Polyester Road Diaries

My life in the bush of filmic ghosts

I circle the building, confused about where to enter. I am not sure if the place is condemned or simply funky with a capital "F." I see a small child with chocolate-laced lips, and I push on under a dilapidated sign-CALGARY CHICKEN WORKS-into an unbelievable vision. In an old chicken-bits warehouse, a city of used stuff has emerged. Life emerges from the ashes of chicken parts.

I throw myself into it. I immerse myself in aisles of cameras, toasters, Thigh Masters, and bits of this and that. I could spend all day in this world. This is the way a store should be run. I find old G.I. Joes for Marco, my comic-book-retailing brother, but I have trouble finding any film stuff. At the counter, I ask a woman who looks remarkably like Gilda Radner if she has any film equipment.

"Oh . . . No, you would have to ask my husband about that," she says.

Enter her husband, wearing a Calgary Flames T-shirt and faded jeans. He greets me with a crooked smile, revealing a good number of missing teeth. His demeanor is casual but reserved. He introduces himself as Thomas, but he waits for me to make the first move.

"This is truly an amazing place you have here," I say. "I've never seen anything like it."

I have come to discover in my travels that thrift-store owners are reclusive. Deep down, perhaps they believe they deal in junk, and anyone who praises them-particularly anyone young from Southern California -engages in mocking irony masked as praise.

Thomas is downright suspicious, but he smiles.

"I am from Los Angeles, and you wouldn't believe how well a store like this would do there." Once again, I lay it on.

"Los Angeles?" his wife asks. "Did ya' hear that, Thomas? He's from LOS ANGELES! You deserve a free gift."

She hands me an audio-cassette history of the wild West still in the package. Thomas' eyes narrow.

"Los Angeles, you say? Yeah, you're right," he says. "You couldn't imagine how much I could make." He pronounces every syllable as if he's reading carefully from a card.

"Yeah," I say. "Sooooo . . . I'm looking for any film stuff-old projectors, film prints, cameras. But I can't seem to find anything."

"If you can show me a piece of identification that proves you are from Los Angeles, I will take you into the 5,000-square-foot secret, members-only storage area."

I produce a California driver's license. He looks at the license, doesn't ask about the Irvine address, and hands it back. He motions me forward, and we walk past a hand-written sign stating, sure enough, that we're heading into the secret, members-only area.

Stepping over debris and discarded items, we enter a room overflowing with stuff. Largely crap, partly interesting, everything but secret. I spend more than an hour in this muggy warehouse with Thomas as he tells me about his various paranoid delusions (his world includes an evil landlord, abusive neighbors, prying eyes), his genius for thrifting, and the value of apparently valueless castoffs. I am a man desperate for water, and Thomas is offering me salt. I glance at my watch and ask, "So, where is the film stuff?"

He stops talking and replies dryly: "Oh, you want film stuff. Well, I don't have any right now."

I leave with my G.I. Joes, my wild West tape in an unopened package, and a winking, conspiratorial nod from Thomas. United States, here I come.

June 15. Gainesville, Idaho. Thomas apparently has kinfolk in Idaho. I arrive in town early in the evening and decide to immediately head west on a secondary road around the mayhem of highway traffic. There's a somber mood to this road, and I am uncertain why everything seems so artificial. The rain has let up, and a brilliant sunshine begins beaming through my window. These roads seem to go on forever, with no towns or vegetation in sight. I tune in to the local National Public Radio station and begin to lose myself in the world of politics and current events. I've spent the majority of my voyage shielded from all news reports; now the radio has me fixated like a man who has been incarcerated all his life and is suddenly released to the wonders of radical change.

My trance is broken by the screaming air brakes of a white-and-yellow charter bus rushing by. I glance out in time to read the inscription on its side: NATIONAL ENGINEERING LABORATORY. A few miles on, I notice an identical bus. And then another. And another. At one point, I count a steady stream of 36 National Engineering buses making their way in the opposite direction, east to Gainesville.

Perhaps it's the antiseptic aesthetic of this region or lingering memories of Thomas' conspiracy theories, but I begin to feel like a character in The X-Files. A few miles down the road, I approach the entrance to the National Engineering Laboratories, a shroud of security gates and barbed wire, a fortress of cement and secrecy.

What goes on out here in the middle of nowhere? There is nobody in sight, but I have this awkward feeling that I am being watched. I venture on. Ten minutes later, I pull into a rest stop. A hot desert wind blows, and there is nobody in sight. A makeshift information booth offers only trivia: there have been nuclear tests in the area, which presumably has something to do with National Engineering, a subject on which the sign is mute.

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