David Stuart MacLean

GOLDEN FRIENDSHIP CLUB

 

THE GOLDEN FRIENDSHIP CLUB is advertised in the back pages of newspapers, among the discrete escorts, the amazing hair loss supplements, and the miracle weight loss pills. The Golden Friendship Club is an exciting adventure/opportunity (adventunity?) for people who might have hit a hard patch in making friends. Making friends is hard. It’s not like college. No. You move to a city as an adult and find that making friends is impossible. The Golden Friendship Club only accepts the highest calibre of people. The creme de la creme de la creme as it might be but that doesn’t mean anyone is putting on airs. No. There won’t be a more down to earth sincere group of people you’ll ever meet in in your life. The members of the Golden Friendship club are laid back and are interested in chilling out and being real. Isn’t that the hardest thing about finding friends in the city, people who are real? The Golden Friendship Club only meets at the swankiest, hippest joints in town. On your commute, you see the free newspapers and they rave about the hottest new bar? The one you've never heard of. And there's that moment where you realize that there is a second world going on concurrently with your own. And that other world is filled with hot bars and korean tapas fusion food trucks that you track with a secret twitter hashtag, while your world is this commute on the elevated train where you feel lucky to get one of the single forward­facing seats because facing backwards makes you nauseous, sitting next to people makes you feel anxious, and standing is out of the question given the state of your lower back. The places the Golden Friendship Club meets at? Well, we get there two weeks before the reporter does.

The Golden Friendship Club has an extensive wait­list but it’s going to waived this week only. The boss told us to do it. The boss wants to make sure that the Golden Friendship Club isn’t filled up with a bunch of scenester phonies. The boss only wants real people, sincere people, people looking for a real connection, people looking to chill. So not only can you side step the wait­list but this week the Golden Friendship Club is halving our application fee. At this rate, the GFC is never going to make money. But this is where the boss stops and reminds us that the Golden Friendship Club isn’t about making money, it’s about making friends. And making friends is the only kind of industry he ever wants to be a part of. The Golden Friendship Club is his factory and his factory makes friends. He’s Henry Ford, he’s Elon Musk. He’s totally fictional. The Golden Friendship Club is a scam. As is everything in the back pages of the free newspapers. Your hair won't grow back, you'll stay fat, and escorts are never discreet.

“You know what they need to have is microwaves on planes,” he says as he turns his ball cap around backwards. The hat sports a retro version of the Lakers logo, a basketball team on a baseball hat designed to look frayed fresh from of the box. 

“Do we have to pay for this?” she answers flipping through the channels on the seatback tv. She yanks a gauzy parti­colored scarf from her purse and blows her nose into it.No one is more famous then the people I sit next to on planes. I don’t talk to the people I sit next to. I monitor them. Like I’m Dian Fossey.

These two: both youngish and good lookingish. Man and woman both in shorts, tank tops, and flip flops, dressed more for the beach than for a flight. Both toting grease­creased bags of fast food, bags which emit humid meaty smells even before they’re opened.

He’s short and muscularly built; he carries himself in a way that the muscles clearly have a causal relationship to his height. He’s red­headed and perpetually flushed, giving the impression that he’s furious at all times.

She’s in that beachy Stevie Nicks slot. Blond highlights in her long brown hair. Bra, camisole, something else: she’s got so many straps on her shoulders I’m reminded of the nest of cables behind my parent’s tv. It must take her half the night to disconnect them all.

When they sit down in the seats they unpack immediately. Reams of stuff emerge ­ magazines, neck pillows, pill bottles, phones, ipods, headphones, sweatshirts, eyedrops, hand cream, antibacterial gel, glasses ­ and secreted in the front seatback pocket, draped across their laps, and stuffed into their laps. They encamp like pioneers, the aisle laden heavy with their necessaries.

I’m not going to get to the bathroom on this 11 pm flight from Chicago to LAX.

The writer Nathanael West said that people travel to California to die. That once life’s possibilities back home had become exhausted, the promise of orange trees and the prospect of being fame­adjacent lured them from the mid­west. But then a person gets to the very edge of the country, finds the orange juice cloying, the celebrities disappointing and short. The person then stares out at the wide expanse of the ocean: an incomprehensible amount of undrinkable water. And then these late pioneers just wait to die, finding any possible titillating distraction they can as they wait.

I’m going to California to see where Nathanael West died.

