Thursday, December 6, 2012

First Impressions

I wrote this over a month ago, having come back from a long weekend in California.  What I began as a single post became so long and wandering that I had no choice but to chop it up into parts.  However, I hope this will become a longer series but I know better than to make firm announcements about the future of this blog by now so pretend I never said that.

“Mostly at the Laundromat,” I said. 

She asked how often I interacted with Navajo people, and where.  So I explained.  See, it’s like this: there are folks with no running water and no well rights*.  So they drive all the way into town and fill up their water tanks and then haul it back to the homestead.  And while they’re here, they wash their clothes, too.  They haul the loads out of the backs of pickups in black garbage bags and maybe it’s been a month since the last visit so there’s plenty to do. 

Our rental didn’t have a washer or dryer so that’s how I know this.  (Hi I just met you and now I’m talking about laundry?) But then she surprised me.

“It’s so beautiful,” she breathed, “this side-by-side movement—and no one is looking straight at the face of another, but it is still like a dialogue.  They are working alongside and facing away, but their bodies mirror each other’s movements—a very necessary, simple household chore—side by side.  Like a dance.”

She is wearing a red velvet dress or tunic of some kind over red Ali Baba pants and red babouches to “match” (they are different reds) and we are near Malibu, in the hills, in the new million-dollar cabin she just moved into. 

Forgive me if the dance-image struck me as somewhat romantic.

Because in the image in my mind, in my memory, there was Rez dust everywhere and muddy boots and bulk-buy powder detergent bags and peddlers of “sterling silver” jewelry and “breakfast burritos” and it is pretty smelly and noisy.  

I know what she means, though: healing violent histories through creative, therapeutic movement.  Sure.  Cool.  Why not. 

Except that until recently, I had never thought about those who don’t show up at the Laundromat.  Who, instead of washing their clothes, wear them out until they either get too frayed or the lice just get to be too much and then they burn or bury the darn things. 

There are folks who exit off the Interstate at our exit and take a look around our little city out here in the Southwestern desert.  They are the ones with the wide open eyes and mouths, looking around and meandering slowly down the sidewalks in their Keens or Tevas, or sometimes their black leather, if they are part of the Harley bike crowd.  I wish I could still see the place for the first time all over again, like they do. 

There’s one now--outside of the coffee shop where I am sitting and typing.  She has stopped her car and hopped out to pause briefly on the sidewalk, shading her eyes with one hand and holding up her camera with the other, trying to find the best angle to shoot the murals that were painted up high above the storefronts. 

This corner of the state is not exactly a destination for tourists; mostly, folks stop for a meal or to fill up their gas tank—only a couple of minutes or a few hours at most, and then they move on.  We don’t have museums or restaurants or classic Southwestern charm in the style of a place like Santa Fe.  Nor are we as remote and inaccessible and mysterious as the Grand Canyon.  We have only a tiny, municipal airport which lands tiny, and usually private, airplanes.  The highway is the main way to get here if you are a visitor.  Or the train.  We have an Eastbound one that stops in the morning, and a Westbound one in the evening.  The rest of the day it is freight carriers, about a hundred of them, whistling their way through loudly so the disoriented and inebriated will be discouraged from stumbling out onto the tracks as the cars rattle by.   

One of our summer visitors expressed a feeling of relief when she finally reached the outskirts of town.  She was a return-er, so it wasn’t her first time through, and she was excited to be back.  Having driven through a good portion of the state in order to get here, she felt that it seemed as if she hadn’t “really arrived” until she came into our city.  This, she said, is the real deal.  Unlike any other part of this immense and varied country of ours.  You can’t get this just anywhere, she said.

She is unlike our other visitors and I wonder if we will ever have another who says or feels the same thing.  Most of them are happy enough to stay for a few days, and then they are more than happy to leave again.  And that’s fine, too.  Not everyone takes to this wild west place.


Also this summer, my (very generous) in-laws offered to buy us a washer and dryer as a housewarming gift.  Maybe I would have declined if it hadn’t been for the twenty-one guests and three different road trips in two months.  I was exhausted from trying to keep everyone’s t-shirts and linens (not to mention the camping gear) fresh and laundered.  By the end of the summer, I welcomed the prospect of having even just a single household chore made easier. 

