Mike Davis on Trucking

This is a part of my interview with Mike Davis for the L.A. Times that didn’t make the final cut. I still found it interesting. You can find the other sections of the extended interview at this page, and you can read the published interview here.

Mike Davis: One thing we haven’t talked about, and one of the most important things of my life, was the open road: trucking.

Sam Dean: Trucking! My grandpa was a not-very long-haul trucker. He drove from like Boston to basically the Quebec border.

MD: Semis?

SD: Yeah, semis. He was a Teamster in the Boston local, but has been retired as long as I’ve been alive on disability.

MD: Boston Teamsters!

SD: Yep. <laugh> Who now run the Teamsters! The new guy, Sean O’Brien, who beat the Hoffa junior candidate, is a Boston Teamster. So what did you drive? I  saw somewhere that you were hauling Barbie dolls, or toys.

MD: Oh yeah. I, I worked for the major toy distributor for the Western United States. It’s called Pensick and Gordon. The original warehouse from the early fifties is still downtown, right next to SCI-Arc.

So in 1968, I had to get a job.

SD: Yeah. <laugh>

MD: And there were all these opportunities around. I succeeded in passing the test to become a maritime clerk on the longshoremen. Which is a million-dollar job.

But politically we decided, my best friend, Ron and I, and some others, that the Teamsters was the place to go. And the Teamsters and the war on poverty had set up this program called the transportation opportunity program. And it was a single most utopian experience in my life.

For three months we were paid a good wage to go down and drive the most beautiful heavy duty equipment you could imagine, taught by six guys who had been selected by the union locals as the best drivers. So we had a Japanese American guy who was a produce hauler, we had somebody who came out of freight and stuff. We had this brand new equipment. I can’t tell you how beautiful most of it was. And so I went through that and I got a job.

The original job I was working for blue diamond, the ready mix concrete. I think it’s a subsidiary of 3M. And they had a big plant down off of Washington, and they were building the Arco skyscrapers downtown, I think it was the Arco skyscrapers. And I got so enthralled watching the high iron guys — I mean, it’s much better than the circus — that I ended up spilling concrete down Figueroa. So, you know, I lost that job.

But immediately I got a job with Pensick and Gordon as toy distributor and worked for them for five years, including my first year in college. I didn’t start college till I was 29 or 30. The way it worked was in November, December, I mean, I have a pay stub somewhere here for $220, huge amount of money in 1970, but it was for an 80-hour week. So we would work like fiends, you know, from early morning to late at night, but then after Christmas, nobody was buying toys anymore. And all that the company needed — there were, I think 12 of us heavy duty drivers — was a couple of guys to basically pick up broken toys and returns and stuff until March when it picked up again, and then the rest of us were rehired and, you know, came back.

So it was a nine month a year job, which left me three months a year to hike in the San Gabriel mountains. It was often in the winter months. Hiking the San Gabriels is obsession of mine. I’ve been to every peak, including Iron Mountain, right next to old Baldy.

I was all in this in order to be part of the Teamster rank and file movement.

SD: Was this TDU [Teamsters for a Democratic Union] then? Or

MD: This preceded TDU, in LA it was local, and it ended up with us all involved in the great Teamster wildcat strike In 1970, the same time my wife was hitting the pavement for UTLA, or the predecessor of UTLA. But because I had started off at the lowest seniority, I was sent on whichever route somebody was sick or absent.

SD: Yeah, I was gonna ask, what was the route?

MD: I ended up going everywhere. I’d go to Santa Barbara, I’d go to the South Bay, I’d go all through Orange County. But eventually I had my own route, which started off — we were located in the city of Commerce, this last little bit of it right next to Montebello. And so I’d start off [delivering] basically in Pasadena and I’d go all the way in the course of the day to the PX at March Air Force Base.

It was wonderful. The summers were rugged because of the smog. But in the spring and early autumn, it was just beautiful. I loved doing that job.

