Tuesday, May 02, 2006
Living In The Wild, Wild West -- Part 3
Of course, Stewart had offered to school me -- after all, I’d be firing his guns -- but I insisted on Patrick. Family members don’t always make the best teachers, something I learned when I was 15, and my mom tried to teach me to drive. By yelling frantically from the passenger seat. Turn here! HERE! Brake! BRAKE! Who needs that kind of pressure when you’re clutching a firearm?
We start with some safety basics, a few days later when Patrick comes over for Gun Slinging 101. He’s dressed for the occasion, wide-brimmed hat, khakis, lace-up boots. A Wild West Crocodile Dundee. In shooting, he tells me, there are three absolutes: Keep your finger off the trigger unless you’re about to fire. Always check to see if the gun’s loaded. (“Everyone always says I didn’t know it was loaded, Patrick grouses. “Always visually inspect it.”) And finally, keep the gun pointed in a safe direction, not at people, animals, houses, things. (“At the ground is always best.”)
Now that I’m cradling Stewart’s .22 rifle, my Femme Nikita enthusiasm is starting to wane. Maybe I don’t actually have to shoot it. Maybe just cocking the rifle will make enough noise to scare off intruders, sort of like the impressive choosh-choosh of a 12-gauge shotgun. The mere mention of the shotgun was enough to dispatch the Saturday Morning Holy Rollers. And they haven’t been back since. Patrick sighs and shakes his head. “Nothing makes a noise like a 12-gauge shotgun when it’s loaded,” he says. “If you’re not willing to use the gun, don’t touch it. You need to be very serious. And that means if you decide you’re going to protect yourself, there’s a chance you’re going to wound or kill somebody.”
We drive about a mile or so to the empty property behind ours. Patrick and Stewart often come up here to shoot practice rounds, and there’s a metal trash can riddled with bullet holes that’s clearly been a frequent target.
I haven’t even fired a single shot yet, and I’m already sweating, pardon the pun, bullets. I’ve never been thisclose to a loaded weapon. Patrick gives me ear plugs and goggles, then hands me the rifle. It’s awkward in my hands. I try to get comfortable as Patrick is talking ….
“Okay, keep your finger outside the trigger till the gun’s pointed at the target. Start aiming, click the safety off…take a breath, let half of it out, then squeeze the trigger.”
I am actually going to do this. I am actually going to fire a gun. It’s mind-blowing -- dainty Ms. Gun Control, packin’ heat.
I take forever . . . trying to remember everything that Patrick said . . . trying to keep the target in my sights while the rifle bounces around like a conductor’s baton.
I breathe in … squint hard at the target … let half of it out and --
“Let’s take a look.” Patrick inspects the target while I pointedly point the gun toward the ground.
Okay, Annie Oakley I’m not. My shot’s not even in the same zipcode as the target.
I try again.
“Close?” I call out, hopeful.
“You’ve waving a lot.”
“It’s heavy,” I complain (er, whine).
“It is,” Patrick affirms. “But it’s just a matter of finding a comfortable position.” We try again. “Put it up on your shoulder and lay your cheek down here. Now if you look right down this scope rail you’ll be looking right on the target.”
Still off base. Way off.
We decide to move closer to the target. I guess I’ll only be able to shoot intruders close up. I should be strong enough to hold it steady, but the rifle is still waving like a flag.
Patrick has a brainstorm. “Which eye are you focusing with?”
My left. I’m right-handed, but I focus with my left eye.
“No wonder. You’re cocking your head, so that makes it more difficult to aim.”
So that’s the problem. Because I’m focusing with my left eye, I have to look across the barrel, which is why I’m shooting about three feet to the left. This is more complicated than I thought. Whatever happened to point and shoot. Oh, wait. That’s cameras. Come to think of it, I don’t have such great aim there either.
“Try closing your left eye when you aim,” Patrick suggests.
“Try again.” Which of course means No, you suck ass.
I’m still aiming far left --
-- and still missing.
This is getting pathetic. I’m hot. And frustrated. And it’s rapidly becoming clear that for me to come anywhere close to hitting the target I’m going to have to run up there and beat it with the rifle butt. Plus, I’ve got the speed of a desert tortoise. At the rate it takes me to line up a shot and pull the trigger I’d be a goner for sure if Crystal-Meth Gal and her boyfriend come back.
We switch to Patrick’s 9 mm semi-automatic Glock pistol. Maybe I’ll have better luck with this. Though the Glock is huge in my hands, using a two-handed grip makes it easier to shoot. I hold the gun out in front of me. Standing with feet planted, arms stretched out in front of me, gun clasped in both hands, I really feel like one of Charlie’s Angels.
Patrick fires first so I can hear how loud it’ll be.
Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!
It’s incredibly loud. Like, well, a gun shot. Far more threatening than the rifle’s discreet Crack!
“You get used to it,” Patrick shrugs.
“It’s scary,” I complain (er, whine).
“Stuff your ear pieces in more.”
