Ramblings & ephemera

More on Slab City

From Evelyn Nieves’s “Slab City Journal; For Thousands, a Town of Concrete Slabs Is a Winter Retreat” (The New York Times: 18 February 2001):

Every winter, when the Winnebagos and pickups shake the desert off Beal Road like a small earthquake, Ben Morofsky gets wistful for the 120-degree days of summer, and the peace of living with just a few hearty slabbers like himself. …

The 640 or so state-owned acres of tumbleweed and barren sand deep in the desert of Southern California, by the Arizona and Mexico borders, is not really a city, or town, or much of anything else. Year-round, it houses fewer than a hundred people, parked on concrete slabs in the sand, in campers or buses or the shells of whatever vehicle they could scrounge. But come the pale sun of winter, it becomes a bona fide attraction for a couple of thousand people fleeing the snow of the Midwest, Northwest and Canada.

The migrants, or snowbirds, come to Slab City in all manner of vehicle. They bring trailers that look like ranch houses on wheels, pickup trucks with tents and tarps on them, and every kind of camper in between. (There is even a snowbird reverend, who brings in his own nondenominational Christian church.) They start arriving in late October, reach critical mass by Thanksgiving and will drive away around April, returning Slab City to its other, loner self.

Winter can make for a sometimes uneasy mix. Snowbirds are retirees mostly, who stay about five months, merry as scouts on a camping trip. The slabbers, of all ages, eke out an existence from small retirement or other government checks, or just plain grit and charity. …

But Mr. Morofsky, 38, a self-taught mechanic who lives in a bus on a slab he shares with his girlfriend, three dogs, half a dozen chubby puppies and three friends with three more dogs and three more puppies, sees the bright side of sharing the desert half the year. He earns his bread fixing engines, generators, or just about anything the snowbirds need fixed.

“Snowbirds and slabbers are a different class of people. But we can all get along,” said Mr. Morofsky, playing catch with six dogs in the Coachella Branch of the All-American Canal that runs through Slab City like a vein. …

Everyone in Slab City, snowbird and slabber alike, is a squatter. They stay here for nothing (and get nothing in return, they like to say). They can pick up their mail at the post office in Niland, the down-and-out farm town four miles away. The Imperial County Sheriff’s Department, and the Niland Fire Department, keep watch to protect them. The dozen or so children in Slab City get picked up by the school bus. That is it as far as services. …

Yet chances are, if you ask someone who lives in Slab City full time what it is like, you will hear that it is like a lot of places, only hotter.

Not true. Slab City is a community of sorts for people who have not found community elsewhere, or else have not wanted it. The slab part of its name comes from its origins as a military base half a century ago. When the Army pulled up stakes, it left concrete slabs used as foundations for portable buildings. People began using the slabs to set up camps.

The most famous resident of Slab City is Leonard Knight, who has been building a mountain to God out of homemade clay for 16 years. His Salvation Mountain, painted in the colors of Froot Loops from donated paint, is three stories high, says “God Is Love” for at least two stories, and can be seen for miles around. It also marks the official entrance to Slab City. Mr. Knight, who is 69, is used to getting photographed for art books and magazines, but remains down to earth. “I try to spread God’s love everywhere,” he said.

Other longtime slabbers include Linda Barnett, who has lived here 12 years. She lives in a camper with a camouflage net as a canopy and a large antenna on the roof. The official Slab City hostess, she makes nightly announcements on a CB radio for all residents. “The announcements are about services provided, food programs, things for barter and trade,” she said wearily from a picnic bench. “The announcements can take 45 minutes.”

Then there is Mel Martin, known as Pops. An elderly eccentric millionaire, or so it is rumored, he lives in a truck in a compound with Mr. Morofsky, in protest, he said, of bourgeois society.

“What I want to know of the outside world,” he said, “is, are people ever going to rise from their complacency? We need a little protest in this country.”

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