Me and Tommy Mc Ghee
Me and Tommy Mc Ghee
We must accept the idea that reality is only interaction.
(Seven Brief Lessons on Physics)
Chapter 1: A Beery Reunion
“Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train, and I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans,” we sang along to the jukebox at Ray Ray’s on 4th Avenue and 83rd Street. Beers were still only a quarter and buy back was every fourth round. The guys were glad to see me, just in from two years with the Eighth Army in Korea. Back to “The World,” that was what was on the sateen jackets GIs bought at Itaewon in the vill’. Korea wasn’t the real world to the average GI, just a lousy tour. I never saw it that way, picked up a bit of the language when I was there, studied calligraphy, fell in love. But now, I was back. But back to what? The war in Vietnam was still raging. I had been lucky, done my time in Korea thanks to my results on the MLA Aptitude Test the Army gave me when it saw my high school A’s in French. I was sent to language study in country, but the Army decided they really didn’t need my services after all: the KATUSA’s (Korean Augmentation to the United States Army) they had available were better translators of North Korean propaganda. So, I served out my time as a colonel’s aide. Cushy job I’d say when asked, but it really wasn’t. I worked for a sadomasochist who delighted in belittling those below him while fawning over those above. I know he hated himself, so it was hard for me to pile on. I just tolerated his bullshit and turned away when he tried to provoke me. But I’m losing the thread of my story.
Tommy Mc Ghee, Carl Cavolo, Tillie Fagioli, Bobby Metzger, and Izzie Horowitz were waiting for me at Ray Ray’s. They were well into their fifth rounds of beer when I got there. Lots of back slaps and hugs, they treated me as a local hero, but I’d done nothing heroic as you now know. We fed the jukebox quarter after quarter: “Maggie May,” “Brown Sugar,” “Do You Know What I Mean,” “Joy to the World,” and when we got maudlin, “My Sweet Lord.” “What happened to them?” Carl asked. “It must have been that no talent screamer, Yoko Ono,” he concluded to general agreement. After all, it had only been a bit over six months since the Beatles officially broke up.
Well, the guys got me drunk, I admit, but not too drunk to tell something was up with Tommy. He followed me into the men’s room, and while we were both pissing pints of beer into commodes, he said, “LJ, I’m goin’ into VISTA. I’m goin’ this April. I’m gonna work as a volunteer in Fairbanks.”
“Yup. Fairbanks, Alaska. I gotta get outta here. Gotta do somethin’ with my life. At least, you know a bit of the world now. Me, I know shit. Just Brooklyn and the City.
But there’s one thing I gotta do on my way there. I gotta see the country. I wanna hitch from here to California. Then I’ll fly up to Fairbanks and start my work for VISTA.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I replied, “but where do I come in?”
“You’re goin’ with me.”
“To Alaska, no thanks.”
“No, you’re gonna hitch with me.”
“Whoa! I gotta think a minute. I just got back and you want me to take off again.”
Back on the bar stools, the party was winding down. I don’t know how, but, drunk as he was, Carl drove the others home while Tommy and me walked. We were on 86th Street heading towards Shore Road. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was walking, and I briefly brushed shoulders with a guy coming the other way. He took offense. “What the fuck’s the matter with you, dickhead? You lookin’ to get your ass kicked?”
He was big, but not too big. He was backed up by two others about his size.
“Sorry, pal. My mistake.”
“I don’t think that’s a real apology. I wanna see you beg me not to beat the shit out of you. Come on, beg me.”
“Sorry again. I can’t do that. No reason to.” I was hoping that would end it, but this guy wanted his pound of flesh. He swung, and I dodged a right hand to my jaw. It glanced off, and gave me time to get inside his reach. I stepped to his left side and put my left foot under his. Then I pushed hard and he went down hard. He hit his head on the concrete sidewalk. I was ready to walk away, but his buddies weren’t going to let that happen. One came from behind me and grabbed my arms. He whirled me around so the other guy could get a clean punch at me. He hit me in the gut and I puked all over him. Too much beer. He stood there, dumbfounded while his buddy laughed. Meanwhile, my original antagonist had started to get up when I heard Tommy say,
“Stay down or I’ll make sure you do.”
That ended it. We walked briskly away.
A block away, Tommy said, “The adventure begins.”
“Jeez, I need an Alka Seltzer,” I replied as I grabbed a light pole and wretched into the gutter. Tommy said goodbye at Ridge Boulevard and I continued on to Colonial Road and our apartment. I say our, but it was my parent’s apartment. Dad was an invalid; he had a mild form of cerebral palsy that kept him home bound, but he could do most things for himself. Mom had her hands full working at an insurance company on 4th Avenue full time, then coming home to take care of Dad. When I was drafted, I thought I might get a deferment because of our home situation. The answer was no. My number was 35 out of 366. No doubt that I was going in. I briefly considered Canada, but I knew nothing about it, so I reported to Fort Hamilton in the spring of 1969.
Careering alone down 86th in my drunken state, a line from Paul Simon repeated in my head. “And we walked off to look for America.”
Chapter 2: Niagara Falls
We left the Sunday after Easter, April18th. It was a beautiful new spring morning. The streets of Bay Ridge had been swept clean the night before. Geraniums were starting to bloom in apartment window boxes. The strips between sidewalk and street were filling up with crocuses. Brooklyn had on its cleanest face as if to say, “Goodbye, boys! Here’s what you’re gonna be missin’.” Tommy and I met at 86th and 4th Avenue to catch the local into Manhattan. We didn’t transfer like we usually did at 59th Street for the Sea Beach. We rode that local all the way as if we needed to savor each moment, each stop, each smell of New York City underground. We were going to catch a Greyhound to Niagara Falls at the Port Authority Building, but we were taking our sweet time doing so. I guess Tommy thought it was his long goodbye to Brooklyn. His VISTA commitment was two years. We emerged into morning sunlight at Times Square. No hookers were around. The porn shops were closed. Just a few skells on the streets, sleeping one off or looking for whatever tourists had left in the trash cans. We walked the few blocks to Port Authority. Our stride was confident, purposeful, as if we knew exactly where we were going and what we were going to do when we got there. This couldn’t have been further from the truth.
We hefted our backpacks onto the top racks above our seats, and settled in for the long bus ride on the Thruway to Buffalo. Our aim was to sleep on the Canadian side of the Falls that night. The bus stopped in Utica at a HoJo’s just off the Thruway. Tommy ran to the men’s room while I found us a table and ordered two grilled cheese sandwiches and two coffees. I could’ve used a beer, but I had to watch my money: I didn’t have much of it. Tommy came back with a girl in tow. She looked to be our age, maybe younger. Freckle faced, two long honey blond pig tails, hair parted in the middle, ribbon tied over it all.. She sat down next to me with a whump of the faux leather bench cushion and held out her hand, “Jackie,” she said, “Canadian. 19. 5’6”, 34D cup, but not wearing a bra as I see you’ve immediately noticed, studying cello at Julliard, going home on a break to Niagara Falls, Ontario. And you?”
I choked on the coffee I was sipping. Tommy laughed. “Meet our hostess, LJ. Jackie said she’d put us up when we get to the Canadian side of the Falls. She lives in
an old hotel her folks run. It’s not far once we cross the Rainbow Bridge to Canada.”
“Wow, that was quick! Did you stumble into the Ladies or did you find her in the Men’s?” I laughed.
“Neither, bumped into her at the water fountain, said ‘Excuse me,’ and that started a conversation. Jackie knows my sister, Megan. You know, the one who goes to the High School for the Performing Arts.”
“She’s at Julliard like every other day. Takes privates with one of the voice teachers,” Jackie added.
“Quelle coincidence! A Julliard connection. How very kind of you to host us, Jackie.” I turned to focus my best sincere smile on her.
“It’s all groovy,” she answered, “New York City has been kind to me, a gas. I’m just returning the favor.”
“How so?” I asked.
“How what?” she replied.
“How’s it been kind to you?”
“Well, I got there with one hundred U.S. in my jeans and a backpack and a cello. I started busking in the subway entrance near Julliard at 66th Street. One of the string profs passed by every day and she took an interest in me. She prepped me for free for an audition and I got in. Now, after three years, I’ve got a good shot at a seat at the Met or my pick of Canadian orchestras.”
“Gotcha, New York was your destiny,” I opined.
“It sure was. Everything’s just groovy,” Jackie answered with a smile that would melt the Falls when it iced over.
Back on the bus, we changed seats to be near Jackie. It seemed like we three talked all the way to Buffalo. We didn’t even notice day turning into night, and the weather picking up a chill off of Lake Erie. Jackie led us to the bus to the Falls, and we walked over the Rainbow Bridge. The Falls was lit and the view from the Canadian side was spectacular. The multicolored pastel spots seemed to fuse into the turbulence of water smashing down to the pools below. I loved it. I noticed Tommy and Jackie did as well. As they watched the water pour down, they did so shoulder to shoulder.
The hotel was once an old cotton mill. It had been through several iterations, always serving the needs of the community until now. Now it was a hotel, a rather interesting blend of the old and the new, and a bit on the pricey side. I know I would never be a customer, but Jackie called it home, and we were her guests, so we got a room for the two of us right next to the luxury suite that was Jackie’s room when she was home. She had a cello that she kept there while her good one, an 18th century Irish cello that she loved and called Sean, she kept at Julliard in her professor’s office. She had borrowed $7,000 from her parents to pay for the cello, but, as she told us, at some level, the instrument you play is a determiner of whether you get the gig or not. That’s why classical musicians spent as much or more than they could afford on their instruments.
I woke up that first night full of good food and good drink, both of which I needed to relieve myself, so I crept silently to the bathroom so as not to wake Tommy. I need not have worried. He wasn’t in his bed. I smiled and drifted off back to sleep. Before I awoke in the morning, Tommy had returned. I tried to rouse him for breakfast, but he wouldn’t budge. I let him sleep. I could tell he’d been up most of the night. From the sounds that he was making, I guessed, he was dreaming. I heard happy mumblings: beautiful… love you…meant to be.”
It turned out that I was the only one of us three to make it to the breakfast table with Jackie’s parents. Her father was an American, Lyle Reagan, who had been a lieutenant in the US Army, European Theater. He was wounded during the invasion of Sicily, and cared for by a French-Canadian nurse, Catherine Boucher, who would become his wife. The couple first tried living in Buffalo, which was Lyle’s hometown, but something wasn’t quite right for Catherine, so they moved across the border to Ontario, and eventually bought the hotel. They had found a congenial community and an occupation that suited them both. Lyle was a natural host, open, generous, always with a smile on his face. You could see that smile on his daughter’s face as well. She took after her father in many ways. Catherine, Jackie’s mother, was the organizer, the bookkeeper, the quartermaster, and at first, the chef at the hotel as well.
“Well, good morning, young LJ. LJ? What’s that stand for?” Lyle quizzed me.
“Oh, it’s a rather long story. My initials have always been my name. They stand for Lorenzo Jonathan, a little from my Italian father, and a little from my English mother.
It happens that my father’s family has always given the first born son the name Lorenzo through the generations, so my father was a first born male and I was first born, and I got it. But it was confusing with three Lorenzo’s in the house when my grandpa came to live with us. They didn’t want to call me Jonathan. It didn’t seem right to them to call me by my middle name, so I became LJ, quick and easy.”
“LJ,” asked Catherine, “What are you going to do with your life?”
“Wow! That’s a good one and a hard one to answer. I’ve just returned, well not just, but fairly recently, returned from two years in the US Army in Korea. I’m not sure of my next move, but Tommy talked me into taking this trip across the US. He’s bound for Fairbanks, Alaska to serve two years with VISTA.”
“What’s that?” they asked in unison.
“Volunteers in Service to America. They serve two years in low income areas like inner cities, say Detroit, or rural areas, think Appalachia.”
“And what do they do?” asked Lyle.
“Whatever the local needs call for. Could be teaching. Could be home construction. Just about anything really. And they get a deferral from military service.”
“What’s Tommy going to do in Alaska?” asked Catherine.
“Darned if I know,” I answered.
“Hmm, speaking of the devil, Here’s Tommy now. We can ask him.” Lyle spoke as he welcomed Tommy to the table with a smile.
And so the breakfast continued with Catherine and Lyle playing the part of curious parents, and Tommy barely able to hold up his end of the conversation. Jackie didn’t show up for breakfast, but as we rose from our chairs, we noticed a solitary figure in the hotel bar. It was Jackie with a pot of black coffee in front of her, and that radiant smile on her face.
It was an image of Jackie’s smile, more than even the contours of her body, that Tommy told me he held in his mind all across the US, and up into the depths of Alaska. Something serious had happened between the two of them, and though they didn’t know if they’d ever meet again, they knew that their meeting had a certain resonance that would shape, in some way, their young lives.
We stayed with the Reagans and with Jackie for a week. We knew we should be getting on our way if this trip was ever to happen. But Tommy and Jackie couldn’t seem to say goodbye. They never did. As we left the city of Niagara, Jackie waved at us from the hotel entrance.
“A bientot,” she said to me. To Tommy, I could see the words she silently mouthed, “Je t’aime, Tommy. Je t’aime.” It made me sad.
Chapter 3: On the Road
Tommy and I headed out on 401, hitching west towards Detroit. We stopped at a Timmy’s in London around 11 o’clock that morning; we’d been on the road for four hours by that time. We sat across from each other with donuts and coffee, each looking at the other for some clue where to begin the conversation.
“Coffee ain’t bad, no?” I began.
“’sall right, I guess. Gotta like glazed donuts, too.”
“What are we doin’?”
“Hitchin across the country, man, like we said we would.”
“And that means what?”
“Means we did something. But we’re not nowhere near doin’ anything right now.”
“Seems like you did something back there in Niagara Falls. Why’ncha stay with her?”
“I don’t know, man. It all happened so quick. Is that the way it really goes, like you meet someone and right away, you know?”
“Wish I could say. I’ve never really had that experience. I’m a little jealous.”
“I think I loved her, love her. Maybe I will love her. We talked, you know.”
“About staying together?”
“Yeah, but it was just too soon for both of us. She’s really serious about her music, and I really want to find out who I am. This trip is going to help me do that. And you know, I know where to find her.”
“God, I can’t believe it!”
“Believe I actually experienced two people falling in love. That’s a first for me.”
“See. This trip has already brought you something. Not to change the subject, but what happens when we get to the other side of the Ambassador Bridge, we get to Detroit?”
“I got a line on a drive away car from a dealer in Detroit to a dealer in Bountiful, Utah.”
“Where the hell is Bountiful, Utah?”
“Just outside Salt Lake City. We’ll get a chance to swim in the Great Salt Lake.”
“Can you swim in it?”
“From what I’ve read, no, you can’t or you wouldn’t want to ‘cause of the salt. You just bob like a cork in the salty water. Back to today and the Motor City. We won’t get to see Ted Nugent or the MC5, but we will have a room in my bunkmate’s basement.
Guy named Charlie Fox, served with me in Korea. Got discharged three months ago, and has been calling me to come visit him.”
“Charlie got a job?”
“No, he’s enrolled at UM in poli sci, but he’ll be home a few days for our visit. It’s his mother’s place. She’s divorced and Charlie has a younger sister, Ellie. She’s enrolled at UM, too.”
“Look at you, not a day away from a girl you care for and you’re out hunting again!”
“Just kiddin’, LJ.”
“Behave, my man. This is a friend doin’ us a solid.”
“I can dig it.”
“Make sure you do.”
As we were leaving Tim Horton’s, the counter waitress gave me the once over. I smiled at her, and said, “See you on the rebound.”
“Rebound from what?”
“We’re hitchin’ across the U.S. Wanna come?”
“Wish I could, but somebody’s gotta make money so my car goes and there’s heat in my apartment. Maybe next time, sugar.”
“Maybe next time then. Bye.”
We were off. Got a ride clear to Detroit from a Canadian record salesman. Kept tellin’ us Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were better than Bob Dylan. We didn’t want to get dumped on the shoulder of the highway, so we let him drone on. Before we got out on the other side of the Ambassador Bridge, he turned to Tommy and said, “Sometimes the road gets lonely and I’ve only got myself for company. I needed to talk. No offense.”
“None taken,” Tommy replied, “Just thanks.”
Charlie’s family lived in Palmer Woods, in the northwestern part of the city. As we walked the streets of downtown Detroit, Tommy and I began to get antsy. There were really creepy parts of Brooklyn, but this part of Detroit was right up there with them. We got on the first bus we could and asked the driver how to get to Palmer Woods. It happened that the bus ran south to north, so we got off at Palmer Park and started looking at houses. Charlie had said to look on Strathcona for a big brownstone with a circular drive and two plaster lions on either end. We were in the door by 4:30. Charlie wasn’t home, but his mother and sister were, and they were expecting us.
Chapter 4: Fox and Family
Charlie’s mom opened the door. We expected a mom, but what we got was an older hippie. “Chippie” was probably early forties. She possessed a younger woman’s figure and dressed like one of us. She had long dark hair with some streaks of gray, parted in the middle, turquoise necklace, bracelets, rings, a white Moroccan blouse, no bra, faded jeans and sandals. Her daughter, Ellie, looked just like a younger version of her mother. They invited us in.
“Hey, you must be LJ,” she said sizing me up, and turning to Tommie, “and you must be his friend, Tommy. I’m Chippie.”
“Touche’,” I replied. I thought it odd that she didn’t add she was Charlie’s mother.
“Charlie couldn’t stop speaking about how great a guy you are, LJ. You must be something special,” she breathed these last words, looking directly into my eyes. I started to get nervous. I didn’t like where I thought this might be going.
“Mrs. Fox, thanks so much for hosting us.”
“It’s Chippie and it’s nothing, oh, and I forgot my manners. This is my daughter, Ellie.”
Ellie seemed sweet and shy; the opposite of her mother. “Hi,” she said. We could barely hear her.
Chippie ushered us into the living room. There was incense burning on a table near a lava lamp, and although the daylight was still strong, the lamp was on. “Was it for effect?” I wondered to myself.
Charlie was back before dark. Before that, we had been chatting in the living room with Ellie and Chippie, mostly with Ellie. While Chippie made us comfortable with brownies and strong dark tea, Ellie kept us engaged. She proved to be a good conversationalist. She saw the world with a touch of irony, and that included the world of the young, of her, of my generation.