Now it’s my turn. I pull the slide back to load the gun. I point it down range. “Take a normal breath, let half of it out, then line up the sights and then squeeze the trigger,” Patrick coaches from the sidelines. “The gun will push back, but if you keep your hands out, the force will come straight back, and it won’t recoil up.”
I get ready, aim, take a breath and . . . wimp out.
“I got scared.” I say.
“Don’t worry about all the details, just squeeze off a couple of rounds,” Patrick encourages.
The noise terrifies me. I bet Kate Jackson never jumped out of her skin like that.
“Easy… it’s all right,” Patrick soothes.
I try again. Line up the sights, cock the gun, aim, suck in a breath and fire.
“It’s scaring me.” But at least I’m finally hitting somewhere in the vicinity of the target.
“Take a couple more. Enjoy it,” Patrick prompts.
Enjoy it? Not very likely. My hands are getting sore from gripping the gun so hard. And the noise freaks me out every time I fire. And it’s pretty clear that in crunch time -- with an intruder bearing down on me -- I’d never be able to remember everything (anything) Patrick’s telling me.
High and to the left.
“Pretty much dead center,” Patrick announces.
He’s jubilant. The slow student is catching on. But there are still these loooong silences between shots as I psych myself up each time I pull the trigger. Which is why Patrick wants me to try another exercise: point the gun down to the ground and in a single fluid motion, raise and fire. “In most situations you’re not going to be able to stop and aim,” Patrick explains. No kidding. But apparently firing in whatever direction the gun is pointed at will do. “Most confrontations take place within 20 feet -- ” A comforting thought. “So if you can hit a one-foot circle, you can hit a vital area in an intense situation.” Another comforting thought.
I line up again. “When I say Go, lift up and shoot. It’s not going to be dead center. I just want you to get used to lining it up on the fly.”
Good idea. What intruder is going to stand around and wait for me to find my nerve?
“Ready?” I nod. “Go!”
Five long seconds later, I finally pull the trigger.
As a gunslinger, I pretty much suck. The pokiest gun in the West. I’m no Kiera Knightley, rounding up bail-skippers as a bounty hunter in Domino. No Annette Benning, popping off rounds at the shooting range to relieve stress in American Beauty. This is giving me stress. Though my aim is improving, there’s no way I’d be able to load, aim and then shoot a gun if confronted by anything more menacing than a rusty trash barrel with a paper target taped to it. Despite my fears about being alone on the mountain in a house that’s about as secure as a pup tent, it’s abundantly clear that, despite my bravado -- Where’s the shotgun?! -- I don’t have the gumption to fire on demand.
But what to do . . . what to do about protection? Some more durable windows, for starters. And I could stop opening the door to strangers
Friday, April 28, 2006
Living In The Wild, Wild West -Part 2
“Yes?” I asked through the screened window, once my heart stopped jitterbugging in my chest. We hadn’t had any unexpected visitors since I’d scared off the Holy Rollers. This gal hardly looked like she was on the same mission.
Instead, she had a tale of woe. She and her boyfriend were staying at the broken-down trailer on the next property. Either they didn’t have a car . . . or their car broke down . . . or they were counting on a ride back down the mountain and that car broke down. The details were a little murky. But while they waited for some way off the mountain, they’d run out of food and water. She waved a plastic jug. Could she fill it up?
I only knew the people across the way as the lowlifes who allowed their pit bulls to run wild in our yard, terrorizing me to the point that I was afraid to walk our property, except to go from the house to my car. We’d long suspected, after a small explosion one night, that they ran a crystal meth lab out of the trailer. But I’d heard the property had recently been sold -- I assumed to pay legal fees -- and I hadn’t seen anyone (person or pit bull) around the dilapidated trailer in ages. Now here was this woman.
“Do you have a gun?” I ask through the screen. Dumb question. Like she’d tell me if she did. How many would-be intruders are that well-mannered? For that matter, how many would-be intruders knock on the door first?
She swears that all she’s got on her is a cell phone and the empty plastic bottle.
I’m torn. On the one hand, Don’t open the door to strangers has been a cardinal rule in my house since I was tall enough to reach the door handle. Isn’t that what Law & Order episodes are made of? I can just see the plotline unfolding as crime scene investigators step over my lifeless body, noting that there aren’t any signs of forced entry. She must have known her attacker, Vincent D’Onofrio would say sagely. No, I was just stupid enough to open the door to a stranger.
On the other hand, I want to do the right thing, the human thing. This is rough country, and being stranded without food or, more importantly, water, in the desert is dangerous business. With my brain still playing tug o’war, the human part won out. I couldn’t turn down a woman in need. What if it were me?
Cautiously, and not without extreme reservations, I open the door. Later I think, Why didn’t I just have her wait outside? But I didn’t want to seem unduly paranoid. And then I think, You idiot. You’re worried what a would-be intruder thinks…
“Wow! This place is huge,” she says as we head for the kitchen. “How many bedrooms are there? This must be worth a fortune. Oh, look, you’ve got cats, how many?” She’s rambling, a steady stream of conversation. Maybe she’s just being polite. Maybe she’s naturally chatty. But in my extremely paranoid state, it sounds like she’s casing the house. I’m secretly glad that I thought to tuck my laptop under the bed and stashed my jewelry under some sweaters.
I load up a bag in our huge walk-in pantry with things that don’t require elaborate cooking: pasta, bread, some sauce, tuna, cans of soup, cereal. She mentions that she doesn’t have anything to cook the soup or pasta in, so I give her a sauce pan.
“Keep it,” I say, heading off a return visit. But even as I’m filling the bag, I’m acutely aware that I’m deep in the pantry . . . and she’s blocking the door. This is how people get bludgeoned to death in their homes, I think. She could klonk me on the head, bind me, gag me, come back with her boyfriend to ransack the place, maybe toss me in the back of a pickup truck and drive me far out into the desert where they could shoot me and leave me in a shallow grave . . . .
Then I think maybe I watch entirely too much Law & Order.
She leaves with a Bloomingdale’s Big Bag stuffed with food and a gallon of water. I grab Stewart’s binoculars and watch her trudge back to the abandoned trailer. I see the boyfriend milling around in the yard, then they both disappear inside the trailer. Periodically, I peer out the window with the binoculars to see if they’re coming back. I dig the rifle out from between the mattresses where Stewart hides it, find a clip in his sock drawer and load it. I’ve got no earthly idea how to use it. But I prop it up within reach. Just in case.
Later I call the cops. I rationalize it this way -- if they’re truly in trouble, the police can give them a lift back to civilization. If they were casing the joint, well, then maybe they won’t be back.
Thursday, April 27, 2006
Living In The Wild, Wild West -- Part 1
The knock at the door sent me clawing for the ceiling. Like Sylvester, the cat, after one of his encounters with the baby kangaroo he thinks is a giant mouse. That was me -- all arched back, hair standing on end, nails gripping the ceiling. If I’d had a tail, it would have been bushed out like a bottle brush.
See, people don’t just “drop by” up here on Mount Charleston. Given that our nearest neighbor is a good half-mile away, it’s not like we get many -- any -- random taps at the door from neighbors asking for a cup of sugar or just to trade gossip. Come to think of it, I’ve never met anyone who lives around us. Frankly, I’m hesitant to knock on the mobile home doors up here, mostly because I’m more than a little wary of what I might find on the other side. Crystal meth lab? Pit bulls? Twelve-gauge double-barrel shotgun?
The few people around us, camped out amongst the yucca and Joshua trees, moved to this empty stretch of mountain desert to be left alone, and they aren’t terribly receptive to impromptu visits. Up here, that’s not called “being neighborly,” it’s called trespassing. And though I loved that I had a How ya doin’? acquaintance with dozens of people in my Brooklyn nabe, people whose names I didn’t know, but whose faces were familiar from standing in line together for coffee, shopping in the stores along Court Street or just waiting for the subway, here on the mountain, I was starting to appreciate the If you’re not expected, you shouldn’t be here attitude.
The first inkling that this new, shall we say, xenophobic attitude, was evolving, like a new callous forming on my social graces, came early one Saturday, before what I’ve come to call The Knock. Stewart and I were lounging around in our PJs, catching up on CNN, when a strange car pulled into our gravel drive.
“Maybe they’re interested in the land,” was Stewart’s hopeful guess. Recently, he’d put part of his five-acre parcel up for sale. Maybe they were prospective buyers. Maybe they were just lost day-trippers.
Stewart went out to investigate while I kept an eye out from the window. A woman got out of the white compact. Then a man. It was his getup that got my attention: White short-sleeved shirt, skinny black tie, dark trousers, the kind my trig teacher in high school wore. And in his hands -- magazines. Those were the dead-giveaway. These folks weren’t lost. They were here because they thought we were. And unbelievably, they’d driven all the way out to the hinterlands of Mount Charleston to lead us back down the path to righteousness.
In the time it took my brain to put it all together, I was barreling out the door in my slippers. If you’re not expected, you shouldn’t be here. Few things really get my ire up like being told I’m going to burn in hell for all eternity unless I ditch my cultural/religious beliefs -- secular as they are. And early on a Saturday morning! Before I’d finished my coffee! According to my people, this was a Day Of Rest. These guys were disturbing my peace.
“Are you -- ” I shouted.
My brain hiccupped. I couldn’t remember the name of the profoundly annoying door-to-door proselytizers. But in my addled-pre-coffee state, I did recall their Brooklyn offices were emblazoned with the name of their magazine, The Watchtower. And this early in the morning, that was the best I could come up with.
“Are you Watchtower People?!” I demanded. “Get off our property! Get off immediately! You’re not welcome here!”
And then the kicker: “Stewart! Where’s the shotgun??!!!”
It even shocked me as I said it.
Where’s the shotgun?
Where’d that come from? I’m not a gun-slinger. I believe in gun control. I relied on New York’s Finest to protect me in Brooklyn. Before moving into Stewart’s house, the closest I’d ever even come to a firearm was watching Law & Order.
