Palm Coffin

Laurence J. Jones
16 min readOct 25, 2018
Photo by Jake Holt

Palm Springs looks beautiful in the photos. When I started writing this last year, I was scanning Facebook, looking at photos from Palm Springs Modernism weekend, wondering, debating whether I felt I was missing out on something. I revive these thoughts as I look at another set of Modernism weekend.

Another year passes, another year of the preserved beauty. There’s no doubt, no contention or debate that I can offer to what slides in front of my eyes. The photography I’ve seen of it do waft in the ultimate post-war vibe of “desert oasis.” There’s houses lovingly preserved in their original states or cautiously updated not to render the initial aesthetic extinct. Light, clean, bright, often white against toasted mountains, spare, spiking trees with little need for water against piercing blue skies, it all continuously looks like a rendering of an illustrator. It’s stranger than fiction in rendering; one can place themselves in the reality of it.

I’ve seen many a staged photo with cars of a certain vintage to match that background scape. There’s no concession to the clock as the time; period is held in place. The ethos of memorium make it an escape from reality while still being a very realistic, seemingly accessible place. It seems the most accessible fantasy, just 8 hours by car, 90 minutes by plane ride away, I can escape the drudgery of modern daily life and return to a paradise that never quite left.

Is that a definition of modernism that’s healthy?

The reality is that such a place has to work really hard to sustain itself in a harsh landscape. If Los Angeles itself is kind of a mirage in a converted desert, Palm Springs is the ice queen sublimely frozen in oft 110 degree heat 2 hours to the East, unyielding to the march of time. At least Las Vegas, yet another desert mirage, seems a bit more honest as an Oasis in barren sands. It cycles through whatever is relevant to the outside world to stay alive. Vegas can’t afford to ignore the restrictions of the clock continuously clicking forward, fully animated with every overzealous cartoon fascination on the American consciousness.

“Palm Springs looks beautiful in photography” I keep saying to myself. I look at the beauty of such linear, pure architecture. I think of being shuttled around a magnificent desert valley floor in an infinite variety of vehicles that are still regarded as America’s moving monuments of success, despite their flaws specific to their era.

I still can’t quite hover a click of the mouse to make a pilgrimage there. Instead of clicking the tickets pointing me southwest 3 weeks ago, I hover over the tickets southbound from Portland wondering which holiday matters most to be surrounded by the world of faces I’ve created.

It’s apparently a Gay Mid Century Modern enthusiast’s rite-of-passage to visit tho. There’s plenty of faces that ferociously attempt to sell one on at least a weekend, if not the remainder of a lifetime, soaking up all that this Oasis from the proliferation; the sullied reality of elsewhere, has to offer. In naturally saturated settings, the advertisements dazzle the eye. As something a little too forward, a little too on the nose, I wonder what the volume is hiding in the subtlety and shadows that lay underneath.

Those that I note and know that are the biggest fans of Palm Springs tend to be those that seemingly got banished from the Post-War Oasis before they even realized they were. When the calls for me to check out what should delight me come in, they come in from Gay, oft-white, men closer to my mother’s age than mine, decidedly spanning the 2 decades in between, nothing below that. It seems a refuge for these men to recreate a paradise that never really existed.

In the preservation act and perfection to remember this past, the whole landscape has all the pomp and circumstance of a Sarcophagus from Ancient Egypt.

The ability for culture to survive in an arid environment, no doubt, deserves some level of praise. In between, who knows what demented or misunderstood traditions lie within. However, it leaves a rather mummified air to the memories it seeks to preserve; the further we go, the less moist, devoid is the corpse of the fluids that brought it life. It becomes dry and musty, leaving odors, myths and potential for mental mirages in tangible reality.

I get the feeling in such surroundings you’re not too secure it what particular demons are haunting you. There’s the possibility for you to carry your own there. It’s also possible that there’s plenty of lingering ghosts that perfume the desert air with mixtures of citrus rinds and the sterility of Vodka. The heady high between the two fuel an orgy that goes beyond mundane orgasms, perhaps down to the roots and crevices of one’s soul. That level of intoxication I’m guessing, observing from the outside, must be one hell of a rollercoaster to ride.

Palm Springs became a modern “safe” gay resort Mecca perhaps 20 years ago to my knowledge, perhaps earlier. Therein lies the question of whether this is part of my cultural heritage. As of now, it feels proximity related. When I was feeling more lust for the men in my dad’s porn collection, desert parties fueled by crystal meth and lord knows what other drugs went on for full weekends at least. I heard about as I learned more about what was supposed to be “my culture” of desiring male bodies over female ones. The names of these gatherings, “Circuit Parties” implied a closed loop, one that I didn’t know at the time I was to be seemingly, forever at this stage, stand outside of, looking in, perhaps with an understanding why it all was a waste of time anyways.

