Waiting For Thor
I ran into Thor in Flagstaff last September. Not the Norse god Thor. The computer programmer Thor. I was in Flagstaff to talk to a couple of Creative Writing classes at Northern Arizona University and to do a reading. I’d shown up a day early because I used to live in Flagstaff, and I hoped to run into some old friends, one of whom was Thor. The problem was, I ran into him at eleven o’clock, and though bars stay open in Arizona until one, the hostel where I needed to get a room only stayed open until eleven-thirty, and they wouldn’t let you in if you were drunk. So I couldn’t hang out with Thor that night. He convinced me to meet him the next night for happy hour at a bar called Cattle Baron’s. I didn’t want to do it. I had to do the reading at seven o’clock. I wanted to be sober for it, because if there’s one thing I hate, it’s all these writers who think they’re Jack Kerouac because they get liquored up and stumble through the readings that other people are gracious enough to attend. But Thor promised that we wouldn’t get drunk in the hour before the reading, and the reading was right across the street, so I agreed to meet him.
Cattle Baron’s was and is my favorite place in Flagstaff. It’s a real working class joint, right down to the etched leather mural of a cowboy sleeping on a saddle, dreaming of a topless broad riding a cloud. I got that special swelling in my chest when I heaved open the big, carved wooden front door. I stepped into a familiar scene: two ranch hands hitting on two biker chicks, three Indians** sitting directly in front of the Budweiser cooler, a handful of graduate students playing pool, and a young, blonde bartender standing to one end of the bar, doing a crossword so that she wouldn’t have to chat with any of the customers. I sat two stools down from the Indians. The bartender put down her crossword and asked me what I wanted to drink. I started to order a bottle of beer, then remembered Thor and ordered a pitcher of beer. She handed me the pitcher and one glass. I paid, poured my beer, looked at my watch, looked around the bar, and looked at my watch again. No Thor. I took a sip of beer and listened to the Indians kidding each other. They were obviously old friends because of the way two of them were always picking on one of them, but they rotated so that they all got equal time ganging up on someone and getting ganged up on.
I eavesdropped heavily, stifling laughs so that I wasn’t obvious. I drank one beer slowly, poured another, looked around the bar, and realized Thor wasn’t going to show up. I battled with the thought of the whole pitcher of beer in front of me, trying to decide which I despised more, the Jack Kerouac wannabes who show up too drunk to read or the weaklings who can’t finish all the beer that they were tough enough to order. As I rolled these thoughts around in my head, I noticed one of the Indians staring at me. “Hey,” he said to me. “What are you sitting there all stoic for?”
I explained my basic situation to him, about Thor and not wanting to drink and the reading and all.
“What’s a reading?” he asked.
I reached into the backpack leaning against my barstool and pulled out a copy of my book. “I wrote this novel,” I told him. “And from time to time, I read an entertaining part of it to a crowd.” I handed him the book. He looked at the cover and laughed and looked at the back of it and laughed and opened up to a page in the middle of the book, read a few lines, and laughed. One of his buddies asked him to see the book and he told his buddy, “This guy wrote that book.”
His buddy asked me what it was about. “Drunk construction workers in Florida,” I said. Sometimes I tell people what the plot is about. Usually, I just say the first crazy shit that comes to my mind. Never ask a writer what his book is about. He won’t know.
The second guy came around and sat between the first guy and me. “I’m a drunk construction worker,” he said. Then, he went on to tell me about his life. He was Hopi, born on the reservation. After high school, he came to Flagstaff to work for a brick mason. After a while, he started taking construction classes at NAU. He worked his way up to mason, graduated with a contractor’s degree, and ran a crew in Flagstaff for a while. Then, he had kids and wanted them to grow up on the rez. He moved back out there. The Hopi tribe isn’t really growing, so the construction industry is all remodels.