Where’s the shotgun?
Living in the Wild West was clearly starting to rub off on me.
Oh, I knew Stewart had a couple of pistols, a shotgun, an assault rifle and a .22 rifle in the house. “For protection,” he’d told me. It seemed logical. If we relied on 911 to stop an intruder, we could be julienned before the cops ever made it up the mountain. But I’d staked my own little liberal ground by making a point of not knowing where they were stashed . . . or how to use them. And though periodically Stewart would offer to take me gun shopping, I wasn’t interested in getting a slender, pink Lady Smith & Wesson to slip in my Louis Vuitton bag. Then suddenly I was Rambette, brandishing a virtual shotgun to wave unwanted guests off our property.
My unlikely transformation probably started when I locked myself out of the house -- in my underwear, naturally, and without my cell phone. In my frantic attempt to find a way back in, I discovered that our house was -- shocking! -- about as secure as the tents I’d slept in at Girl Scout camp. I’d merely touched the screen on one of our living room windows, and it fell away in my hand, leaving a wide open space for me to crawl in through. Essentially, my four-year-old nephew Dylan could break in without breaking a sweat. That got me thinking. Since I’m often home alone, maybe I did need something more substantial than biting sarcasm to defend myself against uninvited guests.
And then came The Knock.
Saturday, April 22, 2006
Very Scary Bugs
Very Scary Bugs Part 2
I will never be that gal on Fear Factor. You know, the one laying in the big tank filled with tarantulas. Or cockroaches. Or fill in the blank with whatever skeevy, thing that makes your skin crawl. When it comes to bugs, I’m a little bit of a weenie. Okay, make that a really big weenie. But I know this about myself. And I can live with that. So long as the bugs keep their distance.
No doubt my extreme aversion to critters with more than four legs comes from growing up in Hollywood, Florida, where the roaches eat Raid with impunity, know how to fly and grow to be the size of small house pets. A childhood friend’s brother actually kept one in a fish bowl on the floor of the bedroom they shared, which grossed me out to no end. Which is probably why I didn’t play at their house that often. Once, having lunch with my mom, I watched, awestruck, as an enormous roach defiantly marched -- in broad daylight! -- across the kitchen floor and into the den before my equally stunned mother came to her senses and squashed it with the Greater Miami Yellow Pages.
As a small child even seeing a roach could keep me up nights. I didn’t sleep for weeks after spotting one hanging out in the garage above the doorway to the house. I willed myself to stay awake in my girlie pink bedroom, reading The Wizard of Oz well into the wee hours, convinced that the moment I turned out the lights, swarms of roaches would attack me under the covers. (If you’ve ever wondered what keeps 8-year-old girls up, this is it.) Concerned about the deepening circles under my eyes, to get me to go to sleep, my mom assured me that roaches never crawl into beds because they don’t want to get smothered in the sheets. I clung to that story until well into my 30s. That is, until I repeated this “fact” to my mom, and she gave me such a withering you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me look, that I realized, like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, this fairytale had bitten the dust too.
Of course, armed with Raid, hefty phone books and large quantities of paper towels, I’ve come to be able to dispatch my share of really unpleasant bugs when necessity absolutely required. But I’ve never quite gotten over the Ick Factor. And now that I live in the Mojave Desert, where there are far creepier crawly things than flying roaches, well, that’s a bit of a problem. I realize this is a bit like swimming in the ocean, then complaining about sharks. But, truly, nothing prepared me for what I’ve come to call the VSBs -- Very Scary Bugs -- living with us in the Bunker.
I’ve come home late at night to find three giant webs -- one under each bedroom window -- shimmering in the moonlight. I admit, they are beautiful, spun works of buggy art that are both wonderful and terrible to behold. Because, in the center of each was a very large black widow spider. In the mornings, the spiders would be gone, but every evening, they’d be back, horrible sentinels posted just outside my windows. Of course, I’m hard-pressed to complain -- much, anyway -- about spiders outside the house. But inside, well, that’s different.
I’ve nearly stepped on a black widow while getting into the shower. I’ve found inches-long centipedes hanging out in the dining room. I’ve stumbled into the bathroom at 3 a.m., and perched on the toilet, sleepily glanced down, only to be jolted awake upon realizing that I’d narrowly missed treading on a scorpion by mere millimeters. I’ve gone to put dishes in the sink and found it occupied by what looked to be a cross between a centipede and a scorpion. The important point, here, is that it didn’t resemble any insect I’d ever encountered. I wondered if all that nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site had yielded some new breed of creepy-crawly.
“STEWART!!! WHAT IS THIS??? I’VE NEVER SEEN THIS BUG BEFORE!!!”
And Stewart would matter-of-factly stroll into the kitchen and ID it as a vinegarune. “So named,” he informed me in his Wow! Isn’t this cool? scientist’s tone, “because when they sting you, you taste vinegar.” Great, a venomous bug that reminds you of a douche.
I’ve also discovered mysterious piles of bugs that look like sesame seeds, all up and down the hallways. They’re dead, but still. Stewart, who knows every critter out here, hasn’t a clue what they are, and well . . . just what are they? And why do we keep finding piles of dead ones around the baseboards?!?! Of course, Stewart just smiles at me philosophically. “Would you rather find piles of live ones?” he asks while vacuuming them up. Which is really not the point.
My Vegas friends just laugh at me. When I relayed the Black Widow In The Bathroom tale to my friend Scott, an editor at Las Vegas Life, he blew it off. “That’s nothing!” he said dismissively, waving off my fears of dying a horrible death from a spider bite. Then he one-upped me with a story about how his three-year-old was digging around in a cabinet for a video and came up with a gossamer-thin strand of web, from which was dangling a none-too-pleased black widow.
So how lame am I? A three-year-old thinks they’re cool and I run shrieking.
But even black widows are nothing compared to the sun spiders. Stewart assures me that a) they’re not actually spiders, they’re in the scorpion family, which doesn’t really make me feel any better about them b) they’re harmless and c) that they eat other even more disgusting bugs. I suppose I should welcome their arrival. But understand, these are not cute Charlotte’s Web spiders. Oh nooooooo. These things have heft . . . and hair. They are the Saint Bernards of arachnids. They are so monstrously large you could slip a leash on ‘em and take ‘em for a walk. I’ve even caught them staking out the cats’ food. Some days, living here really is like living on the set of Eight-Legged Freaks.
Naturally these big beasties only come out when Stewart is out of town. Somehow they just know when I’m all by my lonesome. And I’m certain they can smell fear.
I found one, trapped in the sink one morning. At first, I tried to ignore it. But even from my office down the hall, I could hear it trying to claw its way out, unable to get any traction on the stainless. Oh God, I couldn’t leave it there. Stewart wasn’t coming home for days. I needed to use the sink. And I couldn’t take the scratch-scratch-scratching any more. It was like something from Poe. ‘Twas the spider, never more.
But what to do? What to do? I couldn’t kill it. Not out of any lingering Charlotte’s Web- it’s bad-luck-to-kill-spiders guilt. But because I’d discovered earlier that spraying them with Raid did nothing but piss them off. And the thought of cleaning up big spider squish was just too nauseating to contemplate. Then I thought of the fly swatter. If I could coax the beastie onto the swatter, I could carry it outside where it could roam free, enjoying the rest of its big, hairy spider life. Away from me.
So, I barricaded the cats in the bedroom and opened the kitchen door to the backyard. The door was just a few steps from the sink. I took a deep breath, and lowering the fly swatter into the sink, like a rope from a chopper to a drowning man, invited the spider to step on and be rescued. The spider stepped up and then . . . Whoa!!!
I hadn’t counted on how fast the beastie could move. Eight is a lot of legs and when they all got moving, this beastie hauled ass. Whatever thought I had of it sitting demurely on the swatter while I airlifted it to freedom, evaporated as it raced up the handle at me. I shrieked. And panicked. Then naturally dumped the spider on the floor. Fortunately, I dropped it right in front of the open kitchen door. I had one shot. Before it could scuttle out of sight, I swung the swatter, and in my best Tiger Woods move, putted it swiftly out the door, slamming it shut before the beastie did an about-face and charged me again.
I truly hoped that that would be my last close encounter with sun spiders. But as you know from numerous horror movies and Fatal Attraction, the villain always returns for a last hurrah. So it was that one night while Stewart was -- again -- out of town and I was up late finishing an article for Fitness magazine that something, something moving reallyfast, caught my eye . . . high up . . . near the ceiling. I wasn’t even sure I’d seen it before it disappeared behind a quilt we had hanging on the wall.
Two guesses. Right . . . another sun spider.
I couldn’t believe I lost track of it. I kept watch for a while. Even poked around, cautiously, under my desk to see if I could discover where it went. But I can’t. It’s vanished. Not knowing where this beastie went is slightly more troubling than having it parade across my keyboard. But I have a deadline. And for once, work trumps fear . . . and squeamishness. The fact that I can’t actually see the spider right this very minute means, I rationalize, that it’s gone elsewhere. Maybe even outside.
This is what I tell myself.
I willed myself -- willed myself! -- to believe it was gone. A serious case of out of sight/out of mind. Every so often I’d glance around the room just to be sure. Coast clear. I kept working. Hours later, I finally finished the article and crawled into bed.
In the morning I discovered just where the spider had gone to. There it was, curled up like a small -- eight-legged -- kitten. Under. The. Covers.
It had spent the night right next to me.
If ever there was a time I wished Mom had been right.
Friday, April 21, 2006
My brother-in-law Rob was taunting me. It was our first visit to the new suburban dream house he and my sister bought when they fled LA for Orlando a few months earlier, seeking the lower home prices and better schools promised by the theme park capital of the world. Now, standing in the kitchen, Rob demonstrated another perk of their new house -- flipping on appliances with abandon. The toaster-oven, the microwave, the coffee maker, even the garbage disposal, the washing machine and -- the final flourish -- every single light switch he could reach.