As I graduated into nominal adulthood, more of the imagery came filtering in. There was the “White Party” where, well, everyone was dressed in white. Long before my consciousness around my own skin tone in relation to any concept of queerness, I didn’t realize that there was another layer of generic whiteness to all of those festivities. Nevermind the whiteness of substances consumed to take all of your cares and concerns about the strife of life away. Slowly and steadily it made me start deconstructing the narrative around whiteness and pureness; in fact the constant consumption of all of those so-called pure, true things could be quite deadly if one wasn’t careful. Practice a bit of moderation.

Thankfully I was too buried in the burdens of life, one guesses, to really be concerned about how all of that alternate reality actually functioned. I was too young to really graduate into those ranks when the party was swinging the hardest. There were classes to take, a job to hold down, student loans to pay off. I could neither afford the time commitment or the financial one to participate in such spaces. I didn’t have the luxury, or the desire to put at risk for such an unknown concept of “liberation” this particular community space offered. My punch-in time on the clock as a party monster wouldn’t come for a few more years.

There were those that didn’t overdose on the joy of being inside the circuit. For those that didn’t find themselves at the end of the rope financially, there was the rise from their lines of cocaine for a moment to look around at their surroundings in Palm Springs. If you were 30 in 1998, you were most likely born into a world that, at its best, looked remarkably like the substance lifted-rose hazed surroundings you now found yourself in. This came with the bonus of some level of sexual fulfillment and removal from family of origin chaos. There’s empowerment in reclaiming space so familiar to those of us raised in these settings. These spaces that might be the only reference to home.

The haze one inhabits while reclined and ensconced in deep pile carpeting and preserved wood paneling, ones waning erection sat in the sandy, well-manicured bushes on the sculpted granite they spent hours carving on all sorts of fitness equipment. The timeless art of the human body played in the warm afternoon light streaming through Eichler-referencing floor to ceiling windows, softened and filtered through sheer curtains. It becomes a dream realized and no longer deferred. None of us want to relinquish acquiring our dreams, no matter how fleeting life in general just *is.*

This glow does come from a beacon of light. The first HIV/AIDS medications actually seem to work, to stem the tide, to relinquish the inevitable death that sex and intimacy had been for the better part of 15 years. I remember the worries stemming from my own family around sex, the sighs of relief as treatments sprung up after we had watched community members succumb to the plague.

The specter of the seriousness of immune deficiency hung like mildew in the fog of the Bay Area, always there to sober up conversations. The words Protease Inhibitor seemed to cut through the funk like September sunshine to those that had consciously paying attention to the risks that living authentically as was possible as a relief. Not every cock you’d cuddle would come with a date with grim reaper. I find it interesting to call in this reflection that helped inform how I circulated, still outside the circuit, as we reach a new mountaintop, yet a new hedonism, with the proliferation of PrEP. Such things function on generational cycles, and I hope I keep cataloging the lessons learned as I live through each transition.

The sense of relief that must have been felt couldn’t have found a better tranquil setting. Mostly forgotten by the progress of time and the development of McMansion Hell that proliferated in the expansive, deregulated late 1990s, Palm Springs found itself ripe for diva worship. The stark silhouettes of the homes and businesses are framed by mountains rising thousands of feet. The old Belle of the Ball played center stage for men of swaggering 1960’s masculinity as they escaped the trappings of Hollywood for respite or debauchery had been ignored for perhaps a decade or two. Nothing this cinemascope in creation gets passed over by the eyes of appreciating camp for long.

This is unless you discount the Dinah Shore Golf Tournament. There’s a full narrative of lesbian culture that was always giggled about in regards to Palm Springs, even when I was a child. As I grew up, I couldn’t exactly get a handle on what the joke really was sliding into. The distance between me and the root of the mockery seemed insurmountable. Therein lies some of the divorce, the escape from actual feminine realities by creating abstract representations of femininity. If there’s ever a city converted to female impersonation, Palm Springs has to be the elegant cabaret of Charles Busch, not the excessive layers of drag that wins RuPaul’s Drag Race.

I wonder how much of that lack of grasp of how the world moves forward, this particular segment of our so-called umbrella operates and aspires to remain steadfast in the past. This arid, nearly embalmed space leads to a level of inherent blindness among this theoretical peer group. It’s by no coincidence that the same Gay men enthralled with this preserved Grande Dame have absolutely no concern about the burbles from the ever more frightening politics of the present threaten to erase those that don’t adhere to the strict codes of society that Palm Springs playfully, yet some deathfully upholds.

