The Believer

The Guerrilla War Against Cheap Lettuce

If you drive far enough south in Douglas, Arizona, you eventually hit the wall. You'll pass through tidy avenues lined with new ranch homes and the stately old brick houses built for mining officials back when Douglas was a company town, when there were jobs here besides those offered by the Border Patrol, Wal-Mart, and the prison up the road. But this is the Sonoran desert, despite the lawns, and minitornadoes of red dust keep whipping themselves up in the streets and just as quickly dissolving. Then the avenues give way to a long, straight unpaved road, then a drainage ditch, and then the wall.

Constructed of adjoining rectangles of corrugated steel built to serve as landing strips for American planes in Vietnam, the wall climbs at least ten feet high for miles to the east and west, a rust-colored scar on the surface of the desert. When it passes through a wash, the landing mats are replaced by tall rectangular steel girders filled with cement, spaced just widely enough that water can pass between them, but not human limbs. Through those spaces, you can see into Mexico--more red dirt and skinny ocotillos, a thirsty-looking cow, a makeshift grave of piled stones and plastic orange flowers, the same blue sky.

If you linger here for more than a moment, the lenses on the Border Patrol camera towers will spot you, or you'll trip a magnetic sensor or a seismic one, and one of the nearly 10,000 Border Patrol agents stationed along the 2,000-mile southern boundary will roll up behind you in a Jeep, lights flashing. If you are allowed to drive on, big-eared desert hares will leap in front of your tires, and more dust devils will rise and twirl to the right and to the left. Then the wall will block your view again until, without warning, about five miles east of town, it comes to an abrupt end, and nothing but a few sad strands of torn barbed wire remain to bisect the enormity of the desert.

It's hard not to laugh out loud: all this mad fuss over so much nothingness. What are we so afraid of?

How it all began

Jim Gilchrist's home is a good nine-hour drive from the barren stretch of Arizona desert about which he has become so insistently concerned. Despite this distance, Gilchrist has for months now been planning to erect a human fence along the imaginary line separating the United States from Mexico, to station volunteers armed with binoculars, radios, and often pistols at quarter-mile intervals in an effort to protect what they and Gilchrist understand to be America from all that it is not. Gilchrist is a retired CPA, and lives with his wife and two aging Chihuahuas in a modest yellow stucco town house behind the walls of a gated subdivision in Orange County, California. Nearly all of the surrounding streets have Spanish names (Calle Cortez is not far), and even the car washes have Mexican-tiled roofs.

It is late March, and the Minuteman Project won't begin for another week, but Gilchrist's phone is already ringing every few minutes with calls from ABC News or Congressman Tom Tancredo's office. One of the Chihuahuas dozes on the couch in a mauve-and-cream-themed living room cluttered with ceramic angels, artificial roses, and framed New Testament verses. (His wife, Gilchrist explains, is the religious one.) A small man with hooded gray-green eyes, a quick smile, and a nervous laugh, he strokes the dog beside him and talks about being wounded in Vietnam on a dirt road just south of Khe San.

"I think about that place every single day," he says. A bullet struck his rifle, sending fragments into his face, head, shoulder, elbow, and arm. "We had nineteen men in our company killed that day. Their bodies were just laying in the trail."

The thread of Gilchrist's ramblings is loose and somewhat frayed, and before long he moves on to the last time he was in Arizona, about twenty miles west of Douglas, patrolling the border road with Chris Simcox, then the editor of the Tombstone (Ariz.) Tumbleweed, and, with Gilchrist, the co-founder of the Minuteman Project. On the other side of the barbed-wire fence, they came across three coyotes, as the guides who smuggle migrants across the border are called. "One of the guys must've been only seventeen," Gilchrist says. "He needed braces; I remember that. They were friendly and everything, but they knew what we were there for. Our interpreter told them, 'We're not here to hurt you.'" The coyote answered, "Well, I got ninety-five people back there, and we're coming in tonight.'"

"He even told us," Gilchrist muses with a laugh. "It was funny. It was somehow silly. Here we are on the other side of the barbed wire, and we're giving them a gallon of water. We did everything but shake their hands. He said, 'We need agua.' So we gave them the gallon of water and they said thank you.

I said, "De nada." And the young one, he was about seventeen, he seemed to be so sincere."

Gilchrist shakes his head in amazement at it, this simple interaction, stripped briefly of any shielding rhetoric. He doesn't seem to know what to do with it, so he quickly returns to the comforts of rhetoric. Gilchrist's colleagues along the Arizona border will later repeat and repeat again the same arguments and many of the same phrases ("economic invasion," "a nation of laws"). The degree of rationality, nostalgia, and overt or implicit racism will fluctuate from Minuteman to Minuteman, but the basics will remain the same. By taking American jobs and bringing down wages, immigrants are destroying the American middle class. By taking advantage of government services, they are draining our wealth. They will bring us all down. They are criminals and terrorists. Most of this is demonstrably untrue, but it offers a tidy enough account to explain most of the dislocations brought about by the current state of global capitalism.

Then there's "the stack of marbles"--Gilchrist's semifunctional metaphor for what's replaced the old melting pot model, "where the cultures are banging against each other, each marble seeking dominance over the other marbles." Beginning sometime in the 1980s, Gilchrist says, he began to feel "something like a disorientation." The country no longer looked the same. He began writing to his congressional representatives to express his concerns about illegal immigration. His anxieties grew. When 9/11 came, Gilchrist was devastated. "That was the turning point." He started spending a lot of time on the internet and read as much as he could.

Gilchrist came across an article about Chris Simcox in American Legion magazine. Simcox, a former elementary school teacher, had lived in Los Angeles until the fall of 2001, when he landed in the Western theme-town of Tombstone, Arizona, with a bad case of the post-9/11 freakouts. After the attacks, he told the Los Angeles Times two years ago, "For a while, I wouldn't talk to anyone if they couldn't recite the Pledge of Allegiance." He lost custody of his teenaged son after his ex-wife objected to his signing the boy up for handgun training. He has since opted for a calmer, revised version of his narrative: He packed up and took what he now calls a "vacation" to Organ PipeCactus National Monument in southwest Arizona. Simcox says he encountered large groups of migrants at every turn, even "drug caravans coming in."

He tried to join the military, then the Border Patrol, but was told he was too old. He pitched stories to mainstream media outlets but found no takers. So he washed dishes for a while and acted in one of the local Old West shows as a bumbling gunslinger named Shame. He eventually found a job at the Tombstone Tumbleweed. Within six months he bought the paper and quickly transformed it into a mouthpiece for his anti-immigrant views. In October of 2002, Simcox issued "a public call to arms."