“Get back on the grid, bay-bee!” he sang at me over the din, dancing back and forth between the stove and the dishwasher that was busily scrubbing the dishes from dinner. I laughed, more than just a little envious of this show of wanton electrical promiscuity.
See, I yearn to be electrically slutty. Some gals fantasize about a zipless fuck with a beautiful stranger. In the rustic Mount Charleston bunker (uh, house) I share with Stewart, I fantasize about running the microwave and the television at the same time, without causing a power spike and subsequent blackout. I want to be turned on, hooked up . . . to the city’s power grid. But instead of tapping into Nevada Power, our Mount Charleston abode -- and this is a significant source of pride with Stewart -- is operated entirely by giant batteries charged by solar-energy.
“We get more than 340 days of sun a year in Las Vegas so it makes sense to use solar power,” Stewart is fond of saying. And he’s right. It does make sense. Unlike the folks down in the Valley, blasting their air conditioners against the summer heat, we don’t have an over-inflated power bill. In fact, we don’t have a power bill at all. Instead, we have swamp coolers -- like tricked out box window fans that are filled with water, which cools the air as it evaporates. Fire places and wood-burning stoves provide heat in the winter.
But occasionally . . . well, let’s just say we run into our own unique snafus. Cloudy days -- they’re like Kryptonite to Superman. No sun, no power. That’s life off the grid, baby. And on frosty mornings, before one of us trudges out to the wood pile to gather thick pine logs to get those home fires going, it’s not unusual for it to be 30 degrees . . . in the kitchen. I layer on a T-shirt, sweater, sweatshirt, second sweatshirt, two pairs of socks and a scarf just to venture out from under the duvet, into the kitchen to make coffee. Once our friend Patrick suggested we go winter camping. That made me laugh. Wryly. I do enough winter camping inside the house, thank you very much.
Running multiple appliances poses its own challenges. Turn on too much stuff simultaneously -- and by too much stuff, I mean, the kinds of things that normal people in normal houses normally take for granted, like a bathroom light, the TV, the garbage disposal, the toaster -- and that just overloads the power inverter (a necessary gizmo that converts battery power into usable electricity for the house) and shuts down the house completely. One lazy Sunday night, we were watching DVDs while I typed away on my laptop. Midway through the movie, the lights flickered, then everything faded to black. The movie stopped, my computer battery kicked on. But our house batteries were drained. We stumbled around in the dark, frantically searching for flashlights, candles, cigarette lighters, anything so we could see, well . . . anything. We don’t live on an actual street, so there was no helpful glow from the street lamps. That night, there wasn’t even a moon. It was just black, black, black outside, like looking into a black velvet sack. The next day, I went to Target and loaded a shopping cart with candles -- pillars, tapers, votives . . . basically anything that could be used as a light source.
“You expectin’ a blackout or something?” the curious checkout gal asked as she tallied up the wax works.
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
So we hoarded watts with Scrooge-like vigilance. Leaving a room without turning off the lights was verboten. And a lot of accessories that I’d considered necessary tools for civilized living had to be rethought. Our fridge, for instance, is powered by propane, and uses about as much power as a 75 watt light bulb. Everything had to be that energy anemic . . . uh, efficient. So, when I moved in, my Krups went into storage. “Coffee makers suck too much power,” Stewart explained, fishing out an ancient French press from the way back of a cabinet. “It makes better coffee,” he insisted. Even though I eventually came to agree, I still missed my Krups. You can’t set a French press to have hot coffee waiting for you in the morning.
So too went my digital clock radio, which got traded for a battery-operated model. Buh-bye waking up to Morning Edition. And my microwave. The one I’d brought out from Brooklyn was branded another power glutton and replaced with an itty bitty one, capable of popping a bag of popcorn in oh, about 10 minutes. For months I lobbied vainly for a toaster, until Stewart discovered I was turning on the whole oven to make a single piece of toast and reasoned that a toaster had to be more energy efficient than that. But there’d be days when Stewart warned me not to microwave (or toast) at all. When it was overcast, the two minutes it would take to brown a bagel could suck the batteries dry.
Stewart likes to remind me that compared to say, the Middle Ages or even the 19th century, with gas lighting, outhouses, horse-drawn carriages, we were living in the lap of luxury. But I didn’t always see it that way. Some days it all felt just a little too Swiss Family Robinson for me.
Stewart was away on business when I experienced my first solo blackout. I optimistically checked the power inverter to see if I’d merely popped the breaker. No such luck. A quick flip-flip of the switch revealed the batteries were dead, dead, dead. There was no power. It was pitch black out, the only lights were the pinprick car headlights on the highway in the distance.
Panic rising, I called Stewart in California.