A very kind of complicated thing [led to me leaving]. I lost my seniority along with other guys who’d been working the 12 months, because the warehouse supervisor was this extremely charismatic Korean War veteran. And he came out of White Fence, the famous East Side gang. He recruited White Fence guys as the warehouse workers, and they were tremendous hard workers, but he wanted to get them in the trucks. This was a lot more money. And he kind of engineered that.

So after five years I lost this job, and that’s when I decided to to go to UCLA. And then when I came back from England, I was just totally OD’ed with intellectuals and academia. And by the way, I never wanted to teach, it never crossed my mind. So my buddy Ron had been a long distance over the road guy, and he said, look, I’m sick of this, I want to be onshore now. And if you can get me some kind of other job, you can take my job. I’ll just tell the bosses and they’ll hire you, because most of it was off the books and illegal anyway.

So I got him a job with a friend of mine. He’s a sculptor and carpenter, a guy who spent years working on Bob Dylan’s house. Bob Dylan would have some kind of million-dollar addition put on, not like it, have him tear it down, it was a really cool job. Anyway, for a year or so, I was hauling blanket-wrapped furniture to Las Vegas and to the Bay Area. And I would work 36 hours in the Bay Area, going up, delivering, picking up, coming back, and with really ratty equipment, you know, a beat up Mac cab-over. Which would’ve been a good truck in the day, but it wasn’t.

During the same period, a woman at SCI-Arc, an architectural historian named Diane Ghirardo, who was at SC for years, said there’s this class at UCLA one night a week. You want to teach it? Solely in the basis or some stupid little thing I had written about Fred Jameson, postmodernism and the Bonaventure Hotel. So I came up with this story about being required to be in LA at least one or two nights a week [for family]. And that prevented me from being sent to the east coast on a sleeper team with some guy you never met before.

I was doing basically the hardest work of my life, and it was already a nightmare in the Bay Area. I would leave LA fairly late in the evening, like nine o’clock or something, drive all night just to arrive in time for total gridlock. And then I unload, pick up through the evening and sometimes maybe sleep over. Do another day in the Bay Area and then drive back to LA. So anyway, I’m doing this and the same time I’m teaching this course at UCLA, and I pull into the scales at, what’s it called, the garlic capital of the world.

SD: Oh, Gilroy?

MD: I think it was in Gilroy where the scales are, and I get pulled over, you know they randomly pull over rigs to be inspected. So I pull up and I get probably the only woman CHP truck inspector in the whole state. She’s obviously had a bad day. And she says, turn your engine off.

I said, I can’t, it’s a Mac, it has to idle down. She says, turn the fucking engine off. And she wrote me up for not keeping a proper log book, because you have to draw lines to represent your hours. And this truck, the suspension was just awful. So my line kind of looked like a seismograph. Excessive looseness in the steering linkage, just this absolute bullshit stuff. And the company did not pay for fines. So, you know, working my ass off, I ended up owing $300 to the state of California.

But I’m going into this classroom at UCLA, and I much preferred driving, but I had a kid back in Ireland and I needed money, so I ended up at SCI-Arc. But driving was a lot more fun. I was always trying to get transferred into one of the cartage companies where I had friends, rank and file activist friends, including this tremendous guy, Scotty Napier from the Clydeside, a Glaswegian, who was just a terrific character. And he kept trying to get me in at his place, but they were actually downsizing a bit. If I had gotten into that, I would’ve never left.

With the over the road stuff, I had become — my true nature is totally petty bourgeois.

SD: <laugh>

MD: Because my girlfriend at the time was an illegal Irish immigrant. We got married eventually for a green card. She was a very good driver. And so what I wanted to do was earn enough money that we could go to one of the big moving companies. And the way they work is you have to be on the road, do a hundred thousand miles a year.

SD: Whoa.

MD: And really the only people who are able to do this are husband and wife teams. They get along well. And they’ll stake you, they’ll put the down payment on a tractor. And this was just the time when the new KW anteaters were coming out, they were driving everybody crazy. They were so beautiful.

A kenworth anteater
(A Kenworth Anteater from Mr.choppers on Wikipedia)

My thought was we’d go into business, and there were certain specialties, like hauling scientific equipment and stuff, where you could really make a lot of money and do what my buddy Ron had done with his girlfriend who went on the road with him. Initially you have a ball for a couple of years, then you bail out because it’s unendurable for long periods.

SD: <laugh> That does seem terrible.

MD: Marriages always break up. The interesting part of that is that a lot of women started in inheriting the rig as part of alimony. Which is how a lot of women got on the road and stayed on the road.

But of all my major ventures in life, the other one was in publishing, though I ended up in the wrong side of the New Left Review internal split, and paid for this eventually by basically being forced out of Verso.

SD: Oh really?

MD: My design was, well. So Ron’s my oldest friend, but Mike Springer, philosopher, literary guy, big German Catholic from downstate Illinois, he was the best friend I’ve ever had. Just the most, you know, loud guy, scared people and stuff.

SD: <laugh>

MD: He was the best friend I ever had, and we started this series called the Haymarket series, the name of which was then lifted by the ISO, which was fine, and Verso closed it down without consulting us or anything. We wanted to do publishing full time and it didn’t happen. So teaching was just something I ended up in for opportunistic reasons, and basically never felt comfortable in a classroom except maybe at SCI-Arc, which was great fun. Didn’t pay enough.

SD: Yeah, I’ve had friends who’ve taught there recently. The pay still seems bad.

MD: I got hired there by Michael Rotondi. He was the director in the late eighties and almost to the end of the nineties. He’s an Italian cook’s son. Crazy guy, but wonderful guy. And when I got hired, I told him, I said, look, Michael, I don’t know anything about architecture, despite what friends of mine, like Diane and Michael Sorkin may have told you. He said, no, but you know about the city: I want you to take these kids out into the city. He basically hired me, uh, to launch adventures. This of course was great.

And then, because I had to earn a living during the summer as well, I convinced him to let me do this kind of SCI-Arc summer school with him. And I called it a Western landscape course, and I figured out more or less scientifically the least visited, most remote parts of the American west, which I wanted to go to.

SD: Yeah. <laugh>

MD: So I ended up taking the students, and it was kind of like something out of Ken Kesey. It was great fun. The German students tend to wander off course once they discovered the hot springs in Nevada and Utah. I’d wait weeks for them at SCI-Arc, they wanted to go to every hot spring, any opportunity to take your clothes off and bathe in hot water.

SD: <laugh> But you did work for a tour guide company, right?

MD: Yeah, this was after the whole thing at Pensick and Gordon, when I lost my seniority and stuff and there had been the seventies wildcat and I’d organized a little support campaign, bringing people from this group that became — it had been Friends of the Panthers, and it became the Socialist Union. Had great people in it. Gene and Ron Warren, who both died in the last couple of years [ed note: Gene was an active leftist organizer and regular attendee at revived DSA meetings until his death in 2019, incredible guy, won an Oscar for doing the visual effects on Terminator 2]. Hollywood stunt men, you know, industry kids, their father made King Kong and stuff. I got them down.

But then also, this group of students came from UCLA led by this young professor Bob Brenner, who I eventually went to study with, and this other young professor, John Amstead, and they kept telling me, you know, you need to come to school, cuz I was complaining —I was trying to read Marx, I wouldn’t take lunch breaks at work in order to conserve an hour, hour and a half, at dinner to read. And I was trying to read things like Sartre’s Search for Method and so on, Volume I of Capital, and I was getting nowhere. So they said you have to come to UCLA.

Being 29 years old, almost 30, having been married and earned a working man’s wage, and you know, spending too much time in topless bars with my crazy Teamster friends, I didn’t want to be a starving student. So John T. Williams, who is this black teamster leader who helped integrate some of the teamster locals in the sixties, a real hero, he’s mentioned in the book. He told me, he said, look, you know, Grayline Tours is hiring. And you’ve got a class one license, you can easily get on there. So I went down and I got hired. And part of the attraction of the job was that if you worked for a number of months full time, then you could go on the extra board where you were part-time at nights, which would’ve been perfect for me. And I wouldn’t have to have to borrow money or have a stupid campus job. The knowledge about LA, the whole rap that the drivers gave to the tourists was proprietary. You had to buy it from somebody. Charged a lot of money, and [the other drivers] wore airline pilot-like uniforms. And I decided to, you know, screw that. And so I started reading LA history seriously for the first time, starting with Carey McWilliams.

And you know, some groups of tourists didn’t like my take at all. But Grayline had a contract with the longshoreman’s union in Hawaii, plantation workers, and they’d come over on group holidays and I would get them, and they were fantastically interested in labor and civil rights history. I just absolutely had a ball with them.

But then Grayline, I believe the franchise was owned by one family, but they decided to sell it or something. So they basically decided to de-unionize the place.

SD: Oh, so it was union.

MD: Yeah it was, but it was the cab drivers local. It was a really corrupt Teamsters sweetheart local. And so suddenly when the strike breakers are brought in — there’s a group of bus drivers. a kind of army of bus drivers, whose only purpose is to be sent all over the United States to break bus strikes. Full time industry employees. And then I got arrested allegedly for hitting one of them with my picket sign. Hitting a guy who claimed to have been a prisoner of the Viet Cong.

SD: So a war hero.

MD: It got weirder and weirder. I mean, some of the guys were okay, but a lot of these guys were — one of ’em had a bar off of Temple Street, and I think pimped out girls. Some of these guys were pretty shady. I’d never thought of them as serious, you know, coming out of the teamsters strike. But these guys had worked there for years and had the self image of airline pilots. Suddenly, they’re out there on the streets.

So we have this secret meeting, and I mean really secret, basically told you’d die if you divulge anything that happens, about what to do. I had already tried to shut down the Century Plaza Hotel, I was picketing out there with this guy who I thought was really just this namby pamby character. Turned out, he’d been a Flint sit down striker in the 30s

SD: <laugh> okay!

MD: We shut down the Century City Plaza for a couple of hours, just told union drivers you can’t deliver here we’re on strike. And then this is before I supposedly attacked this scab.

The union absolutely panicked, the business agent came down and said, you can’t do this. I said, why not? This is how you win strikes. So that was my position at the [secret] meeting: we use union solidarity, whether the union supports it or not. But the majority consensus was to hire these guys who hung out at the bar.  They were supposedly made men, but that was impossible. These guys are just, you know, drunken gunslingers. To kill the chief scab, because they’d found out he lived in El Monte or somewhere.

SD: Okay. Wow.

MD: They’d already scoped out how he returned home every night. So we all had to put money down.

SD: <laugh>

MD: I told people, I said, this is conspiracy. I mean, you know, we could get 20 years for this. And these namby pamby guys thought this is the only way you could possibly go. We’ve just gotta kill the motherfucker.

SD: Instant escalation.

MD: I had to go along with this. I had to pay the money. I mean, my opposition was registered. Thankfully the highway patrol pulled over these two characters, cuz they were drunk, and found the sawed off shotgun in the backseat. And somehow it never got back to the Grayline drivers themselves. But it was just crazy.

American workers see somebody doing their job. First instinct is to shoot em. Because they’ve forgotten all the wisdom of the 1930s. So when I started college, paying for myself, I went went back to Pensick and Gordon, cuz they needed a lot of people around the Christmas season. But I would’ve stayed in the Teamster stuff forever had it been possible.

Mike Davis on Belfast (and getting asked to leave)

This is a part of my interview with Mike Davis for the L.A. Times that didn’t make the final cut. I still found it interesting. You can read the published interview here.

Mike Davis: When I was at UCLA, I used this huge scholarship I won from my father’s union, the meat cutters, to go abroad for a year. I was going to Edinburgh, and Mike [a Glaswegian Teamster brother] took me aside and he said, don’t set foot in that place. He says, it’s, it’s like a dead planet. You gotta go to Glasgow.

Sam Dean: <laugh>.

MD: And I did kind of fall in love with Glasgow, but rather than staying in Edinburgh. I ended up going to Belfast to write about the outdoor relief riots, when in the depths of the depression, both Catholics and Protestants had rioted. That event, going to Belfast, changed my life, and sent me back to Belfast time and time again until I’d married somebody that grew up there.