He told me about the government housing that his tribe lived in, the houses with plumbing running outside the wall, with bathtubs falling through the floor, with leaky roofs and wind howling through closed windows. Apparently, the government paid contractors a lot of money to build the houses. Rather than building houses as nice as the money they got for them, the contractors hired drunks and unskilled laborers to build the cheapest shit they could. The only requirements were that it look like a house, and it stand until the check cashed. My new Hopi friend was out there trying to fix all of that, but his tribe is a poor one, and our government (never one to spend much on the people from whom they stole this land) won’t pay to build the same house twice. So he had a dilemma. He wanted his kids to grow up Hopi. He wanted his tribe to have homes that kept them dry and warm. At the same time, he was out there working sixty hour weeks, never seeing his family, unable to get the materials he needed, not getting paid for half the work he did, and not able to support his family. He could move to Flagstaff and make good money doing less work, but it meant leaving the tribe, and it meant that his kids wouldn’t have the experience of growing up with a tribe.
I nodded and drank as he told me all of this. In a lot of ways, I empathized. Although I don’t have a tribe or a family of my own to support, I do know what it’s like to work fifty hours a week, every week for a month and still not have enough money for rent. I knew about the cheap houses with day laborers because I’d spent two weeks working for one of those crews in Flagstaff. My boss was a crystal meth addict, the rest of the crew smoked pot until they were just shy of incapacitation, and we built new houses that shook in the wind. I started to tell the Hopi construction worker about this, but he said, “Hell, are we here to bitch or to have fun? We’re here to have fun, right?” He poured what was left in my pitcher into my glass.
The other Hopi, in the meantime, started reading out loud from my book. He read a passage in which three old friends tease each other in a bar. Instead of reading the characters’ names, though, he filled in his own name and those of his two friends. This made me feel so good that I gave each of my new Hopi friends a copy of the book. Then, I left for my reading somewhat drunk, cursing Thor but thanking him for dropping me in a situation where I got to meet those cool Hopi construction workers.
Despite the pitcher of beer in my gut, the reading went well. I made a bunch of new friends there, too. After the reading, we went back to the Cattle Baron’s, and we all got drunk.
The next day, I drove down to Sedona. It’s a nice drive because Flagstaff is up in the mountains and very lush for Arizona. As you get out of the ponderosa pine forest of Flagstaff, you drive into huge, jagged rock formations that are ringed in shades of red from different periods of geographical time. You’ve seen pictures of these rocks, whether you know it or not. Dead center in the middle of these red rocks is the town of Sedona. I tried to peddle my book to the bookstores, then I wandered around the downtown area of Sedona. The town is full of stores where you can buy Indian jewelry made by white ex-hippies who charge five times as much as the Navajos who have stands twenty miles up the road. You can buy forty-dollar arrowheads made by retired white people in Cottonwood. You can buy all the right crystals and stones and artifacts of the real Arizona: the one that markets and photographs well for Arizona Highways. Supposedly, Sedona is a vortex of new age healing energies. As far as I can tell, though, all that really gets sucked into Sedona is tourists looking for rocks and people wealthy enough to move into a place that’s as expensive as the scenery is beautiful. I thought of all the wealthy Sedona New Agers searching for some new religion by trying to translate ancient Navajo beliefs into a Madison Avenue ad campaign. It made me think.
It’s easy to love Indians and hate New Agers. Americans love underdogs and the Indians are the ultimate underdogs. Within recent history, all of the Indian tribes were wiped out. It didn’t matter whether they tried to acclimate into white society like the Cherokees or if they fought to the bitter end, like the Sioux and the Nez Perces. The result was always the same: a culture was lost. Most groups have problems. Indians have plights. New Agers, on the other hand, are ex-hippies who you know either sold out or cashed in, depending on your perspective. There’s still a heavy dose of peace and love rhetoric, but most of them will vote for George W. in November (or at least Gore, who’s just as bad). New Agers embrace hundred dollar rocks for the rocks’ healing powers, but ignore the fact that some poor African spends twelve hours a day in a hole digging that rock out of ground that has been stolen from him. New Agers dangle dream catchers from the rearview mirrors of their Land Rovers and listen to whale songs and reek of patchouli and are generally annoying. I thought about all this as I wandered around downtown Sedona. I thought about downtown Sedona itself. It looks like an old town square, but if you look closer, you notice that no building is more than twenty years old. If you look even closer, you notice that it’s really not a downtown so much as a strip mall designed to look like a downtown. That’s when things started making sense to me. This is when I’ll finally get to the point.