No problem, he said, trying to calm me down. The generator had gas in it. All I had to do was start it up. The generator is about 150 yards from the house, a trip I wasn’t thrilled about making in the black dark, even with a flashlight. Who knew what was lurking out there. Snakes. Spiders. Coyotes. Once, a mountain lion had dashed between Stewart’s legs in the yard. And even if I didn’t encounter the more exotic beasties, there was still the chance I could run into our neighbor’s pit bull who’d already cornered me once while I taking out the trash.
“First,” Stewart instructed via cell phone, “drive over to the generator, get out the jumper cables and hook them up to your car battery and the generator. Next . . .
“JUMPER CABLES!” I interrupted. “YOU WANT ME TO RESTART THE HOUSE WITH . . . JUMPER CABLES?!!”
I wasn’t sure I knew how to open up my car hood, let alone locate the battery and attach jumper cables to it without electrocuting myself. No, no, no, no, no. There was no way I was fumbling around with jumper cables and car batteries in the pitch black. I didn’t wait for the rest of the instructions.
“This isn’t what I expected when I moved out here!” I screamed into the phone as that icy, prickly, panicked feeling washed over me. I felt trapped. Isolated. Vulnerable. I longed to be back in Brooklyn where there were lights . . .cable . . . neighbors I could meet for a martini. How on earth did I, a confirmed New Yorker, lover of all things urban, get caught out in this empty, lonesome mountain wilderness? I missed the city sooooo much, I’d tear-up just watching the scenery in You Got Mail. And I don’t even like the Upper West Side.
“I can’t live like this!” I hyperventilated. “I want to go back to New York! I’m going back to New York!”
I’d always thought of myself as the calm-under-pressure type, so this was not my proudest moment. Clearly, “good in a crisis” pertained more to a break-your-zipper-on-your-gown-at-a-gala type of emergency because here I was, irrational, hysterical, a total wuss . . . and all because the lights had gone out.
But cursing at Stewart for not being here to fix it wasn’t going to make the generator turn over or recharge the batteries. Even if I did return to New York, I wasn’t getting on a plane tonight. So I had a choice: Go to a hotel. Or hunker down and wait it out. I crawled into bed and huddled nervously under the covers till I drifted, uneasily, to sleep.
In the morning, the sun came up.
And the lights came back on.
Thursday, April 20, 2006
Whenever I mention that I live on Mount Charleston in Las Vegas, I get a long, low whistle of appreciation. The kind that stunningly beautiful women elicit from otherwise dumbstruck guys. The kind that says Man! Wish it were me.
I know people immediately assume I’m ensconced in one of those squillion-dollar chalets, perched atop some alpine bluff with floor to ceiling windows and a jaw-dropping view of the valley. What Heidi’s dream pad would be if the little minx had gone corporate, then cashed out before the market burst.
But I’m not.
Our house is really more medieval fortress than alpine chalet. A solid brick affair with small arched windows, it’s the perfect place to wait out the Apocalypse. My friend Jessica charitably calls it The Bunker.
And though we are on Mount Charleston, we’re nowhere near the top. Thirty-two hundred feet up, we’re still in the desert, surrounded by dirt, rocks, yucca, small horse farms and mobile homes. There are amazing views of the Spring and Sunrise Mountains out of all of our windows. But I’ve got to confess, that’s pretty much wasted on me. I’ve spent the last 15 years in New York City’s concrete jungle. I’m content with tree-lined streets and manicured parks bounded by high-rises. Rampant nature makes me nervous. As a kid at sleep-away camp, I always had a note from home that excused me from doing any actual camping. I still have nightmares about an ill-fated family excursion through Bryce, Zion, Yosemite and other parks west of the Hudson during which I suffered an acute bout of urban withdrawl and had to be rushed to San Francisco for smog and city life -- my own brand of methadone.
I’d warned my boyfriend Stewart early on -- back when he could still bolt if he chose -- that I was an indoor gal, an unlikely candidate for living in the middle of the desert, off a dirt road in a house with a well and tempermental utilities. So what am I doing here? In a long-distance relationship eventually someone has to move. And given that I can write anywhere there’s an outlet and a phone jack -- and Nevada’s lower cost of living -- we decided it would be me. Eventually. Those conversations always involved some hazy, not-too-immediate future. I’d move . . . some day.
Truth was, although I love Stewart and couldn’t imagine life without him, I loved New York City too, and couldn’t imagine life beyond the Hudson. I wasn’t too eager to trade my fab Brooklyn apartment where everything I needed from mascara to movies to martinis was literally steps away, for an isolated mountain existence.
Then came 9/11. Four days after the twin towers fell, with gray ash still dusting the front steps of my apartment building, I decided that Eventually had become Immediately. Suddenly, nothing mattered except that Stewart and I were together. My city had become a target. And getting away from everything seemed like a grand idea. With a terse “I’m coming out,” I loaded my cats, laptop and a suitcase into a rental car and floored it out of town. Ninety-six hours later, I began my new life on Mount Charleston.
I know what they say about not looking a gift horse in the mouth. But I still do. Every day. Once the paralyzing terror dissipated and the nightmares faded . . . once a sense of normalcy returned, I wondered What have I gotten myself into?
I wasn’t the only one.
