Minkey Business

"Over the cage floor the horizons come."

Is this the right floor?

When I was very young, my parents were given an ornate chess set in which each piece was a miniature of a famous sculpture. I remember the kings were Michelangelo’s David, and the rooks were Rodin’s The Thinker. I thought it magnificent. I couldn’t understand why it made my parents giggle, and say how awful they thought it. I was too young to understand my dad’s explanation that this was the worst form of imitation.

The other day, I stood in front of a porcelain tile, and remembered that chess set. The tile was shaped, textured, and coloured to look exactly like a plank of wood. You could actually reach out and feel the grain and knot holes. In a photograph of the tiles installed in a fashionable home, it seemed that no two pieces were alike, giving the impression of a full-grained hardwood floor. There were many such wood-look options, ranging from regular oak or maple, to weathered barn wood, to distressed, reclaimed wood complete with water stains and faded paint remnants.

They were all extremely realistic, and yet, I thought of magnificent Italian statues reduced to plaster of Paris playthings. Why didn’t I have a similar problem with porcelain or ceramic tiles made to look like travertine, or quartz, or brick? Why was litho-mimicry okay, but biomimicry somehow… well, nouveau riche? Even stone-imitation needs a lot of artifice, especially if you’re trying to recreate the veining and lacunae of sedimentary limestones.

Our final choice for our home was a porcelain tile made to look like ashy brick. So why not wood-imitation porcelain? I love the look of hardwood floors, and there’s nothing infra-dig about choosing to not cut down trees. Sure, a tile can never feel like wood, but a brick-like tile doesn’t feel like brick. It’s too cold, too hard. It won’t acquire a patina. And while the tile we chose beautifully mimicked the subtle differences from one brick to another, it would never recreate that porous, earthy look that makes brick floors so inviting.

Maybe it’s the Rexine effect. You know, the fake leather material that was used in horribly cheap-looking furniture in the 1980s. Rexine cried out that here was someone who wanted the aura of leather, but did not want to pay for it either in expense or care. Wood-look tiles are still in that zone, especially on the west coast of America, where using actual wood as a building material is not as loaded a choice as it may be elsewhere.

When I start tile-gazing, I could barely tell one type from another, but once you’ve spent a few afternoons doing this, perception sharpens. I started to notice how the texture and veining of a true natural stone seems to lie under the surface, and also started seeing digital image artifacts on the cheaper imitation products.

When synthetic products imitate natural ones for purely cosmetic purposes, is it the same as that chess set imitating great art? Often, the imitation is for functional purposes too. If you’re making a synthetic fabric to keep people warm, sure, it needs to be woolly because that’s what traps air for insulation. By stepping away from trying to recreate nature, they came up with fabric with little silver dots that keeps wearers warm like nothing in nature, by reflecting body heat back at them. What if we’d done the same thing with flooring 10 or 20 years ago? That instead of focusing so much on imitating stone and wood, we’d developed floors that generated heat or electricity. Or how about this one: a “flooring system” that keeps itself clean?

First published in Gulf News, January 3, 2017

A stupid way to use a smartphone

It’s hard to be surprised by phones any more. They do so much. And yet, the other day, I was treated to an impressive use of the smartphone I’d never seen before.

I was talking to an industry rep, and asked him whether Method A was better than Method B. The rep said A was generally better. That wasn’t enough for me; I always need to know why. “So is it because…” and I offered up an arcane possibility as to why A was superior.

The rep half-nodded, even as he whipped his phone up in front of his face, and was instantly engrossed. He turned away from me, forehead almost touching the screen. He reminded me of a toddler who knocks something over, then covers his face with his hands, hoping he can’t be seen.

I know many of you would assume the rep was a Millennial, unable to bear the terrible burden of not knowing something under the Google sun. He wasn’t. He was comfortably Generation X, just like me.

Recently, a dear cousin of mine made an observation about modern life through the imagined eyes of his father, who died in 1985 at the age of 48. “If he was to come back now, and heard one of his grandkids say, ‘Let me take a photograph on my phone’ he wouldn’t know what to think. He might imagine us all gathered in the living room in front of the telephone… but how would you use it for a photograph? And why?”

As we talked about it, I realised most smartphone magic could be explained by someone who left us in 1985. Checking the phone for time or weather? Sure, you called the service. Using it to map your way to a hotel? You phoned and got directions from the front desk. Remotely checking on the delivery person at your front door? Aha, you phoned your neighbour. But taking a photograph?

My cousin’s father, like mine, was probably born into a household without a telephone. And just as I remember getting our first television, my father remembers when his family got their first telephone. He recently emailed a musing on the subject, talking about how he, as a child, would accompany his father to “Burmah-Shell uncle’s” office, and would sit, fascinated by the large Bakelite contraption on the corner of the desk. He would will the object to ring just so he could watch this marvelous technology in use.

His family eventually got one in their home, “hitched up against the wall on a stand” like a public phone. “And soon it did become public,” my father wrote. “Neighbours would pour in, stand in line and talk into that Bakelite handle without a thought that they were disturbing the family who owned the dastardly thing.”

The growth of the telephone in his lifetime from precious scarcity to careless ubiquity, was a matter of as much concern as wonder. My father is someone who loves to ask and ponder why, and I wonder how he would have reacted to the rep who didn’t even pretend to notice a message, or feel it ring before he used his phone to, nearly literally, cover up his insecurity. I’ve long noticed that people find saying, “I don’t know” as hard as passing kidney stones, and it seems this problem is worse than ever. For those who feel inferior for receiving information instead of disseminating it, the smartphone means they never need knowledge from another human again. Soon, it’ll be acceptable to have someone shove a phone up in front of their face to end a conversation. It’s a new feature and it’s coming.

First published in Gulf News, December 20, 2016

A rudimentary game of chess

We walk the dog in the morning in small natural area near our home called the Santa Anita Wash. To get to it, we go through a narrow underpass. This little concrete channel is a scene for a rudimentary game of chess that plays out nearly every day across the city of Los Angeles.

Every so often, spray-painted symbols and words appear on its walls, often with an half-full aerosol can left on the ground nearby. They are mostly indecipherable, though sometimes we can make out names and letters. A few days later, it’s all painted over in squares of grey or beige paint—the LA County graffiti removal squad has come through on their thankless rounds.

Many of these markings are a simple form of graffiti known as tagging. Taggers aim to spray their names or symbols in as many places as possible, and get respect in the community for especially hard-to-reach areas. You often see tags high above the freeways, where someone needs to have climbed out of a walkway, and hung 50 feet above the traffic to make their mark.

Some of this writing on the wall is more sinister. Gang graffiti marks territory, issues threats, and if the city doesn’t paint over it, the neighbourhood can change, quickly. Here, the broken windows theory plays out in squiggles on walls, signs, and even the tarmac on roads and bike tracks. The limits of policing, and the watchfullness of the neighbourhood are tested with the rattle and hiss of aerosol cans. (This is why, when you go to Home Depot or Walmart, the spray paint cans are locked behind a cage. You need assistance to buy one.)

There are sections of the bike track where I’ve watched this game played out over years. In South and East Los Angeles, where gangs are common, moves happen over hours. In a video on the Los Angeles Times website, a member of a removal crew describes how they painted over a large area only to have it tagged 10 minutes later. The crew waited an hour, and painted over the tags again. The Los Angeles County takes the graffiti problem so seriously that they operate a 24-hour hotline with live operators. Graffiti costs the county hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

While gang graffiti is meant to be read, it’s hard to decipher without the code. The number ’13’ for example, whether in Arabic or Roman numerals, suggest links to the Mexican mafia. The letter ‘C’ might represent the Crips, which, along with its rivals, the Bloods, is one of LA’s older gangs. A crossed-out gang letter with a K next to it, is a kill warning. And if you see the letters ‘MS’, you might be in the territory of MS-13, one of the most feared and ruthless gangs to originate in Los Angeles.

With hip-hop culture prevalent around the world, it’s common for people to “throw up” gang signs for laughs. Perhaps the best known one is to splay the index and pinky, with the middle and ring fingers crossed, to make the ‘W’ for Westside. Los Angeles residents often have to warn international visitors to never goof around with hand signs. On the streets of LA, these aren’t mere symbolic gestures. They can cause serious offence at best, and depending on where you are, may get you killed.

Right now, the taggers rule our underpass, and the timer is running for the city’s turn with paint or pressure washer to call ‘check’, and establish shaky authority once more.

First published in Gulf News, December 6, 2016

Democracy is coming to the USA

This is my first cuff since the US election, so let’s talk about Canada. Well okay, let’s talk about a Canadian, a famous one we lost on November 7. Leonard Cohen was 82 when he died in his sleep after a fall in the night. His last album ‘You Want It Darker’ had been released just two weeks earlier, and though quite ill, he had been at a highly creative period of his life.

Commiserations travelled quickly through a small group of friends. Growing up on the outskirts of Bangalore, India, we had a high number of people who loved oldies. (Just hum the opening bars of Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ at a dinner party to blow the roof off.) Leonard Cohen’s work, famously described as “music to slit your wrists by”, was favoured by a sub-group of brooders and readers, whether writing out the lyrics of ‘I’m Your Man’ for a special someone, or marveling at the moonlit desolation of ‘Take This Waltz’.

Leonard Cohen spoke to an inchoate wisdom in us. We dreamed of meeting our own ‘Suzanne’, or, depending on gender, dreamed of being her, and of leading or being led, to her place by the river.

Today, though we have music playing nearly all the time at home, my wife and I have very little common on our playlists. I introduced her to Cohen along time ago, and he’s probably the only musician whose entire discography we agree on. “He’s someone who really brings the power of introspection to music,” she said, as he lived on through our speakers the morning after news of his death. We had both dreamed of seeing him live, and knowing time was short, checked his website regularly for a tour schedule that didn’t appear. We’ll have to make do with his live albums. Luckily they’re wonderfully recorded, and he works with great singers and musicians. (Listen to Sharon Robinson just slay ‘Boogie Street’ on disc two of ‘Live in London’.)

Cohen’s most famous song is, of course, ‘Hallelujah’, one that’s better known in cover versions than the synthetic, almost thrown-away original. As I write this, I’ve played the original, from the album Various Positions, back-to-back with the beautiful Jeff Buckley version. It’s tempting to call the latter the better song, yet, something in Cohen’s time-trailing phrasing projects his images like stained-glass in my mind.

The day after his death, with Trump news dominating our feed, I had Cohen’s song ‘Democracy’ running ironically through my head. The track, from the album The Future has a marching chorus that goes, “Democracy is coming, to the USA”. The way it’s sung, ‘democracy’ sounds ominous, almost retributive. It was the perfect soundtrack as I puzzled over details of the electoral college versus the popular vote. Hillary Clinton got more votes, but didn’t win? It sounded very little like democracy to me.

But the day I write this, November 18, the Los Angeles Times ran a story called ‘L.A. Lays Out Its Trump Battle Plan’ in which the city was “vowing to push back against efforts to deport people in this country illegally”. In it, the mayor was concerned that mass deportations would negatively affect the state’s economy. I read again the heartwarming term “sanctuary city”–cities in which people are not prosecuted for their illegal immigration status.

Reading about people around this country and even around the world sitting up, rallying round, and speaking up, I’m starting to wonder if Trump might work as a trigger for good. That if his office does continue his toxic promises, democracy will come, like a tsunami, to the USA.

First published in Gulf News, November 22, 2016

Free food saves brands

Some people take up far more room in queues than they actually occupy. The woman in front of me at Qdoba, the Subway-styled Mexican food chain, used the bandwidth of three customers. She moved back and forth between stations, adding to her order, taking away from her order, making a new order, changing her mind, changing her mind about changing her mind. And as the server started on my order the woman broke the cardinal unwritten rule of assembly-line restaurants: she moved backwards.

“Can I have a sample of that?” she asked my server, barely noticing the social machine around her grinding to a halt. When she was finally gone, and I was ready to pay, the cashier put an empty soft drink cup by my asada bowl. “Sorry for the delay. Help yourself to any of our drinks from the fountain,” she said cheerily.

Now, the delay wasn’t Qdoba’s fault. The cashier needn’t have acknowledged it at all, and though I didn’t take her up on it, I really appreciated the gesture. Qdoba is an underrated brand, at least here in California where Mexican chains are viewed (mostly rightly) with suspicion. For a cost to company of mere cents, the brand went even higher in my estimation.

Let’s contrast that with my recent experience at a branch of Church’s Chicken, a franchise restaurant much like KFC, though food-wise it’s closer to Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. You might know it as Texas Chicken. I placed my order, and went to quickly use the restroom. As I tried open the door to get back out, the handle turned round and round without engaging the lock. I jiggled it, tugged at it, tried different angles, but it just wouldn’t open. I knocked, and someone from the other side tried again and again to open it, with no luck. They went away—to get help, I hoped. I tried the handle again, very carefully. It worked, and I was free.

Outside, I discovered that the manager, the person who had tried the door, had taken no chances, and called the police to come let me out. “They have the tools, and some people panic,” she said, and I thought that was good thinking. I waited a few more minutes for my food, during which the policeman arrived, and seemed totally unfazed that he was no longer needed. My order was called, and the manager who was also my cashier, rang me up. I paid in full, and left, with no further reference to the incident.

My bill was under $5. I couldn’t help thinking that the least they could have done was not charge me. It wasn’t about saving $5, any more than having my delay acknowledged at Qdoba was about a free $2 drink. It was about acknowledging that restaurant restrooms should not trap patrons. Today, every time I pass any Church’s I feel an involuntary shudder, and you can be sure I’ll irrationally work hard to never eat there again.

Empathy was quite the corporate buzzword a while ago, and here’s empathy nicely at work in the first instance, and a total failure of it in the second. Even in personal life, empathy is at once an easy, and fiendishly nuanced concept, especially when it comes to understanding the people who wrong us. Corporate empathy needs empowered employees, and this requires maturity from the top down. If a manager is questioned suspiciously about every comped meal, for example, she’s less likely to hand out freebies even in situations where cost to brand is hundreds of times higher than $5.

First published in Gulf News, November 8, 2016

The high-end cottage industry

A couple of weeks ago, a representative from an upscale audio company walked into a California high-end dealership to perform some updates on the floor units. He hefted amplifiers onto a table, lifting off the thick aluminium covers, and connecting a laptop to the circuit board to flash the amplifier’s memory, giving it new abilities.

“The amps were given an amazing new feature,” someone from the shop later joked (fondly, it must be said) to some other reps. “When you press a button on the remote, the volume changes!”

The reps smiled and shook their heads. Up to then, to change the volume via remote control, you had to type in the level you wanted. Is ‘34’ too soft? Type in 38 or 40.

“That’s pretty cool actually,’ said one of the reps as he thought about it. “I don’t think I’d want that update.”

Contained in that story is both the magic and the obduracy of high-end audio, a niche market that’s essentially an expensive cottage industry. Call it a manor industry if you will. These are products with years of R&D, extreme engineering and finishes, and no economy of scale. Many of these top brands depend on one person for their existence, and often feature all this person’s brilliance, and many of his quirks. These products aren’t smoothed and democratised as they pass from hand to hand, committee to committee, test group to test group.

Remote controls seem to be the neglected poster children of high-end audio. When so few people are designing and manufacturing a highly engineered product for such demanding customers, niceties are overlooked. Remotes from most audiophile companies are heavy bars or blocks or even discs, sprinkled seemingly randomly with unvarying buttons. They don’t fall to hand easily, and the layout is utterly unintuitive.

These are products that make me appreciate the ones we take for granted. The remote control on your modern television is an ergonomic miracle. See how the shape of it makes that circular button in the centre fall naturally under your thumb. The volume is always where you think it’ll be, and the only time you have to actually look at it is when you’re accessing those deeper, darker features you almost never use. In contrast, after years of use, I still need to peer at my audio system’s remote for the simplest of functions, even changing volume.

This is a world that is used to elaborate set-up and start-up procedures before playing music. I have a vinyl-only friend who goes through three cleaning steps each time he lowers stylus to groove. So asking users to get up to change the volume isn’t such a terrible thing. And audiophiles like to know that the busy designers of these fantastically priced products use all their time getting the sound perfect. If a volume control on a remote is a long belated afterthought, so be it. Spending months choosing the capacitors on the output stage of an amplifier is so much more rewarding for everybody concerned.

It’s fitting then, that the amplifier that needed the update is a work of art. Its chassis is carved from a single block of metal, and finished to perfection. There are burnished copper heatsinks along the sides. Should you change the volume on it directly, you will be rewarded with a tactile experience so beguiling, you’ll find yourself spinning the notched, weighted, polished volume ring just to hear and feel the oily clicks as it rotates.

It makes you wonder if the update should have removed the ability to use a remote control altogether.

First published in Gulf News, October 25, 2016

How can music build muscle?

My friend P ran a popular restaurant for a long time, and then spent many years working as a consultant. People he knew who loved to cook would often come to him for advice on starting their own restaurants. His response was always the same. Never do it. “Running a restaurant has very little do with food and cooking,” he would tell them. “It’s a heartbreaking business”.

Jobs usually look different from the inside. This is why I’ve been circumspect about finding a job in one of my two dream industries. It’s only three weeks into working for a high-end audio dealer, and I’m having even more fun than when I started. (The other dream industry would be cycling.)

My quick inside view of the high-end audio industry is that there’s a lot of heavy lifting. Literally. This is not a job for someone with a bad back. A Wilson Sophia speaker, for example, weighs 72kg. Getting one up even a couple of steps is a workout. An Audioquest power conditioner is about the size of a fat briefcase, but weighs 37kg, and has no handles. It’s fun trying to get that onto a rack. We recently installed a pair of power amplifiers that weigh 61kg each, though they did come with handles.

Most of this is ridiculously expensive gear, so my other expectation was of customer lifestyles. I assumed that people who buy $100,000 audio systems live in the mansion on the hill, with ocean vistas, and crunchy sweeping driveways. And so far, while we have been to one such house, most audiophiles lead pretty normal lives. On my first day at work, we visited a customer whose house gave no clues outside, or in the rest of the home, that the front room had been turned into a $180,000 home cinema. The rear speakers alone would be an unattainable dream as main stereo speakers for many audio nuts.

Another customer lived in a house not too different from one we rent. In the front room were two giant speakers, and the wooden TV unit contained a range of expensive American vacuum tube based electronics, in the same cubbies most of us fill with books and magazines, and assorted DVDs. The next time you run into your neighbour, look at him carefully (it’s usually a ‘him’). He could be an audiophile, walking unchallenged among us.

I recently read a March 12, 2014, Forbes interview of Sandy Gross, who co-founded Polk, Definitive Technology, and GoldenEar. He was asked about a trend in the audio industry he didn’t like. His answer: “The disappearance of high quality specialty retail stores that can demonstrate the gear as well as provide expertise and advice.”

I’m proud to work in a store, almost an institution, that has demonstration systems everywhere, and the ability to provide customers with informed choices. And I like that the owner happily fires up the $500,000 flagship system even for people who have come in to buy a $1,600 Technics amplifier.

We accept luxury with such ease and openness when it comes to televisions, cars, jewellery, gadgets, and travel, and yet are so reluctant to treat ourselves to good sound at home; ready to call the entire industry a scam. High-end audio has a big branding problem. Done right, music at home can captivate you, move you to tears, keep you sitting on the couch till 2am playing “just one more track”.

Too few people know this, and too few people realise just how much they are missing from their music when they assuredly say, “I don’t have the ears to hear the differences.”

First published in Gulf News, October 11, 2016

MacArthur Park’s melting in the dark

I enjoy the surprise of international visitors at our local CVS Pharmacy. The actual medicines are sold only in one corner of this giant shop that has everything from birthday balloons to alcoholic drinks to frozen foods. This particular California location is so large that they recently cut it in two, and were able to house an entire Aldi grocery store in one half.

In my last Cuff I’d written about a road trip, and said that, “Few other American experiences outside of the National Parks live up to or even exceed fable.”

The retail experience is one those. And specifically, the membership-only warehouse clubs such as Costco, a place where even Americans shake their heads as they walk in. At Costco, you don’t (and can’t) buy one or two rolls of kitchen towel. You buy a pack of 12. You don’t get one toothbrush; they come in packs of eight. The huge jar of instant coffee is taped to a second. You have to buy both.

We got our television from Costco, from the front where they are piled on shelves like so much produce. When we chose one, we looked around. Surely we need to tell someone to get it for us? Nope, we simply had to load our new television onto our cart, along with the dog food, Wet Wipes and peanut butter.

Costco changed my perception of what it means to be almost running out of things. A few years ago, to be almost out of cooking oil, would mean there’s an inch at the bottom of the last one liter bottle. Today, running out of oil means there’s only one more sealed 2.84L bottle left in the cupboard above the fridge. It’s easy to become accustomed to jars of mixed nuts the size of your head and beverage bottles so large, you need two hands to heft them off the shelf. Costco is another fun stop for visitors from out of country, and I enjoyed my parent’s astonishment as they entered the store on a recent visit.

But I’d saved the saddest, perhaps biggest, surprise for another day. We were to visit a restaurant near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. “It’s a rough neighbourhood,” I said. “But even so, when we come up the escalator from the Metro station, if your eyes don’t widen, you get your money back.”

Sure enough, as they crested the escalator, my mother looked at me, eyes like saucers. On the left, a bunch of men and women, just hung out, belongings strewn everywhere. Ahead, street vendors had spread junk for sale—everything from old phone chargers to shavers. Around the corner, food vendors sold mango slices with chilli powder (if you’re from India, a lot of Mexican street food will be familiar to you). A tamale vendor sold out of the back seat of his SUV. As always, there were the hustlers trying to sell you fake ID’s.

After our meal, we walked through the faded glory of the park itself. A crazed homeless woman stood in the middle of a lawn, screaming at the world. Trash was scattered everywhere, and when you peered into the waters of the pretty lake, you could see shoes, clothes, plastic bags filled with junk. The pavement was storage for the local homeless, with shopping carts loaded with possessions, mattresses, tents and sleeping bags piled everywhere. This wasn’t just grit and character. It was devastation. It was shocking that this was the “greatest country on earth”, and my parents were shocked. It was, I’m sorry to say, another American experience that exceeded the fable.

First published in Gulf News, September 27, 2016

The old man and the taco truck

I could devote hundreds of words to Crater Lake in Oregon, and not come as close to its overt magic as the briefest Google Image search. So let me tell you, instead about meeting the Old Man of the Lake.

The first documented sighting of him was in 1896, when a explorer camping on Wizard Island in the lake, noticed a tree stump sticking out of the water. The next morning it had vanished. It was obviously floating around the lake, upright. For over a hundred years the 30-foot stump has wandered the waters of this caldera, covering as much as seven miles a day. We were lucky on this boat tour, the ranger said, to be able to come so close the four-feet or so sticking above the surface.

The Old Man doesn’t bob. He’s too heavy, too stately for that. He just sits in the water, appearing to be anchored to the bottom. The wood above the waterline is white and weather-beaten. And since this is Crater Lake, with the clearest water of any natural water body on Earth, you can see his entire length below the water surface. How he has floated upright for so long remains unknown.

After the boat tour, I stood on the shore of the lake, cupped some of the clear, cold water in my hands, and drank it. The taste was as crisp and blue as the lake itself. I wasn’t being foolish–the park rangers themselves tell you that the lake waters are perfectly good to drink. “It felt like an Ent-draught,” I told my wife, as I passed her on the steep hike back up the side of the caldera (Lord of the Rings references are a nearly daily occurrence between us).

This then, is where travel happens—in the moments in between. The points at which you break through into a new country or place are rarely at the grand vistas, but at the marketplaces where a smiling vegetable vendor tips an extra red capsicum into your bag, or the street corners where a man goes out of his way to give you directions to your destination, or the coffee shop that doesn’t charge for your drink because you mentioned it was your first visit to the chain.