"Enough is enough!" the Tumbleweed shouted. "Citizen border patrol militia now forming!"

According to the Arizona Daily Star, two volunteers showed up to Simcox's first training session, and twice as many journalists. Simcox was undeterred and now boasts that the group he founded, Civil Homeland Defense, is responsible for turning over more than 4,000 undocumented immigrants to Border Patrol. (His critics claim that number is hypertrophically inflated.)

A few months after reading the American Legion article, Gilchrist heard Simcox interviewed on the radio. Intrigued, he checked out the Civil Homeland Defense website, then gave Simcox a call. He offered to travel to Arizona to lend a hand and to try to recruit some volunteers. He sent out a group email early last October and soon put up a website of his own, dubbing the effort the Minuteman Project.

Asked to fill in the blanks between his reaction to the 9/11 attacks and the evolution of the idea for the Minuteman Project, Gilchrist leaps to his feet and races through a door in the kitchen into the garage. One wall is covered with framed black-and-white photographs of young men in military fatigues. "He's my lieutenant," he says, pointing to one photo, the pace and pitch of his voice rising with each word. "He was killed. These two were killed. He's still missing in action. He died. He was shot in the back by a sniper. He's dead. These are all friends of mine. This is me 36 years ago." Gilchrist hustles upstairs to his office. "9/11 comes along and I'm back there," he says, meaning Vietnam. "I'm sort of back there all the time, but really back there."

Displayed on the walls are a framed image of a man weeping, leaning against the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, a drawing of Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat, and a photo of a young Jim Gilchrist in Marine dress uniform. For days after 9/11, Gilchrist says, he couldn't sleep. "I could hardly even walk," Gilchrist says. "I remember walking up and down the stairs real fast, up and down, up and down, telling my wife, 'We're going to go to war, we're going to go to war, these kids are all going to get killed, our nephew Russell, he's gonna get drafted, we're going to war!'" And that's it: that's as rational an explanation as it is possible to draw from Jim Gilchrist on the source of his obsession with the border. He talks more, for hours more, spinning off the usual lines about the burden undocumented immigrants put on the hospitals and how even traffic is worse, but the only answer he supplies that makes even the briefest solid sense is that confession of flashback psychosis, raw panic, insomniac fear.

Rallying the Minutemen

By 9 a.m. on April 1, two news trucks are already idling in the dirt parking lot beside the old Masonic lodge in Tombstone. Three more are parked across the street. It was here, in Schieffelin Hall, 122 years ago almost to the day, that the residents of Tombstone gathered to gripe about the military's failure to protect white settlers from Apache raiders. A posse of "Tombstone Rangers" set out on horseback and, failing to find any hostiles, fired blindly at members of a pacified tribe, then hightailed it back to Tombstone. Fortunately for all, every bullet missed.

The settlers' fears have hardly abated though the Apaches are long gone. At this hour not many cowboys can be seen either, even in Tombstone, where at any given moment a good percentage of the local population is dressed as Doc Holliday or Calamity Jane. Twenty Minutemen are scattered about the lot, talking to the cameras about the need to seal the border before the Mexicans steal every last job. Most are potbellied, mustached men on the far side of middle age wearing camouflage baseball caps and holstered sidearms. The guns, a nasty local history of vigilante violence, and the fact that the Aryan Nation website listed the Minuteman Project as a featured "White Pride Event," have been enough to get a lot of people worried that someone, be it Minuteman or migrant, might get hurt, and the anxiety has seeped into the newspapers and television news shows. But there are so few Minutemen around this morning that the reporters, who for the moment outnumber them about four to one, are beginning to grumble that the whole thing may be an elaborate April Fool's gag designed to demonstrate the gullibility of the press.

Sue Voss, a small permed woman in a denim shirt, struggles to light a cigarette in the wind. She's a retired phone company technician from Tucson and is here, she says, because she's afraid of who and what might slip across the border when the government's not watching. She had long been concerned about illegal immigration, but "September 11 was the kicker."

She got involved with the effort to pass Proposition 200, the so-called "Protect Arizona Now" initiative, a steroidally enhanced knockoff of California's Proposition 187 that not only denies most government services to noncitizens but requires state employees to report undocumented immigrants. It was approved last fall by 56 percent of Arizona voters. Like many of her colleagues, Voss does not think that the connection between fears of terrorist attacks and the desire to cut off benefits to immigrants requires any special explanation.

Late last year, Voss heard about Simcox and Gilchrist's call for all patriots to descend on southern Arizona throughout the month of April to "surprise ILLEGAL immigrants on trails heading north" and "suggest" that they "sit and wait for USBP... to come and pick them up." Voss first volunteered a few months ago and has been coming down to Tombstone to help out with preparations ever since. "I am terribly proud to be part of this movement," she says with a shy, earnest smile. "I think you're seeing true America here."

Several dozen reporters mill about, sticking microphones at a few white men with guns on the edge of a dusty parking lot packed with SUVs. Of course she's right.

Tombstone was never much of a town. It sits in a particularly drab patch of desert on top of a history no more colorful or violent than that of most other Western towns. There were silver mines at one point, but since the late 1920s Tombstone has been skating by on a mythic version of Western history, a tourist-friendly monument to a past that never was. Allen Street, the main drag, is a full-scale clapboard-and-stucco model of every eight-year-old's Wyatt Earp fantasy, complete with costumed gun-toting baddies and "authentic Indian collectibles." Genuine buzzards circle overhead.

By early afternoon, the Minutemen have locked themselves inside Schieffelin Hall. A small group of protesters keeps the reporters company outside. They wave hand-lettered signs that read "You're the immigrant" and "Who's illegal, Pilgrim?" Black-hatted Arizona Rangers guard the doors.

Inside, about a hundred Minutemen sit stiffly on wooden benches. Most are male, and almost all are white. Jim Gilchrist is standing at the front of the hall, squeezed into a tight tan suit that makes his head look like an accident visited upon his shoulders. Simcox is a few feet away, pacing the aisle with a video camera. Forty-four, goateed, and handsome in an aw-shucks sort of way, he purses his lips and squints with a studied Lee Marvin intensity.

Gilchrist blushes as the Minutemen applaud, then introduces the first speaker: Bay Buchanan, Pat's sister. She addresses President Bush, who is not here. "You have failed us. You have failed our children. You are allowing criminals to come across this border, terrorists, drugs. Mr. President, you have failed America."

The Minutemen whistle and stamp their feet. Tom Tancredo is next, the congressman from Colorado who is apparently hoping a political career built on immigrant-bashing will land him in the White House. (He's been visiting Iowa and New Hampshire lately, and will soon splash his way into the news by declaring that in the event of any major terrorist attack on American soil, the U.S. should bomb Mecca.) Tancredo is a tan, smooth-voiced man with neatly trimmed gray hair. He tells the Minutemen they are "American heroes" and reassures them that, despite appearances to the contrary, "You are not a small group. There are literally hundreds of millions of Americans who feel as we feel."

If Tancredo is overstating the case, he's not entirely off. This may be a media stunt, but there's something very real behind it, one of the periodic tides of nativism that washes over American politics whenever the economy sinks, bolstered this time by a huge and unhealthy dose of al Qaeda nuke-in-a-backpack hysterics. Copycat versions of Arizona's Proposition 200 are in the works in at least twelve other states, some as far from the border as Washington and Virginia. In the first three months of 2005, the white supremacist National Alliance went on a pamphleting spree, leaving racist and anti-immigrant literature on lawns and doorsteps in fourteen states from California to New Jersey. In late March, they hit Douglas, Sierra Vista, and Tombstone, warning that "Non-whites are turning America into a Third World slum." Last year, Samuel P. Huntington, riffing off such dodgy old tropes as the Jewish Question and the Negro Problem, published an essay titled "The Hispanic Challenge" (which became a section of his book Who Are We?: The Challenge to America's National Identity), expressing a racially insular white nationalism with astounding candor. ("There is no Americano dream," he concluded. "There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society.") Still more worryingly, he was taken seriously.

So the sound of stamping feet that accompanies Tancredo's ovation is more than a little chilling. The effect is only magnified by Chris Simcox's closing remarks. He speaks in a surprisingly gentle voice, stressing the importance of the "S.O.P.," the ten-point Standard Operating Procedure he has drafted, which goes over everything from staying sober while on duty (point two) to picking up your trash (point nine). "We are going to be held accountable to the letter of the law in every way imaginable," Simcox says. "You must show the greatest restraint."

Before sending his men off to take up their posts along the border and protect the homeland from everything outside it, Simcox ends on an ominous note. He narrows his eyes and speaks very slowly. "The government cannot allow this to succeed," he says. "The agent provocateur is out there. Maybe even in this room." The Minutemen stand. They clap and hoot and stamp some more.

Our xenophobic nation

"In the West there was a panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways," John Steinbeck wrote in 1939. "Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights." Of course The Grapes of Wrath was about migrants from Oklahoma, not from Michoacán and San Salvador. Long before the Okies left the Dustbowl, fear of outsiders had a well-established pedigree. But there is nothing timeless in the most recent outbreak of xenophobia. This current rash belongs to us alone, to this unsteady moment of empire in crisis and slippery transnational economics.

Until 1875, no federal law existed restricting immigration to the United States. A law drafted that year kept out felons and Chinese women, and another in 1882 excluded the men. It was only at that point that America began to notice its southern boundary, and then only out of fear that the Chinese might sneak in through Mexico. The Border Patrol wasn't founded until 1924, and before 1929 it wasn't even a crime to circumvent border authorities and slip into the U.S.: the concept of the "illegal" immigrant did not exist.

While the rhetoric of nativism has hardly shifted a comma in a century and a half--the Irish, the Chinese, the Italians, the Mexicans, they're taking all the jobs, they're criminals and drug-runners, they're corrupting our culture--its current manifestation, with its obsessive focus on the southern border, didn't begin to take form until the mid-1970s and early 1980s, when downturns in the Mexican economy and wars in Central America sent a new wave of migrants north. Xenophobia has been rolling ever since, fading in prosperous years, blooming in bad times.

Thus the recession of the early '90s brought us Buchanan for President, Pete Wilson, and Proposition 187. In 1993, in what came to be known as Operation Hold the Line, Silvestre Reyes, then the Border Patrol chief in El Paso, began concentrating agents in the urban center of his jurisdiction and thereby dramatically reduced the number of crossings between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. (Reyes retired from the Border Patrol soon after to run for Congress. He won.) The next year, the Clinton administration launched Operation Gatekeeper, which poured resources into securing the border in urban sections of San Diego County. Feeling the pinch on both sides, migrants have increasingly been forced to cross through more isolated and inhospitable areas. Most cross through the Arizona desert. In 2004 the Border Patrol arrested nearly half a million immigrants crossing the 261-mile border of its Tucson sector--more than in all the other border states, both north and south, combined. In 1995 not a single migrant was found dead by Border Patrol in Arizona. Since then, more than 3,600 people have died crossing into the United States from Mexico.

No system functions without a certain degree of inefficiency, a calculable quantity of waste. That holds true for the massive global circulatory system of migratory desperation that sends Pakistanis to Dubai, Ethiopians to Rome, Burmese to Bangkok, Turks to Berlin, and Mexicans and Central Americans to garment factories in Los Angeles, poultry plants in Tennessee, tomato fields in Florida, restaurant kitchens, construction sites, suburban lawns, and cribsides from Seattle to the Carolinas. And it is one of the strange ironies of our time that, as Jennifer Allen, an immigrant-rights activist based in Tucson, puts it, "the borders are more open now than they ever have been. With the passage of NAFTA and other subsequent side agreements, capital goes back and forth, goods go back and forth, services go back and forth. The only way that the border is closed right now is for workers."

For the moment, at least, it suits no one in power to change that. American politicians can squeeze political capital from the latest crisis at the border, mouthing the rhetoric of homeland security and the war on drugs while making sure that corporate agriculture and industry have a reliable influx of cheap, easily replaceable laborers. (Last fall, the head of the Western Growers Association complained to Border Patrol that rigorous enforcement at a Yuma highway checkpoint was keeping lettuce pickers from the fields. The checkpoint was promptly closed.) The Mexican government gets a convenient escape valve to let off the political pressures that accompany so much poverty, not to mention the benefit of the remittances wired by migrant workers to their families at home, which in 2003 surpassed the revenue Mexico earned from oil.

Until about five years ago, there was no border wall in Douglas, just a tattered chain-link fence with holes big enough that trucks could (and sometimes did) drive through them. Today, Douglas often feels like an occupied city. In some parts of town and at some times of day, every third vehicle you pass on the road is a white and green Border Patrol Jeep, Humvee, pickup truck, or Ford SUV. They have a shiny new $28 million station just outside of town, and in recent years have been able to count on a steadily growing budget for personnel, fencing, helicopters, and a multitude of high-tech toys. Walls have gone up in the other border towns too, slicing neat steel lines through the perimeters of Naco and Nogales, and if Border Patrol has its way, they will carve a corrugated barrier along the entire length of the state.

