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June 5, 2017

Searching for Elvis in Indio, California

One summer, as a teenager, I was working the graveyard shift at a gas station a few miles outside Indio, California. It was in the Coachella Valley, deep in the southern California desert. The station was on Highway 111, at a point where it ran parallel to Interstate 10. It was, at least in those days, a lonely stretch of desert road and I worked my 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. shift alone, with only a tall hedge of oleanders (toxic to children and small animals) and the occasional customer to keep me company.

To be sure, some nights -- especially Fridays on a holiday weekend -- were extremely busy. A lot of the travelers were in RVs or hauling boats, and were headed to Parker Dam, a recreational site on the border with Arizona. My station was a convenient fuel stop for those who were midway in the five-hour journey from sprawling Los Angeles to Parker Dam.

While working there I had my share of experiences. I called the cops twice: both times for reports of a dead body crumpled by the roadside. Other incidents included drunken drivers, a philandering husband in a '55 Chevy Nomad ("Hey buddy, have you got a used oil can? I need to make it look like I've been fixing my car"), broken-down cars, low riders, vandals, Mexican junk collectors, potheads, prostitutes, pastors and many other people -- most of them quite nice. But one experience stands above them all.

It was about 2:00 a.m. on a quiet weekday night when a small, yellow pickup truck rolled into the station. It pulled up near the pumps, but not near enough for the pump handle to reach the fuel filler. We were a full-service station (regular unleaded gas was 58.9¢ per gallon), so I walked over to the vehicle and asked, “Do you want a fill up?”

“No,” the driver said as he began to climb out. As he did so, I assessed his vehicle more closely. I was a small pickup owner myself. He had the early generation of Mazda pickup -- the model with a rotary engine. Rotaries were still a novelty at that time. The engines had an incredibly favorable power to weight ratio, but they guzzled gas like a much larger V8 would, erasing much of the benefit of owning one. Still, those early trucks were a common sight and were known for the words “Rotary Power” in large letters on the tailgate. The example in front of me was emblazoned with those words, picked out against the yellow. It also featured leopard-print curtains hanging across the rear window of the cab.

The driver was a tall gent in his 20s with a gaunt, acne-scarred face. He was dressed head to toe in a brown velour track suit and wore, despite the desert darkness, large sunglasses: the kind that were very dark at the top of the lens and faded to light brown towards the bottom. As he straightened, he brushed at the velour around his waist, as if concerned with his appearance. Or perhaps he’d been snacking.

“Hey,” he asked, “do you know where Elvis Presley is having a party around here?”

I stood dumbly for a few seconds as the words registered. So he repeated himself, this time with a note of exasperation.

“I said -- do you know where Elvis Presley is having a party around here?”

The Coachella Valley is a playground for the wealthy and the Hollywood elite. As I drove through the Valley in those days I could see the sprawling Spanish-style ranch with red tile roof that was owned by Lucille Ball; the vast home recently built for Bob Hope that loomed on a mountainside over the city of Palm Springs (the city had forced him to dump tons of sand and gravel onto his new roof, as the glitter and shine of the original design were too distracting for the more common denizens of the city). I drove down streets called Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, and my battered and blue Datsun pickup was regularly humbled by Rolls and Bentleys as they flashed by me with smoke-dark windows.

“Sorry,” I replied, “I don’t know him. But I would guess he’s on the other side of the valley.” I didn’t know where Elvis kept a home in the area, but it certainly wouldn’t be in the southwestern end which was dominated by the blue collar towns of Indio and Coachella.

“Yeah, well I do. He invited me to his party, but I’ve been driving around all night trying to find it.”

The irony of asking a gas station attendant in Indio, California, where Elvis lived was apparently lost on him, at least in his current frustrated state. (Although a classmate of mine at the time who worked for a pharmacy did make deliveries to Frank Sinatra's home whenever he was in town; a set of baby blue toothbrush holders, for example.)

I gave Mr. Velour what I hoped was a sympathetic look and asked, “are you sure you don’t need gas?”

He looked surly in reply, and climbed back into his truck. “Nope. I’ve got a party to get to.”

He drove off.

That was, to the best of my recollection, in July 1979. Not long after, I was listening to local AM radio station KESQ (“14Q”) when it was announced in somber tones that Elvis Presley had been found dead at his home in Memphis, Tennessee. It was August 16, 1979.

It was a sad moment for a lot of people -- including, I’m sure, the guy in brown velour whom I'd met just weeks before. I can still picture him driving off in my mind’s eye, the words “Rotary Power” receding in darkness as he disappeared into the desert night.

Searching for Elvis.

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