SD: Is that how you got into the New Left Review orbit?

MD: Yeah, I got in New Left Review orbit when I was involved with the International Marxist group in Scotland, and then their tiny little affiliate in Belfast, and most of the New Left Review people were at that point involved. So I met them through the political group and somehow ran into Perry Anderson. We had a long talk and I told him about this idea I had for writing a book about the American working class.

So I leave and I end up back in LA. Next I know, under the door is a contract and a thousand-dollar advance. Now mind you, I’d published hardly anything at all. One article on sabotage. And it took me forever to cash the check. I just didn’t think I was capable of it, but that ended up being my first book.

Perry asked me to come to London in 1980, and I ended up staying most of the eighties in London, totally wrapped up in the whole strange world of the New Left Review. Some of the worst years of my life. I couldn’t wait to be back to Belfast. The real warmth in the British Isles, the real grit, is all in the north of England and Scotland. And Belfast was like — I was at times the only American there, apart from people in the American consulate, but I got on like a house on fire because of my, you know, kind of ribald sense of humor.

I could take a good slagging and give it back. And when you’re slagged by an Irish woman, you might wish you were being tortured by the Gestapo instead. But this was just the scene where I wanted to be, people I wanted to be with, where I formed some of the deepest friendships of my life as well as getting married there.

In some ways Belfast, being in Belfast off and on, and then living there full-time for a while, is damn near the most important thing in my life — though the births of my children have been the most important events of my life.

Ultimately I had to leave Belfast. My wife, who grew up in the most, before Sarajevo, the most war-torn neighborhood in Western Europe, called Ardoyne, in Belfast, one of her friend’s husbands had just been convicted in a Diplock juryless court and given 20 years for supposedly being implicated in an attempted assassination of a judge. Guy named Michael. And the only evidence against him was a confession extracted by torture in Castlereagh, the British army headquarters. The European court of human rights delivered this devastating verdict over the torture, they’d take people up in helicopters threaten to throw them out, and beat up people incessantly.

I’d become good friends with Tamara Deutscher, Isaac Deutscher’s widow, and through Tamara I got Zhores Medvedev and some other prominent Eastern European leftwing dissidents to support the case. And at the end of day, I managed to get a representative from the lawyer’s guild from New York and a woman from Amnesty International, from West Germany, to come to the hearing. He had already been convicted. This was an appeal. And it was hopeless, because the judge wouldn’t listen to anything. Michael hadn’t done anything. The guy with him had actually tried unsuccessfully to kill [the judge] — this other guy was great character. When he was sentenced, he pulls out a pack of Marlboros and he says [miming a walkie-talkie], “Jesus, beam me up, Scotty, I’m in bad shape here.” Typical Belfast man.

But the IRA didn’t like [my rallying support] at all, because their position was: they’re an army at war, and they’re not gonna single out anybody for special pleading.

So even though my wife was well respected, I was told that I was persona non grata, because the Provisional IRA exerted total hegemony, there really wasn’t hardly any space for independent left activity. Even if it was in solidarity with them, this was war, they were the army, end of story. It never stopped me from going back and so on, but it ended the period of trying to live there full time.

The Troubles were like, I felt like we were existentialists in the French Resistance. Because my friends faced extraordinary risk and really didn’t worry about it too much. And I became just addicted to that, the staying up all night, we stayed up every night, drunk, eating soda bread. You know, playing the guitar, telling stories, slagging and being slagged.

SD: What year did you have to leave?

MD: I went to Belfast, originally through Edinburgh, in ‘74, 75, probably spent four or five months there altogether, very seldom in Edinburgh. And I returned annually at least. And then we moved there in ’80, we lived in an area called the Holy Land, all the streets were named Palestine Street, Jerusalem Street, and so on. Then back and forth over many years and then to Dublin —  I don’t really like the south very much.

