From the serenity of a two hour treatment that combined mud bath, hot tub and long, deep massage, I emerged into the commotion of the mass media. Driving from the hotel-spa to town, a heard some comedian on the car radio claim that the United States possessed the world’s largest number of illicit meth labs, and probably the most unwanted teen pregnancies. If Bush succeeds with his plan to export “our way of life” not only will the third world people stop worrying about starving to death and dying or curable diseases, — although there is no plan for helping the poor or sick in Bush’s grand health care scheme they can also look forward to having choices between health food brands and different texture of toilet paper. Do you want Odwalla or Naked juice? Do you prefer ultra soft or extra soft caressing your bottom?
I perched on a barstool on Calistoga, California’s Main Street and watched CNN anchors “breaking news”–in closed caption. In addition, the screen contained rapidly moving letters about imminent war with Iran, catastrophic climate change, and children kidnapped or murdered by their parents.
2006 Iraqi mortality statistics ran across the screen as the muted anchor’s lips moved. Almost 35,000 dead Iraqis! And four and a half million Iraqis have fled the country. But Bush denies these realities mean civil war
The bartender glanced at the TV, made a sour expression and changed the channel. In place of reports and pictures of carnage in Iraq, the happy hour patrons stared at cleavage and expensive coifs on the HD TV.
Instead of panic-inducing “news,” an array of stars and starlets in gown-less evening straps displayed poise and profundity as they arrived on the red carpet for one of the motion picture industry’s multiple celebrations of itself: the Golden Globe awards. The blessedly muted sound meant that we could all stare at silent images of these “special” people, as a backdrop to watering hole conversations.
The 30-something year old woman next to me headed for the ladies room and the man putting the make on her turned to me. “That Dreyfus babe, I hear she’s worth millions, maybe billions. I mean, this isn’t money she made doing that Steinfeld show. This is from her family. I forget what they’re into, real estate or banking or something.”
I told him I heard similar rumors.
Penelope Cruz replaced Julia Louise Dreyfus on the screen as he repeated that “the Dreyfus bitch is really loaded What the hell does she need more for?” Luckily, his bar stool neighbor returned from the ladies’ room.
Two chairs down, a middle aged woman sipped something red that looked sweet and deadly. She pointed to the screen. “I saw her in the Spanish movie, whatchamacallit.” Her middle aged companion filled in: “Volver.” The two, dressed in sweatshirts and jeans, began a conversation about director Pedro Almodovar.
“Unusual,” the first woman said. “Not like macho guys like Clint Eastwood, Almodovar understands women.”
“I loved that one about his mother [“All About My Mother”]. It reminded me of my own mother.”
Seconds later, Eastwood’s image replaced Penelope Cruz on the screen.
One dramatically drunken man slobbered to his stoic-faced partner at a nearby table. “How come Saddam Hussein doesn’t get an award?”
That stopped conversation.
The drunk looked around the room and sipped from what looked like a designer vodka cocktail. “Best fucking hanging of 2006, wouldn’t you say?” He laughed at his own joke.
The man who had shown an interest in “that Dreyfus babe,” directed an ugly stare at the drunk, as if his profane remark had interrupted a more profane but highly strategic move in his attempt to seduce the woman next to him
I sipped locally brewed beer and eavesdropped on the women who had switched from Almodovar to post-Christmas shopping bargains. I got bored.
I tried to get a conversation going with the bartender who pushed a food menu at me. I asked her why she muted the TV sound, whether she found the conversations at the bar more interesting.
“I don’t listen to the TV or the conversations,” she replied. “The real phonies talk about wine as if they were characters in that stupid movie with Paul Giamatti, whaddayacallit?”
“Sideways,” I offered.
“Yeah,” she said, as if anyone would fall for either of those two guys. “My focus each night is to get myself through my shift without quitting. It’s early yet, and the drunks haven’t started to roll in. When they do, my job gets more, well, interesting.” She snorted at her own sarcasm.
“I’m making a living, raising my kid as a single mom and that’s like two full time jobs.” She said the tourists weren’t the problem, although “the foreigners [mostly Europeans] were stingier than hell with the tips.”
I asked if she worried her kids would go to war.
“Sure, with that pretender in the White House, who wouldn’t worry?”
She served another round to the man and woman next to me.
I finished my locally brewed beer, nodded at the people on both sides of me, who did not respond and walked to the street amidst tourists and locals, Mexicans and poor whites who serviced those looking to relax in the mud baths in the morning and then spend the rest of the day tasting Napa Valley wines. No, Sideways wasn’t made here. But it could have been.
Like much of the California wine towns, Calistoga has a history of farming and manufacturing, its pioneer days. It has the churches and veterans halls you expect to find in all American cities. The Mexicans and Mexican Americans who make the motel beds and water and mow the lawns, and those who tend and pick the grapes, live humbly. They share none of the conversation topics of the bar flies. Their kids join the armed forces, or go to prison more frequently.
Young adults–not Latinos — give massages and prepare the mud baths for the tourists seeking to extend life or escape death or just allow their stress to evaporate in the brown sulfur-reeking goo.
I engaged a woman in the super market as we both search for the proper “organic” orange juice. Which brand will prolong life more? Which one contains more Vitamin C? She has two kids in high school and works as a massage therapist at one of the local hotel-spas. “Meth [methamphetamines] worries me. So many kids are taking it. I have no idea if mine are doing it or not,” she says with a worried smile.
At the check-out counter, the headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle scream “death” in Iraq and from Bay Area homicides. In front of the bar on Calistoga’s (California) main street, a news rack contained the county weekly, headlining a new treatment for pets with stress. “Polly Wanna Prozac?” read the headline. The local paper alerted readers to prepare for the upcoming Crabfest, preparations for which had gotten underway.
I thought about the people I met in Baghdad in the Fall of 2002 when I filmed there. Most of them complained about Saddam Hussein, but not about the daily bombings, because there were none–except from the United States and England when they accused Saddam of violating a “no fly zone” they had imposed. They had water and electricity. Kids went to school and women and men went to markets and mosques without fearing for their lives.
I wanted to invite them, wherever they are, to come to Calistoga and soak in the mud, so they could see the real “American way of life.” How can one think of war, or occupying another country when soaking in nature’s warmth? Perhaps I should have invited Bush to join me before he gave his same old State of the Union address on January 23. Maybe someone should try to keep him in mud baths and hot tubs for the next two years!
SAUL LANDAU’s new film, “WE DON’T PLAY GOLF HERE, and other tales of globalization,” is available from email@example.com
His new book, with a forward by Gore Vidal will soon be published by Counterpunch Press. A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD.