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It's not hip, but it's heaven
During the four years and 10 weeks that my wife, Nancy, and I have lived in Desert Hot Springs, we've observed the evolution of a small town into a burgeoning city.
One of the early signs was the opening of a Thai restaurant. So many customers showed up on the first night that it ran out of food. The latest sign is that the rumor of a Starbucks being on the way has turned out to be true.
In our neighborhood, the city has just put in a sewer system and paved the roads. On the main street, Palm Drive, traffic lights have replaced the honor system at a couple of intersections. A UPS branch recently opened. A medical center is on the cusp of pure fantasy and planning stage. And, to quote the front-page headline in the current issue of a gung-ho conservative biweekly tabloid, the Valley Breeze, "Desert Hot Springs Police Add New Taser X-26 Weapon to its Arsenol [sic]."
The population was 7,000 when Nancy first visited here in 1978. Now it's 20,000. There are 40 hotels and spas that pump the odorless, healing mineral water out of the ground at 120 to 180 degrees. And last year, the cold water, which is filtered through sand several hundred feet below the hot water aquifer, won the Gold Medal for Best Tasting Municipal Water at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting competition. We no longer buy bottled water.
Our move from Venice Beach to Desert Hot Springs — from the motion of the ocean to the magnificence of the mountains — was prompted by the fact that the rent in Venice kept going up exponentially, a 7% increase every year for 16 years. Then we discovered that in Desert Hot Springs, anybody could get a mortgage if they had a pulse. We had never owned a house before. Now we were ecstatic, owning our own home and a garage — even the car had its own room — yet we were simultaneously aware of the preposterousness of "owning" land.
We'd been coming here occasionally on weekends since 1985, so we knew about the intense heat, but we've learned to appreciate air-conditioning. We loved the isolation — nobody drives to Desert Hot Springs by accident — and the sparse traffic.
There was only one movie theater here, and that building is now a church, but there are art houses as well as cineplexes in the more ostentatious cities, Palm Springs and Palm Desert, and on the way we pass streets named after such celebrities as Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, Gerald Ford and, most recently, Kirk Douglas. "You don't have to be dead to have a street named after you," Nancy said, "but it helps."
We made the move shortly after I published the final issue of the Realist, a satirical countercultural journal I launched in 1958. (Although when People magazine called me "father of the underground press," I immediately demanded a paternity test.)
I still write columns and articles, but my main obsession these days is working on a long-awaited (by me) first novel. Writing fiction enables one to have imaginary friends without being considered crazy.
We were fortunate to have real friends who had already moved here. We met Lane and Carol Sarasohn in 1987, when Lane, Carol and I were writers, and Nancy shot mini-documentaries for a short-lived series on Fox, the "Wilton North Report."
A few years later, Lane and I were writers on the syndicated "Ron Reagan Show." Now, with his two co-editors in Los Angeles, he produces "Ironic Times," a weekly online satirical publication, from his home in the desert.
One afternoon, Lane suddenly felt guilty about not having a regular job. He went for an interview with the owner of the Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel and the Miracle Springs Hotel, Mike Bickford, known by his employees as Mr. B. Within a few months, Lane became his chief assistant and troubleshooter.
Every month, I go with him to the Mayor's Breakfast. After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, everybody stands up and, one by one, introduces themselves. Here a chiropractor, there a Realtor. My favorite is an undertaker who says the same thing each time: "I'll be the last one in town to let you down."
Lane later became general manager of Miracle Springs and served two terms as president of the Chamber of Commerce, but before all that he gave my first comedy album, "We Have Ways of Making You Laugh," to the hotel's event organizer, and she arranged for me to perform at the Desert Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce officers and board of directors installation dinner.
According to the alternative paper the Desert Post Weekly, "In the extraordinary case of Desert Hot Springs, there is a convergence of five energy vortexes meeting in one place. In general, people are drawn to energy vortexes and power spots in search of enlightenment and inner peace; they are attracted by the invisible force and its therapeutic effects."
The paradox of my own peculiar spiritual path is that I'm an unbeliever who engages in constant dialogue with the deity I don't believe in. As a stand-up comic, I always say, "Please, God, help me do a good show," and then I always hear the voice of God boom out, "Shut up, you superstitious fool!"
Desert Hot Springs had changed its official slogan from "People, Pride and Progress" — no, it wasn't a multiple-choice question — to "Clearly Above the Rest," and so it came to pass that the theme of this particular dinner would be Heaven. The waiters and waitresses would be dressed as angels. The stage would be overlain with a cottony white cloud, enhanced by a fog machine. There would be a blond angel playing the harp.
At 7 p.m., the salad would be served. At precisely 7:15, a clatter of pots and pans would be heard, and then I would be thrown out of the kitchen, directly into that heavenly scene. Oh, yes, and I would be dressed as the devil, who had been kicked out of heaven.
I had never played a character before, but I rented a devil's costume — black shirt, red pants, bow tie, jacket, cape, tail and horns, a silver three-prong pitchfork — which I donned in a restroom for the staffers behind the banquet hall at Miracle Springs. I looked in the mirror, pulled my hair into a point on my forehead and said — to the image of Satan — "Please, God, help me do a good show." I may have been the personification of evil, but for an instant it felt like God and the devil were in perfect harmony, until I heard the voice of God boom out, "You must be kidding!"
I proceeded to conduct a one-devil roast of various local leaders in the audience whose eternal souls I had previously purchased, revealing how I had kept my part of each deal. I admitted my role in getting the president of the chamber of commerce reelected and confessed that I had secured a green card for the police chief's undocumented Mexican nanny.
A court decision had required the city to pay $3 million plus legal fees to real estate developers who unsuccessfully attempted a low-income housing project, but I disclosed that, in order to raise the money, I had set up a meth lab for the mayor.
Actually, in order to keep from going broke by paying the judgment, the city would later declare bankruptcy. However, the new slogan would not be changed to "Clearly Above the Credit Limit."
I exited heaven through the kitchen. In the corridor near the restroom, I overheard a woman say to her companion, "Right now, I would sell my soul for a massage." I surrendered to the impulse, walked behind her, tapped her on the shoulder and said, "Just sign right here." This was a unique moment, to be preserved in amber for posterity.
Nancy had advised me not to mention in this essay that I missed living in Venice, but in the very process of writing about Desert Hot Springs, I realize how much I've become attached to living here.
Paul Krassner is the author of "Murder at the Conspiracy Convention and Other American Absurdities," with an introduction by George Carlin, which can be found at paulkrassner.com.