We’ve seen this level of worship of the feminine without engaging how the subject feels throughout Gay Male Culture time and time again. Whether the object is animate or not, person or prized possession, it really doesn’t seem to matter much to those men that get to orchestrate an existence perhaps deprived of the desires of the feminine. Where there’s been projections upon human beings like Judy Garland, there’s still feminizing devices of service like automobiles with differing levels of appeal and sexuality. An old Plymouth Savoy might be named Gertrude to desexualize and cast that archetype of femininity as pragmatic, serviceable. A 1963 Riviera might be called Celeste to denote a goddess sexually desired yet unattainable all in one package.

This uneasy relationship with everything we’ve been told that’s the normative lays a shaky foundation to build a society on. Notably absent are women of any position on the spectrum in social circles I’ve seen congregated in Palm Springs. Therein lies a hyper exclusive Rat Pack wherein Frank and Dino take turns flip fucking each other. There’s no Angie Dickinson or Shirley MacClaine in sight even for comic relief. Sammy Davis Jr’s doppelganger serves as a fetish diversion, Joey Bishop another nod to surface diversity. The fetish of America’s long time schizophrenia with our mother country shows up in worship of old world imports with stuffy accents and little else as Peter Lawford replacements.

The routine of hydrating one’s body, either by soaking in the pool or soaking up gin runs unabated as it did in 1960. The routine of rise, wake, bake, slosh, suck and sleep ticks like a metronome, keeping precision in festivities. With regiment, there’s no room for questioning the shimmer of the puddle, with the dry heat there’s plenty of opportunity for moisture to evaporate before any examination of why the liquid continually pours freely in the first place.

It has substantial roots in the kind of selling a fantasy that could be bought. I had long thought that was the point of Mad Men, spending a decade consuming the precision recreation of all that was rotting underneath the morals and standards of the 1960’s. Strangely enough, it seems that we re-absorbed the parables as normative behaviors, in weird ways doubling down, dividing and conquering, building a stronger fortress than what stood before.

Did Don Draper ever learn how to become less of a shitbag of a human? Are queer men actually dealing with their childhood traumas, and the traumas that continue to pass in our daily lives? Long as we’re handsome, stoic and stylish, best funded by cash we barely deserve to possess, why is there any reason to change with the seasons? May life have mercy on those souls that try to get us to pause, stop, wade in the water a little bit deeper and let the waves overtake us. It’s easier to look at fiction to make it an abstract and not examine the strange circumstances that make us act out the art we see as life.

It’s not isolated to locking yourself in a sunken living room in a desert fantasy obviously. It’s interesting that the continual reset seems to reach in review, towards a time really oppressive.
From what I know of the 1950’s and 1960’s, I don’t believe I would be nearly full of life as I am 2 decades into the 21st century. Granted, there is that well-worn James Baldwin quote:

“I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, into a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society. There’s an element, it has always seemed to me, of bewilderment and complaint.”

The essentialism of this truth, fixed fire righteousness, colors how I look at Palm Springs and those who participate in perpetuating that fantasy. I see them floating on clouds of petulance and regret. It decidedly rusts the edges of the linearity of Mid Century Modern fanaticism, for me at least. It makes me see those clear boundaries between who had and had not more clearly. There’s the clarity of those who had access, and who still crave that access are trying to feed a never ending wormhole of possession without recognizing the importance of self. With enough possessions in the way, no one has to take responsibility for how they occupy space with others.

Don Draper is false as he is real, as he stands in for men that created fantasies to fuel their decadent avoidance of their own wounds. Some way, somehow, even as he sailed off into the sunset of fiction a few years ago, he’s still an idol for men. Here we are, more than 60 years later regurgitating their wounds as the ultimate fantasy. It’s the most burdensome of drugs, we have no desire to rehabilitate the aches that lie underneath.

I can’t hide from past pains and traumas. This far into my own queer experience I’ve got too plenty a hurdle between me and consumption based sensory deprivation. For one, the ancestral propensity towards gout means I couldn’t keep up with the alcohol bathing without adding a level of severe pain. Mobility of the basic sense is one privilege in society I never want to give up.

Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Casual Concours

It is fascinating to me to examine why individuals wish to swaddle themselves in these destructive patterns that have, quite honestly, a very finite end date. It’s been an interesting journey socializing with gay men obsessed with collecting cars that consume a double dose of their spare time they could devote to human bonding. That time available to build relationships that will nurture and grow as they cease to be able to is as finite as the supply of fossil fuels to feed their beasts. Yet, I hear more fretting about having accurate white wall tires on period Cadillacs than yet another person violently murdered and reported on in the media.

There’s little to no examination that the automobile, in reality, caused equal social fragmentation and uneven distribution of resources while providing individuals with the perception, if not exactly always the actual, freedom of mobility. Even then, these oft dangerous, unsafe at any speed contraptions are not even used for their intended purpose to circulate the globe in style. They’re pampered, garaged, gated, and trailered in an extended dick measuring contest to see who has the shiniest toys.

