At Atwater

This week, I’m in the town of Atwater, California, where mollusk training is proceeding just fine. Although the adventures I’ve been having are nowhere near as interesting as the adventures that Jennifer has been having in San Francisco, we have had our share of fun.

Atwater itself intrigues me. The sign just outside the town announces that the population is about 23,000 people; and, driving through the streets of this city you have to wonder just where it is that they all live. There are no vast stretches of suburban tract housing that I can see; no tall apartment buildings; no charming and quaint little country homes with perfect lawns and picket fences. Atwater does, however, have a lot of nameless trailer parks. At least one of them is right next to the wrecking yard as well, providing a very scenic site as we drive past.

But the main thing about Atwater is that there is an old, abandoned air force base there. Given the difficulty that we had in finding it, and the difficulty in finding it that many of the mollusks reported to me, I think that the main reason it was shut down was just because no one could find it. I imagine President Clinton saying to some aide, “Where the hell is Atwater?” And the aide replying, “I have no idea, sir. Should we just close it down?” And President Clinton replying, “Huh? What? Oh, sure, whatever, ’scuse me, got a meeting with an intern right now.”

The most interesting feature of Atwater for me is the abandoned barracks. It’s really surreal to drive past an entire neighborhood which has been thoroughly deserted. It’s like a scene from some post-apocalyptic suburban horror movie; the streets and houses look just like streets and houses in any other neighborhood, but the lawns are all overgrown and spilling out into the streets and the windows are all boarded up. Add to that the chain link fencing which surrounds the entire neighborhood, and that sense of doom is perfectly accessorized.

The mollusks themselves are fairly pleasant on the whole, and I’ve enjoyed working with them. I have to admit, though, that I get the impression that the main form of entertainment in Atwater is tattooing each other; I have never seen so many people with so many cheap-looking tattoos all together in one place outside of a biker bar. It’s positively astounding! I have never, in all my days, and I mean never, pondered the possibility of having the name of someone tattooed across the bridge of my nose, no matter how much I loved them. While one of my coworkers, Mr. T, thinks that there might be a cultural element at play here, another coworker, Guy Smiley, reminds me that there is a Federal penitentiary in Atwater. Maybe what I’m seeing are just prison tats. That’s certainly possible, and it explains the quality of the tattoos.

But today’s big excitement came shortly after our lunch break when one of the mollusks suffered a grand mal epileptic seizure in the lobby where we were conducting our training. Thank God he was okay afterwards, and thank God we had barnacles nearby who were well-versed in first aid and who could respond appropriately to the seizure. The paramedics weren’t needed. And no one was injured. We managed to keep him comfortable while he was recovering, and let him sleep on the floor of the training room for a little while while we conducted our classes as normal.

Afterwards, two of his family members and a barnacle helped this particular mollusk stand up, and he staggered — weak, trembling, and covered in sweat — out of the front door, past other mollusks who were waiting patiently for their own shell polishing kits. Of course, they stared, though I did my best to keep them at a distance and quiet. But I admit that there was a part of me — and not really all that tiny a part — that wanted to point at the shaky, trembling, sweat-drenched mollusk and tell the others, “See? See? This is what happens when you forget your paperwork!” Fortunately, the more discreet part of my mind prevailed. It was a relief, though, to discover that one of the barnacles had just as sick a sense of humor as I.

In a way, it was all kind of surreal, and my gallows-humor reaction was absurd. But, then, any day which begins with CNN announcing that the House of Representatives had changed the name of “French Fries” in the House Cafeteria to “Freedom Fries” to protest France’s temerity in disagreeing with the US over Iraq really can’t help but be surreal and absurd. And just a touch asinine.