But that has meant no more weekly trips to the Laundromat for me, at least for now.  Now I go to the basement and push some buttons.  It is easier, but it is also a little bittersweet; the Laundromat was one of the only places I could get up close with Rez residents.  It is not like we talk or anything (many do not speak English, anyway), but at least we were together in the same space, for once.

It took repeated trips to do my laundry to realize some of the key ways that a townie’s life is different from rural life in the desert.  Access to water means that city-dwelling Navajos will spend their time and resources in ways different from the way of life they might have had on from Reservation.  For those who don’t have water near their homes, there is no choice put to haul it in.  I see the tanks in the backs of pickups and I see them haul their two-weeks’ (or month’s?) worth of dirty laundry in garbage bags that they unload from out of the trunks of their cars.** 

Some of these folks—many—have dirt caked over their boots and up their shins as they sit back and wait for their loads to finish tumbling around behind the round glass windows of the machines.  It seems hardly worth the effort to scrape the mud off, and maybe they are down to their last pair of trousers, anyway, so it is not really an option to give them a good washing.

These folks often stare right back at me and the way I look is just as strange and foreign to them.  Also, the jeans I thought were so old and grubby suddenly seem very, very blue.  (Oops, there’s my cell phone ringing.)

It has been 16 months since we moved here and, yes, the initial impressions have faded considerably.  That makes me a little sad.  Already, it is impossible for me to recapture that feeling of surprise at the new and the strange.  It is not stale or old, but not quite as fresh, either. 

Even so, Difference is right up there in my face, all the time and every day, if I am willing to see it.  And not just me, but any outsider who comes through or decides to stop here for a longer season.  You have to choose to ignore, or dismiss it, if you don’t want to notice anymore.


I first learned about the lice and the family that never washed their clothes but instead threw them away from reading a book—a memoir actually.  

No doubt it would have taken me much longer to realize that on my own—that there are people who don’t even have a truck, or the money for gas, or any other means, to get into town.  So they hitchhike in, or never come at all.  Maybe neighbors or relations remember them and offer to pick up sacks of flour or gallons of cooking oil or whatever basics they might need.***

I am not proud of it, but until this summer when I read George P. Lee’s account about growing up desperately poor in a remote part of the Navajo Nation, I never even thought of the folks I do not ever see at my Laundromat—or any other, either.  In George’s family, the kids took “snow baths” in the winter and looked forward to the summer monsoon rains.  Not only did the rains mean replenished water stores and cleaner bodies, they also meant meat. 

The sight and smell of storm clouds had a truly Pavlovian effect on George and his cousins, and he remembered how they would start to lick their lips at the thought of all the prairie dogs they would soon be roasting.  The rains would flood the animals’ burrows and they had no choice but to pop their heads out for air.  All the kids had to do was wait for the poor creatures, with clubs and bags at the ready.

Ruth Mitchell, in the telling of her childhood, remembers doing something similar in order to catch prairie dogs: she and one of her siblings would team up, one of them wielding a club and the other flooding the holes with water.  Had I not read Lee’s book first, it probably would not have occurred to me that Ruth’s family must have been somewhat better off, or at least had access to more water than George’s family did.  Even still, her family still did not own any buckets.**** 

Going to the Laundromat didn’t exactly provide me with those kinds of stories, but there is a lot more to learn from being there and I wonder just how much I am missing out, for the sake of a simple convenience.

So that’s another complaint about the side-by-side, doing-our-daily-chores-together image.  It is not simply romantic, but also incomplete; it is missing an essential story plot.

In fact, there is plenty more about Native American history and experience that has all but disappeared.  In the next part in this series, I plan to explore this topic a little more.

* Evidently, water rights in Navajo land are very complicated legal issues.  Just because you have a well on or near your homesite does not mean you are allowed to use it.  Something to do with the communal and clan ownership of homesteads and the fact that many wells were dug on the federal government's dollar.
** Those infamous "rez cars" that are held together with duct tape and chewing gum and are perpetually stuck in reverse.  See it on youtube here, or here.
*** There are no doubt Native Americans who consciously choose a lifestyle that keeps them secluded from the dominant culture and its nosiest members (the ones like me who are too curious and ask too many questions).
**** In her autobiography, Ruth Mitchell describes the process she used as a child whereby they would butcher and skin goats in such a way that their bellies would still be intact and useable as water bags. 

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