This brings us neatly (in the way that hacking through a jungle with a machete is neat) to taco trucks. If you’re ever walking, baffled, through the streets of Los Angeles, California, stop at a taco truck. It’s likely to be a stepping stone into this city, one of those little travel portals you rarely find on purpose. Here, you will share a line with a bearded hipster, a couple of be-suited office workers, construction workers in high-visibility vests, and a young man with a cheap backpack who speaks only Spanish and looks bewildered, as if he only just walked into town through the San Ysidro border crossing from Mexico.

I mention taco trucks today because, of course, the co-founder of Latinos for Trump who infamously warned on September 1, that Mexico’s “aggressive” culture might result in a taco truck on every corner. Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times columnist, wrote about the issue, in his September 4 column ‘Taco Trucks on Every Corner? Si Por Favor’. He ended, “…I know what would truly make America great again. More taco trucks.”

I agree completely, and it’s not just about democratic, ethnic grilled meats. After all, if tomorrow, the Old Man of the Lake sank, Crater Lake, in its massive entirety would be unchanged. Yet to me, it would have lost a part of its soul.

First published in Gulf News, September 13, 2016

The American roadside attraction

“You kill it, we grill it.”

The closest Roadkill Cafe comes to living up to name and tagline is the bison burger, a road kill that would likely leave you in no shape to eat anything. But this is Seligman, Arizona, along a section of Route 66 that cleaves more accurately to a Disney Cars notion of the defunct highway than the dustier, more dangerous version Steinbeck etched in Grapes of Wrath.

Not everyone gets it. A few years ago, we recommended the Grand Canyon Caverns to houseguests who came back puffy and hissy about how downmarket the experience was, how underwhelming the caverns, especially compared to ones they’d seen on their other travels around the world. They had completely missed the point.

When you park in the shadow of a giant plaster dinosaur and pay $12 to be led through the caverns by an eccentric bearded man who knows and has a name for every calcite formation (“Here are the Fried Eggs!”), through caves that contain a mummified bobcat, a model of a prehistoric giant sloth whose bones were found in the cavern, and tinned biscuits from when it was to be a Cold War fallout shelter, you have signed on the dotted line of a very American contract. All along this thoroughfare are eccentric, overblown roadside attractions whose inauthenticity is their authenticity—you hand over your money fully aware you’re being taken for a bit of a ride, and you’re okay with that. This is how you get your kicks on Route 66.

If you haven’t been to the US, and are not sure which of your grand and terrible images of this country would survive a visit, it would likely be your fevered dream of the road trip. Few other American experiences outside of the National Parks live up to or even exceed fable. Recently, I drove with my parents from home near Los Angeles, to Denver, Colorado. Taking our time over three days, we passed through Flagstaff, Arizona, and the incredible Monument Valley in the Navajo Nation. On the way back it was just me from Vail, Colorado, taking the faster route along the I-70 and I-15 freeways.

The first third or so of the sixteen-and-a-half-hour journey back (counting breaks) was enlivened by the scenery through the Rockies and the San Rafael Swell. As the land settled into less fantastical shapes, colours and textures, I switched the in-car entertainment from music to an audio book, The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman. In his essay “How Dare You” about his novel American Gods, Gaiman seemed to address me directly when he said, “I discovered, as I wrote it, why roadside attractions are the most sacred places in America.”

I was intrigued. I haven’t read American Gods, but I know that turning off a highway, and following a sign promising a “historical museum” or the like, is like turning from your idea of America to America’s idea of America. Without these signposts, the Hollywood sign is a set of large wooden letters on a hill, a burger is a round sandwich, and Route 66 is a scattering of lost roads. Contained in the American roadside attraction is the acknowledgment that somebody built this, and to it we came. Walking through a Seligman store, looking at the Route 66 T-shirts, mugs, licence plates, earrings, pins, caps, I see this dross, this kitsch as sacrament, as relics. I see the American’s longing to be told that somewhere in this vast, confusing, troubled, achingly beautiful country, is America, and that this may be it, no more, no less.

First published in Gulf News, August 30, 2016