“You? Are living . . . where?” was the typically shocked response from my friends and family on the East Coast.
“Must be quite an adjustment for you, huh?” is the response from my new friends in the West.
An editor friend who knows my culinary prowess doesn’t extend beyond speed-dialing for Chinese takeout and hitting Reheat on the microwave predicted that living so far beyond delivery range, I’d probably starve. That hasn’t happened yet, but I have had to get used to some other quirks of mountain living.
For starters, there’s no here, here. The scattering of squatters trailers and horse paddocks in our immediate vicinity hardly constitutes a neighborhood. They say in New York you never know your neighbors. Forget that. In my media-saturated Brooklyn nabe, I couldn’t grab a cup of coffee at the Italian roasterie around the corner without bumping into half a dozen people I had at least a nodding aquaintance with: the onetime manager for the band Sugar Ray, a novelist friend from college, a former New Yorker editor now teaching at Sarah Lawrence, a theatre pal doing The Lion King on Broadway. Here . . . nothing. No neighbors. There’s not even a corner. And if I want coffee, it’s 15 minutes to the nearest Starbucks at Centennial Center. By car.
I always crack up when specialty grocery stores call to ask if I want their delivery service for fresh meats and vegetables. Someone’s going to deliver persishables? Yeah, right. I can’t even get my New York Times delivered!
Oh, Toto, we’re not in Brooklyn anymore. This is Jeep country. (Though I actually drive a Suzuki). At the Best Buy not too long ago, while getting a new CD player installed in my car, the pimply kid doing the installation asked me, “Doing some off-roading lately?”
“No . . . why?” I replied, puzzled. Do I look like the type that goes off-roading?
He looked at me. Then we both looked at my mud-splattered SUV. And I realized, in fact, that, Yes, I do go off-roading. Every day.
In New York, I could find any place so long as I had the cross-streets. So the whole “turn left at the third Joshua tree, go through the big wash and follow the groove carved in the dirt by numerous pickup trucks till you see the silver water tower” mode of pinpointing our house has required some getting used to. Not to mention a GPS tracker. The first time anyone drives out to visit, after reciting the litany of landmarks to watch for, I always add, “Call when you get lost. We’ll pilot you in.” Is it any wonder I can’t get home delivery of my New York Times?
No longer a simple question, What’s your address? is an enormous can of proverbial worms, involving more explanation than most people care about or have time for. So I try to qualify things. Are you coming to visit? Then hang a left at this succulent. Did I win $1 million from Publishers Clearinghouse? In that case, send the check to my PO Box. Technically, I suppose we do have a street address. I just never bothered to note the house number because I hardly needed it to pick out our lonely abode from the acres of yucca and Joshua trees that surround us. And because . . . because . . . Geez! Because there is no street.
Apart from the long-winded explanations, I got by fine not knowing our address. That is, until I got stopped for speeding one night not long after I’d moved in. The cop who nabbed me was surfer-dude blonde with massive shoulders and a Pepsodent smile. He looked like he spent his off hours bumping and grinding in the Chippendale corps. Typically, he wanted my license and registration. When my New York license didn’t match my Nevada plates, his next question, predictably, was, “What’s your address?”
Blink. Blink. I stared at him blankly. Utterly flustered. And not just because Officer Chippendale was disconcertingly buff.
“It’s complicated . . . ” I started babbling uncontrollably. “September 11 . . . recently moved . . . still have an apartment in New York . . . desert. . . no neighbors . . .”
Nervousness at being pulled over -- I haven’t gotten anything more than a parking ticket since my teens! -- was escalating into full-blown panic.
“I don’t know the house number . . . I could give you directions . . . I have a PO Box for mail . . . I know that address!”
I’m mortified that I don’t know my address. What 30something woman doesn’t know her own address? He’s going to think I’m nuts. Or a criminal. Criminals don’t have addresses, right? Or a terrorist. Ohmigod! That’s it, any second now he’s going to cuff me and haul me off to jail.
I’m talking, talking, talking. Trying to forestall my impending arrest. Trying to explain about the Joshua tree and the huge wash and the groove carved into the dirt and how you just follow the path till it disappears into the sagebrush, then look for the water tower in front of our house . . .
In my head, I’m screaming Shut up! Shut up! Shut! Up!
“I’ll call Stewart!” A last lifeline. I rummaged frantically through my bag for my cell phone. “He can tell you where we live.”
I clap a hand over my mouth. I’m an idiot. I realize this. I need to stop talking.
“No need,” says Officer Chippendale, calm as a Zen master.
Incredibly, he lets me go with an admonishing “Slow down!” And a big fat ticket, for doing 55 mph in a 35 mph zone. Guess even in my addled state, I managed to convince him I’m too wacky to be a danger to anyone but myself.
I start the car and make my way -- consciously slower this time -- back toward the mountain. Past the Joshua tree. Through the big wash. Following the groove in the road till I spot our silver water tower, gleaming in the moonlight. Finally, I’m home.
Just don’t ask me what the address is.