Editor’s note: We find ourselves back in Kingman, Ariz., a bit unexpectedly. We hadn’t planned to stop here in the fall, either. We blew a tire at midnight, which changed our itinerary. We slept the night at a tire shop which had been recommended by the genial tow-truck savant who bailed us out, then had six new tires installed, then wandered Kingman in shock and eleven hundred and fifty dollars poorer.
Editor’s note II: Well, well. More than two months have elapsed since I wrote the above editor’s note. We’re no longer in Kingman. We made it through on April 2 without so much as an underinflated tire. But who’s checking? While we were there I made a stop at the same McDonald’s in an effort to finish off this piece. I failed miserably. Then we drove the rest of the day and most of the night, traversing the sweeping emptiness of Nevada for 400 or so miles before laying up within a good 7-iron shot of Minden, Nev.
A freight train’s whistle pierces the afternoon quiet with the subtlety of a wrecking ball.
Zell Gaston Henderson stands behind the bar at the Sportsmans Club, which began life on Route 66 in Kingman, Ariz., 120 years ago as the Palace Saloon.
He pours two colas.
“Zell,” I say, “you oughta do something about those trains.”
“You want to be my friend, or do you want me to tell you what I really think?” he says.
Two hours ago, maybe three, we were in the McDonald’s on Stockton Hill Road, hard by brawny, treeless mountains at the edge of the Mojave Desert.
While I made a futile effort to write, Max frolicked in the play area, running wild with a member of his “peer group,” a 4-year-old boy named Asa.
Somehow we came enmeshed in Zell’s narrative. Turns out he’s always at work on that narrative. Words tumble from his mouth like water over the famous cataract at Niagara.
Seems like he could’ve fallen out of the pages of a Tennessee Williams play.
There goes that infernal blast again. Eighty trains a day, Zell says, wincing. Kingman, after all, got its start as a railroad siding on the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad.
Most people hear the strains of romance in the blare of the locomotive.
If you own a turn-of-the-century hotel adjacent to the Burlington Santa Fe rail yard on Route 66, you might think otherwise. Zell Henderson wants to shut those trains the hell up. They got silent crossings in Vegas, he says, so why not here? He’s lobbied for an increase in the hotel/motel tax to pay for a silent crossing zone. That would prevent trains from unleashing their boisterous wail within the city limits, and it would reduce Zell’s frustration level.
It is, he says, the key to a downtown renaissance. He’s got the mayor in his sights, and he’s become a nuisance to the city council. He’s trying to get them to see the error of their ways, or at least get them out of office.
Zell Henderson, by his own description, is something like backwoods royalty in these parts. His mother is 79, and as we speak she’s going in for an arterial biopsy.
When she fell ill last week, Zell says, the captain of the fire department showed up at her house just to ride in the ambulance with her.
His says his grandfather Lawrence, his daddy’s daddy, made a pile of money farming the Phoenix valley and sold off a large parcel that became Sky Harbor Airport. (I left without asking enough questions. I do this often. In an age when nearly every claim is verifiable on the Interwebs, I scuffled mightily here. I did learn that an aviation entrepreneur named J. Parker Van Zant bought 278 acres of cotton fields in 1928. By the time his Scenic Airways went belly up a year later, the airfield already was called Sky Harbor.)
Tony Melles, his mother’s father, made his money in the service station business. He owned the Old Trails Garage, the Conoco Oil Agency and the U.S. 66 Service Station. He also owned a gas station on the Arizona side of the Hoover Dam. It was the only game in town, so he won what amounted to a monopoly contract with the dam-building authorities.
Listening to Zell, you’d think his family tree is a concupiscent warren of tawdry skeletons and three-eyed babies, banjo–playing cousins and Peyton-place marriages.
“My father was married four times, my mother three times,” he says. “Remember the Chevrolet, the big back seats, the drive-in? We’re like jackalopes.”
This is a refuge for lovers of dive bars. High wood ceilings are adorned with ornate inlays and whirring fans. And the whole place is consumed by darkness. A good kind of darkness.
What was it that started the wheel of eccentricity spinning one more time? As usual, it landed squarely on me.
Hanging out at McDonald’s, even here. I can’t get away from them. Not that I want to.
Zell’s dressed casually, if rakishly. Understated Hawaiian shirt and jeans.
After an hour of conversation, well, after an hour of Zell talking and us listening as attentively as we could, we took him up on his offer visit his bar downtown.