The rental car line is a long scar of boredom. It’s an hour of slow shuffling before I’m waved to Betty’s station. Betty is famous to me. More famous than that couple on the flight, who I’ve now forgotten completely. Betty is upset that the coffee she just drank did nothing for her and that it’s going to be a while before someone brews another pot. In five seconds at her station, I know all of this about the coffee and Betty and she hasn’t even asked me for my name. She talks to the people behind her, flirting with the men who run in and out with the keys. Betty is bad at her job, which isn’t a sin. She’s vaguely proud of how bad she is at her job. I am an annoyance to her. But there are so many other annoyances piled up in the line behind me there’s no real motivation for her to get me on the road. There’s a little smile tucked behind her disdain, like she’s draining pleasure out of the minutes she can squeeze out of my day. It’s power. All of the cars that my reservation fits don’t exist at this Avis. Betty is upset that I don’t want to upgrade to the manager’s special. We stand off for forty­five minutes, before she decides she can give me a Mazda at the promised rate.

Nathanael West is my favorite writer. He wrote four novels, two of which aren’t very good. The other two are so good that they scare me. He’s acerbic and unsentimental and I started reading him when I was sentimental about exactly those attributes. He was also young , brilliant, and wildly unsuccessful, about which I am still sentimental.

After a life of inconsequential affairs, trips to whorehouses, and trips to the doctor to remedy his STDs, he got married at 37 to a woman more famous than he was. Her sister had written an Broadway play. The play was called My Sister Eileen. West married Eileen. She had a son ­ a five year old named Tommy ­ from a previous marriage. West had a wife and child. In a snap, his youth was over.

I’m driving east through Palm Springs and Desert Springs – the great brown boulder landscape of lower California. I realize too late that I’m doing it wrong. That I should’ve taken the ocean route to El Centro and the lake route up 80 back. If I wanted to really recreate West’s last trip, that’s what I should have done. But I’m tired and it’s hot and I’m a little afraid of the land that I’m traveling through. It’s all giant rocks and then flat desert. I am in danger of either dehydrating or being smooshed.

Vijay runs the hotel I’m staying at. He gives me a room on the second floor. It’s the kind of place where every room opens out onto the parking lot. The kind of place I assume is for people looking to cook meth with a minimum of hassle. Outside pushing the maid cart is an Indian woman who stabs glances at the front office. Her stares identify her as Vijay’s wife. She cleans the rooms, he sits in the office. Her stare also states that she is not happy about this arrangement.

Vijay asks me what business brings me to town. The framing of the question is important. It must be business that has brought me, the question says because no one comes to El Centro for pleasure.

I tell him I’m here because of a writer who died nearby.

“Did he die recently?” Vijay asks.

“No. In 1940. December 22nd. His wife died too.” But not his dog, Julie, I keep myself from telling him. His dog survived the accident and eye­witness accounts say that after the accident Julie kept trying to jump back into West’s crumpled station wagon.

“Is this for a movie?” he asks, sliding me my keycard.

“He wrote for the movies. Nothing anybody would know though.”

“He lived here?”

“No. He ran a stop sign over at the intersection of 80 and 111. He was coming up from Calexico.” I trail off. Both he and I realize how dumb it is for me to be here. A writer mostly no one has heard of ran a stop sign and died over seventy years ago. This town just happened to be the town he was passing through when he died.

Vijay passes me the credit slip to sign.

Nathanael West clipped the front of a white Pontiac travelling east, spinning his station wagon. The people in the Pontiac were injured but lived. West had been down in Calexico and Mexicali on a hunting trip. He’d been married a month. He was 37. His wife, Eileen McKenney, was 26.

West was not famous, but he was friends with people who were. Writers mostly. Just the week before he’d had Dorothy Parker, Sheilah Graham the gossip columnist, and her live­in boyfriend F. Scott Fitzgerald over to his new house. When West had been a hotel clerk in NYC, he’d spotted a free room to Dashiell Hammett for a few weeks. He’d even started a magazine once with William Carlos Williams. West was lousy with literary connections, but of any tangible literary success he was innocent. His four books combined hadn’t made much over three thousand dollars for him.

Before he died, he had been doing work with Columbia and RKO pictures and was making the best money of his life. His last novel The Day of the Locust had been a flop, but all of his novels were flops. One of his books had had a print run of three thousand. Two thousand were remaindered and pulped.

Failure didn’t stop him. He was working on a new novel that he had sold on proposal to Random House. He, McKenney, and Tommy moved into a house in North Hollywood.

I have a new baby. She is six months old. I don’t teach in the summer. I’ve been taking care of her. It was wonderful in May. But now it’s August. I need to get away from her. Nothing has consumed my life in the way that she has. I haven’t been to a movie in months. I get angry at stores for not being open at 7 am, seeing how I’ve already been up for two hours. I go to the grocery store and don’t recognize any of the celebrities smiling on the tabloids at the register.

It’s 107 degrees in El Centro. The heat is dry but it’s doing things to my stomach. The wavy lines you see coming off of the pavement on hot days seem to be inside of my belly. I go to a restaurant with a big parking lot, jam myself into a booth, and order the carne asada tacos. Families start to flood the place. Tables are shoved together to fit whole tracts of family. I order a beer. Someone behind me tests a microphone by tapping it against his pants. A skinny fifteen year old girl with died orange hair at a table next to me explains to her parents that what she really wants is to find a real man.

A man starts singing. The playback tape is saccharine strings and syrupy horns. The man with his wireless mic prowls the restaurant floor singing Spanish ballads. He’s in a mariachi’s short fitted jacket and high­waisted pants. His hair is brushed back into a dry pompadour. The families all ignore the singer. It’s almost as if they’re a little ashamed of him, and because it’s a small town they exude that sense of being used to being ashamed of him.

I can’t help thinking that I’m seeing the world like West would. Like his death left an aura or lost spirit or gateway or invisible dome that lets his disciples tap into his vision of the world. Silly absurd people! How wonderful! How awful!

I got married at 37 as well. It’s weird to get married so much later in life than everyone else. Some of my friends were on their second marriage by the time I got my first. One of the hardest things about marriage was that it really intruded on my loneliness.

I drive around in my rented Mazda. El Centro is the county seat of Imperial county. It’s a mess, hit hard by a recession that never seemed to stop. The glory years of the area were decades ago. The downtown strip is gutted. The discount shops with mannequins tilted over, pressing against the windows. The hollow storefronts. Not just empty but grey, cluttered, dead. It’s like when you get a root canal and the endodontist kills the nerve and the rest of your life you carry a little chunk of dead tissue around with you. These empty store­fronts look like dead tissue.

I picked West’s collected works up at a used bookstore when I was backpacking alone through India in 1998. In Delhi I booked a train ride to the southernmost state of India. The train ride was three days long, which I passed drinking train station chai and reading all of West’s novels.

Riding the second­class sleeper trains in India, I felt independent. Or more likely I mistook isolation for independence. I didn’t speak the languages of any of the areas I traveled through, so I watched people talk to each other, eavesdropping without comprehension, intuiting content through the gestures and facial expressions of strangers. In my journal, I catalogued all the ways I saw people use their hands in a day. The next day I just wrote down different kinds of postures. The next day, every hairstyle I saw. This is how I occupied myself. It was a sketchbook of a sorts. I was alone and couldn’t stop thinking about other people.

West became the author with whom I identified those days of isolation. In the foreword of the book, I discovered that West and I both worked the late night shift at a hotel. There’s something about that job that teaches a tolerance for boredom and its possibilities for sudden immediate wildness. The emptiness, the seconds that felt like hours, punctuated by a passel of drunks clamoring for cut­rates on rooms, two of them dry­humping on the lobby sofa. The confidences you keep for strangers. The ringside seat to squalor. I felt a bond with West.


I head out east on 111. It’s a few miles outside of town. It’s an intersection. A nondescript desert intersection with a scrap metal plant on one corner and a trucking company on another, a Shell station tucked away on a frontage road. I don’t pull over. There’s stop lights now where there used to be a four­way stop sign back in 1940. 80 is the bigger road, with a speed limit so fast that the northbound cars strobe by in the heat. The light changes and I pull through the intersection and drive east for a while. I make a u­turn and head back to the intersection. I drive through it three more times before I realize that I’m driving the Pontiac’s route, not West’s. I’m doing it all wrong. I’m not West. I’m the car he hit.

I go to the hotel and immerse myself in a Denzel Washington marathon. We don’t have cable at my house so TV has become something to swallow in enormous hunks, like the garlic bread at an Olive Garden.

My wife video calls me. She holds our daughter by the armpits and waggles her at the camera. I ask our baby questions that my wife answers in a sing songy voice. I miss them and I tell them as much.

West’s last book The Day of the Locust was about Hollywood, but not about the stars. Instead the book featured the marginal people of the movie industry. The people that populate and construct the backgrounds of the movies are West’s subjects: extras, chorus girls, scene painters, stage mothers, little people, the out of work, the out of fashion, the out of sorts, all the peripheral people in a town dominated by stars. One of the main characters is Homer Simpson, a dopey hotel bookkeeper from Iowa who comes to Hollywood for his health. He spends each morning with his enormous hands submerged in ice water in an attempt to wake them up. He then sits in his backyard and watches a lizard stalk flies. Homer cheers for the flies.

The next morning, I head south to Calexico.