“Do you think things will really change?” she asked Tommy, who’d just made his case for why our generation would create a better and just life for all people. It was this streak of idealism that led him to volunteer for VISTA.
“Well, I think change starts with me. If I can change, and make my life’s work the creation of a more just and organic world, I’ll consider myself successful.”
“And how will you know that you’ve made such a contribution, Tommy? Is it when you eat only organic food or start an organic garden or a business that only deals in organic products? I say you can’t ever know the effect your presence has made in this world. Everything is a leap of faith.”
“Wow! That’s just a little cynical, don’t you think, Ellie?”
“You say cynical. I say it’s realistic, and I’d say it’s even optimistic. You know you don’t have to have faith, but I do, faith that we can make progress in our lifetime, but I don’t think we will ever see it as clearly as our children and their children will.”
“Sort of like that seven generations thing with the Indians.” I had to squeeze my way into this verbal duet.
Ellie helped me. “You mean the idea that you look ahead seven generations to do what is right now for those to come? I think that’s an excellent policy, but I don’t think there’s a politician in the world who’d subscribe to it.”
“So, there was no Camelot. No striving for the good when Kennedy was president.” Tommy felt a little deflated. He needed to hold on to his idealism.
“No, we know now that things weren’t so rosy in the White House…unless you were a paid pro…” Ellie let the thought linger.
“So Kennedy was a womanizer. So was FDR. They both did great things.” I argued.
“And treated women as objects, as human candy, as pleasurable asides,” Ellie dug in her heels.
“Does that mean that nothing good came of it all?” I asked, genuinely wanting to know Ellie’s feelings.
“No, it doesn’t mean that, but it does sort of bring the whole notion of a virtuous leader into question, don’t you think?”
“Should men lead by virtue?” I continued.
“The ancient Chinese thought so…” Ellie replied.
“And look where that’s gotten them today, a dictatorship, a cult of personality that ruins the common man’s life.” I was on solid ground here I believed.
“I agree that twentieth century China has been a work in progress, and has lots of problems, but look at what happened to it in the nineteenth century, flayed by nature, and raped by the British, and the Russians, Japanese, French.” Ellie knew her history. Tommy had been quiet for a while. He looked at Ellie, almost pleadingly, and asked, “So, should I not try to change the world? Should I just pack it in and go home?”
“No, silly. You go right ahead and give it your best. Besides if you hadn’t had this idea, we wouldn’t’ve met, would we?” She gave Tommy a big smile, and you could see he felt better about the conversation. But then…
We all were feeling better, because we had been eating Chippie’s brownies for the last hour, and we were all getting quite high. When Charlie came in, we couldn’t stop laughing as he simply said, “Hello, LJ.”
“What’s so funny?” he asked, looking at Ellie. “Has Mom been baking again?”
“Mmmm,” she answered.
“Goddamn, I don’t like to get high after everyone else. It gets so weird.”
“Catch up with a few brownies?” I said as I gave Charlie a hug. “This is Tommy, my man. And you know Ellie of course.” We all thought this was so funny, we began to laugh uncontrollably, snot and snorts blasting out of our noses. Then Tommy ripped a butt bomb that sent us into further paroxysms of laughter.
“That was a gas, Tommy!” Ellie hiccupped between waves of laughter.
“Far out, Ellie! I guess you didn’t know that Tommy was baking brownies, too,” I added, and we three collapsed again.
“Whoa, this has gotta stop! You’re headin’ for a Melvin, LJ.”
“Not a chance. I’m not wearing Jockeys!” I laughed so hard my ribs started to hurt.
“Aw, shit!” Charlie went on, “I come from a discussion of Kissinger’s complicity in bombing Cambodia to this? To this? Oh, yeah, to this. Hit me with a coupla those brownies kiddos.”
I don’t remember how the evening ended. I seem to recall lots of laughter and lots of brownies and cups of Earl Gray. Maybe we ate dinner. Maybe we didn’t. But my penchant for getting up in the middle of the night to pee created another awkward moment. Tommy and I were sleeping in the basement. Chippie, Ellie and Charlie all had bedrooms on the second floor of the house. Why then did I open the basement bathroom door and see the nude figure of Chippie washing her hands over the sink? I didn’t know what to say or to do, so I said and did nothing. Chippie looked at me, and far from covering herself up, she brushed into me with her breasts sweeping against my left arm.
I immediately got a woody. I was nude myself, always slept that way. She saw my uncontrolled excitement and made right for it. She closed the bathroom door behind me. That was fine, except she was still in there with me. I tried to resist, but one thing led to another. When she was done, she smiled and kissed my cheek. I could barely look at her because of my embarrassment. I felt like I had taken advantage of Charlie’s hospitality. The next morning when Charlie asked how I had slept, I mumbled, “I slept well, thank you,” and from the corner of my eye I could see Chippie smile at me and give me a quick wink. I never figured out why she had used the basement bathroom in the middle of the night, and she didn’t tell me. It created a little bump in the road of friendship for Charlie and me because I never told him what happened. I’m not proud of my part balling in the basement bathroom with Chippie. Some things you don’t share and you keep to yourself. This was one of them.
We hung around Charlie’s house long enough to say goodbye to him and Ellie as they set off for the University of Michigan, a 45 minute car ride. Then we took the bus halfway into the city to pick up our driveaway car, a 71 Impala, V8 engine four door sedan, red with a hard top. We were soon back on I94 headed west and south to catch I80 for Ilinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Utah. I never did say goodbye to Chippie. She had to get up early and leave the house for her job at a local primary school. She was a reading specialist. She sure read me.
Chapter 5: Drivin’ and Acryin’
The interstate led as around Chicago. We pulled over under an overpass just outside the city because we saw a young girl with a backpack and a sign that said, “West.” She threw her pack in the back seat and followed it into the car before she said a word. “Hi, what’s your name and where’re you headin’?” Tommy asked; he was riding shotgun and I was behind the wheel of the Impala.
When she closed the door, she said, “Jenny. I’m going to Salt Lake City for my father’s funeral.” There was a hitch in her voice as she spoke. She didn’t look at or talk to either of us until we hit I80. “So, Jenny, What’s the story?” I asked.
“Story, you want a story? Well, here’s a story. I’m eighteen, legal now, but when I left home I was fourteen. I’ve been on the road for nearly four years. Stopped off in some places I thought I might like, mostly college towns like Cambridge, State College,
Ann Arbor, Gainesville, Austin. I’ve pretty much been all over the map of the U.S. When I got somewhere I thought I might like, I went from door to door looking for work. I’ve sold dresses in a women’s clothing shop, vegetables and fruit at a farm stand, rolling paper at a head shop, and magazine subscriptions door to door.
This last gig I had for nearly two years, crossing the U.S. We worked as a team, four kids per team, four teams per town. We divided the town into four sections. We were given one motel room per team, and five dollars a day for food. We got ten percent of the subscriptions we sold, that is if the managers put them through at all. Sometimes they just kept the money. There was a sort of initiation for kids like me. You had to at least sleep with the manager once, and if he liked you, you had to be his steady. It wasn’t so bad really because the managers lived a lot better than we did. They ate at good restaurants and put their heads down on soft pillows under clean sheets and blankets. I got to be the steady for two managers. It made the other team members jealous and they either turned their backs and wouldn’t talk to me or they would call me names like “little bitch,” “teenage whore,” “manager’s lay, and “rentacunt.” But I didn’t mind really. It rolled off my back. I’d already been raped a few times when I first started hitchin’ at fourteen.”
She said all this in such a matter of fact way that it seemed strange to see a tear in her eye as she finished this part of her story.
“Sounds like things have been rough for you on the road, Jenny,” Tommy offered.
“Yeah, they’ve been rough, but they could’ve been even rougher. I learned who to trust and who to avoid after that first year. The funny thing about it all is that I missed school, not the kids and the crazy social stuff that goes on in high school, but the learning. I often spent whole days reading in libraries, especially during winters in the Northeast. I consider myself pretty well self-educated. In fact, I was in Cambridge, Mass. long enough to enroll in a GED prep course. I took the test at the end of the course and passed it with flying colors.”
“So, why did you leave Salt Lake City?”
“Why? Do you know anything about Mormons? My family is Mormon. We aren’t supposed to drink alcohol or caffeine. We have very strict rules about sex. We see ourselves as a special people who should associate only with other Mormons. At least, that is the way my family was. Well, for whatever reason, I was born with a different gene. I was drawn to kids who weren’t Mormon, who were Catholics, Jews, Black, Brown, not blue eyed and blond haired like the general Mormon population seems to be.”
“So, I became close to this one girl in my middle school. Her name was Maria Elena and she was a Mexican Catholic. We like the same things. We were interested in music and acting. We both wanted to be movie stars. Anyway, one day Maria and I were up in my bedroom; I had to sneak her in when none of my family was around. We were fooling around, wrestling on my bed, when all of a sudden, I got this impulse and I kissed her on the lips. Maria responded. It was just learning what a girl is you know. Neither of us was attracted to other girls. Well, I have the world’s shittiest luck because while we were embracing each other, my father opened the door to my room. He became enraged right away, and pulled us apart, threw Maria towards the door. She ran out of the house and I never saw her again. From that day on, my father kept me at home. I was forbidden to leave the house for a month. My brothers brought my schoolwork home for me to do. When I returned to class, it seemed everyone knew what had happened. I couldn’t speak to anyone. They all shunned me. But the worst was my father. He wouldn’t even look at me. The evening after he found Maria and me, he said,
“You are my daughter, but you are lost to me. I will never give you away in marriage and I will not support you once you have graduated high school.” You’d think my mother would’ve stepped in to smooth things over, but she was afraid of my father, and my brothers worshipped him. They loved me. I know that. But they didn’t want to do anything against his wishes. So I ran away from home that summer.”
Another tear came to her eye. “So this is me, my life, my fucked up story.”
“Wow! It is a sad story, okay,” said Tommy.
Jenny said nothing more, but just before Iowa City, she took out a little leather pouch and a pipe. She loaded it with grass, lit it and passed it up front. I was driving, so I just took one hit. Tommy drew two or three good lungfuls, then passed it back to Jenny.
“Life’s shit,” she said. Then the tears rolled down her face. “I need to give you something for this ride.” She started hyperventilating. “Really only one thing I got that anyone might want.”
“No, Jenny. That’s not who were are,” Tommy said. “Take it easy, and things will be okay. You know one day it’ll all work out for you.”
“Not for me. Nothing ever does.”
“You’re young and you got your whole life ahead of you. It’ll come together for you.” I added my two cents of positive energy for Jenny.
The higher she got, the more she cried, and then she laughed. She alternated between the two as if inventorying her life and seeing its deep sadness and its comic absurdity. I thought it was such a hard lesson to learn for her, that even the people she loved and who were supposed to love and support her could turn against her because of preconceived ideas about how we’re supposed to live our lives. Fuck it, who’s created the road map for that, anyway?
“Jenny, if your dad basically disowned you, why are you going back for his funeral?” I asked.
“It’s time for me to see my family and say goodbye to my father. You know how he died? I told you Mormons don’t drink alcohol. The end of that sentence is “when other people are looking.” My dad drove a big Chrysler with a burled wood dashboard that had a hidden glove compartment. In that compartment, he kept a pint of bourbon, which he nipped at all day long as he drove around the county in his job as county safety officer.
This one time he’d had a long day and the pint was empty, and so was the clarity of his thinking. He veered off a country road to avoid a deer, only instead of slowing down and breaking, he accelerated and drove straight into a power line. Death was instantaneous. Lucky for him. My brother Michael told all me this last time I phoned him. He’s been my pipeline back to my family. He told me, too, that my mother wanted desperately for me to be there at the funeral. So I’m going back, but look at me. See the lines in my forehead and the dark spots on my face and arms? These have been hard years for me. I wonder if they’ll even recognize me. I’m just eighteen, but I could be anywhere up to thirty, don’t you think?”
“Jenny, you look just fine. A little road weary maybe, but you look like a healthy young woman. Don’t you think, LJ?”
“Yeah, I agree,” I said, though my need to pay attention to the cars on I80 had given me little time to study Jenny’s face. Nevertheless, this reassurance from the both of us seemed to calm her fears – for the moment, at least.
We got off the interstate to visit the University of Iowa and see what was going on there. All over the U.S, young people were talking about living different lives: lives more in tune with nature, without war, without prejudice. We laid all the bad things in life at the feet of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. We were something new. We were different. We were going to change the world, and there was solidarity among us because of all this. We found likeminded brothers and sisters wherever we went, and a college campus was a really good place to find lots of them.
Chapter 6: There’s No I in Team, but There is an I in Iowa
We got off the interstate at four o’clock in the afternoon and we were starving for some solid food. We had all the time in the world, but our stomachs were calling to us for food. Jenny tagged along like the little sister she was, just a bit of a thing five feet tall, barely over a hundred pounds I’d say, wiry body made tough by life on the road. She had corn silk colored hair that she kept short. Her figure was quite boyish, but the twinkle in her eye would have attracted just about any guy she showed an interest in. Faded jean jacket, Grateful Dead tee shirt pressed with the cover of the Aoxomoxoa album, cut off jeans with more holes than denim, and a pair of huaraches on her feet. We found a mom and pop burger joint after parking the car on North Street right outside the campus. We chowed down. Two burgers each for Tommy and me, heaps of fries, malted milks. Jenny ate a single burger and shared our fries. She had coffee to drink. We paid even though she offered for her share.
We finished our food and headed out the door to the campus. We found a huge lawn area with crowds of kids hanging out. We took in the scene. Lots of Frisbees in motion. Some hackysacks. Couples making out under the trees on the periphery. Banners for SDS and the John Birch Society. One scarier than the other for me. We toured the whole campus, then sat down on a bench just as the sun was starting to go down. Tommy asked,
“You ever hear of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop? It’s some program for writers here. It’s supposed to be famous.” Tommy’d got his BA in Am Lit at CUNY, so he knew things like that.
“Really? For writers? You know I’ve been thinking I’d like to enroll in college, and maybe write. Yeah, I know you can’t make money at it. Lots of waiters in the City wanna be actors and writers. I’ve met ‘em.” I wasn’t sure about anything yet.
“Why give up on a dream just because others haven’t realized theirs?” this came from a bald headed, bearded guy sitting on the bench next to us.
“What the man says,” agreed Tommy.
“Young people like you three will create American culture in the future. Why not take part in it?” the man continued, now focusing on us as if we were part of an important equation.
“Because it may go nowhere and leave me disappointed,” I answered.
“But if you don’t try, you’ll never know,” the guy replied.
“And are you trying?” Jenny asked him.
“Yes, I am. As hard as I possibly can.”
“And how do you do that?” she asked.
“By taking it upon yourself to be a disciplined worker, in my case, a disciplined writer. By preparing yourself as best you can. By knowing your craft. By practicing it even when nobody knows who you are and nobody has read a thing you’ve written.”
“I guess the first part of that answer works for just about anything,” I added.
“Yes, it does.”
“Can I get in here?” I asked our bearded mentor.
“Do you have a college degree? Have you written anything?”
“No and no.”
“Well first thing is to get your BA. It doesn’t have to be in English, but it helps to read the great works of people who’ve gone before us.”
“Like who?” Tommy asked.
“Well, lets just talk about the this century. Gide, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Hemingway,
I interrupted. “I haven’t read a single one of those guys. Maybe Hemmingway in high school. Isn’t he the guy who wrote a weird Lord’s Prayer in one of his stories? ‘Our nada who are in nada’ and all that”
“Yes, and do you know what Hemmingway is getting at in that story?”
“Can’t say I do.”
“That our lives are meaningless unless we take the responsibility to give them meaning.”
“Wow, that’s a little heavy for a spring afternoon in Iowa City, don’t you think?’
Tommy tried to break through the seriousness of the moment.
“Well, lets explore something else. What are you three reading?”
“Okay, I’ll start: just finished Siddartha, starting Be Here Now.”
“Me then?” Tommy asked. “ Rereading Catch 22.”
Jenny hesitated, but then added her favorite books. “Soul On Ice, The Golden Notebook, Ariel.”
“Why do these books speak to you?” our bald writer inquired of us.
“Because I identify with the characters in these books who’ve suffered injustice through no fault of their own,” said Jenny with a bit of a clenched jaw.
“Because I see the world like Heller does, tongue in cheek and with a dose of irony,” Tommy said.
“Geez, I can’t believe it! We sound like a bunch of bookworms worried about giving the right answer so we can get good grades to make the dean’s list or something.” I was reacting to how different the conversation had become since our bald bearded friend butted in. “This isn’t what we talk about, is it?”
“Maybe you should,” answered the writer. “Maybe you should. For one thing, why do you think that you read so many books that deal with the meaning of life?” he asked looking at me.
“I don’t know. It’s just what people like me read, I guess. People who aren’t sure where they are going, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”
“And if these writers hadn’t taken the time and made the effort to write in a way that communicated important ideas to people like you, where do you think we’d be?”
“No idea, honestly. What do you think? I know you’re gonna tell us,” I replied a bit snidely.
“We’d be much less rich as a culture. We’d leave unarticulated the things that really count in life: who we are, what is important, what is a good life…I could go on and on.”
“Seems to me like you have, a bit, if you don’t mind my saying so. What is your interest in us, anyway? We’re just three people passing through Iowa, stopped to eat and see the campus.” I thought for sure I had him here.
“You are the future. You may be my readers one day. Who knows? I want to know that I write for people who care about important things. That’s why I’ve intruded on your conversation. Excuse me if I’ve been a bore. I know there’s a generation gap. Don’t trust anyone over thirty and all that.”
He seemed forlorn and deflated. It was up to Jenny to lift his spirits.
“You’re right. We should care and I do care. Thank you for this.”
And that brought a smile to his face as he got up to bid us a good evening for darkness had nearly set in and the campus had become quiet.
We walked back to the car and decided to sleep on the campus lawn. It was probably not legal to do so, but we didn’t care. The most that could happen would be some rent-a-cop would roust us and send us on our way. Jenny carried a space blanket in her backpack and a tiny inflatable pillow. Tommy and I had sleeping bags. And so we spent the night under the stars on the campus of the University of Iowa. The next morning we rose just before dawn, packed our gear, and walked out of the campus to the car.