New Agers bad, Indians good. Sure, that’s a really easy way of seeing things. Most Americans think they love Indians because Americans love underdogs. That’s the mistake. Americans don’t pity Indians like you pity an underdog. Americans envy the Indians. Every last one of us does. The New Agers are a little more blunt about it, but each and every one of us, deep down inside, has wished at one point in our lives that we were Indians. Think of the old neighborhood games of cowboys and Indians. Remember how hard it was to get someone to be the cowboy? Cowboys wear silly hats. Indians wear war paint. Cowboys blow whiny harmonicas. Indians beat drums. But that’s not the real reason everyone wants to be the Indian. It’s because Indians are just the most recent in a long line of indigenous cultures to lose out to a big, powerful, greedy, war-like dominant culture. Before the Indians, it was the Africans, ripped from their culture and enslaved in the United States. And you can try to reinstate some of that African culture that was lost. You can wear red, yellow, and green. You can celebrate Kwanzaa. You can give yourself a Swahili name, but you know all along that your culture has been crushed by four hundred years of slavery and oppression.
Before the Africans, the English raided Ireland, stole all the land, forced the indigenous into impoverished tenant/landlord relationships. England learned this trick from the Vikings, who did it to the English first. Spaniards took over the Aztecs. Columbus wiped out the Arawaks. The Dutch took South Africa. The British took it from the Dutch. The Dutch took Madagasgar. The French and Spanish alternately took over the Basques. Ghengis Khan took a big chunk of China. China took Tibet. King Philip took a bunch of islands in the South Pacific and named them after himself. Brits took Australia from the aborigines. The Russians took Kazakhstan. And on and on. And where does this leave us? For most of us, it leaves us ripped away from the homeland and cultures that are natural to our genetic makeup. In other words, we’re a bunch of mutts kicked out of our litter and left crying for mommy. Indians can remember their homeland and culture, so they’re not quite as lost as the rest of us. That’s why we envy them.
New Agers try to cling on to a living indigenous culture, even though it’s not their own, because at least it’s living and it retains some sort of purity. So we want to make fun of them (I do, anyway) because a bunch of lawyers in a drum circle looks fucking ridiculous. Ridiculous because they’re trying to be someone they know they’re not. But we all do it. We embrace Christianity and what we’re really doing is clinging to the superstitions of ancient Hebrew tribes as interpreted by the Roman elite. Judaism eliminates the Roman elite interpretation and just sticks with the superstitions of ancient Hebrew tribes, basing their beliefs on the beliefs of people who went into war with a slingshot . Mormons take the silliness of Christianity and pile on top of it some goddamn New England farmer who found a bunch of golden tablets in a cave, and lucky for him, he was fluent enough in ancient Hebrew dialects to translate the tablets before God took them back. Wealthy American college students and Japanese Sony executives alike embrace the old Indian (from India Indian) philosophy that all life is based on suffering as they surround themselves in every luxury and convenience modern technology affords them. And it goes on and on until all religions reek like patchouli in my nose, because, really, we’re all trying to grasp on to some established belief rather than take the time to form our own.
At this point, though, organized religion leaves us no choice but to develop our own personal beliefs, because one thing is certain: if anyone in the past (prophet or peasant woman) ever really did figure out the meaning of life or any of the other eternal questions, you can bet pretty safe odds that some army came in and killed him, or some group of wealthy elite took her ideas and reshaped them into a means of making that elite wealthier. And where does that leave us? Sitting in a bar, waiting on Thor, looking for some kind of Hopi wisdom, spinning into a vortex, and leaving more confused than when we started. But, hell, are we here to bitch or to have fun? We’re here to have fun, right?
**Author’s note: Given the choice between using the term “Indian” or “Native American” for the indigenous peoples of the US, I chose Indian. I realize this isn’t exactly PC, but both terms are inaccurate, and my Indian friends make fun of me when I say Native American.