Categories: Beatdom Content

Layover: An attempt to keep a journal |by Weldon Kees

In the late spring of 1939, Weldon Kees, his wife Ann, and his parents, John and Sarah—called “Sadie”—traveled to San Francisco from Denver, Colorado. They stayed in one of the cabins at the H Bar G Ranch in the western part of the state before driving through Utah. Stopping in Salt Lake City, Kees hoped to meet Ray B. West, the editor of Rocky Mountain Review, but settled for an awkward meeting with George Snell, a radio station executive who had written three novels during the 1930s. The Kees party then drove on to Austin, Nevada, which had once been a thriving mining town in the nineteenth century.

Kees attempted to keep a “Journal of a Trip” that began ambitiously, as though he intended to record the entire trip in detail, with a special emphasis on observing his mother. But only the following passage for June 17, 1939, is “complete.” Evidently, the “American scene” and the mother exhausted the poet’s interest like the nearly abandoned town’s silver. The rest of the journal consists of short observations made back in Denver, where Kees lived at the time.

17 June 1939

We have passed the Salt Lake, with a few limp-winged gulls wheeling, the huge mountains, covered with snow that fell last night, looking ghostly and unreal and somehow sinister in the rain and mist, the clouds dissolving into their peaks . . . This morning we woke up with the steady rain slanting against the hotel windows, miles of trees that gave the impression of foliage in good time: the combination dancehall and garage gloomy and drab.

Yesterday the wind blew hard: it was chilly in the shade. Ann and I laid down the law the night before: we were going to have the day to ourselves. I called Snell; business over the phone with two secretaries at the radio station before I got him; Ray was out of town waiting for his wife to give birth to their second child. We had breakfast and walked around until noon — met Snell at the radio station. — Does Mr. Snell know you? the girl at the information desk wanted to know.

George Snell looks like an anaemic dentist. He keeps worrying his pale shell-rimmed glasses. He is, you feel, preoccupied, and torn between his writing and his job, which is certainly distracting and takes a great deal out of him. The phone rang while we were in his office: — Take it up with either Moe or Jake.

Austin, Nev.
June 12 – 10. p.m.

Some passages of Highway 50 in Nevada run for 8 miles at a stretch straight as a dig without a turn. During this evening the hills were blue and then purple and give the impression of scenes drawn to illustrate poetry by French decadents. We thought it was finally dark and there was no more light in the sky and then, after an endless succession of curves, as we began to descend into a valley, we saw a very strange thing: a thin edge of orange light just above a range of mountains. It was very impressive.

We are now in Austin. We thought that Austin would appear far sooner than it did. When we saw what the town was like and we knew that we would have to spend the night here we became almost hysterical in our disappointment. We drove down the main street and then up again looking in vain for a decent place to stay. We thought some of trying to find a private residence where we might get a room but finally we stopped at a garage to ask about the hotels and tourist camps. The man who emerged from the garage impressed us at first as a moron; he was cross-eyed; he came towards the car with an expression of stupidity and belligerence. But when we asked him which was the least bad hotel he laughed and said — Well, that’s a way to put it, all right. I’m just a working stiff around here; I’m not a millionaire or anything like that; but you might try the Hogan Hotel down the street. They’ve got steam heat down there. We asked him about the tourist camps, and he told us he they’d be closed up. — I don’t know whether you’ll be able to get anything to eat or not; they close up whenever they feel like it down there. The Lincoln Café is where I get my coffee of a morning. It’s pretty good. They tell me that at the café in the hotel they’ll charge you money just as long as they see your pocketbook out. If you park your car here, you can get it whenever you want it in the morning. There was a fella through here the other night, and he asked me when he could get his car. You can get it right now if you it, I said. He laughed and said No, he wanted to get some sleep. So I was sitting there reading the paper and he came in about 2 o’clock and got his car. He must of been sleepy and wanted a little sleep. He must of been in a hurry; he was on his way to the fair.

We asked him about the Hogan Hotel — whether there were any bugs, and he told us that as far as he knew they didn’t have any. — I’m just a working stiff, but I think I’d rather be in a hotel tonight than one of them cabin camps. It sure is cold. It froze here last night. I’ve had bugs myself and they sure drove me wild. If there’s anything like that around, they always pick on me. Lord God Almighty, yes!

Main Street, Austin, Nevada, March 1940. Arthur Rothstein.

We thanked him and drove on down to the Hogan Hotel. We let Sadie and John go in first to look at the rooms. They said it was all right; a tough-looking man with a 3-day beard helped up with our bags. He asked if we had alcohol in the car; said it was the coldest weather they’d ever had; this time of year it was usually around 80°. He couldn’t explain the drop.

Our room had mottled green walls, a corrugated tin ceiling, painted cream color, a globe that droops from a wire so low down that you frequently bump your head against it. The towels smell of formaldehyde and must. The bearded man had some trouble finding the key to fit our lock; he said they took them down, then didn’t put them back in the right order. However, the first one he tried fitted. There is a little room off this room which must have once been a closet. It contains a surprisingly new bathtub but there is no light in the little room. The floors are covered with linoleum painted to look like wood but there are numerous holes and tears in it. The rug has Japanese lantern designs in it and is very worn. The mirror in the bureau is propped up by folded paper stuck in the side. On the wall is a 1937 calendar with Hogan Hotel, Robert Hogan Prop. Austin, Nev. printed on it and a bad lithograph of an old man holding out his arms to illustrate to a boy fisherman the size of a fish he caught. The iron bedstead is painted green. Thus far we have discovered no insects in the bed. It is necessary to prop up the window with a piece of wood. The curtain is extremely dirty thin cloth with poisonous yellow fringe. There is a wash bowl in the room. One faucet drips. There is a piece of green soap that smells of mosquito bite remedy.

We are in the restaurant of the hotel. A sour faced woman in a black wool dress and printed apron waited on us. All of us had vegetable soup. It was homemade and surprisingly good. We had expected Mr. Campbell’s kind. The cook looks like a businessman and says nothing. He and the woman exchange no words except when the hour for breakfast was discussed. When we asked him and he said they opened at 5, she remarked — Yes, and that’ll be plenty early for you, too. While we were eating a girl with some horrible blemishes on her face came in. They were purple. She took out her compact and opened it and looked at her face in the mirror and then wiped at it with a piece of Kleenex. We debated later whether it was the result of ivy poisoning, an accident or some skin disease. They drank coffee and the man with her read the newspaper. She smoked a cigarette dolefully. While we were eating apple sauce and cookies I asked the cook if this had been a mining town. He said yes. Sadie said — What did they mine, copper? — No, silver. There’s been 73 million dollars taken out of this town. I asked what made the town go to pot. He looked at me and didn’t reply. Then he said what? I said, what made it go to pot? He asked, you mean why did the mines close down? I said, yes, did they play out? — Some say yes and some say no. The government closed them down. That’s all he said. We went on eating and then my mother said — Did they just mine silver? — Yes, silver and some turquoise. You folks form California? — No, Nebraska. — Nebraska, huh? What do they raise out there, corn? My mother said, Oh, corn and wheat, alfalfa, lots of stock. — Farming country, the cook said. — Yest it’s a farming country my mother said. — I’ve never been there myself. When we paid the bill, we were surprised there was no state tax. — This must be the only state in the country that doesn’t have a sales tax, I said. — Nebraska, my father reminded me. — Idaho doesn’t have it now, the cook said. — They repealed it, did they? I asked. This session? — No, the session before last. When we went out, the woman said, — Going out to see the sights, huh? (We had tried to buy cigarettes, but they had none, and the cook told us to go down to the Silver Dollar Bar.) Sadie said, — Yes, we don’t want to miss the night life. — Well, don’t get lost, the woman said bitterly.

We went out into the dark street; almost everything was closed up except Sully’s Café. There were curtains at the windows of the Silver Dollar Bar; it was painted aluminum and black. Both the man behind the bar and man drinking whiskey straight had very friendly florid Irish faces. They greeted me cheerfully as I came in. I bought 2 packs of Camels and talked to them about the cold weather. The man who was the customer asked me if we had run into any snow. He wanted to know if we were going to California, and I said, yes, Frisco. —Driving on tonight? he said. — No, we’re going to stay over. My folks and Ann came in. There was a round card table with a pack of cards and some much-used poker chips, and a divan covered with an Indian blanket opposite the bar.

When we walked down the street, two small boys were playing on the walk, but they stood aside respectfully when we passed.

* * * * * * * * * *

Kees continued on to San Francisco. It was his first visit and he wrote friends enthusiastically about the city’s ambiance and the writers he met there, among them Kenneth Rexroth. Kees continued on to Portland, Tacoma, and Seattle, where he wrote the only poem to mark the journey, “Homage to Arthur Waley” (“Seattle weather: it has rained for weeks in this town”).

James Reidel

James Reidel is a poet and the biographer of Weldon Kees. His next book is Manon’s World: Hauntology of a Daughter in the Triangle of Alma Mahler, Walter Gropius, and Franz Werfel.

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