I gather being divorced from the No Girls Allowed halls of heterosexuality, by lingering in the margins between gender polarities, these gay man-children are exercising their available pathways to their so-called right place at the table of exclusion. Humans do have a pattern of repeating toxic behaviors that keep us estranged from the connections we seemingly crave constantly.

“That’s not the correct door panel.”

“That’s not a correct factory color.”

“The Roto-Hydra-matic was the absolute WORSE automatic transmission of all time!”

So goes the nit-picking of standards no one to the outside world has time to care about. Time has taken care of the majority of cars with wonky, obsolete automatic transmissions. They no longer exist to raise the stress levels of most people. Meanwhile, there’s little need or concern to be aware of actual concerns of other humans.

“Then, will someone explain to me why black women straighten their hair? I’m, honestly, baffled by it. Talk about adopting the values of your oppressor.”

So went a most recent social network comment with an older gay male more infatuated with the fantasies of the past than grappling with the present. I rebuffed with the fact that there’s plenty of resources, and one has plenty of time to put in research for oneself to find answers. Actual African American women chimed in further that it was devoid of the crux of the conversation, which didn’t center Black women, nor did anyone owe an explanation to why, nevermind there’s a diversity of experience of why.

The fixture on absolutism, the essentialist truth is something we all cling to in varying degrees. It’s seemingly more the “American” way that the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. These shrines we create, be it automobiles, homes, cities, carriers, even our own bodies become fixture.

Those fixtures try to deny their relationship with the continuance of time. They have no concept of the continued expansion of the universe, and the fact that we’re constantly separating from stationary places in time. 100 years from today Palm Springs might have a drastically different climate under the influence of climate change. Those that remember the so-called best era of the place might find themselves wherever what happens in the hereafter.

I say for a third time, that Palm Springs looks great in photos. As someone that reviews and reminds myself of existence through photography, I know many things can be lit to look marvelous. If the lighting wasn’t quite right, if there were too many a shadow, too much light or that light was too harsh, there’s long been ways to correct what we see past the moment capture. It’s a process that’s gotten far more sophisticated with every second passed. In certain ways we’ve all become rather expert in editing out the flaws in the image that we present.

The auspices of influence of the desert paradise, full of heat and tension yet devoid of lubricating moisture to facilitate basic connection has become a weird allegory for all of the ways I cultivate image for myself. It becomes an instruction manual for interpreting the levels of interaction with the men that are supposed to be my sensual, sexual, safety, my brethren. I’ve spent many hours trying to grab the color and richness that I saw in a fleeting moment and make it permanent. I’ve spent years trying to preserve the color and richness in bonds between me and those I’ve loved, never really freeing them to spill milk on the floor and decidedly that’s as far as my boundaries have gone.

I’m trying to learn by re-reading the image. I acknowledge no matter how rich the image, the image remains flat without the words, the context, the sounds, the emotions and the surroundings that make me pause and remember those moments. I have to take into account to whether those moments resonate with others, or do they politely pass others by. If we both end up stopping and looking at the same place, the same time, where do our truths overlap? How do I, how do we build into our past fantasies, dig out the worms in our soil to plant new gardens?

Not much can be planted around Palm Springs far as I know. Where Los Angeles went from Orange Grove mirage turned miracle to compete with Florida before it continued to create illusions for all of us to live up to, Palm Springs stays preserved like a aqua-net hairdo under the dryer for 30 minutes. Back to the ritual. My mom went to the salon once a week when I was a child. How often did your mom go get her hair done, and then her nails too?

Telling the story honestly, examining the ritual properly contextualizes why our predecessors did them and whether the have weight or sanity to continue. Eventually I’ll buy those plane tickets or get in a car to Palm Springs, but I have so many other rituals within my tribe to question. So many are influenced by that nature to fixate on what no longer serves us. I look around, I have my own personal pond of grief in my own backyard I continually process. When I’m able to step outside of myself I find myself on random beaches on the largest ocean of heartbreak.

Oceans are life. Granted we’re spending a lot of time poisoning our waters these days, yet the moisture seems to still be able to forgive our trespasses. The mirrors of lakes can distort in waves, reflecting back our torture, or they can stand still in passing moments to offer the most beautiful portraits of ourselves. Water, wetness, spills, humidity and tears were our first cameras. They reflected that everything might just be picture perfect in the infinite possibility of change.

Palm Springs looks so beautiful in the photos I’ve seen. I really hope when I visit it for the first time, there’s a wonderful Summer thunderstorm that cuts some of the dry heat, and offers surprise that’ll probably ruin the party I attend.



Laurence J. Jones

Mid late 30’s CIS Queer inhabiting the liminal space between race, class, gender, The Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest.