Bring it to the store and drive around back and we'll send the guy out to give you a price. Whaddya have?"

"Oh that's good. Can you come to my house? It's a lot of stuff,"

"Whaddya have?"

"I have a sectional sofa, a couple of floor lamps, two end tables, a big screen TV and some civil war memorabilia. It's all in good condition and I'm trying to empty the place out quick. Oh, and a car," he smiled. "I don't think you take that, but maybe you know someone who does?"

"Well, not the car, ha ha," she laughed, "but the rest sounds like something he'd wanna see. Are you moving?"

"Yes I am. Out to Slab City."

"Out to where?"

The idea of Slab City came to Joel from a story on NPR about "victims" of the great recession. Joel never considered himself a victim, but in the past two years his circumstances had dramatically changed. Losing his job had put a severe strain on his marriage, and the food stamps for Christ's sake and pending foreclosure had taken their toll. Joel was shell-shocked. He felt rejected by his family and friends, who showed no interest or empathy. And the drinking again, that wasn't doing him a hill of beans of good. Why do people only value you if you have money? All these years Joel did better than many, he'd made it. But he sacrificed his health and his dreams, too, all to keep a roof overhead. He was spent. The idealism of Slab City was calling. Especially now that he finally gave up on trying to recoup it all.

The timing was right.

Slab City is an abandoned military base located in the southeastern California desert. All that's left of the base are the concrete slabs from the former structures, hence the name. Years ago it became a free RV park of sorts, and historically has attracted all kinds of misfits -- hitchhikers and nomads -- romantics and idealists -- and certainly those with nowhere to go. All are welcome. Snowbirds come down during northern winters to escape the cold weather and rat race, and the population swells to well over its two-hundred give or take year-round residents. It's a community and town in its own right, with an alternative culture, though distinctly American. Many who wind up in Slab City have endured financial hardship to the point of leaving mainstream society. Just like Joel. These folks felt the only choice was to drop out and live by their wits. The place has a reputation for being unsafe and dirty, with trash strewn, and no running water or electricity. Some permanent residents have more permanent camps with generators and solar panels to exploit the relentless and over-the-top heat.

Nothin' your momma'd have any interest in.

The portly but jolly woman came back to the counter saying "Mr. Anderson can come tomorrow around two. Is that okay?" Joel nodded yes and they finalized arrangements.

It was a sunny and pretty day, warm for winter, in the mid-fifties. Joel got in the car and opened the sun roof and drove down the tree-lined streets of this suburbia, taking in the neatness and redundancy of the cookie-cutter houses. It reminded him of his lack of any more interest in anything conventional. He was glad and motivated to put things behind him. He was sad Catherine had given up on their ever returning to his glory days.

And sad he had to break with her now.

Catherine took the day off to welcome Mother, who'd be arriving that evening. When he walked in the front door and into the kitchen, she had the radio tuned to that seventies music she still loved. The mood bustled. Catherine was cooking and in a flurry of activity, and he saw she had even laid out the best china.

"Did you get the prescriptions?"

"Oh, sorry, I forgot." He watched her wiz around.

"Geez Joel, well where were you then? You've been gone a while. Mother's bringing Jimmy and Jenny and they'll most likely spend the night. We have to get ready."

"Catherine, we need to talk," Joel said, seriously and somberly.

"Joel not now, not today, what is it? I'm too busy. Besides, I don't want to talk about that again." Her impatience was obvious. Joel thought she'd be used to their daily wrangling by now. "You're not gonna start with all that foolish talk about Slab City, are you Joel? It's ridiculous I told you. You're living in a fantasy world."

Joel looked at his shoes, then into her eyes. He walked closer and tentatively put his hands on her shoulders. "The Salvation Army's coming tomorrow. I'm selling all my stuff. I'm going."

"Come on, stop with that talk. I told you I'm staying," her voice rising. "There's no other way, Joel. My mother's coming and I'm not going out to Slab City!"

"Catherine, keep the car. Or sell it, I don't care. We can split it, whatever you want. I don't need it anymore."

Catherine turned to the pot of boiling water on the stove, now overflowing. She let out a long sigh and Joel knew what was next. Anger. She jerked the pot off and yelled at no one in particular, "See what you made me do?"

"Catherine, there's no use in me trying anymore. I'll be gone by the weekend. I'm going out to Slab City."

Article © Pete Armetta. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-11-11
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