There was one problem. The car wasn’t there. Some time between when we returned for our backpacks and when we got up this morning, our car was taken. We soon found out that overnight parking was not allowed on North Street, at least not in the area where we had parked. We had to walk half a mile to the lot where the police parking squad impounded cars. Before we did, we decided to eat breakfast in the same mom and pop café where we’d had our burgers the day before. It was orange juice, granola and coffee all around. Our stomachs full, we went off to find the car.
We arrived to find a single person in charge of the impound lot. He was young like we were. He had long blond hair that fell to his waist. He was wearing a headband, love beads, cut off jeans and a Jefferson Airplane tee shirt.
“Peace,” he said as we approached him. This was Barry the Stoner. He let us have the car for half of Jenny’s stash, and he dashed out of the lot to grab a few things from a fraternity house nearby where he rented a room. “Stay here. I’ll be right back. Man I wanna split this scene. I’m with you.” He wanted to hitch with us. We were so happy to have the car back that we immediately agreed.
Chapter 7: Who’s on the Bus?
I was in the back seat with Jenny so I could see her and talk to her better than when I was driving the day before. Tommy was behind the wheel and Barry the Stoner was riding shotgun. Or perhaps he was copiloting. That’d be the way he’d see it. As soon as we got on the interstate, heading for Salt Lake City and Bountiful, Barry started pulling stuff out of his backpack.
“Hey man, far out that you let me come with you, so I’m gonna give you some good shit. With that he pulled out a small bag of Acapulco Gold, and lovingly wrapped some dope in Zig Zag paper. He had an old Zippo that he used to light the joint. Then he took in a very deep, long lungful of smoke and sighed as he exhaled after holding it in for nearly a minute. “What a rush!” he said. “Here, don’t want to Bogart this dooby. Let’s get high.”
“Not for me,” Tommy said. “I need to stay straight behind the wheel. Roll down your window a little, man. If the bulls stop us, we’re toast.”
Barry passed the joint back to Jenny and me. We both took a polite hit, but neither of us wanted to get wasted just then. So, we passed it back to Barry. In no time, he had smoked it down to a roach, which he then ate.
“Whoa, man. Far out! I got the munchies.” He pulled out what looked like a year’s supply of candy from his pack: M & M’s, Red Hots, Junior Mints, Good and Plenty, Twizzlers, Hershey’s Kisses…the parade seemed endless. Barry started opening each giant sized box and sampling each candy. “Want some?” he practically bellowed.
“Easy, man. We can hear you without your shouting. Me and candy, no thanks.” I answered, “How ‘bout you, Jenny?”
It turned out that Jenny had a sweet tooth. She scooped up a handful of Hershey’s Kisses and Junior Mints, and began methodically eating them one by one as we talked.
“Jenny, when we get to Salt Lake City, what do you want us to do? Where do we drop you?”
“Mmm, good. Well, LJ, I know the city, so any place in town will do, and I’ll get home on my own.”
“We could drop you there.”
“No, I need some time to get my head back into the place. I need to walk around, look at people, go into a shop and talk, get the flavor of the place back. It’s been years you know.”
“Yes, I know. You told me. Tommy wants to drive straight through, reckons it’ll take us about fifteen hours or more if we do. Is it going to be okay if we drop you off at night?”
“Wow! I’ve known you two for two days and already you’re treating me like a little sister who needs to be protected. You forget I’ve been on my own for four years.”
“Hey, sorry. I just thought it might be better if we spend the night somewhere and drove to Salt Lake City tomorrow morning. We have five days to get the car there. They give us five hours of driving time per day, and this is only day two after all.”
“Well, if you want to go slower, go slower. Makes no difference to me. The funeral isn’t for another two days. One way or another I’ll make it there.”
“Let’s talk about something else. I don’t want to make you angry with us.”
“I’m not. I’m grateful for the ride, the food, and the company. Really.”
“So, after the funeral, then what?”
“Then, I don’t know, but I want to learn. I want to study, but probably not in Utah. Mormonism doesn’t allow a person to think freely. It’s very, what’s the word, doctrinaire? I think I’d like to get out to the coast. San Francisco, maybe. I’ve never been there and always have wanted to.”
“Tommy and I are going at least that far together. Maybe you want to hook up with us after the funeral?”
“No, I want to get there on my own, in my own time, but thanks for the offer.”
“So Salt Lake City will be goodbye.”
“Guess so, LJ.”
“Well if I don’t say it when we part, I’ll say it now. You’re a strong and smart lady and you’re going to have a good life. Some guy’s gonna be lucky to find you one day.”
“Thanks, I’ll try to remember what you said when things are rough.”
Just then, Barry started shaking and shouting in the front seat. “Holy fuck! It’s comin’ for me. Don’t let it get me! Don’t let it get me!”
“Barry, calm down man. It’s gonna be alright. You’re just a little bit freaked out.”
“Man, it’s comin’ man. They’re comin’ to get me. Leave me alone! Leave me alone?” he said and swatted the air in front of him as if he were being attacked by a swarm of bees.
Tommy pulled over at a rest stop, and we waited for Barry to come down.
“Barry,” I said, “we can’t have you on the bus with us if you’re gonna freak out every time you get stoned. You gotta maintain, man.”
“Far out,” Barry answered, though he still looked shaky. “I can dig that.”
“Okay,” I said, “Don’t bring us down like that again, okay?”
“Sure, man. Just like the Merry Pranksters, we gotta be cool because we’re outrageous stoners,” Barry pulled out his well-worn copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to show us. “I can totally dig it.”
And off we drove into the setting sun. We got as far as Cheyenne, Wyoming where we stopped at a KOA campsite for the night. Barry had nothing but candy, a copy of the Wolfe book, and one change of clothes in his pack, so we let him sleep in the back seat of the Impala. The three of us slept outside under the glorious stars of the Western sky. We talked ourselves to sleep. Tommy was exhausted from the driving. He drifted off quickly. Jenny and I talked until we both rolled over on our stomachs to fly off to our dreams. Before we did, I put my arms around her and hugged her. I told her I would not forget her.
In the morning, we three showered. Barry didn’t. He seemed preoccupied by something, something only he knew about. As far as we could see, there was nothing to be concerned about at the KOA campground. As we left, Barry said, “There’s somebody I gotta see here.” And with that, he shouldered his pack and left us. We never saw him again.
We were driving towards I80, when we saw them on the side of the road: a huge lumberjack looking guy and a tiny almost dwarfish guy. They held up a sign that said,
“Broke and hungry. Need to get to Salt Lake City.”
“What the hell,” I said to no one in particular, and I pulled over.
“What’s the story guys?” I asked.
“Me and Thor gotta make it to a construction job in Salt Lake City. We’ve been hitching for two days: no money, no food, no nothin’. Can you help us out?” This was the dwarfish guy speaking. “Name’s Manolo. Thor and I are buddies. Been all over this country workin’ what we could. Mostly construction. We got a good job in Salt Lake City if we can make it there by today.”
I wasn’t too sure about them, neither was Tommy, but Jenny seemed all right with them. “Let’s give them a lift,” she said.
“Jenny?” said Manolo as he looked into the Impala. “Is it really you?”
“It’s me, okay. Long time Manolo. How are you guys?”
“It’s been a rough few weeks. We started from Florida hitching north and west.
We got rolled one night in Indiana. Somebody put something in our drinks in a biker bar.
We both feel asleep not knowing where we were. When we woke up outside near the dumpster back of the bar, all our gear was gone and the keys to Thor’s old Buick. All we have are the shirts on our backs and about five dollars between us.”
“Tommy and LJ, meet Thor and Manolo. They’re as close to family as I had for four years on the road. We first met in Florida. Thor saved me from a bunch of college guys. An old story, a girl alone. An offer of help, and instead a drive to somewhere where they could do as they wanted with me. Lucky for me, Thor heard me scream when they pulled me out of the car. He plowed into those college boys like a locomotive under a head of steam.”
“Where was this?” I asked.
“Fort Lauderdale on spring break. That’s when the college kids think they can do whatever they want with whoever they want,” Manolo said.
I noticed that Thor hardly said a word. “Thor, a friend of Jenny’s is a friend of mine,” I said, extending my hand. The blond giant took it in his, shook it gently, and smiled at me.
“Thor don’t speak,” Jenny said. “Manolo does enough talking for both of them.”
And was that true. It turned out that Manolo was a dwarf, a little person, is what he preferred to be called. He had family in California. His relatives had a Hollywood connection. Members of his family had been extras in “Babes in Toyland,” and “The Wizard of Oz.” They owned a large home in the village of Montecito, outside of Santa Barbara. He and Thor had been a team since high school in LA. Thor’s family were all very big people. His father was six foot nine and his mother was six six. His little brother was seven feet tall and Thor was six ten. The family all had bit parts in Hollywood films that called for giant monsters or giant humans. That was the first connection that brought Thor and Manolo together. From there, it was the two of them against the “normals” of the world. This was how they survived high school. Right after graduation, they took off for the road. They’d been at it longer she had, Jenny told us, about five years. She worked the citrus groves in Florida with them, then moved up the coast to pick tree fruit, watermelon, strawberries, peanuts and corn. They parted, but ran into each other often when seasonal picking came in the South.
We pushed the front seat back a little so Thor could fit in the front. Manolo sat directly in back of him. He didn’t take up much room. I was behind the wheel. Jenny and Tommy filled out the back. Off we went to Salt Lake City on a clear and bright Wyoming morning.
Chapter 8: You Say Goodbye and I Say Hello
Each morning, we hit the road just after dawn so that we could arrive at our destination in time enough to get a feel for a new city, a new state, a new population. We made Salt Lake City by one o’clock in the afternoon. We dropped Thor and Manolo off in the center of town. Manolo said their gig was close by. He thanked us and said he hoped to see us again.
“May the wind be at your back and may the road rise up to meet you.” This was Tommy, he always had an Irish poem or proverb at the ready. The surprise was that Manolo answered him with,
“And until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of his hand.”
“Dia duit,” replied Tommy in Gaelic. “God bless you.”
That left Tommy, Jenny and I and the Impala, from which we’d soon have to part, but not before it took us to the Great Salt Lake. Jenny wanted to go with us. She was hesitant to start on her journey back to her family. We drove out of the city to the lake. There were few cars in the large parking lot, and we were able to park very close to the lake. The air was warm and dry. As soon as we stepped onto the sand, we were surrounded by thousands of brine flies and a disgusting stench of rotting vegetation. Nevertheless, we were determined to go into the lake. Tommy and I grabbed a book each, waded until the water was up to our chests, and then sat down as if reading in a rocking chair, floating in gossamer rockers, light as air. That lasted all of two minutes. We got out and made use of the showers that dotted the beach. Jenny didn’t bother to strip down. She didn’t want to go in at all.
By two o’clock we had dropped off the Impala in Bountiful, and caught a bus back into the city. At a coffee shop, we sat with Jenny, not one of us saying much, just feeling like this was goodbye, and not quite wanting our new friendship to end so quickly.
Finally, Jenny spoke. “Know what? I’ll give you the number of the pay phone where I called my brother over the years. We made a pact that I would call every fifteenth of the month at noon Mountain Time, no matter where we both were. That kept me connected, at least to him. His name is Thomas, by the way.” She said this smiling at Tommy. “You both remind me a little of him. LJ, you have an older brother’s natural protectiveness and Tommy you have that little mischievous smile that said something fun was about to happen. So I’ll miss you guys, but as long as I am in the city, I will be near that pay phone on the fifteenth of the month. If I’m not there on the fifteenth, it means I made my move to the coast. My brother will know and you can call him at our home. I’d tell you you can call me at home, too, but I honestly don’t know what will happen when I see my mother and aunts and uncles. I could be out on the street again or…But anyway, here’s the home number. Don’t use it unless you get no answer at the pay phone booth.”
With that she stood up, and with just a single tear slowly migrating towards the corner of her mouth, she gave each of us a hug and walked out of our lives. For a minute, both of us were unable to move or to speak. She had that effect on us.
“Wow!” said Tommy. “It’s just crazy how you can get so close to someone in so short a time when all the bullshit of 9 to 5 living is out of the way. You know what I mean, LJ?”
“Yeah, I think I do, Tommy. I think I do. She’s a great girl. I hope she finds her path in life.”
Tommy rose and shouldered his pack. “Shall we see a bit of the city?”
“Why not?” I answered.
We wandered around Salt Lake City, which was a testament to the American religion of Mormonism. It was hard to see it as anything else. There were some beautiful spots. We found one as evening descended, the International Peace Gardens at Jordan Park. There were floral displays representing twenty-eight countries. The gardens were large and we decided they’d be ideal as a place to sleep out. We spread our sleeping bags near the pagoda in the Chinese gardens, and we fell fast asleep.
Come morning, we were rudely awakened at dawn by a sprinkler system that began spraying the plants and flowers, and us. We quickly packed up, shivering in the cool morning air. I let out a ‘hooray’ when the sun came up and began to dry our clothes.
“Well, Tommy. I guess we need to get out near I80 and find a ride west. Shall we?”
Luckily the interstate could be picked up right in town. Our next goal was to get to Reno, Nevada by nightfall, but hitching might be a little tricky in Utah and Nevada.
Our first driver was a large man in a white shirt, western jacket, bolo tie and jeans with a large longhorn belt buckle. He was driving an immense white hard top Lincoln
Continental with vanity plates that read COWBOY SAM. He stopped when he saw us on near the highway on ramp. “Well, y’all getting’ in or am I gonna pull away?” he drawled in what I thought might be a Texas accent. “Name’s Sam. Ahm in the all bidness,” he told us.
“The all business?” I asked.
“Yeah, y’all know that black gold inna ground. Tha’s all.”
“Oh, you mean oil.”
“Now don’t be a smart ass boy. Never look a gift hoss inna mouth, they say. You gonna get in?”
And we did.
“Happens Ahm trav’lin’ to Elko, Nevada for some bidness. Where y’all goin’?”
“Reno,” Tommy answered.
“Whatcha doin’ there? Y’all gamblers? Y’all don’t like much of anything. Hippies, maybe, but his hair ain’t long enough,” Sam said, looking at me.
“We’re hitching across the country. We wanted to see what it was like,” Tommy answered.
“Oh, yeah? And how’s it like?”
“Well, it’s hard to put it into a few words, but the scenery has been spectacular, even the corn fields of Iowa and Nebraska. We’re city boys. It was all new to us,” Tommy continued.
I jumped in. “But really the biggest thrill has been meeting people. And I told Sam about Jackie, Charlie, Chippie, Ellie, Jenny, Barry, Thor, and Manolo.”
“Seems like you met a bunch of hippies and drifters like yourselves,” Sam concluded.
“No, Sam. They were just people like you and me.”
“Don’t lump me together with y’all,” Sam demanded.
And that sort of put an end to the conversation for the next two hours. Sam lit a large Cuban cigar, “Cain’t hardly get these nowhere ‘causa that Commie, Fidel, but ol’ Sam gotta source. Yes, I do declare I do.” That was his last word until Elko when he said,
“Okay hippie dippy boys. This is where you get off.” At least, it was a truck stop and that meant the food should be good. It was near lunchtime and Tommy and I were hungry.
When we walked into the diner, there was a large hum of conversation, but as we waited for a waitress to seat us, we noticed a lull in the conversation as pairs of eyes focused our way. Tommy’s blond hair was just over his ears, not really long. He was dressed in denim with a chambray work shirt. Nothing to make a trucker angry, I thought.
I had on a pair of black jeans, black Converse Chuck Taylors, an Army surplus sweater, over a white tee shirt. We did have packs on our backs, and we did look a little wind blown and worse for wear, sleeping rough and hitching for half of our journey so far. I guess what we mostly looked was young, and if we were young, we were part of the USA-hating hippie generation that was tearing apart the country in the minds of men of our fathers’ generation. The tension was palpable. No waitress waited on us, so we took it upon ourselves to occupy an empty booth.
No one came to take our order. Finally, I walked up to the counter and asked the waitress behind for what we wanted. She stared at me for a long few seconds, then took out her pad and wrote down the order. Meanwhile one trucker at a nearby table kept staring at us. He finally came over and asked us, “Where you boys from?”
“New York,” we answered together.
“New York, hunh. And what’re you doin’ here in Elko?”
“Just passing through,” Tommy answered.
“Are you two hippies?”
“I don’t understand. What do you mean by hippies?” I asked him.
“Now don’t get smart with me, boy or I’ll mess up your face good. I said, “Are you two hippies?”
“If you mean do we question the things that our parents’ generation thinks are important, if we are not so sure that war is a good way to settle differences, if we think that peace and love are better than war and hatred, if we believe in accepting people rather than rejecting them because they are different from us, then, I guess,” Tommy hesitated,” the answer must be yes.”
“Well fuck you and your generation!” the trucker grew red in the face. “We don’t want your kind out here. You’d best eat and leave before I really get mad.”
And we did. We were a bit frightened by the heat of the man’s hatred. He didn’t know us at all. How could he react so strongly? To build up our own courage, we kept our voices low, and looked only at each other, but we took our time eating when our order came. When we left the diner, we could feel the heat of a dozen eyes boring into our backs.
“Whew!” Tommy said, “What the hell was his problem?”
“Same one lots of people have. They judge without knowing.”
“We’ll never get a lift out of here.”
“Maybe not. Maybe we should start walking.”
That’s when we met Walt. He had on his Army fatigue jacket over a black work shirt and a baseball cap with gold lettering on a dark blue field, “Vietnam Vet,” it read.
“You boys want a lift goin’ west?” he asked.
Tommy and I looked at each other. Would this be the bummer that the diner scene was? “We’re headed for Reno,” I said.
“We’re not all so quick to judge, you know. Hop in if you want to make Reno before dark.”
It turned out that Walt had been career Army. He served in 1962 in Vietnam and did a second tour when there was a build up in after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. He’d been in the Army motor pool in Nam, and now he was a long distance trucker out of Omaha, Nebraska. His route was mainly west to California and north to Washington. When he found out that I was a veteran and had served in Korea, he said, “See, like I told those boys. Don’t be so quick to judge. That trucker never set foot in a war zone or did military time. I know him. You did, but he’d rather see you as the enemy because he thinks you don’t respect him or the way he thinks.”
“He might be right,” I answered. “I served, but I am not for the war in Vietnam. I can’t see why we should be involved. I think it’s a civil war and there’s no danger to U.S. interests in the Far East because of it.”
“I can understand that point of view,” Walk answered, “but I don’t have your certainty about things. I think that’s what separates me from you. Even though we’re probably not too much over ten years apart, I identify with my parents and their beliefs. You don’t. Lots of folks I know think you young people are just too damned certain about everything without really ever having to put yourselves on the line.”
“Well, all I can say is that there’s no wrong in questioning things. Isn’t that the way we go forward? Do you think each generation has to conform to the previous one to be respected?”
“No, I guess I don’t,” replied Walt. And the road lulled us to sleep for the next four hours. We said goodbye to Walt outside of a casino in Reno.
Chapter 9: Sometimes Cowgirls Get the Blues
Tommy and I couldn’t resist. We went into the Silver Dollar Casino and played the one armed bandit at a quarter a pull. We each lost ten dollars in ten minutes. Tommy looked at me, “Are we crazy? We could lose most of our trip money within the hour.”
“True. Let’s split,” I answered. And with that, we went out into the pastel beauty of an early evening sky with the sun lowering down easy. Up here in the northwest corner of Nevada, the elevation made it seem like the sky was enormous. For two city kids who’d always lived near sea level, Reno’s near mile high sky was entrancing. Tommy and I just stood outside the casino doors watching the horizon. “Wow, that sky is huge!” he said.
I agreed. “It’s funny to think that all our lives we looked at a skyline defined by apartments and skyscrapers, most of the time against a washed out sky that went from gray to pale white. Who knew this existed? Well, we do now.”
“You hungry?” asked Tommy.
“I could eat,” I said. “Let’s find a burger joint.” So we did. Burgers, fries, an extra large Coke. I felt like I was in a Beach Boys’ song.
Our stomachs full, we walked out towards the interstate. Reno was close to Lake Tahoe. I knew Tahoe from the Winter Olympics they held there in 1960. I remember it looking like a snowy wonderland, like nothing I’d ever seen in New York City. Now I was just an hour away from it…if we got a ride soon. Tommy and I took turns standing in the side of the road with a thumb out, the universal ask sign for a hitchhiker. We went back and forth, a half hour each. On my third try, a big black Ford pickup truck pulled off the road and stopped. We shouldered our packs and hustled toward the truck before the driver changed his mind. But it wasn’t a he: it was a she. She was older than us, and her eyes were creased with wrinkles. “She must spend a lot of time outdoors in the sun,” I guessed to myself. She had her hair in braids and on her head a chewed up cowboy hat nearly covering her eyes. She wore a yellow tank top, faded jeans and cowboy boots.
“Where’re you two heading?” she asked as she smiled at us.
“To San Francisco,” Tommy answered. Neither of us had ever named a specific destination before, but we both knew we wanted to get to San Francisco.
“I’m goin’ about 50 miles south of Tahoe on Eighty. Hop in. My name’s Sally. Yours?”
“I’m LJ and he’s Tommy. We’re hitchin’ across country. Well, ‘cept for a stretch from Detroit to Salt Lake City where we had a driveaway.” I felt I had to be honest about our trip.
“And how’s it been goin’?” Sally asked. “I’ve never been east of the Rockies myself. Spent my life up here around the Truckee River in Reno and Tahoe. My folks owned a horse farm on the California side. They’re gone now, so I am the sole proprietor. It’s a pretty big job. We got a dozen horses, some mules, some burros, some goats, a few head of cattle and sheep. The horses make the money. It’s a stud farm and we have two stallions with championship bloodlines that bring in quite a bit of our income. I’m still in my twenties, but I must look like an old woman to you with all the wrinkles on my face and eyes from being out in the sun every day.”
“Not at all, Sally,” I lied. “You look like one of us.”
“Don’t BS me honey. I’m closer to thirty than either of you, and it shows.”
Tommy mustered a bit of courage to ask, “Sally, how is it that you’re on your own. I think you’re a good lookin’ woman. I’m surprised you don’t have somebody.”
“Well, thank you for the compliment, I guess. I ain’t queer if that’s what you’re getting at. I just can’t seem to find anybody.”
“Where do you look up here?” I asked.
“That’s part of the problem, honey. I spend more time looking at a horse’s body than a man’s. Most of my ranch hands have known me since I was knee high to a grasshopper. My great big high school senior class of fifteen got married and left the area. No opportunity if you don’t ski or own a ranch. Seems like no one’s here for me.”
“I get it,” I said, “But there’s someone for everyone. It’s just a matter of time.”
“I hope you’re right, hon’.”
Tommy again. “Why not leave? Move away? Do something else with your life. You’re still young.”
“This is the life I know,” Sally said, “and it’s the life I love. I feel better around four legged creatures than the two legged kind.”
That ended that line of conversation. Sally sighed, flicked on her wipers to clear the windshield of bug splatter, then asked, “What made you two take this big trip ‘cross country?”
“Speaking for myself,” Tommy began, “I needed to do something big before my next step in life.”
“And that is?”
“I’m goin’ to volunteer two years up in Fairbanks, Alaska.”
“Wow! Why there?”
“It’s where VISTA offered me.”
“VISTA. I heard of that. Volunteers like Peace Corps, right?”
“Right. Except we volunteer in the U.S.”
“I thought about Peace Corps. They have some rural 4H programs. I was 4H all through school. Problem is, they wanted me to have at least a two year degree. Can’t see the use of it just to do what I do now. But there it is. I woulda gone, too.”
Sally quickly glanced over her shoulder at me. “How ‘bout you Mr. Initials?”
“Tommy asked and I said yes. I wasn’t doing anything. Got out of the military just a while back and didn’t know my next move. This seemed like a good way to think about it.”
“And is it?”
“Yup. It sure is. We spend a lot of time tryin’ to get rides. That’s a lot of thinkin’ time. I might be getting’ closer to my next move, too.”
“And that is?”
“I think I want to go back to school. I might want to be a writer.” I said this last sentence very tentatively as if saying it made me seem ridiculous.
“A writer, hunh? And what would you write about?”
“That’s part of the problem. I don’t know as I have enough life experience to right about anything with conviction.”
“You could write about this trip you’re takin’” Sally said.
A light went on. Now I knew two or three things. I wanted to go to college and learn to be a writer, and I had at least one subject to write about, maybe two if you include my tour in Korea.
Sally let us off at the top of the I80 off-ramp. We thanked her. “You’re welcome to bunk at my horse farm if you’re ever back this way,” she shouted as we walked off to the on-ramp side of the road.
“Nice woman,” Tommy said.
“Really nice. If I were older and into horses, I’d get next to her as soon as I could.”
“But you’re not.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Another life imagined. That’s okay. That’s what writers do.”
“’swhat I think.”
Chapter 10: Coldest Winter I Ever Spent
We were still warm from the evening sun, but the sun was down and the temperature was dropping. Standing at an on-ramp wasn’t much exercise. Tommy and I were getting cold. To make things a bit worse, there wasn’t much traffic where Sally left us, and what there was didn’t even slow down to look at us as the night’s darkness descended. So we gave up, and walked off into the bushes near the exit. We found a natural bower of pines. Lots of needles between the trees. I had a Hersey bar and a canteen full of water. Tommy had a banana. We rolled out our sleeping bags, shared the banana, chocolate bar and water. Then we fell asleep, all talked out for the day.
I rose at first light and just lay in my sleeping bag listening to the morning sounds.
There was the occasional distant woosh of cars and trucks on the interstate, but thankfully not enough to interfere with the soul of the new morning. I looked up at the trees, spurred by a rat-a-tat sound. I saw a white-headed woodpecker. Flying between branches I spotted a Stellar’s Jay. Looking up again I discovered a song bird with a yellow breast and a repeated intermittent call, a Nashville Warbler. I learned the names of these birds only after we got to San Francisco. I found a copy of an Audobon guide for western birds in a Kentucky Fried Chicken restroom. It was all new to me.
Tommy got up with a growling stomach. Half a Hersey bar, half a banana, and water were not exactly a full dinner. We decided to walk away from the interstate to find breakfast. We rolled up the sleeping bags, secured our backpacks and went on our way. We were no more than a hundred feet from our sleeping spot and out into the road near the ramp. I looked back from where we’d come the day before. There was nothing but trees and brush on the north side of the highway, but across on the south side there was a gas station and a little shack next to it. We decided to cross the highway via the overpass and walk towards the gas station. It was farther away than it looked at first glance. When we got there, the gas station was closed. We walked around to the shack. A poorly hand lettered sign across the top of the shack read, “Popeye’s.” It had a serving window with a counter. There was a piece of plywood covering the window. No one there, we thought. We were about to walk away when an old man, back bent, white bearded, walked out of the shack and headed towards the gas station. We hailed him.
“Sir, are you going to open and do you serve food?”
“What the…Who’re you?” he said, startled to see two strangers so early in the morning. “Well, if it’s food you want, that’s what I make at my little place. Give me a minute to pee and wash my face.”
“Sure thing,” I answered. So we sat in front of the shack, waiting for the old man to finish his morning business.
When he was done, he re-entered his shack, removed the plywood cover, and put a napkin dispenser out on the counter along with an almost empty bottle of Heinz ketchup, a shaker of salt, and a shaker of pepper. “What’ll you have boys?”
“What’ve you got, uh, Popeye?”
“Only spinach,” he said and started laughing until he began to cough.
Then he took out a pipe and a pouch of tobacco. He scooped some tobacco with his pipe, tamped it down with his forefinger, and lit it with a kitchen match. “Nah, just funnin’ you boys. I can make you eggs and home fries. Will that do?”
“Great,” we responded in unison.
“Okay. I’ll put on a pot of coffee.” He reached for an old percolator, filled the top with Maxwell House and the bottom with water, and put it on his four-burner stove.
He started the potatoes in a large cast iron skillet, throwing in some slices of onion, and liberally salting the mess as it fried in cooking oil. He whipped six eggs in a large measuring cup, added salt, pepper and some oregano, then pushed the potatoes to one side of the skillet and poured in the eggs. Potatoes, eggs and coffee were all ready at just the right time. Tommy and I ate as if we’d never had a meal before. Popeye smiled as he saw the gusto with which we devoured his simple breakfast. “If youda come a little later, I’da had some fresh Kaiser rolls for ya.”
“This is just great Popeye,” I said, “No need for anything else. We gotta be on our way. We want to get to San Francisco before noon. We’re hitching and the hitching doesn’t look good here. Not too many cars.”
“Well, here’s something for what it’s worth. Woman came in on a tow truck yesterday. Her Mercedes stalled out on the interstate. She was on the way to San Francisco. Driver brought her into town, ‘bout five miles north of here. Brought her to the one motel we got there. Not so nice for such a high class woman. I’d guess she’ll be here right when Lucky opens his garage at eight o’clock.”
And Popeye was right. Miss Adelle Van Hoenesbroeck, a Dutch aristocrat, we found out two minutes after meeting her, was impatiently pacing back and forth as we approached the garage. Lucky opened. The lady paid him. The taxi driver she’d hired to drive her from the motel to the garage loaded her bags into the trunk of the Mercedes, and she was ready to go. We approached her and asked for a ride.
“And why should I do this?” she asked.
“Because we are two students who must get back to San Francisco to take our final exams. If we miss them, we will be dismissed from school. Please help us.” Tommy was good at making up stories.
“Vell, all right den,” she said. “You will know you are riding with a Dutch noblewoman, then. I am Marquessa Adelle Van Hoenesbroek.”
“How fortunate we are!” Tommy gave her his best obsequious look.
I let Tommy spin the story about our final exams because I had no idea where he was going with it. Our hostess proved to be a lead-footed driver, and we whizzed through the tule fog of a Sacramento morning. She rolled up the windows and put the air conditioning on high. It was damp and hot in the Sacramento valley. We were very nervous because the fog cut visibility and Marquessa Van Hoenesbroek did not slow down.
“Perhaps we should slow down a bit,” I suggested.
“What? Do you question my driving even as I am generous enough to make you a ride to the coast?”
“It’s not that Miss…uh…Van Honeybrook. It’s just that the fog can cause problems even for good drivers such as yourself.”
“Van Honeybrook, Ha, such a laughter! You are not to worry. I will be safe then.”
So there was no stopping her. She had our lives in her hands. Tommy kept nervously peering at the road ahead. I closed my eyes and tried to think about our time with Jenny. I wanted to will myself out of our current situation.
The Marquessa Van Hoenesbroek finally took her foot off the accelerator at Market Street. We thanked her quickly, and each took a tentative step into the middle of the city.
“My God, we were lucky!” I exclaimed.
Tommy was having trouble speaking. His heart had been between his teeth for the last two hours. He made eye contact with me and just shivered for a minute or two. “If I’m a cat. That ride cost me at least three lives,” he said as we walked towards the water.
Adrenalin had overcome our sense of being hot and cold for the last hour or so, but after a while, walking down Market Street to the Ferry Building, we started to feel very cold. There was a bright sun overhead, but also a cold wind chilling things down. I noticed most of the people around us were wearing thick sweaters or even down filled ski jackets. I pulled my sweater out of my pack, glad I had brought it.
Chapter 11: Dock of the Bay
We got down to the Ferry Building, looked around and kept on moving along the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf. We walked out on the piers, looked at sailboats and fishing trawlers, gawked at the more outrageous spectacles: a guy in a flesh-colored leotard on stilts with a jester’s cap on his head and a boa constrictor wrapped around his shoulders; a heavy young woman with her blouse unbuttoned to her waist, only her guitar for modesty, doing her best Joplin imitation; a group of four little people, dressed in cowboy hats, chaps and spurs, playing “Home on the Range” and “Tumbling Tumble Weeds” on harmonicas; a flock of Hare Krishnas in their pale orange robes, moving in a circle and chanting, “Hare Krishna! Hare Kirshina! Krishna, Krishna! Hare, Hare! Hare Rama, Hare Rama! Rama, Rama! Hare, Hare.”
“Far out!” exclaimed Tom, “Better than Times Square for sure!”
“For sure, man” I agreed.
“So, what’s our next move?” Tommy asked. “I’m getting’ hungry. How ‘bout we eat and talk?”
“Sounds like a plan. There’s a Colonel Sanders one block up and over. I can see it from here.”
So, we deviated from our preferred diet of burgers and fries, and dug into a bucket of Kentucky Friend Chicken. I said, “Izzie’s sister, Leah, is out here. Izzie said to call her and she’d put us up. I got her number, so here goes.” I walked over to a pay phone and dialed. “May I speak to Leah please?”
“Leah?” a girl’s voice asked, “Oh, you mean Ananya. Sure, just a minute, but like, who are you?”
“Izzie’s friend, LJ,” I answered.
“Far out,” she replied. “I’ll get her.”
I heard some fumbling with the phone and then a familiar voice speaking in an unfamiliar code.
“Hello, this is Ananya. May our souls be one. With whom do I communicate?”
“Leah, uh, Anna,” I began.
“Ananya,” she corrected.
“Yes, Ananya, it’s LJ from Brooklyn. You remember me, Izzie’s friend?”
“Of course, you must come to me at once.” And she gave me the address, a place not too far, according to the city map, from Golden Gate Park. We hopped on a bus going down Van Ness, changed at Geary Street, and started walking to the address she’d given me near Sixth and Balboa. I thought we shouldn’t come empty handed. So we stopped at a White Castle and got a dozen of those little burgers and heaps of soggy French Fries. Tommy thought it should be a party, so he bought a six pack of Bud to go along with the food.
I knocked on the door of a two storey wood frame house, painted in repeated linear patterns of soft orange, light yellow and pale blue, but not painted very well. Approaching the front door, a strong scent wafted out towards us. It was incense. I’d smelled a lot of incense, even used some to cover up dope smoke, but the incense coming out of that front parlor was thicker than anything I’d ever inhaled. A young woman opened the door to us. She was dressed in a pale blue sari, and she had a red bindi on her forehead. She welcomed us in the same formal way that Leah, Ananya, had spoken to me over the phone. She said her name was Anusha, and bade us sit down on a heap of large colorful cushions in the parlor where a sofa might ordinarily be in a home. In a minute or so, Ananya came out to greet us.
She clasped her hands in front of her chest, smiled at us and slightly bowed her head, “ I am Ananya. This is a house of Baba Gigi, our master. I serve you to serve him.”
Not knowing how to reply, I held out the hamburgers and fries and Tommy offered the beer.
Ananya looked aghast. “We do not eat the flesh of living things, nor do we consume alcohol. Please leave those abominations at the door.”
I looked at Tommy and he looked at me. We decided to start over. “We’ll be back in a half hour, Ananya, and then I will tell you about our trip and news of your brother, Izzie.” And with that, we walked out onto Balboa Street and Sixth, then two blocks into Golden Gate Park. We sat in a large meadow and ate the burgers and fries, washing them down with three beers each. It was a rush job, and I started burbing immediately afterward, but we weren’t about to throw away food and beer because Izzie’s sister had joined some cult.
Back at the house of Baba Gigi, Ananya set the ground rules. “We live in community, giving praise all our waking hours to our master, Baba Gigi. We are ten women and one man in this house. We do not drink, smoke, use drugs or eat meat. We refrain from sexual intercourse unless instructed otherwise. We have a large prayer room in the back of the house where only those initiated may go, and then only to pray. We pray day and night, every four hours: at midnight, 4 AM, 8AM, noon, 4PM, and 8PM. This is our path to paradise and infinite knowledge. This is the promise of Baba Gigi.
While you are guests here, we ask you to respect our practice and follow our rules.”
I noticed a beat up Martin guitar in a corner under some cushions. “Is music allowed?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, sacred music written by our divine master, Baba Gigi. Otherwise there is no music.”
Tommy was looking at the Martin. “I play a little guitar. Do you think I could borrow that, just outside the house, of course.”
“Why yes, you are welcome to borrow it,” Ananya replied.
“What do you think?” Tommy said, but it wasn’t a question really.
“We should get the hell out of there. It’s too weird.”
“That’s what I was thinkin’. But since we got this Martin, I say we go into the park, find a spot with a lot of tourists, and play a little. What do you say?”