Particularly the Southern middle class, the Dublin middle class. Belfast is most similar to Glasgow, but they’re kind of inverted because in Glasgow, labor has trumped sectarianism. There’s a lot of sectarianism, if you’ve been to Celtics vs. Rangers matches you would know that.

SD: Right, right.

MD: But labor is the stronger tradition, working class unity. Belfast is the opposite. It’s where sectarianism trumps labor, though it has strong labor traditions. But the humor and the craic are very similar, much darker than in Dublin. I’ve seen people just utterly blown out of the water by an evening with my friends in Belfast, when people came over to visit me. One guy, a New York Marxist. A nice guy, but he just couldn’t hack it. He didn’t understand why everybody hated him. And I kept telling him, they don’t hate you. You just, you know, you gotta play the dozens with people.

SD: <laugh> right.

MD: This was when I was training for the Belfast marathon, I was really good runner. And I used to run at nights in Belfast. Sometimes the only person on the streets of the Lagan River towpath for six, seven miles at night.

SD: <laugh>

MD: Never had any problems. But then the first Belfast marathon is being organized. And this time I get a visit from these guys who were my close buddies, who I had earlier, before I got married, they’d come over [to the U.S.] to visit me. And we spent a whole summer just bumming up and down the West Coast. It was a great adventure.

But they came to me and said, the Brits are trying to normalize the war here. That’s the function of the marathon. Uh, nobody would be very happy if you actually ran it. And of course, you know, solidarity. I don’t run it.

Years later, they’re all training for the marathon, it became a big deal.

My favorite memory probably above all is of Derry City. I went to a soccer match, a football match there. Derry City had been thrown out of the Northern Ireland football league for rioting. But down in the Bogside, the infamous Bogside, they were gonna play the Garda Siochana, the Irish cops. They had a first class team.

So we go down to the Bogside and it’s just, there’s so many people that I’m actually scared we’re gonna get squished together. The Garda Siochana kind of comes onto field first and the crowd starts chanting “Brit loving murdering bastards, brit loving murdering bastards.” And then Derry City comes out, and it has like three Black guys on the team, West Indian guys who ended up marrying Catholic girls and staying there. And then Derry City begins its chant: “We’re black, we’re white, we’re fucking dynamite. We’re black, we’re white, we’re fucking dynamite.” It was wild.

SD: That’s incredible.

MD: Absolutely crushed the team from the south. Derry was like fresh air, because in Belfast, the times I lived in Belfast were the height of the sectarian murders. The Shankill Butchers and so on. But you go to Derry and it really was like the air was free, Catholics were the majority. There were very few assassinations or violence. Everybody in Belfast thought the greatest place in the world to go for vacation was Derry, not to France or Italy.

Mike Davis on an unfinished project and the American West

This is a part of my interview with Mike Davis for the L.A. Times that didn’t make the final cut. I still found it interesting. You can read the published interview here.

Mike Davis: There’s no reason why anybody in their right mind would want to, but if you really want to understand exactly how my mind works, it’s more obvious in the projects that I never finished than the ones I’ve written.

Sam Dean: What unfinished project are you thinking about?

MD: When my daughter Roisin, who is now 40, was eight, I took her on this adventure. She didn’t exactly appreciate it, she always wanted to stay in hotels and get room service. But we went on this camping trip and I drove across the Pony Express trail to the Oregon trail, and then up through the Northern Rockies and back, and the Oregon trail crossed Western Utah, and through some of the least known, most beautiful parts of the West. You see wild horses everywhere. It’s startling how many wild horses there are.

We were approaching Salt Lake, and Dugway proving ground was just a couple miles to the north. Dugway proving ground is of course where America tested biological and chemical weapons. I later was able to convince the army to let me tour the place, but Dugway is off limits, and more than that the Department of Defense’s greatest fear is to close down Dugway, because of the amount remediation. There’s a mountain out there, Granite Peak, where they tested anthrax. It’s basically off limits for 20,000 years. nobody wants to clean it up.

So right where you would turn north toward the real entrance to Dugway, there is a long valley called Skull Valley, with the Great Salt Desert on the west and the Tooele mountains, which are quite beautiful wooded mountains, to the east. We’re about to turn on the intersection of the Skull Valley road, and there’s this dead mustang.