West and McKenney stayed at the Hotel de Anza in Calexico, crossing into Mexico to do some hunting. West was born and raised in Manhattan but he loved to hunt. At some point nature became an obsession for him, a place of beauty and rest. You can see it in his books. In Miss Lonelyhearts, the only peace the narrator experiences is at a cabin in the woods. In The Day of the Locust the only passages that are purely beautiful are those describing the birds calling in the scrub bushes.

The drive to Calexico is quick. It’s ten am and it’s already boiling hot. I cruise down 1 st street. 1 st street is the last street in America. There are lines ten people deep for the ATM’s on 1 st street. The Bank of America has installed three on the sidewalk and each one has a line. The street is full of people squinting in the sunshine.

The Hotel de Anza is still standing. It’s a mammoth white building, taking up an entire city block. It was built in four months in 1931 and was a locus for Hollywood types during Prohibition for people crossing into Mexico to gamble. When it was built, it had three dance floors, an early air­conditioning set­up, and had a system to pipe ice water into the rooms. It’s a retirement home now.

When I pull up there are two men in cowboy hats sitting in the sweetheart arch. Both are older and Christ-­thin, their jeans hanging off of their bony hips. Both give my Mazda a once over and continue their quiet conversation.

On December 22nd 1940, West got a telegram at the Hotel de Anza that F. Scott Fitzgerald had died the day before of a heart attack in Sheilah Graham’s apartment. West and McKenney and their dog Julie got in the car and headed north on 80. He ran the stop sign at the intersection of 111 and hit the white Pontiac. West, McKenney, and Julie were all thrown from the car. West and McKenney bled out onto the pavement. Julie the dog was injured but kept trying to jump back into the wrecked vehicle.

When we were bringing our daughter home from the hospital, I was so exhausted from the three days of barely sleeping that I couldn’t believe that more was expected of me. We’d inherited a car seat from family friends and I couldn’t get the straps to work. I couldn’t get them tight enough to protect her. The nurse, a skinny Kirsten Dunst look­alike, was frustrated with me. She told me to call her back when I’d figured it out.

When we got home the baby screamed all of the time and when she wasn’t screaming I worried she was dead. She was so tiny; it seemed improbable that she could survive, impossible that I was one of the people in charge of helping her to survive. Asleep in her bassinet, I’d poke her tiny foot until she moved. Two days in my wife sent me to Walgreens to pick up some drops for the baby.

I travel up 80, now doing it correctly, really retracing West’s route. The whole reason for this trip would be done here in a few minutes. The book West was working on when he died focused on the back pages of magazines and newspapers. The little scams set in the classified ads, promising people nights of camaraderie and laughter. His book was going to focus on the Golden Friendship Club, a Ponzi scheme zeroing in on the lonely and broken­hearted. All those people left on the edge of California glutted with orange juice and glimpses of Gary Cooper staring into the vast expanse of salt water could find solace in this special social club where they’d promptly be scammed out of their life savings. But since it’s a West book, the lonely people would probably stay in the club even when they know it’s draining them dry. It sounds like the perfect West project.

And then Fitzgerald’s heart stops working.

Looking north on 80, it was all indeterminate landscape. Behind me were the Sierra de los Cucapah mountains, ahead of me a blurry blankness. And it’s nothing. Absolutely nothing. An anonymous intersection some dead writer I liked died while running a stop sign to go to the funeral of a dead writer he liked. He killed his wife. Left his new son an orphan. Chasing a dead writer.

And I realize my mistake — not unforgivable as long as I drove safely the rest of the way and the plane didn’t crash - but a mistake nonetheless. I left my wife and my daughter, traveled across the country, so that I could stand at this nothing intersection. What I get from standing here? It’s not nothing but it’s not something either.

It’s a sucker’s game: reading. Makes you think you have real relationships. With strangers. Dead strangers. It’s a scam. I needed to get home to my wife and baby girl.

After the non-­moment at the intersection, I pull into the Shell station off the frontage road. The clerk is a compact woman in her forties dusting the open boxes of candy bars. Her hair pulled back and tucked into a meticulous bun. The creases on the pants of her uniform are so sharp they could slice tomatoes. She is methodical, moving down the row of candy and then coming back on the lower row, like she’s mowing a lawn. I stand at the counter with my apple juice biding my time until she finishes the entire rack. It’s clear there is no interrupting her.

While I wait, I talk to West about her.

 


DAVID STUART MACLEAN is the PEN/American Award-winning author of The Answer to the Riddle is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, Quarterly West, Guernica, The New York Times, The Guardian UK, and on the radio program This American Life. He lives in Chicago.

 

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