“Fine with me. Maybe we can make back the money we spent on our unwanted welcome package.” I sang. Tommy played guitar, and added the odd bit of harmony. We had a small repertoire, a dozen songs everybody our age knew: “Dock of the Bay,” “Clouds,” “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” and “Girl.” We’d started in our senior year of high school, busking on 4th Avenue back in Brooklyn, but met with little success. By the time we were ready for Manhattan, Washington Square Park and the steps of The Museum of Natural History, we’d learned that the trick was to make eye contact, smile, and talk to passersby, no matter they were nasty or nice.
We picked a spot that was open, but shaded by a large Monterey Pine, in the Bunny Meadow, a popular picnic area. There was quite a bit of foot traffic. People stopped and listened, sometimes sang along when they knew the lyrics. We played for about three hours, spinning out our set very slowly and repeating it on the hour. In this way, we made fifteen dollars, more than double what we had spent.
“This is a cool old Martin, a 00 from before World War II. Too bad it’s going to waste at Bubba Googoo’s place.”
“Now, Tommy. Live and let live. If Ananya hadn’t lent it to us, we wouldn’t have gotten our money back and then some.”
“Yeah, I know. But hell if I’m gonna sleep there tonight, even if there’s a houseful of women wearing very thin clothing. Wonder what Bubba Googoo’s got that I don’t? Maybe I look like him and could order up some sex tonight.”
“Dream on, Tommy. Let’s return the guitar and hit the road. I think I hear LA calling. I know a girl who lives there, and you told me your aunt lives in Glendale.”
“No, no way. I wanna sleep in the park tonight. Half a day only in Frisco? And when am I gonna see it again? After two years in the great white north?”
“Okay. Sleeping in the park it is. It’s still kinda cold though, don’t you think? Maybe the house would be better?” And we went back and forth, house or park, park or house? I finally convinced Tommy that we’d be better off sleeping indoors than in the chilly weather of a San Francisco summer.
Back at the house, Ananya told us to make ourselves comfortable in the front parlor. She said that there were strict rules about the women of the house mixing with men who were not Baba Gigi’s disciples. So there we slept. I never did get to tell Ananya about our trip across country or how her brother was doing. She really wasn’t interested.
I had a hard time falling asleep. The thick scent of the incense clogged my nostrils, which only cleared when I involuntarily took great rip-roaring sneezes that woke Tommy up, time and again. Bleary eyed, Tommy and I rolled up our sleeping bags the next morning. The house was quiet. We didn’t want to go into the next room, so we quietly snuck out the front door. Tommy took a backward glance at the old Martin, and sighed. “If only…”
Chapter 12: You Are Too Beautiful
We had a tough time getting out of Frisco during the morning rush. Seemed like all the cars were coming into the city, and those going out were in too much of a hurry to stop for two hitchhikers. We’d taken the Geary Street bus to the end of the line, not far from the Cliff House on Point Lobos Avenue. We were looking to get to the 280 into the 101 to Santa Cruz, and then work our way to Monterey and Big Sur on Route 1. We had no idea when we’d get where, just a sense of where we wanted to be eventually.
I climbed up on the running board passenger side of a semi, looking at the driver with my best smile and most polite face. He had been napping near the highway entrance, and was just waking. “Whoa! What the fuck is happening, man? It ain’t cool to scare me like that.”
“Sorry,” I said, “My buddy and I are having a hard time finding a ride down south. I thought maybe you’d be heading that way.”
“Happens I am,” he said. He was very tall and had long brown hair past his shoulders. He was wearing work boots, a tie-dyed tee shirt and cut off jeans, not very trucker-like attire. His cab was decorated with album covers of San Francisco groups: The Dead, The Airplane, Quicksilver, Big Brother, Moby Grape, Santana. “Go get your bud and hop in, man.”
Our driver did fit two of the clichés about long distance truckers: he had a CB radio, his handle was “Spaceman.” And that’s how he introduced himself to us. The other conformation to stereotype was the two bottles of reds and two of whites, uppers and downers. He grabbed a handful of reds when Tommy and I boarded the cab. Spaceman roared “Let’s rock’n’roll,” as he pulled up to the on-ramp. He had installed six speakers in the cab, one on each door, two behind him, and two over head. We started south to the sound of “Omaha” from the first Moby Grape album on his eight track. This is how he wasn’t like the trucker stereotype. No country music for the Spaceman, just pure San Francisco rock’n’roll.
Spaceman offered us pills, brownies his “old lady” had baked for the drive south, and a hit from a giant bong he kept in the glove compartment. Tommy and I shared a brownie; we couldn’t have tolerated the noise level of the music nor the racecar driving of the Spaceman otherwise.
The Spacemen left us just north of the connecting route to the Monterey Peninsula. We spent a desultory afternoon, slowly wending our way to Monterey on Route 156 and Route 1, produce truck to produce truck. When we finally got to Monterey around four in the afternoon, we were dirty and exhausted. We found a Motel Six on the edge of town, and paid ten bucks for a room. Tommy showered first while I stretched out on a bed. We realized we needed to wash some clothes, so after our showers, we located a nearby laundromat. There was a sandwich place next to the laundromat, so I bought us two subs with everything on them: salami, ham, turkey, jack cheese, hot peppers, pickles, onions, lettuce, and black olives. I also bought a six pack of Coors, a beer we didn’t see in the East. We brought our clean clothes back to the motel, and each of us took a nap on a twin bed.
I woke around seven o’clock and shook Tommy. “Wake up, man! Let’s see a little of the city.” It took Tommy a half hour to wake up and dress, but we eventually made our way to Canary Row and Fisherman’s Wharf. We found a place called Abalonetti’s that served lots of different beers and seafood prepared just about any way you could think of. Tommy and I started with a dozen oysters. Then he ordered fish and chips while I chose grilled calamari steak. We closed the place, but not before two waitresses sat down and had a couple of beers with us. It was 9:30. They were off at 10:00. They said they’d show us around a bit if we’d wait for them, meet them at the Wharf entrance.
Janie and Becca were local girls, students at Monterey Peninsula College. They shared a small mother-in-law cottage in Pacific Grove. Both girls were putting themselves through school, working forty hours a week at Abalonetti’s while carrying fifteen units a semester at the community college. I admired their determination and independence and told them so. “You two are pretty cool. I didn’t have enough drive to do what you’re doing, so I wound up in the Army. Tommy had a scholarship to Fordham, so he didn’t have to work.”
“Wait a sec, LJ. I worked summers lifeguarding for my junior and senior year of high school and all four years at Fordham.”
“Sorry, I forgot.”
“Well, you’re kinda right anyway. I didn’t have to work for tuition or room and board. Scholarship courtesy of Fordham, and room and board courtesy of Mom and Dad Mc Ghee.”
“What’s New York like?” asked Janie. “What do kids our age do?”
“Depends,” I said, “A lot get jobs in the city, by that I mean Manhattan. We’re from Brooklyn, but we called Manhattan, the city. They work on Wall Street. Put on suit and tie or two-piece business outfits. Start getting worry lines on their foreheads and frown at everything. Others don’t do much. Scrape by, hoping for summer to come quickly so they can spend every day at the beach.”
“You got beaches?” Becca seemed surprised.
“Of course, we do. Even some surfers. It is the East Coast, you know. Not the interior. We’d go to Jones Beach, Manhattan Beach, Coney Island. You name it. The beaches are bigger than the ones I’ve seen out here, but much more city-like. You know you look behind you and see shops or houses, even apartment buildings at Coney Island.
I prefer the more natural beaches out here.”
We were in Janie and Becca’s place. They had furnished it with bean bag chairs, an old wooden crate for a coffee table, French posters on the walls, and a stereo system sitting on a wooden plank book case in which each shelf was held up by red bricks. In the bookcase were Fear of Flying, Slaughterhouse Five, In Cold Blood, Valley of the Dolls,
The Bell Jar, The Feminine Mystique, The Second Sex, The Female Eunuch, The Giving Tree, The Prophet.
“Who reads what?” I asked.
“I read Plath, Friedan, de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer. I’m interested in how the world treats men and women differently. I’m a psych major, and hope to work clinically with women one day.”
That was Janie.
“Heavy!” exclaimed Tommy. “What about you, Beccca?”
“I’m into criminal justice. I want to be a policewoman.”
“Wow! You two already have figured it all out. Good for you! I’m still working on it,” I said. We continued talking long past midnight when we bid the girls goodnight. It almost seemed old fashioned not to be sleeping at their place, but we’d paid for a motel room, and we both wanted to catch up on our sleep after our bad night at the Baba Gigi house in San Francisco. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers. “See you in New York,” I said to Janie. She’d mentioned the possibility of studying in the city after finishing next semester at Monterey Peninsula.
“Great girls!” I said to Tommy.
“Wife material,” he answered. “Not what I’m looking for right now.”
“Oh, come on, Tommy! You’d be happier than a clam if either one of those sweet ladies were sweet on you.”
“That’s true,” he said. “True enough.”
We never did get to see much of Monterey. The girls took us right to their place the night before, and the next morning we got an early ride down Route One. Big Sur was going to be today.
Chapter 13: Oh Beautiful for Giant Trees
I could tell when we were near to the heart of Big Sur. The trees just kept getting larger in girth and taller in height. They were so huge that I had trouble seeing any one of them entirely. In groves, they dominated the landscape and drew the eye to their majesty. These were the redwoods of Big Sur. To Tommy and I, they were wonders of nature. We’d never seen a tree much over the size of the Christmas tree they decorated each year in Rockefeller Plaza. Those were big, sometimes close to one hundred feet tall, but these redwoods, they were in another category altogether. Standing next to one, I felt how insignificant I was against this giant life form, alive for generations and generations, home to birds and other creatures, protector of the life below it. A redwood could have been alive here at the time of Christ’s birth. A redwood can grow taller than any other tree in the world. And I stood right next to one of the oldest and largest living things on this earth. I felt like I had been given a special honor, one that might not come again in my lifetime.
Tommy was a wealth of facts when it came to the culture of Big Sur. He knew it as the place where actors, artists and writers flocked in mid-century. Most famous of these was the writer Henry Miller, but many others had been inspired by its beauty: Orson Welles, Dylan Thomas, Kim Novak, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and importantly for Tommy, one of his heroes, Hunter S. Thompson.
We’d gotten a lift from a food wholesaler who served a few of the restaurants and parks in Big Sur. A second generation Mexican-American, named Juan Valdez, of all possible names, he told us to be sure to get to Nepenthe for a spectacular view of the coastline, and down to Big Sur Beach for its purple sand and archways carved out of rock by the sea. He was right on the money. Both places were incredibly beautiful: the view from Nepenthe to the Pacific southward and Big Sur Beach’s extraordinary carved rock and multicolored sand.
At the beach, we came upon a group of people who were like us, young, carrying backpacks, sunburned, and carefree. There was music, a guitar passed from player to player, and there was dope, joints passed from person to person. There was also a keg of beer sitting in shallow water. What more could we want?
I approached the group. “Mind if we join you?” I asked.
“Sit right down, man. Tell us where you’ve been. That’s been the rule since Jake and Elwood got here. Next one to come tells his story.”
“Or her story,” added a pretty blond in halter top and cutoffs.
“Tommy, it’s your turn,” I said. “Okay if I grab a beer for each of us. It’s been a long mostly dry trip,” I asked no one in particular. This wasn’t quite true of course, but I thought it might be to our credit to say so.
While Tommy told our story, embroidering here and there for effect, I sipped my beer and looked at the gathering. Young people, probably some below eighteen, but most of the guys draft age and most of the girls legal. The predominant skin color was white, deeply tanned white. There were a few black people, no brown people, and one or two who might be Indian red. Clothing for guys and girls was cut off jeans, tie-dyed tee shirts, and sandals. Most of the girls wore no bra. There was the distinct aroma of patchouli oil floating in the air around them. Most of the guys had long hair; some had beards. I felt certain that their politics were anti-establishment, neither Republican nor Democrat. They were anti-war and pro civil rights. Their drug of choice was marijuana, and their drink of choice was beer. They were not religious in the church-on-Sunday sense, but they would probably claim to be spiritually aware, perhaps affected by Indian mysticism made popular by the Beatles in the sixties. They had read Kahlil Gibran, Wendell Berry, the Whole Earth Catalogue, Herman Hesse, and Ken Kesey. They had heard Timothy Leary’s advice given at the 1967 Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park – “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Their city of choice was San Francisco. I felt a kinship with these people.
As the evening wore on, things got a little strange. A group of ten or more formed spontaneously. Someone had the idea of finding a large redwood tree to circle, hug, and thank for being there. Another group formed around drumming. Beer cans, rocks, a bongo drum, tree branches, and body parts began a coordinated cacophony of sound. Some got up to dance to the drumming. Tommy and I held back. He had his eye on the guitar, which was now sitting idle. He asked around for the owner, but nobody claimed it, so he picked it up, tuned it, and started playing “Hey, Joe.” Everyone loved Jimi Hendrix, so the drummers began to drum along and two girls began to sing background harmony. Tommy couldn’t sing, but he recited the words. I jumped in on the second verse. The party had started.
I guess I wasn’t paying attention to my beer because in about a half hour I started to see redwoods walking down to the beach to wade in the water. So I followed them. Then one of them turned to me. “Why are you here, LJ?” The tree kept repeating “Why are you here LJ?” But I couldn’t speak. I could only paint words on the night sky with my forefinger. I wrote “because I love you redwood tree.” Then the tree picked me up with a lower branch and catapulted me up to its canopy. I looked down from three hundred feet in the air. I felt like a condor surveying the earth below. So, I took off from the treetop and began to fly around. Something was following me. It was a surface to air missile.
I was its target. 5,4,3,2,1. Bullseye! I was splattered in rainbow colors all over the night sky. I was happy. I began to laugh. “Merry Christmas!” I bellowed. “Merry Christmas and to all a good night!” Then something shook me. It was Tommy.
“Whoa, man. Where’ve you been?” He was concerned.
“In the sky, in colors. It was far out.”
“I’ll say. First I had to pull you out of the water, and then I had to get you down from that pin oak over there. I guess someone spiked your beer. Lucky they didn’t spike mine too or else you’d still be in the water swimming for Hawaii, I’d say. You’ve been raving for the last three hours. I’m done in. I need to sleep. Best come with me, LJ.”
Tommy walked with me to a spot near the campfire on the beach. He rolled out my sleeping bag. I got in and immediately fell asleep. I hope he did, too.
In the morning, our night before action-filled campsite was as quiet as a graveyard. There were just a few stragglers who hadn’t woken yet. I noticed one couple emerge from a shared sleeping bag. The fire was down to a few embers. I woke Tommy to say we should get going. “Where?” he asked. “What’s the hurry?”
“You’re right, man. There is no hurry. Just habit, I guess.”
“You were out of your mind last night,” Tommy remarked, yawning and stretching his arms wide. “Lucky I was around to keep you from doin’ harm to yourself or anyone else for that matter.”
“Hey, that’s what friends are for, right?”
“Thanks again anyway.”
Two of the campsite stragglers actually had a car, an early sixties Volvo sedan, a long stick shift on the floor. We bummed a ride with them as far as San Luis Obispo. They were students at Cal Poly.
“Thanks guys. Peace.” Tommy flashed the peace sign at the two guys as we get out of the Volvo.
“That was a great car, man. I love those old Volvos with that long metal stick on the floor,” I said.
“Better than Peter O’Toole’s MG convertible in “What’s New Pussycat?”
“Not quite, but close for me.”
Tommy changed the subject. “Whew! I thought I mighta lost you last night. That your first trip?”
“If that’s what it was, I guess so. I’m not sure I’d choose to do it again, but if I got some acid slipped into my beer, for sure I’d like to be on the beach at Big Sur when it happened.”
And we spent the better part of the afternoon sitting near the on-ramp to the 101 South. We finally hitched a ride from a guy driving a truck and pulling an empty horse trailer. “Hop in the back. It might not smell so good just now, but there’s plenty of room.”
Tommy and I bounced around the empty trailer, trying to avoid the horse shit, which hadn’t yet been removed. Our driver was heading for his horse ranch in Santa Ynez. And that’s where we spent the night under the stars on a shady side street of the little downtown area. Before we bunked out, we had a few beers at the Maverick Saloon amidst a crowd of wanna-be cowboys and cowgirls. Hank Williams on the jukebox, so it wasn’t all bad.
Chapter 14: Paradise is Two Woman Volleyball
We eventually made it down highway 154 in a beat up Oldsmobile driven by a seventy-five year old Chumash Indian named Hamlet Romero. He said that his tribe was going to be very rich one day because they had land in Santa Ynez and they were going to build a huge gambling casino complex. Other Indian tribes had done so and were able to pay huge dividends to tribal members. Hamlet said that this would be the Indian’s revenge on the white man. He’d spend all his money at an Indian casino. We believed him. And why not? It only seemed right that the Indians would get at least a little back from what was taken from them by the Spanish and us Americans.
We said thanks and goodbye to Hamlet as he let us off by the Santa Barbara Channel at a beautiful beach. We learned we were at East Beach. The most beautiful thing about the beach was the two woman volleyball matches in progress. Neither Tommy nor I had ever paid much attention to volleyball. It was something to pass the time in gym class on a snowy winter’s day, but not a serious sport. But oh what a difference it was here at East Beach! We thought there were six players on a side in volleyball. Here there were two. Two women dressed in skimpy bikinis. Each one tan and lean. One team member was a tall girl, close to six feet. The other was usually shorter. There were blonds, brunettes, redheads; all in tip top physical shape and all moving almost like in a ballet. We were transfixed. We sat there mesmerized while they played. When the sun was directly overhead, they quit, and we finally moved from our spots on the sand.
“This has to be our lucky day,” I whispered to Tommy, as two of the volleyball players walked over to where we were sitting in the sand. One was tall, about 5’10” with short black hair. She had the epicanthic fold that marks people of Asian descent, yet she had a prominent nose. I figured she must have had a western and an Asian parent, and I was right. “Maggie Nakashima,” she said extending her hand to me. Her grip was strong and her fingers were long. “We saw you staring at us for almost two hours and we want to know what’s going on.”