SD: A horse?

MD: Right. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an animal been torn apart by coyotes. The carcass of the horse had been torn apart, but the unusual thing is the head was missing.

Fast forward, couple of years, I’m sitting on the Utah and Nevada border at the base of something called Snake Valley, another wonderful, totally unknown place. And I’m drinking beer with a couple of Jack Mormon cowboys, and I said, I’m just a city slicker, but this story has haunted me. And I told them about the trip and the skullless horse. One of ’em leads back and says to the other, it’s that damn woman in New Mexico, don’t you think? He said, yeah, probably another cowboy on welfare.

I said, what do you mean? He said, well, you know, there’s a lot of unemployed people in Western Utah, but there’s this crazy woman who’ll pay $500 for a horse skull. And of course it wasn’t actually a crazy woman. It was entrepreneurs in New Mexico who were peddling Georgia O’Keeffe stuff. The horse had been shot by a cowboy who reduced the head down to a skull and sold it off to a trader. And according to them, lots of people were doing this and blaming Georgia O’Keeffe.

But that was an encounter with this place Skull Valley, which is, you know, it’s Dugway, it’s the Goshute Indian reservation, which tried to become the national depository for high level nuclear waste, there was a Hawaiian ghost town called Iosepa.

SD: A Hawaiian ghost town?

MD: Mormons converted a number of people in Hawaii, and these native Hawaiians came to Utah, but racial laws in Salt Lake City meant they couldn’t live in town. So they’re marooned out there in this colony called Iosepa — the cemetery’s the most haunting place I’ve ever seen, these beautiful Hawaiian names on gravestones in this desolate valley.  

And that’s only the beginning of the story. I could go on endlessly.

SD: So what happened to this idea?

MD: I came to realize what this was: when I was a kid I’d read about derelict ships, and derelict ships tend to be moved by Atlantic currents and end up in the Falkland islands. So you have this whole landscape of ancient ships, ships that capsized, ships that were mysteriously abandoned. But they all ended up in this place, and it seemed to me that the whole history of the 19th and 20th century was a kind of detritus or shipwreck in this one strange place in Skull Valley, Utah.

The storytelling was wonderful stuff, but the problem is I could never figure out how to…to interpret this.

SD: Right. <laugh> I know what you mean.

MD: Because it’s obviously the kind of thing that’s supposed to lead you to some interpretation or set of profound questions. And I could never quite figure out what it was. I very, very reluctantly threw in the towel.

But you see how much my life is kind of driven by the twin imperatives of trying to do something that’s politically useful, particularly for younger activists, but at the same time is driven by my love of good stories. When I write, I’m fastidious. I never rely on memory. People ask me, why don’t you write a memoir? I don’t remember anything. I’m sometimes startled to find out that some tall tales I told are actually true. But when it comes to writing in history, everything must be documented, and make no semifictional leaps or connection. And it turns out with the Skull Valley project, for instance, there’s a tremendous amount of documentation.

SD: But I do see why it’s hard to wrap that into something that feels politically urgent.

MD: It wasn’t so much political meaning but this deep historical meaning. I’ve come to see it in my hometown, in the El Cajon valley, which when I was growing up there, I mean, everybody were essentially dustbowl refugees. My girlfriend was from Amarillo, a couple of my best friends were Oklahomans, everybody else was Texan.

Now it is the second biggest Iraqi community in the United States. It has a Chaldean convent and cathedral, and main street in El Cajon is now like little Baghdad. So you ask yourself, what are these absolutely unpredictable contingencies that would turn a kind of Southern California cow town into a nostalgic recreation of Baghdad? How did that happen?

In writing about the West I was writing about precarity of the west. Wests come and go — there’s gold, there’s silver, there’s a railroad, there’s nothing stable, everything vanishes and reappears, the biggest towns in the state become ghost towns. And now of course, throughout the great basin and you know, the biggest industry are prisons. And this is part of this new catastrophist understanding of history that I’ve been trying to grapple with for decades.