HAZEL PETTIGREW, SENIOR GRAPHOPHOBIA editor at the Elliot Tanpool Mangrave Institute of Modern Hieroglyphic Studies, calls at 6 a.m., as is her custom, with an offer of unreasonable work: For one week, I’m to sleep on the couch in the living room of one Daisycorn Blue, self-proclaimed mayor of Spud Row; I’m to meticulously record Ms. Blue’s recollections of Spud Row’s sharp rise and instant demise in the 1970s; I’m to deliver these recordings to the large conference room in the Mangrave Institute’s basement, where Ms. Pettigrew, associate graphophobia editor George Hatfield Kostas and myself will drink coffee and listen to the recordings while drawing abstract pictures that will then be analyzed by people I’ve never met, to be integrated with ongoing Mangrave Institute studies that are beyond my comprehension. I accept.
Daisycorn Blue is now 68 years old. Since 1974, she’s lived in a two-room apartment on the fifth floor of an otherwise abandoned five-story walkup, directly across Spud Boulevard from the old Brillstone Chips factory that once briefly employed some 3,500 Spud Row residents.
I arrive at Ms. Blue’s apartment at 5 a.m. As Pettigrew promised, my host has prepared breakfast. This is part of my payment — three home-cooked meals a day. I haven’t had three meals in one day since December 1991.
“Won’t you try some of my . . . hot sauce?” says Blue, in a tone that makes me momentarily regret having taken on the assignment. She winks and then shakes Cholula hot sauce all over my short stack of dry buckwheat pancakes.
“Okay. Sure. Yes. Thanks.”
“So, yes,” Blue continues with her pre–hot sauce recollection. “The resident employees were a rowdy bunch, in general. They worked hard all day, harvesting and processing and so on, and snorted up lots of cocaine, which was provided for them by management, as it increased production. Most of the restaurants served breakfast until at least midnight. And the bars closed only between 4 and 6 a.m. The strip clubs never closed, not once, in three years. That’s me over there.” Blue points to a small glossy poster depicting a live nude exotic dancer. “More hot sauce, Sweet Pea?”
THE STORY OF SPUD ROW begins in early 1974, when word of the discovery of wild Solanum tuberosum growing along what’s now Spud Boulevard drew the attention of rogue prospectors and investors from Halifax to San Francisco. Through a series of meticulous bribes, potato tycoon T. Charsdale Brillstone Sr., in the form of Brillstone Industries, assumed control of Spud Row’s riches and soon founded Brillstone Factory Farm Spudworks, commonly called Brillstone Chips. By summer’s end, Spud Row was bustling with hotels, restaurants, bars, drug dealers and the like, and Brillstone Industries owned every cubic millimeter of every building, business and body.
Brillstone Sr. ruled Spud Row with threats and chicanery for three years, until, on June 25, 1977, he was murdered by disgruntled employees — boiled alive in a silo-size vat of bubbling potato goo. Brillstone Jr. immediately shut down the whole town, fired everyone but his confidante, Daisycorn Blue, and assumed his Phantom of the Opera–style residency in the factory basement, which continues to this day. For these past 30 years, Brillstone and Blue have been the only official Spud Row residents. Blue fields Brillstone’s executive requests by telephone; they have not spoken in person since January 17, 1994, when Blue could not reach Brillstone by telephone and entered the factory to see if he had survived the Northridge earthquake.
(He had. The phones were down. Blue’s next assignment: Change the factory’s locks.)
DURING THOSE THREE GLORIOUS salad years, the people of Spud Row produced more potato chips per hour than any American potato district before or since. Even as they resented their low pay and substandard working conditions, they bonded over their love of deep-fried wild potatoes and readily available drugs. Some resident workers ate chips continuously throughout the day, every day, rain or shine. The more chips one ate, the more patriotic one appeared to one’s fellows. Those with cars often displayed Brillstone logos on their bumpers.
Famous former factory workers of Spud Row include perfume salesman Lyle Cramby of Pasadena, performance artist China Mossmeat of Palmdale-adjacent, production assistant Carl Chinflue of Studio City, and Carrot-Juice Hair, America’s Favorite Liquid ComedianTM.
IN SEVEN DAYS, I’ve learned this much: Any minute now, followed by any minute thereafter, any hour of any day, Daisycorn Blue’s purse will vibrate and something inside will play a singular, lighthearted tune. A call from Mr. Brillstone, asking Blue to make appointments, to make phone calls, to send and receive e-mails and track the arrivals and departures of parcels and packages. At the end of each call, Mr. Brillstone asks Ms. Blue to let him know when everything has been accomplished, so that he can come up with some more things for her to do.
“Sometimes he comes up with the next batch of projects in an hour, sometimes it’s a month. Once, I went three months without a call. Mr. Brillstone sleeps quite a bit. Then suddenly I’m working five, six days a week, 12 hours a day for months on end.”
Blue often conducts phone business with executive assistants at Brillstone Industries’ many successful Fortune 400 companies, including The Charsdale Group, Charsdale Associates, Charsdale Consolidated Group Associations, The Peesler Group, Peesler Jones Associates, Peesler Jones Industries, Wyse Martin & Rose, Wyse Martin & Rose Associates and VLC, the Virtual Lawnmowing Channel.
For answering Mr. Brillstone’s calls and doing what is asked of her for 30 years, Daisycorn Blue is paid $50,000 annually. For calling Ms. Blue and asking her to do things for the same period of time, T. Charsdale Brillstone Jr. pays himself $50 million.
“Which means,” says Blue, thoughtfully, “that it would take me 1,000 years to accomplish what Mr. Brillstone accomplishes in a year.”
“Is that right?” I ask.
“No,” says Blue, pointedly.
“One thing I’m still not clear on,” I say. “Do you know what it is that Mr. Brillstone, well . . . does?”
“No,” says Blue, in the same way. “But he’s quite good at it.”