“Sorry, if we spooked you,” I said shaking Maggie’s hand. “We’re just two boys from New York City. We’ve never seen beach volleyball before and we’ve never seen it played by two woman teams.” And what I didn’t say is that we’d never seen such great bodies on display either. “I’m LJ and this is Tommy. Pleased to meet you.”
Maggie introduced the other young woman. “Rosie Chavez is my teammate,” she said as her partner stepped forward.
“Rosie Chavez?” I exclaimed, “But…”
“But you wouldn’t put my surname together with red hair and freckles. Well, welcome to California. My mom’s Scottish and my dad’s Mexican.”
“And as for me,” added Maggie, “My mom’s Irish and my dad’s Japanese.”
“How’d that happen?” I asked Maggie.
“They met at Manzanar. You’ve heard of it? The place they interned Japanese-Americans during World War II. My mom was the daughter of a camp director. She and my dad were the same age and played together at times. When the last of the Japanese-Americans left in ’45, they thought they’d never see each other again, so they exchanged addresses. They became pen pals, and eventually both of them ended up at UCLA in the fifties. My mom became an elementary school teacher and my dad a high school science teacher. They married right after graduation, much to the disgust of both the McNamaras and the Nakashimas. So here I am.”
“Wow! What a story!” Tommy burst out.
“Welcome to California boys,” said Rosie. ”Should we show them around, Mags?”
“Why not? I’m not busy this afternoon. Okay, guys, do you wanna see the artsy hippie side of this town or the straight arrow part?”
“Hippie part,” we said together.
“Then off to Painted Cave we go. I live there with my old man, Jimbo, and Rosie has a place next door with four other women. My parents still live in the area. They were both frustrated artists until they found likeminded souls at Painted Cave. Then my mom started quilting and my dad started sculpting. “
We drove up highway 154, the one we’d come down with Hamlet Romero. Just a little ways up we turned off for Painted Cave, which was the name of a cave full of Chumash rock paintings. Thus, the name of the community of free spirits and artists that chose to live there. We met Maggie’s mom and dad. They were warm and welcoming people. We hiked up to the cave with Rosie and Maggie. It was worth it. The paintings were like nothing we’d ever seen.
“These images are centuries old. No one is certain what they mean. They were created using charcoal, red ochre and powdered seashells. Possibly by Chumash shamans.
Aren’t they far out?” This was Rosie. “I am part Chumash on my dad’s side, by the way. Someday we’re gonna be rich, I’ve heard him say.”
“Yeah, that’s what this old Indian who gave us a ride down from Santa Ynez said, too. I hope it’s true,” I said.
Maggie and Rosie were as kind as they were beautiful. Maggie’s mom and dad prepared a lunch for us of fresh caught abalone, home grown greens, and new potatoes. It was the most delicious food we’d had since our trip started.
I needed to say how much I appreciated this afternoon with Maggie, Rosy and the Nakashimas. “I can’t thank you enough for your hospitality, Mr. and Mrs. Nakashima. You, your daughter and Rosie are wonderful people. We’re just two guys from New York City. I don’t know why we deserved such hospitality, but thank you again.”
“Our pleasure,” Maggie’s mom replied. “When you talk about your trip and your stop in Santa Barbara, remember us.”
“Oh, we will. I am certain of that,” answered Tommy.
Tommy and I shouldered our backpacks once again, and said goodbye to the girls outside Maggie’s home. “We never did meet, Jimbo,” I said to Maggie.
“He’s out on his boat. That’s how we get abalone for dinner.” And with that she gave us each a hug, and bid us farewell. Rosie waved to us as we walked towards 154.
“I will never forget this, Tommy,” I said. “I can’t believe: one, how beautiful those girls are, and two, how genuinely nice they are, not to mention the Nakashimas. Maybe there’s something in the air here. This would have never happened back home.”
“Yeah, can you see my mother welcoming two random dudes into our apartment? Never happen.”
“Never. I might be back here one day if I can find another Maggie or Rosie.”
“Amen,” said Tommy.
We caught a ride after walking to the start of 154 on Calle Real in Santa Barbara. We got a hitch from a fisherman in a pickup truck loaded with iced coolers of abalone. We had met Jimbo, Maggie’s boyfriend.
“Thought I’d catch you. You just missed me. I went back home to drop off some abalone and Maggie told me about you two, said you’d just left. I figured I’d run into you around here. Hop in. We’re goin’ to LA to deliver this fresh abalone to a few restaurants down there. It’ll take us an hour and a half, depending on traffic. You two have a destination in mind?”
“Got an aunt works for Disney. Lives in Glendale,” said Tommy.
“Close enough then,” said Jimbo.
During the time we spent with Jimbo, he kept repeating how lucky he was to have Maggie, how she’d straightened out his life, and made a man of him, how she was beautiful and kind. I couldn’t disagree, but I could be jealous. Jimbo was a good match for Maggie. He was over six feet of suntanned muscle, blond hair and beard, and a degree in philosophy from Berkeley. He was no empty-headed beach boy. That was clear.
“I took a lot of acid at Berkeley and it screwed up my head. You know how some people see God on acid? I didn’t. It nearly paralyzed me mentally until I met Maggie one lucky day at East Beach. Now I feel like a man, not a boy, a man. And that’s all because of her.”
Tommy broke up the serious litany of praise. “Geez, I forgot to ask if she had a sister!” he said with a big grin on his face.
Chapter 15: Family and Friends
Tommy’s Aunt Clarice was a bottle blond with a very strong need to control everything in her life: her diet, her looks, her home, and most of all, her husband, Algonquin Menendez-Hardy or AM for short. AM was a live-and-let-live sort of guy who asked for little in life: a TV turned to the Dodgers, a bottle of beer, and maybe, some nachos on a Sunday afternoon. He worked at the LA Farmer’s Market selling fruit and vegetables. He had a very pleasant personality – he was a genuinely nice man – so he did quite well selling fruit, and maybe something a bit spicier, to LA housewives. He worked afternoons and evenings from Tuesday through Saturday. Tommy felt he’d’ve worked Sundays too just to stay out of the house if his employer would let him. He hated to be henpecked by Clarice, but he did love her, so he took it.
It was “AM, the back door is sticking again. Didn’t I tell you to fix it last week? Why didn’t you? And there are loose tiles on the bathroom wall. They need to be replaced or reglued. You’d better find out which. And your sister wants us over for dinner next Sunday. It’s your nephew’s birthday. So, you’d better go out and buy yourself a decent shirt, and have that suit of yours pressed while you’re at it. And remember when I told you we need a little more money coming in? Did you think I said it just to hear myself talk? When is that boss of yours gonna give you a raise? It’s bad enough that a grown man like you makes less than his wife.” Aunt Clarice worked for Walt Disney Enterprises, and she was very proud of the fact that she had met Mr. Disney, as she called him, and was in an office only five doors down from his. She did make fifty dollars more a month than AM, but he brought home loads of fresh fruit and vegetables for free.
We arrived on a Sunday. Aunt Clarice was playing canasta at the Baptist Wives Social Club at the First Baptist Church of Glendale on North Louise. Aunt Clarice wasn’t even baptized as far as Tommy knew, but she chose the church for its prestige and its short distance from her home. AM was nominally Catholic, but he said he stopped attending mass when he was a teenager. That’s when he found Father Lopez playing with himself in the rectory bathroom before mass. So, fortunately for AM, his Sundays were mostly his own. Tommy had never met AM. Clarice married late, after she left Brooklyn for a new life in California. She ran into AM her second day in LA at the unemployment office.. He’d been let go, “made redundant” was the phrase in use. She proposed to collect unemployment because she had left her job in Brooklyn. Neither qualified for unemployment they found, but they did find one another. They’d been married fifteen years to date and had no children. Nevertheless AM welcomed us with a sunny smile.
“C’mon in. C’mon in. Clarice said you’d be by. I’ve got a few cold ones in the frig and the Dodgers on the tube. Downing’s working on a shutout of Cinci.”
And just like that he redeposited himself in a giant Barcalounger, his beer on a snack tray by his right arm. Nachos near the beer. Tommy and I sat on either side of him and watched the ballgame. We hadn’t been in front of a TV for weeks. It felt like a new invention to us. Within an hour and two cold beers each, we were falling asleep. AM was peacefully snoring a lead while we two provided accompaniment. That’s how Aunt Clarice found us.
“I cannot believe it. I give the man a simple task, welcome my nephew and his friend, and what does he do? Gets himself and them drunk, passed out on my living room floor. Wake up!” she shouted. “Wake up, the three of you. And on a Sunday of all days!”
Lazily Tommy managed, “Hello, Aunt Clarice. It’s been a long time.” Then he made as if to hug her.
“No, Tommy, not now. I just reapplied my lipstick and had my hair done yesterday,” she said as she pushed him away. “Have you eaten? I have a few wonderful Weight Watcher’s vegetable stroganoff dinners that I’ll pop in the microwave.
We’ll eat outside on the patio. I set the table myself before I left the house. Can’t trust that man, you know,” she said, pointing to AM, who smiled benignly at her, at us, at the world.
Of all the people we had met and the places we’d bunked down for the night, that one night with Aunt Clarice was by far the most uncomfortable for both of us. She asked us to spread our sleeping bags on her cement patio so as not to track dirt into the house.
Tommy and I managed little sleep that night. When we got up at seven on Monday morning, the first thing we discussed was leaving. Aunt Clarice left the house at 6:45 to catch the right sequence of busses to get her to work by 8:00. AM was off Mondays, so he was still sleeping. That meant we could conveniently leave a note to them both. Tommy did so. We were out the door with our backpacks by 7:30. We sat down with coffee and Danish on a park bench opposite the deli where we bought our simple breakfast.
“And the next move is?” asked Tommy.
“To call Pretty Baby Thomas. She was my CO’s daughter back in Seoul. She was a senior in high school then. I kinda kept in touch with her. She’s taking classes at LA City College. We were together a bit in Korea. Thank God, her father never found out.
She was under age then, but we went all over Seoul to restaurants and beer halls. No one ever asked her for ID. Koreans have trouble telling the age of blond westerners, so Pretty Baby was never questioned. And the same was true for hotels,” I said, letting Tommy know a bit more about my relationship to Pretty Baby.
“So, does she have a friend or is this going to be some sort of awkward triangle?”
“Pretty Baby could always find a friend,” I answered. “You can bank on it.”
I called Pretty Baby, real name Althea, and got her on the first ring. She didn’t recognize my voice, but then I said “yobosayo,” hello in Korean, and immediately she got it. “LJ. You naughty man. Where are you?”
“Less than twenty minutes from wherever you are, I’ll bet,” I answered.
I explained our situation. Two things followed very quickly. Pretty Baby wanted us to go on a road trip to Mexico and she knew just the girl to partner Tommy, her friend, Roxy.
“Okay, Pretty Baby. When do we leave?”
“Why as soon as you get here. I’ve always got an overnight bag packed you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
We walked down towards Route 2. Pretty Baby lived close to LA City on Vermont. From Aunt Clarice’s house it would’ve been only about fifteen minutes by car. It took us the better part of two hours to get to her place on foot.
I knocked on the door of a typical garden apartment. Pretty Baby, in bra and panties, opened it and rushed into my arms. “I knew it’d be you,” she offered by way of explanation for her skimpy attire. That didn’t stop her from detaching herself from my arms and hugging Tommy as well. Pretty Baby had a lot to give, and wanted to give something to everybody. “You must be Tommy. Welcome darlin’.”
“Come on in, y’all. Roxy’s on her way.” Pretty Baby affected a southern belle accent. Her dad, who was from New Hampshire, had a brief tour in Georgia. This allowed Pretty Baby to speak in a southern drawl of sorts. I thought it wasn’t so much that she liked the sound of the drawl as that she thought it was irresistible to men.
Roxy, a very sexy but petite five foot two brunette arrived breathless in a bikini top and short shorts, topped by a long-sleeve men’s white shirt.
“My ex’s,” she said to Pretty Baby before she could ask about it. “Well, hello there. Which one’s mine? I mean who’s Tommy.”
And that was the start of a truly remarkable trip south of the border.
Chapter 16: La Locura
The four of us piled into Pretty Baby’s reconditioned ‘59 VW Bug: four on the floor, push buttons for the radio, white wall tires, running boards on either side, large ivory- colored steering wheel, body repainted baby blue. Her daddy had the used car salesman, another Army vet who’d served under the colonel, drive it to her door as a birthday present. Daddy’d picked it out for her: he knew her taste. And she was in love with that Bug.
“How’s the colonel, by the way?” I asked Pretty Baby.
“Bucking for a command and a star,” she said. “And he’ll get it.”
“How’s your mother?”
“Fine, as long as there’s gin in summer and scotch in winter.”
“Next time you write to them, tell them hello from me.”
“Oh, right. I’m sure they want to remember the GI who slept with their little girl before her eighteenth birthday.”
“I thought you were eighteen.”
I changed the conversation. I didn’t want to start out getting Pretty Baby angry. “So, Roxy. What do you do in LA?”
“I’m a mass comm student at LA City. That’s where PB snd I met. On weekends, I tend bar on the Strip. I make enough for the rest of the week. Meet a lot of interesting people.”
“She means hot guys,” Pretty Baby interjected.
“PB? I like that. Hey Peanut Butter, how about some tunes. Any good stations in LA?” This was Tommy trying to get into the conversational flow.
“There’s no FM on my Bug, so AM’ll have to do.”
Pretty Baby, known and called PB here on in because it was quick and cool, turned on Charlie Tuna on KHJ.
“That was Al Greene with ‘Tired of Being Alone’ and now here’s Janice with
‘Me and Bobby Mc Ghee.”
“I like her version a lot,” I said, “but I think I like Kris Kristofferson’s better.”
“Maybe you can change it to ‘Me and Tommy Mc Ghee,” came Tommy’s laughing voice, “and send it in to a radio station.”
“Yeah right, Tommy. My voice and your guitar and poof, we’re stars.”
“Could happen, LJ”
“Yeah, right, could happen, Tommy.”
Roxy got excited. “Wow! You sing (pointing to me), and you play guitar, (pointing to Tommy). We’re gonna have some fun down in Mexico.”
The drive across the border was uneventful and we pulled into Tijuana around two o’clock in the afternoon. We saw a little place with sign that said, “Comida Americana,” so PB parked the Bug outside and we walked in.
“Quatro hamburguesas y quatro cervesas,” I began in my best Spanish.
“Whoa, ain’t you the linguist!” said the dark haired guy behind the counter.
“That’s about the extent of my Spanish, numbers and food,” I said.
“It’s cool, man. I go to school across the border in San Diego. Come down here to help out my folks when I can. They’re paying for my education. I’m their Gringo son, born in ‘el Norte’ twenty years ago, at Scripps Mercy. Al Diaz,” he said extending his hand.
“LJ, Tommy, PB and Roxy,” I identified us all by first name only.
“PB? Is that short for peanut butter?” Al joked.
“Pretty Baby,” she said giving him a good look at why she had that nickname.
“Yessiree Bob! You sure are pretty! So, do you really want burgers and beer or can I turn you on to some good Mexican food?”
“I’m good with that, but I think we do want the beer.”
“Okay, LJ. But first a welcome shot of tequila for everybody.”
Al took a tiny spoonful of salt and sprinkled it on the mound between his left index finger and thumb folded into a fist. Next, he downed a shot of tequila, then, quickly bit into half a lime and sucked out some juice. “Got it?”
And we did. We each had about five rounds before Al said, “Now, you’re good and welcomed and ready to eat. Here’s the meal: carne asada tacos with my special marinade, rice, refried beans, and a little salad if you want it. Sound good?”
We were hungry and we kept eating until we asked Al to stop bringing the food and beer. By this time, the girls were loopy and Tommy and I were feeling good.
“All this for just five bucks each,” said Al. “The tequila was on me.”
“So, Al,” I began, “where’s a good place to go for some fun.”
Al looked a little nervous, “You guys are young. The girls are foxy. You gotta watch out for yourself down here. Wherever you go, I suggest one of you guys go in first to check it out. Then if it doesn’t seem like a place full of bandidos and cabrones, maybe go in. But be careful. I can’t tell you how many have gotten their wallets stolen, their asses kicked, and their dates fucked over. Be careful. And don’t go into La Locura.”
The four of us walked out of Comida Americana: the girls were oblivious to time and place. They were both smashed. Tommy and I guided them around, and tried to get them to lower their voices lest the stream of spoken English attract the wrong person to our little group. PB broke away from my grasp of her elbow and aimed her unsteady body at the first bright lights she saw on the opposite side of the street. I followed her inside the cantina. The place was crowded with unsavory characters. This wasn’t spring break in Miami. That was for sure. Most of the males were men, not boys. They looked as if they’d come straight out of central casting for Mexican bandido. They were men who lived hard lives: swarthy, moustachioed men, with piercing eyes that projected a combination of aggression towards me and lust towards PB. Roxy and Tommy followed us in, and the four of us sort of stood frozen just inside the swinging doors. I made as if to turn and leave, when a huge man dressed in black jeans and black cowboy shirt, a huge silver belt buckle around his waist, and a full beard covering his face stopped us. “Hey, gringos, where you goin’? Dis eeza nais plais. Come on. I buy you a drink.” As he said this, he positioned himself so as to block our exit. “Seet down. Seet down. Mai fren’.”
Now I knew we were in a bad situation. For one, the girls were drunk, and PB, when she got drunk, got flirtier and wilder. She’d do just about anything. Roxy tended to follow her lead. The large man introduced himself as Jose Vargas. He said he was in the transportation business between Tijuana and San Diego. Closer up, Jose Vargas was truly physically intimidating, and his manner was insinuating, touching the girls every time he spoke to them, and challenging Tommy and I to top his tales of bar fights.
“Een dis bar, I kill a man,” Jose began. “I ha’ no choice. He challenge me. I no back from any man, you unnerstan’? Dey put me in jail for two week. Now no one challenge me. Dis ees my bar, see? Say yes, Don Jose.”
“Yes, Don Jose,” I said for all of us.
“An you? Wha’ bou’ you?” he turned to me.
I guessed that Don Jose had been drinking quite a bit before we became his entertainment for the evening. I came up with the biggest whopper I could. “I once beat three men in a bar fight, using only my right thumb,” I said. I’d read this in a spy novel, the hero taking on a bar full of hulking bikers, and beating them using only his thumb.
“Wha’ you thum’?”
So, I showed him my thumb. He considered it for a minute, then said, “Hokay,
Le’s figh’ you and me now. I win I ge’ dis girl,” he said, pointing to PB. It was noisy in the cantina between the loud Mexican music and the drunken patrons, so PB understood nothing of the conversation we were having. She just gave us both a sexy smile.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Don Jose. You see my thumb is registered as a lethal weapon in the U.S. and I could be arrested for using it in a fight, just like you’d get arrested for using a gun in a knife fight. Comprendes amigo?” I was going good now, high as I was.
“Fack you, you mentiroso,” he said, and he swung and clipped my jaw. I went down like a sack of potatoes. Then he grabbed PB around the waist and tried to kiss her. She made as if she were going to let him, but when he closed his eyes and puckered up, she bit him on the lower lip as hard as she could. Don Jose yowled and jumped away from her. He put his hand over his mouth, but the blood poured over his fingers, down his wrist and onto the floor. Tommy picked me up. PB pushed Roxy towards the door. We got out of there before Don Jose could make another move. Tommy was in the best shape, so he took the car keys from PB and we got into the Bug as quickly as we could. Don Jose came roaring out of the cantina, got a hand on the rear bumper and just about stopped the Bug from moving. However, a cloud of exhaust fume enveloped his face and he started coughing. This caused him to release his grip. Tommy floored the Bug and we were off.
“Holy shit, LJ! What were you thinkin’?” he asked.
“Not thinkin’ with the big head; thinkin’ with the little head,” I replied.
Roxy, starting to unfreeze from the fright in the cantina, said, “You know I saw the name of that place on a bar napkin. It said La L-something.”
“La Locura?” I suggested.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“La Locura, The Madness. That’s the place Al told us to avoid.”
“Good thing we did, hunh?” Tommy said.
“Hey, sorry to all of you,” I apologized.
“LJ, you were protecting my honor. That man was trying to paw me to pieces.”
“No PB. You saved us from that badass. You ever done that before, bit a guy so hard on the lip he bled?”
“Mm hmm. I have.” She giggled until she hiccoughed. Then she rolled down the window and barfed into the dust of a Mexican night.
Chapter 17: Lullaby of the Waves
Tommy spotted a beach on our drive south along the coast. We were coming down from the tequila and beer. The girls were feeling queasy and didn’t want to ride in the Bug much further, so we pulled off the road, and parked the Bug under a large shady tree. The air was warm. There was a mild breeze coming off the water. The sun was slowly submerging into the Pacific. When we got out of the Bug, the four of us sat on a small sand dune and gazed towards the water.
No one said a word.
Finally, PB got up, grabbed Roxy’s hand and sprinted for the surf. There were rollers slowly cresting about twenty feet out before they dissolved into a gentle surf. In a second, both girls were naked and diving into the foam. Tommy and I followed suit. It was glorious to be in warm water with the day’s sun painting pastel patterns of pink, blue, crimson, and yellow across the sky. The four of us went to meet the waves as they crested. We let them nudge us towards the shore. After about a quarter of an hour, as if by a pre-arranged signal, we walked out of the water and stood naked on the beach. I looked at PB and reminded myself how truly beautiful and how truly young she was. Her body was what one might imagine in conjuring up the perfect female shape: high cheek bones, and full lips, a swanlike neck, firm and full breasts, a long flat trunk, strong muscular buttocks, and long legs. I felt intoxicated. Then when she smiled at me, I melted. I had to hide my nakedness because I was becoming erect. I had no idea whether Tommy and Roxy were there. My world was totally one person, one body, PB.
PB saw me looking at her. I know she wanted me to look, and that was generous of her because it wasn’t the look of lust that she was after; it was the look of appreciation as if one were regarding a masterpiece on canvas. Only this masterpiece was a woman. She even turned around slowly so I could see her from all sides. Finally, she walked over to me and said, “LJ, I know you don’t love me or anything like that, but you know I know you appreciate me in a way that other boys never have. You see me as I am, and not just a bimbo to get into the sack. So for that, thank you.” And she kissed me softly on the cheek while chastely keeping a distance between our two bodies. If she hadn’t, I don’t think I could have restrained myself.
That night was memorable for Tommy and me. Not because we slept with two beautiful girls. We didn’t. It was because we were totally okay with each other. We didn’t need to play games, to flirt, to posture. The four of us were just our natural selves with no social ornamentation, no feeling of what was right or wrong at that moment.
We four were minutes away from sleep as we lay down on our sleeping bags. Neither PB nor Roxy had thought to bring one, however. I guess they assumed we’d be in a motel of some sort. So Tommy and I had spread our sleeping bags over the sand, and given each girl the heaviest shirt or sweater we had in our backpacks. Then the four of us huddled together for warmth as the dark descended and the temperature dropped.
I woke up just before dawn, and lay on the sleeping bag watching the sun rise in the east. PB opened her eyes and reached down with her hand to find mine. “LJ,” she said, “What’s going on?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean with us, with this world we live in, with all the craziness around us. I just don’t understand. I know you know I’m more than just a good time girl. Remember, we used to talk in those Seoul hotel rooms. I felt close to you then. When you finished your tour, I was devastated. I never told you. I never wrote to you. But I was. I felt we had something different.”
Her words touched me, and I wrapped her in my arms. “I do remember and I did feel close to you as well, but, well, we were both so young. We still are. But then we were still teenagers. Heck you’re just nineteen now!”
“But I’m legal now,” she said with a wink.
“Yes, you are legal and you can make your own decisions about your life. And I know how hard that is because I’m trying to do the same. I have no idea where my life will lead me. It seems I try out a different path in my mind nearly every day, and they all seem plausible, seem like something I could do, but…”
“But you’re really not sure.”
“No, I’m not.”
“I think you can be anything you want to be. You’re that talented.”
“Well, thanks for the encouragement, but I don’t see myself as such hot stuff. If
you give me something to do, I can do it well. If you test me, I can get good results, so I all the time get this word “potential.” ‘You got potential boy.’ But what is that I have actually done? Close to nothing. Hey, I don’t want to bring you down. It’s just that I’m pretty much in the same place you are, only I’m a guy and I’m expected to do something in the world while mostly what people expect of a pretty girl like you is to marry well and start a family.”
“God, that’s the last thing I want to do right now, before I’ve even had a chance to know what I can be in this life.”
“See how much we are in the same place?”
“Yeah, but you don’t have the pretty girl expectation. I’m pretty so I can attract a husband who makes money. Excuse my French, but fuck that LJ!”
“I get it. I get it, Althea.”
“Althea? You used my given name. I haven’t heard that from anyone in a long time. And you know, I think I like it.”
“I just couldn’t call you Pretty Baby when we’re having this kind of conversation.”
“And Althea is who I am. Althea might be pretty, but she’s more than that.”
“Yes, she is. A lot more.”
She hugged me, and that was the end of Pretty Baby and of PB.
“Tommy!” I shouted, breaking the morning calm, but he was nowhere to be seen.
Althea and I walked down to the beach. There we saw Tommy and Roxy cavorting in the waves.
“Come on in. It’s time to get a move on. Besides Althea and I are hungry.”
“Who?” they said in unison.
“You know, Althea.” And with that Althea smiled and took a bow. Then she picked up a piece of driftwood. Pretended to write Pretty Baby on it with her finger, spelling it out as she did so, but not actually making a mark on the driftwood.
“Pretty Baby is history,” Althea said, as she hurled the driftwood into the waves.
“Let’s get some breakfast!”
There was a toilet and a fountain nearby, so Althea and Roxy went off to use them. I had a chance to talk to Tommy then.
“How you doin’ man?”
“Yeah, okay, I guess. But you know every once in a while I get this feeling like something’s wrong.”
“I don’t know. Something.”
“Like how did three of our best die so young: Janis, Jimi, Jim? What’s with that? What’s with this fuckin’ war that doesn’t seem to end? How did we elect such a cockroach as Nixon? Why are our parents and their generation so down on us? Geez, I don’t know. Sometimes I feel real blue.”
“Yeah, I understand. It’s a lot to think about, and most of it is shit, I’ll grant you, but we gotta keep keepin’ on ‘cause pretty soon what the world becomes will be on us, you and me, Althea and Roxy.”
“Althea, I think I like that name. Isn’t it a Dead song?”
“Roxy ain’t, but she’s sure a gas. I like her.”
“Great, so the beat goes on. Off to breakfast and Ensenada.”
And off we went. The Bug was the best of traveling companions, always there for us when we needed it.
Chapter 18: Talk to Me of Ensenada
Our mouths were sandpaper and our throats were sand. We were thirsty, even a little cranky without a cup of coffee or even a swig of cold water. We scanned the horizon on our way down to Ensenada for any place that looked like it might have food and drink. We came across a couple little shacks at La Salina on Route One near a wharf. There were fishing boats in the harbor, and the first real sign of activity we’d seen since we left Tijuana.
I parked the Bug near the entrance to a place called El Pescador. We could smell fish on a grill, and even though we wanted breakfast, there wasn’t one of us whose mouth wasn’t watering. The proprietor greeted us with a smile and a “Buenos Dias, Senores. ?En que modo puedo servir Ustedes?”
I got the gist of his question and answered, “El desayuno.”
“Bueno. Quieren café, huevos revueltos y pan tostada?”
“Que son huevos revueltos?” I asked.
He made a chicken noise, and mimed laying an egg. Then he did it again, mimed cracking the eggs, and scrambling them. At that, Althea started to giggle and then we all burst into laughter, including the proprietor.
Between giggles, I said, “Si, si.”
“Y pan tostada?”
“That’s toast,” said Roxy. “I know a bit of Spanish.”
“Why didn’t you say so instead of letting me struggle and make a fool out of myself?”
“What fun would that have been?” she laughed.
I couldn’t be mad at her. “Well, you’re our translator from here on, Roxy.”
“A sus ordenes,” she answered.
So we got our breakfast, and believe me, no breakfast ever tasted as good. The coffee was strong, the eggs were cooked perfectly and the toast came with butter. We also drank about a quart of water each. After the second time of filling our glasses, Don Cisco, the proprietor, left a large pitcher of cold water on our table.
After the meal, we walked out on the wharf and looked at the scene: small fishing boats coming and going. Their catch seemed undifferentiated: a few large fish, lots of smaller ones, the names of which I had no idea. They were selling them right off the boat on the wharf. Local women with baskets on their heads, laden with fish after buying or empty before doing so, went to and fro. It seemed idyllic to me. People using nature’s bounty to serve their community, a basic sort of exchange. I noticed that no money changed hands. I asked Roxy to ask one of the women with a basket full of fish on her head why she didn’t pay the fisherman. The woman told Roxy that each fisherman knew his customers, and the fisherman and customer agreed on price. They settled up at the end of the week. I thought this was a pretty great system. I thought this is how capitalism should work, a basic exchange between community members, not a disembodied corporation creating ‘product’ for consumption by nameless masses.
Bellies full and minds content, we headed for Ensenada, another hour and a half down Route One. Tommy drove this time. Althea rode shotgun, and Roxy was in the back with me.
“Why didn’t you tell us from the start that you spoke Spanish?” I asked her.
“I don’t know. I guess I wanted to see how you’d handle things. Besides, down here, it’s a lot easier for a man to get what he wants than it is for a woman.”
“So, give. How is it you know the language?”
“No big secret. My mom’s Mexican from Jalisco. My dad met her when he went down to visit his cousin who was in medical school in Guadalajara. She was a university student studying comparative literature.”
“Did she speak to you in Spanish when you were a kid?”
“Yes, until I got to school. Then both mom and dad used English. They said it was the way to get ahead in California. So my Spanish is what you might call Kitchen Spanish. I am good talking about things in the home and the family. Not so good with politics, economics and big stuff like that.”
“Well whatever you wanna call it, it’s a helluva lot better than my one word at a time attempts at the language.”
“You’ve done okay so far.”
“Yeah, real good at that bar in Tijuana.”
“That was PB’s, I mean Althea’s mistake. Not yours.”
“And thank God she made good for it. I bet big nasty Jose has one tender and torn lower lip.” And we both chuckled at that, glad to be many miles away from Jose Vargas and La Locura, closer to Ensenada than to Tijuana.
Ensenada was different from every other place we’d been in Baja California. You could see that it was growing and that a lot of that growth had to do with two things: one, its incredible natural harbor, and two, its appeal to North Americans as a safe place to stay in Baja, unlike Tijuana. In fact you could say that Tijuana helped Ensenada grow because of the former’s reputation for vice, drugs, danger and illegal activities. While Tijuana attracted short stay college kids with a yen for something on the wild side, Ensenada was interested in the longer term tourist who might spend more than just beer and motel money.
We got into town around eleven o’clock, still full from breakfast. Not wanting to stop, we kept driving and went through Ensenada. Around one o’clock we found ourselves at Puerto Santo Tomas, and headed down towards the water. We met a local fisherman checking his nets by the shore. Roxy talked to him and he said he’d take us out on his boat to fish for lunch. The cost was just ten U.S. dollars, including the fish we’d catch. We went no more than a hundred yards off shore and he put the anchor down near a kelp patch. In a half hour, we had caught a half dozen rock fish. Returning to shore with our catch, we sat on the sand and gazed into the blue blue water while our fisherman guide, Don Luis Santos, pan fried rock fish fillets for us. His wife and son brought us tortillas, refried beans and cold beer.
The family lived nearby. Through Roxy, we learned that Don Luis sold his catch in Ensenada most days. He brought his son to school there Monday through Saturday. Otherwise, the little family of three lived just off the beach in a three room house Don Luis had built himself. They had water from a nearby spring, and they used an outhouse.
They didn’t have a lot, but they seemed happier than most families I’d known back home.
We said goodbye to Don Luis, his wife and son. It was three o’clock and time to head back to Ensenada and find a place to stay for the night. Just on the outskirts of the town, we found El Gringo Loco Motel. “Doesn’t that mean crazy gringo?” I asked Roxy.
“Sure, does,” she answered.
Tommy said, “What the hell! Let’s see what this place is about.”
We opened the door to the motel office, and all of a sudden, an air horn blasted out the opening melody of El Rancho Grande. Thankfully it stopped when the proprietor met us at the front desk.
“What can I do you four for?’ he asked, smiling. He was about six feet six I guessed, had a long white beard, no hair on his head, dungaree overalls on, and no shirt or footwear. “Welcome to the Gringo Loco. I am he.”
Joseph Schultz was a retired Spanish teacher from Ventura who decided to change his life one day after one of his best students asked him, “Will Spanish help me make more money?” Schultz figured that was pretty representative of the thinking at the posh private high school where he worked. He sold everything he had, and headed for Baja California in a ‘57 Chevy convertible, which was parked not ten feet away from our Bug, outside his motel. He let his hair grow long, married a local woman, and bought a motel.
Its name was “Hotel Superior,” but everyone called it the hotel of the crazy gringo; thus, the name changed. Schultz found that he attracted more paying American customers that way. I guess he wasn’t so crazy after all.
“One room or two?” asked Schultz. I looked at Althea.
“Two,” I said. We got our backpacks and overnight bags from the Bug, and put them in our motel rooms, which were next to one another. “See you guys in twenty?” I asked Tommy and Roxy.
“Yeah, Okay,” came Tommy’s reply.
El Gringo Loco told us if we wanted a taste of a real Mexican style night life that we should go to Hussong’s Cantina in town. It had been there since 1892. It had a huge bar, drawings, paintings, mounted deer heads, and all manner of decorative items on its walls and tables. There was music all the time, mostly ranchera music that any Mexican could sing along to, songs like Cielito Lindo. Mariachis came and went. There was a house band most nights. There were travelling musicians putting on impromptu shows. There were demonstrations of vaquero skills like lassoing and roping. It was, said Schultz, “a happening.” Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Steve Mc Queen and Marilynn Monroe had all had a drink at Hussong’s.
When we walked in, we could tell immediately that the place had a good vibe. There were maybe one or two Jose Vargases in the place. Most of the guests looked like what passed for Mexican bourgeoisie in Ensenada. I didn’t see a gun or a knife. I didn’t see a scowl or a frown. Everyone seemed happy. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the atmosphere, the music, and the drinks. We looked around, asked for a menu, were told they didn’t serve food, and were given some recommendations. Before we left for dinner, we had a couple of quick tequilas.
We were in the mood for some local food. We found a place that boasted of the best enchiladas in town, and that’s what we had, enchiladas verdes and enchiladas rojas, along with two pitchers of beers, basketfuls of taco chips, and a large bowl of pico de gallo. Satisfied we walked across Avenida Ruiz into Hussong’s, where we spent the rest of the evening drinking margaritas. Things were going well. We felt comfortable in Ensenada. The food was good. The cantina was lively and friendly. By evening’s end, I was the least drunk of the four of us, so I took the keys from Althea and very slowly, ‘cause I knew I was drunk, drove us back to El Gringo Loco Motel.
It was pitch black when we got back. Not a light was on inside or outside the motel. Roxy tripped over her own foot getting out of the car. She put her hand down to stop her fall and wound up bending her left wrist nearly back to the top of her forearm.
She screamed in pain. Then she giggled. Tommy brought her to their room.
It took me ten minutes to find our room key, put it in the lock and open the door. Althea was wobbly, but made it as far as the double bed on which she collapsed. I flopped down beside her. I embraced her. She snuggled very close to me. I could feel her heart beat. Then she fell asleep. Just like that. I got up, took a shower, got back into bed, but not before taking her sandals off and tucking a blanket over her.
In the morning, I heard the Gringo whistling the Sound of Music near our room. I opened the door. He saw me and said one word, “Coffee?”
Within the hour the four of us had showered, packed, and were sitting in the motel office with Schultz and his wife and three little girls, eating huevos rancheros and pouring down steaming cups of black coffee.
“Nos vemos,” said Schultz, and the three little girls waved as we pulled out of the motel lot and headed for Highway One and our trip back to California.
Chapter 19: Adios Muchachos
A drive home from a road trip you know you’ll never forget, never duplicate,
never experience again in your life is a quiet churchlike occasion in its essence. Everyone is quiet in the car, lost in his or her own thoughts, recreating incidents, conversations, sunsets, emotions, rolling them back and forth in the mind to prospect for hidden meaning, deeper significance. And so it was with we four. I kept thinking of the vision I had of Althea at La Salina Beach and the conversation I had with her after that, when she became a woman and a partner in a life experience, not just a party girl who guaranteed a guy a good time. I doubted that we would be life partners, but I knew, from that point on at the beach, that we would be connected in a meaningful way.
Tommy was the only one who kept the conversation going through the border checkpoint on to LA. He was starting to get apprehensive about life in Fairbanks after spending weeks under warm suns.
“I wonder what people do there for fun,” he said, thinking out loud.
“Where?” I asked.
“Oh, so you’re already one step into the future, hunh? I’m sure people there are like people anywhere. What is there? Adventure, sports, games, drinking, music, chasing the opposite sex around a dance floor.”
“I don’t know. Aren’t there Indians in Alaska as well? Aleuts? Tlingits?”
“Yeah, you’re right. We’re supposed to get some training in the major indigenous cultures of Alaska.”
“Sounds interesting,” said Roxy. “I wonder if the Indians up in the frozen north have any connection to the Indians you see in the South West and Mexico.”
“I met a professor of Korean history when I was stationed in Korea. His thesis was that there was early migration by Asian peoples across the Bering Strait, which was land in prehistoric times. Those people populated Mexico and Central America, according to Professor Cho, the expert I met.”
“Well, it makes no difference to me now. I just want this experience to be worthwhile for me and for the community I volunteer in.”
“No use worrying about what is to be,” I said. “Just do what Baba Ram Das tells us to: Be here now.”
“Bravo, you got a book title into the conversation! But what does it mean anyway?”
“It means focus on what’s in front of you and leave the future to itself.”
“Yeah, okay. Let’s talk about something else. What’s your next move after I fly from LA to Fairbanks?”
“Don’t know ‘cause I’m in the now.”
“Bullshit, LJ. If I know you, I know you’re already thinking about being back in Brooklyn.”
“Ha, you got me.”
Althea gave me a long look as if to say “So you’ve decided that we won’t be together much longer.”
“Would you like to hang out with us in LA for a while?” Roxy asked the two of us.
“I gotta be in Fairbanks tomorrow,” was Tommy’s answer.
“Maybe,” I said.
“Why maybe?” Roxy asked.
“Well, I’m just not sure of what you two are doing and how I’d fit in with your schedule.”
“We’ve got a whole month until summer session,” said Althea.
I said nothing. I think I felt that if I stayed more than a day or two with Althea that I wouldn’t be able to leave her, and I didn’t want her to feel tied to me, nor did I want to feel tied to her. Then it came to me: the Silvers. Joey Silver had just married this girl he’d been living with in Manhattan for the past year. Her name was Shelly. She was freckle faced and always in good spirits, and she loved Joey to death. The two of them had driven cross-country for their honeymoon. Neither of them had any real money, so their honeymoon suite was the pull out couch of Shelly’s older brother, who was in grad school at Berkeley. They were planning to drive back to New York City in a few days. I know they could use a third driver because Joey had told me they needed to be back in the City by the beginning of next week. I had a little calendar from a savings bank in my pocket, so I calculated all this based on a conversation I had with Joey before Tommy and I started our trip across country.
“I just remembered that I have to be in Berkeley by the day after tomorrow.”
“So soon?” Althea was surprised.
“Yeah, I promised a friend who’s in Berkeley with his new wife that I would share the driving back to New York City with the two of them.”
“And you’re telling me this now?” Althea looked at me. I could see she was upset.
“I…I’m sorry, Althea. It just didn’t register ‘til right now. Our trip together has been so intense that I haven’t done any thinking about the time ahead.”
“None? Really?” she asked. But she wasn’t asking me a question. She was accusing me of being callous and being less than honest with her. She was right.
From Santa Ana on, no one said anything.
Tommy, Roxy and I crashed at Althea’s apartment that night. We went out for Mexican food and margaritas just to prolong the spirit of our Baja trip a bit longer. When we got back Tommy and Roxy went for a walk. That left me and Althea.
“You must think I don’t care about you,” I said. “But it’s not like that. I care too much, and it hurts me to leave you. If I don’t, that will change both our lives, and I don’t know if that change will be for the better for each of us. I guess I’m scared.”
Althea looked at me. She saw me clearly.
“LJ, you know I have feelings for you, but I don’t want a guy who’s in with half a heart. It’s all or nothing for me. And if this is what you feel, then I guess it’s nothing.”
The only thing I could do, I couldn’t do with words. I went up to her and embraced her. Kissed her neck and felt her weight against me. I just held her to me and listened to her breathe. Then I said,
“I will always be with you in one way or another. If not together, then as friends for life. You mean so much to me.”
“Friends for life,” she breathed. “Can it be?”
“My heart will always be open to you, Althea.”
We both cried silently, holding on, afraid to let go, as if that would change the nature of our connection to each other.
The next day Althea drove Tommy and me to the airport. It was a hard goodbye for me. Tommy and I had shared something that would never come again. It was something important to us both, yet neither of us knew just why or how.
“Better get yourself a winter coat first thing, man,” I said, delaying the final with the obvious.
“Yeah, I know. Althea, I have Roxy’s address and phone number. I promised her I’d write. She’ll let you know how I’m doin’.”
“Sure thing, Tommy.”
“LJ, Goodbye friend. It’s been a great trip. I hope we get to do it again,” Tommy said, knowing we never would.
We shook hands and did a quick guy to guy hug. Then Tommy turned his back and headed for his gate. I never saw him again.
Chapter 20: Matrimony and Madness
Got a ride from LA to San Fran in a new Mustang convertible. The driver was a record producer who shuttled back and forth between the cities, looking for talent and recording groups. He kept talking about disco, something that started in the New York clubs. He said it was gonna be the next big thing and was already popular in clubs where people loved to dance. Right now it was a kind of minority music, popular with blacks and gays. Then he stuck a tape into his eight-track recorder. I heard an insistent four four beat. I couldn’t make out the lyrics, but I could tell they were repetitive, just like the beat. I hated it instantly.
“If this is the future, gimme the past,” I told Mr. Producer Man.
“It’s gonna leave all you Dead Heads and rockers behind, believe you me, friend.”
“How do you know I’m a Dead Head? Because I’m wearing a Dead tee shirt?” I was proud of my faded black tee with the medusa-like skeleton head in the middle, circled by the logo Grateful Dead. “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he replied, mocking me and my generation with the last line of “She Loves You.”
And then I shut up, not wanting to compromise my ride north. We stopped for coffee in King City, and for the first time, I realized that California wasn’t all beautiful coastline and tall trees. There were barren-looking, God-forsaken, dust bowls like King City in the interior of the state. The temperature must have been over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. “Get me outta here,” is what I was thinking the whole time we stopped.
Mr. Producer Man left me off in the East Bay and I hitched to Berkeley, the intellectual and activist center of our generation. The Free Speech Movement and Mario Savio, Antiwar demonstrations, People’s Park, the Hippie Movement, all had their birth in Berkeley. More specifically, Telegraph Avenue near the campus of UC Berkeley was where the action was. And that’s where I met Joey and Shelly, in a small coffee shop, right off campus.
“Hey, LJ, how was the trip?” Joey asked.
“Lots to tell. I met a lot of groovy people.”
“I bet you did, man. Can’t wait to hear about it all! Can you, Shelly?”
Shelly still had her freckles, but she’d lost her smile. Something wasn’t right with her. To Joey’s animated question, she answered ”Yeah, really,” in a voice that was sore and damaged. I wondered what had gone on between her and Joey. I hoped the ride back to New York wouldn’t be a bummer.
Joey disregarded Shelly’s answer, and focused on me. “We’re ready to leave tomorrow morning? You okay with that?”
“Sure, Joey. By the way, what are you drivin’ these days?”
“I bought a ’65 Caddy convertible from my Uncle Sam’s used car lot. Gave me a great deal. It was his gift to me, I mean to us.”
So, we walked down Telegraph a few blocks to Stuart Street, where Shelly’s brother Michael had his apartment. There was hardly any room for me to lay down my sleeping bag. Joey and Shelly were sleeping on a Japanese futon on the living room floor. The brother occupied the single bedroom with his partner, Aaron. I walked downtown again after we settled in and got myself something to eat. Michael and Aaron were treating the newlyweds to a Japanese dinner that evening as part of their present to them.
We left the next morning after grabbing coffee and a bagel at a local deli.
The plan for the trip was to power through to New York in less than four days. That would be driving a distance of 2900 miles. We’d need to do seven to eight hundred miles a day.
On day one, Joey took the wheel first. Shelly rode shotgun. I was spread out in the back seat. No one said anything for about three hours. Joey didn’t like to talk when he drove, Shelly told me during the short conversation we had as we got on I80. We stopped briefly for gas and a sandwich in Reno. There Shelly took the wheel and drove straight through to Salt Lake City. We got there around eight at night. Shelly’s eyes were red from straining to see on the interstate. We’d gone through blinding sunlight, rain showers, and lots of diesel smoke. She wanted to stay in a motel. That was the reason for the first argument I witnessed. It was awkward for me. I didn’t know whether to speak up or melt away into the background. So, I did neither. I just stood a little ways apart,
feigning interest in the cars at the gas pumps, letting the two continue their argument until they both calmed down.
“We’re gonna get some dinner at this truck stop, and then we’ll find a good spot to pitch our tent and sleep out under the stars,” said Joey.
Shelly looked angry and upset. She said nothing.
The next morning we started on the road just after dawn. We went back to the truck stop, used the restroom to wash up and brush our teeth, then had a quick breakfast.
“Feel like takin’ the wheel, LJ?” Joey asked, but it wasn’t really a question.
“This is gonna be the big one, man. All the way to Omaha. Over 900 miles you know.”
“Wow! Can we do that? That’s like twelve hours of driving I guess.”
“Sure, why not? We’ll each do four. Right Shelly?”
Shelly gave him a look. I interpreted it this way. “No it’s not all right, you bastard. This is supposed to be a honeymoon, not a race across America.” But she said nothing.
I figured I’d drive about four hours, but Joey said nothing about stopping, so I kept going. About fifty miles outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming I glanced over my right shoulder to see Shelly hissing something at Joey through gritted teeth. I’d been driving nearly five hours.
“Let’s find a place to stop for a bit. Shelly has to pee.”
“Okay, Joey,” I answered.
“It better be goddamn soon, too or I’m gonna piss all over your Cadillac, Joey.”
That was Shelly. As soon as I heard her, I pulled off the interstate and pulled into a gas station. We needed to fill up. Shelly shot out of the car and headed for the restroom. I pumped gas and paid for it, part of my contribution to the cost of the trip home.
“Everything all right?” I asked Joey.
“Aw, Shelly’s got the rag on” was his answer.
When Shelly returned, she looked at Joey and said, “I’m not driving today, and right now I want a decent meal and a place to take a walk. My legs are cramped up from sitting all this time. Got that Joey?”
“Sure thing, honey.”
“Don’t fuckin’ honey me, you cheapskate. It’s bad enough I had to sleep on that lumpy futon and listen to my brother and Aaron get it on in the next room. Real romantic, wasn’t it? I told you back in Brooklyn that I’d rather go on a Caribbean cruise than go through this masochistic ordeal. It was your idea for me to get Michael to let us stay with him. That was a mistake, but not your first one.”
It was out in the open now. From then on it was war between the two of them.
That night we stopped at a Motel Six in Omaha. It was nearly eight o’clock. We agreed to meet in the lobby in an hour. At nine o’clock, Shelly came out to meet me. She was made up for a night on the town.
“Where’s Joey?” I asked.
“Fuck him,” said Shelly. “I wanna live a little.”
I didn’t know what to do, so I asked again. “Isn’t Joey coming?”
“He might. He might not. I left him the name of the restaurant. Got it from the front desk. We can walk. It’s four blocks away. It’s an Italian restaurant, “La Coppia.”
“You know what that means, Shell?”
“Hunh, we’ll see.”
Well, it was a nice restaurant: white table clothes, soft lighting. The waiter brought out bread and olive oil, filled our water glasses. We both ordered salads of watercress, pear and shaved almonds dressed simply with olive oil, lemon and salt.
They were delicious.
“What do you think, Shelly?”
“Mmm. How about another hit of that chianti? By the way, LJ, this is on me. I want to do at least one thing with a little style.”
“You sure, Shelly?”
“Absolutely, honeybunch. My treat.”
We made our way through pasta dishes, and then Shelly ordered osso buco and I ordered a bistecca alla fiorentina. We split a tiramisu for dessert with two espressos accompanied by shots of grappa.
“Thank you for being my date tonight, LJ,” and Shelly gave me that wide warm smile I knew she’d been hiding since the beginning of our trip.
“You look like the old Shelly again.”
“I feel like her, too.”
“Too bad Joey wasn’t here to share in this meal. It was great.”
“Not too bad. I’m glad he didn’t come.” She bent across the table and planted a kiss on my lips. “Thanks again, sweetie.”
We made it across the Brooklyn Bridge on day five, not day four, as planned.
The trip was an ordeal for all of us, save for the dinner with Shelly at the Italian restaurant. By the time, we got to Brooklyn, I couldn’t wait to get out of the Caddy.
I said my thanks to Joey. Shelly embraced me and kissed me on the lips again in plain sight of her new husband.
Joey and Shelly lasted long enough for her to give birth to a son. Joey learned about shared custody and alimony while still in his twenties. Every now and again, I’d see him with a new girl in his ’65 Caddy. We never did more than say hi to each other.
With Shelly, it was different. We became friends and later we saw each other a bit, found some comfort in each other’s arms, but we couldn’t take it much further. There were things that Joey and Shelly still had to work out despite being separated. It took them ten years to divorce.
Chapter 21: Epilogue: Taking One Step Forward is an Act of Freedom
A life is so much a roll of the dice, a game of chance. One never knows who will come into it or leave it or when the coming and going will ever happen and why.
That trip, that friend, those women. I can point to each of them in my memory.
From the East Coast to the West Coast and back again. Tommy Mc Ghee, bosom buddy for a month or so. Jackie, Ellie, Althea, Roxy. There they remain so vivid I can feel them breathing. I can hear Tommy speaking. I can see us drop into the Sacramento Valley surrounded by tule fog. I can taste the grappa I shared with Shelly at the Italian restaurant outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming. No matter how I age, I can see those places and those people. I try not to burnish the memory, not to make it more exciting or more romantic than it actually was. But when I think about what Tommy and I did, I have to smile. We just up and took off, with no real reason, and decided to get from one coast to the other.
I wish I could say that Tommy and Jackie had a fairy book ending and he returned to her in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where they lived happily ever after. The fact is I don’t really know what happened to Tommy. I never saw his face again after saying goodbye at LA Airport. I don’t know what his experience in Fairbanks, Alaska was like, whether he had success, fell in love, found a reason to stay. Through the grapevine I heard some years later that Tommy was in Taiwan. Then that he had married a Taiwanese. Then that he had gotten cancer and died from it at a young age. The gang that welcomed me home was my only link to news of neighborhood friends, and as I moved through the world from place to place, I lost touch with each of them as well.
All the women I met counted more for me than any guys I’d come across on that trip. I felt closest to Jenny even though our time together was no more than a few days, and to Althea, whose life I intimately shared before I really knew her as the woman she would become. I am grateful to both of them, but also to Jackie, Ellie, Janie, Becca, Roxy, and yes, even to Chippie. Women have always been my great teachers.
The thing is that memory holds your life together and gives it meaning. We continually revisit those times when we took the chance to live unfettered by plans and preconceptions, to present ourselves to the world as close to who we thought we were as we could. There is a koan in Zen Buddhism that asks the disciple to answer this question, “What is your original face?” The answer may be that the thoughts that constantly fill our minds cloud our consciousness until we cannot see our essential selves, so we must dismiss them. For the Zen student, zazen is necessary to see the face we have before birth, the moon unclouded.
Westerners are preoccupied with getting on to the next thing, planning for a future that we should know we can never control. When we are freely alive in the moment, perhaps we have a better chance of understanding. Perhaps. I don’t know. Maybe I’m totally wrong about this, but I felt something on our trip across the U.S. that I long to feel again, but have not found since.
And what of my life?
When I got back to Brooklyn, I made preparations to leave New York. I found work driving a cab in Manhattan. I saved up like mad to meet out of state tuition at UC Berkeley. I decided I would study there and I would learn to be a writer. In the fall of that year, I flew out to San Francisco. I didn’t have enough saved to support myself and enroll as a full time student, even with the GI Bill, so I got a job waiting tables at a little Italian restaurant and a second job driving a cab in Oakland. I learned that I could establish residency in California after a year of paying rent and paying bills on my own. One year later I was enrolled as a full time student. I didn’t have to work because I had saved enough together with my benefits from the GI Bill to study full time. I devoted myself to reading and writing.
I hooked on with the Berkeley Tribe, an underground newspaper started by the disaffected staff of the Berkeley Barb. Unfortunately, it folded that same year. But at least I knew what it was to create a story: go and find out what happened, talk to people, answer the reporter’s questions and write a decent summary for a publication deadline.
That helped me focus. However, I never wanted to become a reporter. I wanted to be a writer, like Poe, like Hemmingway, like Vonnegut, like Kesey.
My time at Berkeley was a time for learning and a time for developing the skills I would need for my craft. It became a magical time in my junior year. For pretty much of my first two years on campus, I lived a monkish existence. There were many pretty women on campus, so it wasn’t for lack of fish in the sea that I seemed not to find anyone. I was just focused on my future. I guess I hadn’t learned the lesson of our trip across the country, the essential meaning of being in the moment.
So what was the magic of my junior year? Very simple. It was Jenny. She was enrolled at UC Berkeley as a freshman that year. I met her at the campus bookstore one day in late summer. At first, we didn’t quite place each other. I guess the context was too different to aid in identifying one another. But then it clicked, and soon we did as well.
Jenny was still a ball of female energy. Her blue eyes were, if anything, bluer, and her corn silk hair, though cut short, was shiny and vibrant. She was twenty-one and her body had matured. She no longer had a boy’s wiriness. So, the long and the short of the story is that I fell deeply in love with her although she didn’t feel the same way at the beginning. Yet, as the years go by, I feel her love is the pillar that holds me upright, and for that I cannot love her enough.