'I thought I was acting in self-defense.'

The Minutemen's first trophy walked into their hands on the evening of March 31, hours before the project officially began, on the grounds of the Miracle Valley Bible College in Palominas, forty minutes southwest of Tombstone. It was there that many of the Minutemen were lodging, put up for a small fee by Miracle Valley's current proprietor, a Pentecostal minister named Melvin Harter. Built half a century ago by the evangelical preacher Asa Alonso Allen--who was said to be able to change the dollar bills in his pocket into twenties through the power of prayer alone--Miracle Valley briefly captured national headlines in 1982. An African-American holiness congregation had moved down from Chicago three years earlier and found the locals less than welcoming. Paranoia built on both sides, culminating in a shootout between parishioners and police that left two people dead and seven wounded.

Smoking a cigarette in the Bible College parking lot, bats diving through the night air above his head, Jim Gilchrist talks about the young Guatemalan migrant who, lost and alone in the desert at night, saw from afar the illuminated cross glowing on the roof of the Miracle Valley chapel. He hadn't eaten in three days and walked toward the cross in search of Christian charity. He found the Minutemen. They gave him a blanket, cupcakes, Snickers bars, and a quart of water. "He said 'thank you' in English as he got into the Border Patrol truck," Gilchrist says proudly.

Not everyone has been so lucky. One morning in January 2003, José Rodrigo Quiroz Acosta stepped onto a highway in Douglas and flagged down a pickup truck. He had been walking for days and was ready to surrender himself to the mercy of strangers. The truck happened to be driven by Roger Barnett, a Douglas rancher who owns the local propane and towing businesses. When Quiroz approached to ask for water, Barnett allegedly opened the tailgate of his truck, releasing two German shepherds. While the dogs were biting Quiroz, Barnett allegedly grabbed him by the hair and punched him repeatedly in the face and head. Eventually he called Border Patrol, and Quiroz was dragged off and deported.

The Cochise County Sheriff pressed no charges against Roger Barnett for assaulting José Quiroz. Nor has he been charged in the dozens of other cases in which Mexican nationals allege they were detained or abused by Barnett, who has become an iconic figure in the anti-immigration movement. Tom Tancredo, in front of Congress no less, has called Barnett a "homeland hero." Well before the arrival of the Minutemen, Barnett's reputation had made Cochise County (named for the defeated Apache chief) a magnet for extremist border activists.

In 2000, Jack Foote and Casey Nethercott, the gun-crazy leaders of the now largely defunct anti-immigrant group Ranch Rescue, launched "Operation Raven," their first paramilitary exercise in the county. It mostly involved dressing up in khaki fatigues and toting weapons on ranches around Douglas. Operations Owl, Hawk, and Thunderbird followed. (Participants received merit-badge-like "mission patches" as souvenirs.) Chris Simcox, of course, showed up in late 2001, and in 2002, onetime Proposition 187 spokesman Glenn Spencer emigrated from the San Fernando Valley to Cochise County, where he launched his own group, American Border Patrol. He lives just 1,100 feet from the border, surrounded by fences and ground sensors in a fully wired prefab home from which he maintains two websites and dispatches young men on ATVs into the mountains to broadcast live infrared video footage of border crossers over the internet.

None of Barnett's admirers work together or even get along, but they walk the same ideological trails and are joined by a tendency to get in trouble with firearms. Foote was arrested last year on weapons charges, and Nethercott served five months in federal prison after a standoff with FBI agents in the parking lot of a Douglas Safeway in which one of his comrades was killed. He is now serving a five-year sentence in a Texas jail on a separate charge. Simcox is on probation for concealing a loaded pistol on national parkland. And Spencer was on probation for most of last year--he pleaded guilty last January to endangerment charges after firing a rifle into his neighbor's garage. He received a year's probation. He had heard noises coming from his backyard, he told the Sierra Vista Herald at the time. In an unusual moment of contrition that could one day serve as an epitaph for the entire nativist movement, Spencer summed up the situation: "I thought I was acting in self-defense."

Angry white men on the front lines

"Forget about WMDs," says Rick Biesada, nodding knowingly at the sagging barbed wire strung a few yards away. "It's nothing for one of these guys with a communicable disease to come across the border." Mexicans, confides Biesada, are bringing "all types of social diseases," from chlamydia to syphilis. "But the frightening thing is the leprosy."

Today is April 3, the first official day of the Minutemen's border watch. A Vietnam vet with a tough Chicago accent and Semper Fi tattooed on his tricep, Biesada shares a lookout post with the brothers Thatcher, Richard, and Robert, tall and short. The three men stand listlessly in the dirt. Robert's thirteen-year-old-son sits beside them, glum and sheepish in a low folding chair. The Thatchers silently scan the horizon to the south. They are among the 857 registered Minutemen that Simcox and Gilchrist will claim actually showed up to volunteer. That number may even be accurate, though there never appear to be more than about 150 present at any one time.

They will not, as originally planned, "surprise illegals" and make them wait for Border Patrol. Apparently realizing that such tactics could constitute unlawful imprisonment, Simcox and Gilchrist chose to implement a strict "no confrontation" policy: Minutemen are instructed to do nothing more than sit tight and call the Border Patrol if they spot any migrants.

There aren't many to spot. The Mexican government and human rights groups have been working for weeks to get the word out, telling would-be border crossers to avoid the twenty-three-mile stretch that the cazamigrantes (migrant hunters) plan to stake out. (In fact, between two locations--here along the border road near Naco, and the highway at the base of the Huachuca mountains south of Sierra Vista--they barely cover five miles.) And the Minutemen are hard to miss. They make no attempt to hide themselves. Flags wave from their antennae, and their pickup trucks shine like a line of mirrors in the sun.

Biesada owns a small trucking company and blames undocumented workers for wrecking the unions in Chicago for "diluting our sovereignty" and for being criminals. And lepers. The Thatchers are roofing contractors from Huntington Beach, California. The taller one says that immigrant labor has driven wages down, making it hard for contractors who only hire citizens to compete. The shorter Thatcher recalls southern California in the '60s. "You wouldn't believe how good it was when I was a kid," he says. "It was about the best place you could live."

Now, Thatcher says, anger rising in his voice, "They run out their tamale carts like they do in Tijuana. I call the police and they won't do nothing about it. It's embarrassing. It's just not right."

It gets worse. "My brother, one day he walked out, and what was going on? A Mexican guy was going to the bathroom right in the middle of his lawn!" Thatcher bends at the knees, squatting in illustration. His face goes red with outrage. "This is supposed to be our country!"

Biesada jumps in and goes on for a while about the "nanny state," unjust domestic violence laws, and how there's no real patriotism anymore. He goes on long enough that the Thatchers begin peeking through their binoculars again. I get ready to move on to the next outpost down the line, but before I can take a step away, Biesada blurts, "I banged Hillary in 1967!"

He gives me a copy of his memoir, a self-published paperback titled Angry White Male and the Horse He Rode In On. On the cover, a drunk-looking Biesada sits perched on a Harley. And there it is, on page 64: "She whispered something about being Hillary from Park Ridge, like it was supposed to mean something, but to me she was just another score."

He signs the title page: And Justice For All.

Hot on the trail of the narco-druglords

Standing alone beside his pickup truck on the shoulder of Highway 92, Jim points his binoculars into the dry foothills of the Coronado National Forest. "We're eyeballing a possible smuggler," he says. An affable general contractor with bright eyes and a squirrel-gray beard, Jim asks me not to print his full name because he fears reprisals, he says, from the Salvadoran street gang Mara Salvatrucha. He points to a pass in the hills to the west. "This is one of the hottest spots in the nation for feeding hard drugs into the United States of America."

More reliable sources than Jim report that mainly marijuana comes through here, but no matter. Early this morning, Jim saw a man park his truck down the road and hike up into the national forest carrying a large backpack. Hardly unusual behavior, but, Jim says, squinting tightly, "We suspect him of being a resupplier." Also this morning, "a lady with Arizona plates" stopped her car, Jim says, dropped a few McDonald's bags and water jugs on the shoulder, and drove off. "We took them into our camp and they were still warm, so hell, we went ahead and ate them and drank the water. How is that for an insult?"

Asked if he doesn't worry about migrants dying of thirst, Jim scoffs. "We don't care--these are narco-druglords! These are traffickers! They're killing people by the millions in the cities."

A car and a truck roll up and three grey-haired men get out, among them Joe McCutchen, a red-faced septuagenarian in a peach-colored golf shirt. Everyone shakes hands. Except for some trouble with the radios (they must have a scout up there with a jammer, Jim concludes), nothing's happened since the hamburger incident, so Jim regales the newcomers with theories about where the president was when he was supposed to be in the National Guard. (Flying drug runs in Central America, of course: "He was a pilot.") The gossip turns to neurotoxins, and Jim, who grew up in nearby Bisbee, tells the others how to identify the Mojave rattlesnake. "Remember, I was a Boy Scout in Cochise County," he says, and laughs, "I never lynched one illegal Mexican the whole time."

"Damn the bad luck!" cackles McCutchen and, as if foreseeing his words in print, glances at me coolly and mutters in a thick Arkansas drawl, "I'm really getting sick of hearing bigot, racist, all that."

A little research reveals, by the by, that Joe McCutchen is not just a brutish-minded freak. Despite an eccentric habit of writing anti-Semitic letters to his local newspapers, he is a semirespectable member of his community. He owns a small chain of pharmacies and heads a group called Protect Arkansas Now, which hopes to float a clone of Arizona's Proposition 200 for Arkansas voters soon. He very well may win.

Tilting at the wrong windmills

What Hunter Thompson once wrote of a completely different constituency of unpleasant men applies equally well to the Minutemen: "They are not all vicious drunks, and not all mental defectives either. Some are genuinely confused and frightened at what seems to be the End of the World as they know it. And this is sad, too..." Sad not only because they are scared and broken men, and painful to be around, but because their anger, anxiety and grief seem to be the flavors of the day, and trebly hard to bear for that. And sad because while they are delusional about many things and wrong about most--the majority of undocumented immigrants, it should be said, do pay taxes, and as a group put more money into the economy in taxes than they take out in services--they do have some things right.

The good union jobs for which the American working class fought for so many years are largely gone. The stable white-collar work world is no longer at all stable. And the responsibility lies with decades of decisions made by the Minutemen's heroes (Reagan) and antiheroes (Clinton, the current Bush) alike, and most of all with the corporate powers those men so loyally served. The Minutemen were sold a dream, a newsreel fantasy of a nation undivided and strong (need I say white?), in which work equals pride, class doesn't matter, and we can all sleep soundly knowing someone's got our back.

They cannot admit that they were conned. Somebody ran off with the goods. And the only people around to take the blame are the ones already on their knees picking lettuce, pruning hedges, scrubbing toilets and floors, many of whom were pushed to risk their lives crossing the border by the same global economic forces that brought the Minutemen down to guard that overburdened length of wire.

In the end, the vast majority of Simcox and Gilchrist's followers are spared the discomfort of confronting their fears, except from afar through the lenses of their binoculars. At the end of the month, the Minutemen claim that their calls to the Border Patrol resulted in the apprehension of 335 migrants. (They will later claim that their presence prevented the entrance of no fewer than 60,000 others.) They have not, as many people feared they would, shot anybody or even held anyone against their will. This record of nonconfrontation is spotted by only one brief encounter that was, in its giddy, tragicomic way, characteristic of the effort as a whole.

A gangly twenty-four-year-old Minuteman named Bryan Barton spotted a twenty-six-year-old migrant from Mexico named José Antonio Aboytes Sepúlveda wandering on the side of the highway. Aboytes had lost his sister and girlfriend in the desert, and had been walking alone for two days. As a friend videotaped the encounter, Barton fed Aboytes cereal, and gave him a $20 bill and a T-shirt reading "Bryan Barton caught me crossing the border and all I got was this lousy T-shirt." Then he turned him over to Border Patrol, who dropped him unceremoniously back across the line. Neither the Border Patrol nor the Mexican consulate were able to discover what had become of Aboyte's sister and girlfriend.

Lettuce is still cheap

The southernmost row of headstones is not two hundred yards from the border wall and barely a hundred from an awning under which a Border Patrol truck sits idling. Here, in the Douglas Cemetery, near the center of town, the wall is only slightly more intimidating than an ordinary fence: just high steel posts, tightly spaced and painted beige. If you look close, you can see weld scars where the fence has been cut away and repaired, and repaired again.

Even from this distance, you can see into the backyards of the homes on the other side, in Mexico, just a few feet from the wall. When the corpses of migrants found in Cochise County can be identified, as is usually the case, the coroner turns them over to the Mexican consul in Douglas, who arranges for their repatriation. If they cannot, and it cannot even be determined that they are citizens of Mexico, the coroner delivers the remains to the funeral home just across the way from the cemetery, and they are interred here. Small birds chase each other from grave to grave. Butterflies flit among bright artificial roses. If you walk through the cedar-lined alleys, past sturdy marble headstones and crosses of wrought iron and modest wood, at the northern edge of the graveyard, you will find a cluster of low stone slabs reading either "Unidentified Male" or "Unidentified Female." Fifteen have been buried in this red dirt since 2002. They are what is missing from this story and from the stories the Minutemen tell themselves.

Lettuce is cheap. Hotel rooms are clean. All over America, lawns are trim and magically green. Grown men lie shaking in their beds. Not everyone makes it.

Famous Just Right

Everyone who ever had a crush on Steve Martin developed an even bigger crush when he started writing for the New Yorker almost 10 years ago. His first piece, a satire of middlebrow art world pretensions in which the narrator claims to own a birdbath sculpted by Raphael, reminded us of what we already kind of knew: that Steve Martin is a serious person who conveys his seriousness by sending it up.

No matter how much recognition he receives as an art collector and patron--he recently donated $1 million to the American art collection at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif.--and no matter how many times he appears in the New Yorker or at the 92nd Street Y or anywhere else that we don't expect superstar comedians to appear, his voice will always carry traces of Navin Johnson in The Jerk. Martin is nothing if not the embodiment of the fusion of high and low; a wacky, broadly comedic entertainer who cleans up astonishingly well. But unlike most of the affable, suburban characters he now tends to play (his upcoming turn as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther notwithstanding), Martin seems coiled with ambition, focus, and an utter lack of goofiness.

Martin's screenplays for The Jerk, Roxanne, and L.A. Story led him to begin writing stage plays, which include The Underpants and Picasso at the Lapin Agile. In 1998, he published the humor collection Pure Drivel, which was followed in 2000 by a not-so-comic novella called Shopgirl (which is currently being made into a movie for a late 2005 release). A quiet, smoothly arced love story between Mirabelle, a young woman with a melancholic disposition, and Ray Porter, a mysteriously aloof older man, Shopgirl is like a tiny box of very dark chocolates, a meditation on loneliness and detachment that is simultaneously bleak and hopeful.

Martin upped his own thematic ante in the next novella. The Pleasure of My Company, published in 2003, is like a slightly larger chocolate box into which someone has slipped Quaaludes. Here he introduced us to Daniel Pecan Cambridge, a marginally functional eccentric living a highly regimented life in Santa Monica, Calif. Unable to drive a car or step over curbs, Daniel walks miles out of his way (always counting his steps) so that he may cross streets only where there are driveways. He secretly yearns for his social worker, Clarissa, as well as a pharmacist at his neighborhood Rite Aid named Zandy.

Steve Martin gave this interview at his home in Los Angeles. At one point, a bird flew through a window into his dining room and he spent several minutes trying to coax it out without frightening it. He also played "Sleigh Ride" on the banjo and apologized for messing up the tricky part.

--Meghan Daum

 
I. Depression is like the flu

Did you always think of yourself as a writer? It seems that being a comic actor is so rooted in sketch comedy, where there's a definite writing element.

Writing has a lot of definitions. I always thought that writing for my comedy act was writing. It was a very simple progression for me. When I was in high school and college, I loved poetry. And I was very moved by certain poems and certain sentences. And then I became a comedian and a comedy writer and that was a whole other form. After I'd done my comedy act during the late 70s, I started writing a screenplay for The Jerk. And that went on and I started writing more screenplays. I remember being in New York and seeing a comic play, and I thought, "I should be able to do that. I've written screenplays and I've performed live." So I started fooling around, writing my first play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile. The play had more, let's say, thoughtful passages. And those thoughtful passages encouraged me to be able to write. For example, in Pure Drivel there are a few stories that are more thoughtful, and I have these thoughtful sentences. And those few sentences encouraged me to be able to write Shopgirl.

Did it feel natural to you to write the more thoughtful sentences?

Once I got a little bit of confidence, yeah. Because you don't know if it's the corniest thing in the world until you put it out there in the world.

How dark would you consider your sensibility on a color scale with darkest on one side and lightest on the other?

Certainly not the light side. But I am a happy person. I don't know anymore. You go through periods of your life where you're skewed more dark and you're skewed more light. Right now, I'm sort of dead in the middle.

In Shopgirl the main character, Mirabelle, suffers from some form of clinical depression. Your description of what it's like to be in that state seems so accurate. Are you writing from firsthand experience?

I haven't been depressed in that way. I've been depressed situationally, but the information comes from talking. Well, it comes first from experiencing temporary depression. But it's also from talking to people who have experienced it. I knew a girl who was depressed and I asked her what it was like. She said, "The closest thing I can compare it to is having the flu." And I thought, "Oh, I can kind of understand that." You don't want to get out of bed, you don't want to do anything. She made it a real concrete thing rather than, "Oh, I feel this or I feel that."

Both Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company are pretty dark. Did that tone emerge as your natural voice?

I guess it's my natural voice when I'm writing prose. I believe both books end confidently for the characters. In fact, there were a few critics of Shopgirl who asked, "Why did she meet somebody else after her relationship with Ray ended?" Usually those criticisms came from Germany. At the time, I thought that having her not meet someone else would have been a lie, because in life, you bounce off relationships and time goes by and you do meet someone new. So it would have been a dark cheat to not have her revive herself.

But it seems like in both books, you're presenting a philosophy of relationships wherein they're very fluid. The message is that they're inevitably fleeting, which strikes me as a pretty antiromantic stance.

Well, I don't know how to answer that. Because, first, so what? But, two, in Shopgirl there's an implication that their [Mirabelle and Jeremy's] relationship is going to go on. And in The Pleasure of My Company, there's an implication that his relationship with Zandy is going to go on.

I guess what I mean is in both cases you seem to be suggesting that the purpose of a relationship is to make us more of what we need to become in order to have the next relationship. They're building blocks.

There's a similarity in both stories that I never recognized. They're about relationships that prepare and lead you into another, where the neurotic elements of the previous relationship are fixed.

Do you believe that personally?

Yeah. But I don't mean like it's a perfect match. Or that you meet one person and then the next one is perfect. Sometimes it takes ten people. I have friends who've been married for thirty years and they're in love.

Do you think it's a matter of chance or is there something about an individual's brain chemistry that hard-wires him or her to need a certain number of relationships before finding a good match?

I think some people are just set up to go, "Hey, I love you and here we are and we're together and it's great." I do think that. And it probably gets less fixed as you move toward the big cities. In a big city, you're being introduced to new things all the time. In small towns, you meet who you meet. In a small town, there may be eight appropriate people.

 
II. Every mental aberration is unique

It seems like a lot of the essays, the ones in the New Yorker and Pure Drivel, were influenced by Woody Allen's early short stories, like "The Whore of Mensa" and "The Kugelmass Episode."

Well, they're really more influenced by--see the book right there? [He points to a small book, My Brother Was an Only Child, on the coffee table.] That's by Jack Douglas. I just bought it on eBay about a month ago because that was a book I read when I was like eighteen or nineteen. You open it up and all the pieces are like a page or two. I wanted to reread it. He was a comedy writer.

It looks a lot like [your 1977 humor book] Cruel Shoes.

It is.

I read that over the weekend. That's a really weird book.

It is. It's really weird. The publisher asked me if I wanted to reissue it and I said no.

It was number one on the New York Times bestseller list, but it's just so weird. It's surreal, quite literally. How did people react to it when it was first published?

I think younger people really adored it. Beyond that, I have no idea. I think it was a celebrity-driven purchase. It was stuff I wrote in college. And back then, somebody was looking to publish a book and I was like, "Oh, okay." It wasn't my main interest. I kind of just pieced these things in, put them together.

Was Pure Drivel in some ways an attempt to build upon or transcend Cruel Shoes?

No, Pure Drivel was a collection of essays for the New Yorker. And I wrote some other pieces for it that weren't in the New Yorker and that's what that was. It was not an effort like Shopgirl or The Pleasure of My Company. Let's put it that way. I worked very hard on the novellas, I really did. And I had an editor who came out here and we worked and worked and worked and rewrote even from the New Yorker.

In The Pleasure of My Company, the narrator, Daniel Pecan Cambridge, is something of an eccentric, to put it mildly. But he also exhibits signs of mental illness, most notably obsessive-compulsion. What exactly is his diagnosis?

I would not call it obsessive-compulsive. I think that many people who behave in an odd way are doing it by choice. And that's what I was trying to say about that character, that he knew what he was doing. He was kind of like an alcoholic in that he was thinking, "I could stop at any time." But he couldn't. I felt that if I were sick, it would be like this. So I was making it up. Every little mental aberration and every personality is unique. So I felt I was really on the right track creating an honest ill person rather than studying symptoms in a book.

But his pathology seems kind of difficult to nail down. Were there things you knew about him that you weren't disclosing?

I don't totally believe in the very specific back-story. It never really helped me as a writer. I don't think it helps in movies either. They're always talking about backstory, backstory, backstory and you can't express it unless it's completely boring exposition.

You showed the same resistance to backstory in Shopgirl. I felt that you knew more about Ray Porter than you were giving up. I wondered what his job was, what his marriage had been like.

I always find that stuff boring. There's enough in the book that suggested he'd made money writing computer code. He's like a minor multimillionaire from Seattle. He said, "I wrote a piece of code that they just can't seem to do without." He was a symbolic logician. That was his career and he probably did it when he was twenty or twenty-two, I'm guessing. You're asking me stuff I don't know, really, but it was in the back of my head. He made a lot of money and has a steady income stream.

How fucked up is Ray Porter?

I don't think he's fucked up. In fact, I wanted this story to be about three people who are actually quite nice. And yet in spite of that, they're still paying, even though everyone's trying to do their best in a way. The way it's written, first you explore Mirabelle and then you explore Jeremy and then you explore Ray Porter. They start interacting but there are chapters dedicated to who they are, especially Ray Porter. I absolutely knew what to say about Mirabelle. But when I got to Ray Porter, it was much harder. Being a man myself, I didn't know what was interesting. I knew what was interesting about being a woman. But being a man, I was like, "Is that common knowledge?"

When you say, "what's interesting about being a woman," do you mean what's interesting to a man?

Right.

But it doesn't seem voyeuristic.

About Mirabelle? No, no. It's hard to explain, because all that information comes from observing and knowing. When some information is revealed about somebody, what peaks your interest? What do you remember? Because there isn't a specific character that Ray Porter is based on.

So he isn't based on you?

Well, some of it, absolutely. You can't help that. But also from talking to men and listening and listening and listening. I just didn't know what to reveal, what to say about him.

Were you trying to prevent people from thinking he was you?

It's sort of the author's right not to reveal how much of a character is him. Because who knows? But I was definitely trying to work something out.

 
III. How many steps does it take to get to the Rite Aid?

You're a movie star. How are you able to write about regular people with regular problems?

Well, half my life I've been a celebrity and half I wasn't. I do have knowledge of what it means to live on a dime.

You have an aura about you that makes you seem more normal than many celebrities. Somehow you've managed to live a fairly normal life.

I don't know. I made two decisions that I suddenly recall for no reason. One was, when I was like eighteen and had a car, I said, "I'm never not going to go anywhere because of the price of gas." And the other thing I remember thinking, when I was starting to become famous, was, "I am never not going to go anywhere because I'm famous." Although I do choose not to go some places because I'm famous. But I travel alone. I don't have an entourage. I don't want that.

I guess that makes your life easier.

It's really easier. You know, there's a moment when you're famous when it's unbearable to go out because you're too famous. And then there's a moment when you're famous just right. [Laughs] And then there's kind of a respect or distance or something, but you have a little bit more grease.

When did the "just right" occur for you?

I would say mid-eighties. There's a kind of heat fever that just dissipates. You're not someone who's constantly being followed.

Where can't you go?

It's not where I can't, it's where I don't want to.

In The Pleasure of my Company, Daniel, the narrator, knew exactly how may steps it took to get to the Rite Aid. Does that come from personal experience, or did you just take a lucky guess?

I abbreviated the distance in my head. The actual street I mentioned is not the street in my head. The apartments I needed to imagine a different way. I didn't do any research. I picked the Rite Aid because I've been to the Rite Aid and I know exactly what's inside. I picked places I'm familiar with to write about. Except the Texas thing. I was born in Texas so I have a vague memory of it. But I did research the kind of trees you'd find there and what a pecan tree would look like and would they overhang or erode and did they create shade.

In Shopgirl, the description of Mirabelle's apartment in [the Los Angeles neighborhood of] Silverlake, with the parking space she can barely maneuver her car into, is so dead-on. Did you make that up?

That book is based half on fact, half on fiction. No, I should say a third is fact, a third is fiction and a third is based on talking to people throughout my life.

Have you been in an apartment like that?

Yeah. In fact, I just saw the movie of Shopgirl, which is done, finally. And the director [Anand Tucker] did a great job of picking that location. I mean, I know that when certain young men and women see the movie, they're gonna go, "That's my apartment." It's where we all were at one time.

 
IV. Critics and comedy

Shopgirl is written in the third person, but it seems like it could have been in the first person, from Mirabelle's point of view. It's very much in her head.

Being my first book, I thought it would be much easier to write in the third person.

Smart man. Many first time novelists make the opposite mistake.

I didn't know if I had enough words. I needed to be in everyone's head. I didn't know if it would be long enough otherwise.

But it is mostly in her head.

I wanted to be able to make observations, though. There's very little dialogue in the book and I enjoyed writing the observations about the characters.

That's why it feels essayistic to me. I really like that you step back from the story and discuss the characters at length.

I enjoy that form. It's almost like the couplet at the end of a sonnet. You know, where there's like a little bit of a summary. You've said all these things and there's a winding up. You become slightly philosophical at a certain moment.

How long did it take you to finish Shopgirl?

A little over a year because I started it and stopped in disappointment. And then I picked it up again and liked it and kept going. I had gotten some negative feedback from someone I shouldn't have allowed to read it, because I was very nervous, you know. It was essentially my first prose work, and I was afraid of making a fool of myself.

Did you rewrite the initial part that had received the negative feedback?

No.

So that person was wrong.

I believe they were.

Given that the novellas aren't overtly comedic, were you worried about how they'd be received?

I was very nervous about Shopgirl being destroyed. I was very, very nervous about that.

Was there a certain review that made you able to relax?

Yeah, reviews started to come in that were good. Reviews for someone like me come in three packages. One is justifiable praise, the second is justifiable criticism, and the third is, "This is only published because he's a celebrity."

Does that hurt?

No, not at all. To those reviews, I'd say, "No it wasn't." I'm looking at my own work and that's not the reason it was published. I mean, it might be 10 percent. But that's a different issue from whether it's any good or not.

What if a critic trashes something that is really close to you?

It depends on the nature of it. You know where you missed and you know where you hit. So if a review comes out and it criticizes where you missed, all you can say, "Yeah, I know I did." I think the biggest frustration about reviews is when they criticize your best bit. And then you go, "What the--?" I remember when I was a comedian, I'd get a bad review and they'd always fail to say that the audience was dying laughing.

Do you think the culture's sense of humor has changed? Do you find that people have a hard time understanding satire, of realizing that something is supposed to be a joke?

I haven't noticed it. But, for example, I just wrote a piece for the New Yorker called "Osama Begs Off the Flight." It's a dialogue between Osama and a group of his terrorists. He's explaining the plan and one of the guys asks, "When will we meet you there?" And Osama says, "Well, I will come later." Do you understand what I'm talking about? "I'm sure I'll be there, but I have some stuff to do first. If I'm not there--"

"I'll meet you at the gate."

Yeah, right. "If you don't see me at the gate, that means I'm already on the plane." Now, to me that's really about cowardice. But I know that someone, if it runs, will say, "How dare you?"

Do you think that problem would have come up in, say, the 1970s, if you were joking about something taboo?

It probably would have if you made a joke about the Kennedy assassination or something. But you're right, everybody does seem to be... Well, the thing is, these days everyone has a voice.

It's because of the Internet. Everyone can post their own opinions.

I was talking to a friend of mine--we love to talk about this stuff--and I said, "I think the world changed when the news media, during a big event, would turn to a bystander and ask him what he thought." I remember watching a news report once after someone was killed, and they asked a six-year-old how she felt. Suddenly the voice of the irrelevant party has equal importance to the relevant party.

 
V. Something to discuss

How do you manage your time? You seem amazingly productive.

I don't really manage my time. I really just wait until I'm inspired to do something. And when I'm inspired to do something, it just happens. I know it seems like a lot, but, you know, a movie takes three months, right? And during that time you're sitting in your trailer a lot. So I'll learn a song on the banjo or maybe I'll write an essay if it comes up. But only if it comes up.

You can do that in the trailer? You don't need the whole day in front of you to write something?

No. For example, when I wrote that piece on Johnny Carson [that appeared in the New York Times shortly after his death], I was sitting there playing Internet poker. There's a stupor where you're thinking and thinking and thinking and then suddenly you switch over to Microsoft Word and you start writing it down. You get into it or you don't.

How long does it take you to write one of those essays? Do you agonize over it? Are you tortured over writing, in general?

No, because I do have one luxury, which is that I don't earn my living from writing. So I can afford to wait, even emotionally, until a really good or impassioned idea comes along.

I never thought of the money factor having anything to do with the torture factor.

But I wait until it's actually a joy to write it.

For a lot of writers, that would be never.

If it's something that becomes torture, then I put it down.

But there are moments in Shopgirl, and even more so in The Pleasure of My Company, where there's really blood on the page.

But that's a pleasure. To me, torture would be, "I can't think what to write in the next sentence. I'm stuck." Torture would be if you didn't have the next idea.

When you were writing these novels, did you say to yourself, "I'm going to get up and do this a certain number of hours a day?"

No. My process is, I get inspired to write the first couple of sentences and I just keep going with it. I try to think about where the next bit is before I stop. Then I'll stop at a natural place, either because I'm tired or because I get distracted. And then the days go by and I know that my mind is like churning and churning and churning and churning, and then I'll go back and it comes out freely. I don't mind waiting until it does come out freely.

Do you feel guilty while you're waiting?

No, because I believe when I'm not writing--and when all of us aren't writing--we're thinking.

What if it goes on for years?

Well, I think that there can be a moment where the writer becomes confident. It may take 15 years, or it may never come, but I think that's what that block is about. The other thing is, as life goes on, you have more to say. I remember once David Geffen said to me--this was after I'd done my stand-up act and I'd quit--he said, "You should go back on the road, you should do your stand-up again." And I said, "David, I don't have anything to say." You've got to have something to say. And by "something to say," you might not even know what it is. You just know it's in there, trying to get out. I guess I should clarify. It's not necessarily "something to say" but "something to discuss." "Something to say" is a myth. That's like an aphorism.

I always think of it as "something to suggest."

Right. Or a topic or an area that's sparking you.

How do you know when it's funny? Are you confident about that?

No. In a movie, you don't know. You might think you know, but sometimes you're right and sometimes you're wrong. I'd say you're right like 50 percent of the time. And things you don't think were funny were hugely funny. An audience changes everything. In a book, I don't know. There are passages in The Pleasure of My Company that I thought were really funny, and then not one person has mentioned them as being funny.

What section are you thinking of?

The moment where he goes jogging and the next day he's so sore he can't even move. So he gets some Mentholatum and rubs it on his thighs, and then they osmose on to his testicles. He says something like, "You can't wash it off. The more soap and water you put on it, the more it burns." [Laughs] I thought it was going to be really, really funny. But no one really, uh, has really ever mentioned it. 

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