Asa and Zell hop into his stylish Lincoln Town Car, and we follow in the behemoth.
This, by the way, is always the right move. Spend a couple hours with a strange character in his own bar, your potential for harvesting bizarre stories grows exponentially.
This guy talks a thousand words a minute sober. Imagine what he might say when he gets a little loose. The only problem? Zell isn’t drinking. So we’re not drinking. He didn’t even offer. Colas. He owns a fucking century-old bar, a dark and quirky and inviting dive in the heart of historic Kingman, and he’s not drinking.
Not that I believe anyone should drink. It’s a destructive habit, for sure. But you own a bar, it’s somewhat strange to look askance at the people who’re paying your electric bills.
But, technically speaking, it’s not his bar. He’s already deeded it to Asa.
It’s Asa’s bar.
Outside Asa’s bar, on the way in, I met Bob from All-American tire. Nice guy. He says he hopes they didn’t take advantage of us there. I chuckle to myself, say it was nice to meet him.
Zell is the quintessential rich gay uncle. He’s a big brother, a surrogate daddy, a cheerleader for Asa, as he says he has been for 14 other kids.
He ticks off a list of lofty accomplishments like a proud grandfather. One of his “kids,” he says, recently graduated second in his class from the London School of Economics.|
“I’m the rich uncle,” he says. “The rich gay uncle. ”
He smiles and talks, and talks and talks and talks.
Does he feel a bit out of place here in the land of Jan Brewer and Bill 1070?
“They have a bit of trouble with me,” he says. “It’s interesting being a Democrat in Arizona. You can be a Democrat, but you have to be a Democrat in the guise of a Republican.
“I’m from the other side of the tracks,” he says, eyes twinkling. “Problem is, I own the other side of the tracks.”
It’s hard to gauge how much of the fascinating, undulating, disjointed plot of his family life has been embellished or possibly invented out of whole cloth. What’s not debatable is that Zell Gaston Henderson is as wonderful an eccentric as you could ever hope to find in the play area of a ubiquitous fast-food chain.
“I know where the bodies are buried, all of them,” he says. “Lost Dutchman Mine? It never existed. Everybody knew it except the poor slobs who died there searching for gold that didn’t exist.”
He says he has epilepsy, and the drugs he takes fuck with his memory. His sister is incapacitated by the disease. He also had an amoebic liver infection, which went straight to his brain and left him “crazy as a $3 bill” for a time.
He proceeded to detail a colorful series of hallucinations.
Even had auditory hallucinations, including one in which his 16-year-old niece performs an otherworldly version of the “Ave Maria.”
He proceeds to articulate the story of his visions.
He lives on a sweeping property that overlooks canyons and buttes and mesas and eases gently downward to a creek. He thought he saw people were camping in his yard. He saw eyes. Or something. Maybe a camper. Maybe they have a gun.
When he was a kid, they all carried guns. They’d leave home after school on Friday toting their guns, and not return until Sunday evening.
While his lover of 17 years, Billy, and most of his old-time friends have succumbed to AIDS or other calamities, Zell believes God has spared him.
“Why has He spared me?” he asks with muted rhetorical flourish.
He then points to Asa.
“I made him promise never to die, and then he died,” he says of Billy. “I was so mad at him. I’m not so mad at him anymore.”
He hasn’t had a steady in years. He’s got a friend named Beau (a beau named Bo?) who went to Oklahoma to be with his first grandson. Respecting his privacy to a fault, Zell nonetheless expects his friend to return. Maybe next summer, maybe in five years. He’s waiting, thinking, hoping for the day his beau walks into his bar.
“I don’t want somebody who’s into me because I have stuff,” he says. “I don’t care about stuff. I like stuff, but it doesn’t define me.”
Then he tells a story about an interior decorator from New York, an older gentleman who perhaps was one of Billy’s former lovers. Zell calls him a contemptuous “old fag.”
He visited Billy out west once, and I guess he managed to piss off Zell, because before he departed, Zell put a dead tarantula in the pocket of his pants.
Instead of throwing a hissy fit befitting a New York queen, the Old Fag instead sent Zell a thank you letter. It aggrieves Zell to this day that he never got the Old Fag’s goat.
“I like to play games,” he says with a smirk.
The conversation falls silent, and silence soon shattered by the cry of yet another freight train.
Zell grimaces, and we thank him for his time and say our goodbyes.
The visit to his sprawling compound will have to wait for another day.