A lousy few days but I made it worse by forgetting a key personal rule for hitchhiking: when you get frustrated, disappear for awhile. No need to get hot and sweaty cursing the uncaring motorists. I can smoke a cigarette while lazing in the grass or read a book to induce a short nap. No rush and no reason to get worked up. I forgot this on two bad days of hitching through rural Louisiana and turned a lousy time into a torturous one with my attitude.
I started with an experiment: stay off the highways to get more short rides on the local roads. More people, more stories, less long hauls with truckers where the conversation can lag. I walk a few miles out of Hammond along Route 190 until I clear the homogeneous strip malls, the curse of suburbia. Cars stop for red lights and I yell, “I just need a ride a few miles out of town. If you could help, that would be great.” Many embarrassed sideways glances but no luck. I find a spot on the outskirts of town with good visibility and a place to pull over behind me
I hold out my cardboard sign with WACO on it in big Sharpie letters. Chris pulls over soon, fat and effeminate, vaguely reminiscent of a large baby. Sick of Louisiana and the annual storm refugees from New Orleans who “bring their violence” (a common refrain), he’s buying a house in Georgia with his mom and “friend.” He paused a second before the last word and he obviously meant boyfriend. It saddens me immensely that he needed to develop such defenses to protect himself from the bigotry and homophobia that run rampant down here. My friend Jim went to college in South Carolina and you never left the only gay bar alone because of redneck ambushes. This intolerance, the only thing I dislike about the South. Chris kindly goes out of his way to drop me at a good spot outside town.
Then comes Jesse. Even now as I sit at this bar in Denver, I smile to myself thinking of one of the best rides of the trip. A black man in a rusty pickup, he offers me a smoke as we start driving. Another victim of the current collapse, Jesse used to own a scrapyard but with a 90% drop in prices in the last six months, he decided to retire. His government pension takes care of him after 16 years in the Army. He smiles at the fun of being stationed in Panama and the Philippines.
“How did you get such great spots?”
“Well, after three tours in ‘Nam, you can choose where you want to go.”
“Vietnam? You seem too young to be in that one. What’s your secret?” Not flattery, I thought him too young by ten years.
“Isn’t there a lot of stress in Vietnam?”
“Ain’t nothin’ but a job.” I recently finished reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches, his frenetic novel about being a journalist in that war. It gave me nightmares so Jesse’s calm dismissal only impressed me more. He gives me ten bucks and some fried chicken before he finally shows his age as he drops me off. “Make sure to keep a quarter in your pocket so they can’t get you for vagrancy.” In most places nowadays, you need ten bucks to stay out of the pokey.
Keeping with the tradition of 90% of rides coming from guys in big rigs or old trucks, Mike the squirrel hunter stops for me. With a deeply cracked windshield, a Bud Light between his legs and a camouflage shotgun between us, he says through missing and yellowed teeth, “Ahm only goin up the road chere ten minutes but I thought it beat sittin.” He asks more questions than most people. Not a hard feat because often you never get asked a question at all. Not that I’m complaining, I like it that way. At every answer, he responds enthusiastically,“yeah bra, I hear that.” He drops me in front of a garage where I eat some of Jesse’s chicken, sneak into the woods for a piss and rest in the grass for a few minutes. I’m getting a little frustrated at my slow pace, only a 45 minute drive outside Hammond at best. My mind starts getting out of sync with the calm attitude necessary for these journeys. This frustration tends to snowball once it starts. Negativity begets negativity.
And boy was this fucking state cop a bundle of negativity. He drives by on the far side of the busy road, wailing his sirens on sight of me, pulls a hard U-turn and skids to a stop next to me in a cloud of brown dust. He gets out fast yelling, “Get your hands on the hood of the car.” A short dork with braces on a power trip, the cliché loser from high school out to get his revenge. Cops like this give me a pain, the assholes who often overshadow the fine work of many dedicated police officers. Six times I’ve been stopped by the cops on this trip and until now I always came away thinking, “Nice guy/girl. Just doing they’re job.” But now when I think of police on this trip, I’ll think of one pushy jerk in the pine tree capitol of the world, Walker, Louisiana.
He snarls, “Do you have anything that could hurt me?”
“Yes, I have a knife and mace in my front right pocket.”
He took them away and asked, “Do you know that it’s illegal to hitchhike in this state?”
“No because it’s not. I have the relevant laws in my bag over there.” The 15 cops who passed me today with friendly waves further increased my confidence.
“Are you saying I don’t know the laws?” he screeches in outrage with a poke in my back. I realize it would take some groveling to stay out of jail that night so I apologize for not knowing the law. Two more cop cars show up for this exciting event.
“Now you’re gonna get down the road here. Do you understand?”
“No. Where am I supposed to go?”
“I don’t care but if I see you again, I will arrest you.” This bastard put me in a bad mood for hours but even during the incident, I began to feel sorry for him. What circumstances turned him into this sad pissant? Once in a while, I manage to get a little bit of this compassion thing flowing.
I walk down the road with a boiling mix of anger and fear as I surreptitiously check for cops before sticking out my thumb for the next group of cars. Jeff stops next to me because of a car turning left in front of him and asks if I needed help. I said, “Yeah, got a cop gunning for me and I need to get out of here.” In his good old boy Georgia accent, he replies “Glad to help out someone who ain’t doing no harm” and opens the door. Curious rubberneckers concentrate too much on me and Jeff and not enough on their driving. They cause a fender bender in the opposing traffic giving Jeff and I something to laugh at for the first few miles. A hard-living man with a drive for women and work, he starts a rant against welfare cheats, another refrain of the South. “If they didn’t rig a barge with explosives and blow up the 9th Ward levee [protecting one of New Orleans poorest neighborhoods] then they should have. There’s women living down there with six kids and getting 4k a month for them. It’s a nest of ’em.” I don’t like people gaming the system either but these are children. What alternatives do you propose? Let them starve because they happen to be born to a poor provider? As always, I avoid debate to keep the peace . Especially after he gets me a big meal at Sonic.
As I walk up the highway onramp, I see another guy just sitting on his bag. I start talking but he’s quite recalcitrant. After feeling awkward and not knowing what else to do, I hold up my sign for Waco. He looks at me incredulously, a hint of anger in his clear blue eyes. “What are you doing man? You’re taking my spot. Rules of the road. I was here first.” I apologize, feeling angry with myself. As I walk down the ramp and out of sight, I hate this hitchhiker for making me feel so stupid. As I said earlier, the compassion thing doesn’t usually flow too readily. My hatred of him and frustration from the few rides disturbs my sleep. I jump at noises, imagining cops or worse coming for me. I dream of being in an airport terminal, walking along its moving walkways and through its motion sensing doors forever. After a boring day, I dream boring dreams
I wake behind the roots of a giant tree pulled from the ground. I dread the coming day and don’t feel like doing this. I feel better after treating myself to breakfast at Waffle House but my spirits flag after an hour with heavy traffic and no luck. A little Red Delicious I find next to the highway it perks me up briefly. After a few hours, I begin to despair about everything: the glazed looks from the passing slack jawed yokels resembling fish in a bowl, the stupidity of this trip and the awfulness of America where people are too bound up in fear to reach out to each other, to help, TO FUCKING PICK ME UP. I just want to go home, check out yard sales with Pap and play with my little cousins. In retrospect, here I needed to nap and read to improve my mood for the coming day. I’m in no rush.
I finally get my first ride of the day from Dave Trimblel, born in Lancaster and lived in Lititz for a few years. He calls the town “Little Tits” because of Linden Hall, the oldest girl’s boarding school in the US. A small friendly man with a thin brown mullet cascading down his back. An old freak named Whip gets me next in his beatup truck filled with tires. Hard to understand through his burned out speech, he tells of the glory days of the late ’60s. He’d make a few grand and then wander the country, getting high and slinging acid. Now he only takes painkillers for his back and blames his Hep C on the drinking (not how you get it). He drops me off at the infamous Tony the Tiger truck stop but before he leaves, this hard living man gives me one of the most effective two minute sermons I’ve ever heard on the power of the Virgin Mary. He rushes off after realizing he left his wallet on the back of the truck 20 miles back and I’m left to contemplate one more intriguing character from the road.
I wait on the highway by my first dead armadillo, a belly with the unsettling hair of a possum and a shell cracked across the middle revealing the harsh gash of torn muscle underneath. Only ten minutes until Ron picks me up on the way to his annual drug test. I mutter at the stupidity of testing for a calming drug like weed while allowing a mean drug like alcohol. A talkative older guy, he chugs a detox mix because “I was smoking like hell until a month ago” and tells me about his four years in prison for dealing weed. Not too bad a time for him because he soon became the trustee in charge of ordering food. At the interview for this position, the warden asked him, “How can I trust you to not steal food?”
“On the outside, I ran an honest business.”
“You were dealing dope.”
“Yes but I ran it honestly. I didn’t take advantage of people and treated them fairly. You can run an illegal business and still do it honestly.”
“Well,” the warden said laughing, “I never heard it said like that before but I guess you’re right.”
And why couldn’t that be an honest business? Our drugs laws involve so much stupidity, racism and waste that I can easily let myself get quite worked up about it. On issues like this, I remember Tom’s words that “I can’t put my emotional nickels in every slot that I pass.” With drugs, I’m not going to protest the laws or try to change people’s attitudes. I’m going with rational anarchy: go ahead and make your rules, I’ll obey what I agree with and break what I don’t. You will not legislate your right and wrong to me. Don’t fight the system. Ignore it.
I find a perfect spot at the 49/10 cloverleaf. One goes north, one goes east and either works for me. Unfortunately, none of these routes will be for me today because a kindly cop tells me to get off the highway. I know some people in Lafayette so I start walking across the cloverleaf. A white truck pulls over and Sidney Comeaux waves me inside. A quirky and delightful Yoda, he immediately starts a wild disjointed speech littered with intriguing references to his work and past. He offers me food and a place to stay for the night. I’m hot, tired and sick of Louisiana. After two torturous days of travel that only got me across half the state, I gladly accept Sidney’s offer. I’m happy to find a crazy character and a spot to rest.
He insists on calling me Lex Barker after the actor who played Tarzan, the first person to ever make that reference (at least it’s not Superman’s enemy). In the midst of his abstractly connected and possibly genius speech, he asks me a question that stumps me. He doesn’t answer right away but begins a rapidfire lecture on how he acquired his six university degrees: French, English, linguistics, accounting, French medieval literature and a doctorate in law. I break out my notebook ostensibly to record his academic record but really to catch all the words from this crazy cat. After the 45 minute history, he finally repeats the question that started to intrigue me: “What’s the simplest thing on earth?”
He dislikes my answer of a quark or a Higgs boson but then again, so do I. He finally answers, “the simplest thing on Earth is not found in the bible or any volume. It’s life. Don’t confuse it with living or making a living. We didn’t have to do anything or lift a finger.” He pauses and then asks, “Then what’s the most complicated thing? Everything in the world is simple except for this one thing.”
“Death,” I answer questioningly.
“Do not interrupt Sidney when he’s talking. What is death? It is nothing. Point to it. Do not give me these stupid things. It’s quite easy. What’s the most complicated thing in the world?”
“The interaction between life”, I reply with more confidence. I actually like this answer.
Sidney replies with an emphatic “No. There’s three answers to every question: yes, no or I don’t know. I don’t know is the best one.”
He repeats the question and would not continue until I say “I don’t know.”
With a grand flourish, he declares “People are the most complicated things in the world.”
I start to disagree but he screeches, “No, if Sidney says it, it’s true,” a line I already heard a few times.
“I wish if Lex said it, it would be true,” I mutter.
Making me quietly angry, he asserts I just made my study of biochemistry and evolution more complicated than necessary. He starts throwing small temper tantrums at any dissension and talking down to me like a stubborn four year old. He honks at a jaywalking “nigger bitch” and justifies the use of the word with a common rationale among souther racists, “they act like it so I call them that.” I stop liking Sidney Comeaux (not his real name, hate for him to find this because I do not want the crazy emails, or do I?).
As my replies condense and harden, he senses the disconnect and becomes more verbose and animated. He happily lectures and I develop a sick fascination for his increasingly arrogant and disconnected reasoning. Long speeches ensue and I just sit there writing down every word.
“Who’s the best cook in the world?” he asks in one of the simple games created to show off his own brilliance. I point at him and he seems miffed that I answer properly leaving no excuse for him to correct me. “No,” he laughs, the voice going higher as it reaches his conclusion, “I’m the best cook in the universe” and throws his arms wide. Not normally this blatant in his own praise except with the uncounted mentions of his six degrees, he presents a pitiful testament in this sad lonely house, a tribute to himself that no one will ever see or care about. His various degrees hang on the wall next to commendations from prisoner groups. He works with convicts at Angola Prison, one of the largest in the country. His stories reveal he obviously treats the inmates with the same high-handedness that makes me dislike him. He claims to know people so well because “I am people and so I know them all” but he connects with the prisoners who cannot escape him.
A concerned relative of a prisoner calls and I use the excuse to go to the bathroom. Like a car wreck, I can’t stop listening in on their conversation. He treats this woman like a stubborn child, repeating his points over and over, pleading with her to stop talking because she only makes things more confusing. Another woman comes to the house soon after with forms to be notarized. He ridicules her for not filling them out before she arrives. She thought he needed to witness the entire filling out of the form. He would not hear of her staying to fill them out now. “If the Lord Jesus Christ himself came down, I’d tell him you can’t do this and old JC, he’d understand because I’m right.” He often mentions Jesus agreeing with his wisdom and my stomach crawls at the tone he takes with this nice young black woman. She laughs nervously at his snide remarks, obviously uncomfortable. He turns to me with satisfaction after she left, “Well, they can’t pull that kind of shit on me. I don’t let that fly.” He believes he just made the world a little bit better place. Safer for red tape perhaps?
I hate being trapped and when his sexual advances become obvious, panic starts to rise. With the draining frustration of the day, his repulsive narcissism and pressing his gross body against mine, I’m ready to gnaw my leg off for freedom. With some fancy Internet tricks, a friend calls me at the house with a made up emergency that allows for a graceful escape. I gladly leave the lair of this lovelorn Yoda and make for the Greyhound station. I’m sick of hitching. Sick of bad cops, no rides and arrogant queers. Maybe it’s cheating to take the bus but when the lady tells me $84 to get to Waco, I jump at it. I’m short on cash but I would pay double that to get out of rural Louisiana.
Lex’s Drama Corner – Our Town by Thornton Wilder:
The author describes this play as “an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest event in our daily life.” I’ve never seen this play staged (the props are only a few chairs and ladders) but a reading moves me every time. It hits on two thoughts that have always obsessed me.
One concerns the people lost in history, the forgotten who came before us:
Y’know – Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about ’em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts … and contracts for the sale of slaves. Yet every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from work, and the smoke went up the chimney, – same as here. And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theater back then.
So I’m going to have a copy of this play put in the cornerstone [of the new City Hall] and the people a thousand years from now’ll know a few simple facts about us – more than the Treaty of Versailles and the Lindbergh flight. See what I mean?
So – people a thousand years from now – this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the 20th century. – This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.
I understand the Stage Manager’s motivation but I think it’s hopeless. In the span of Deep Time, all of us will fade away. No one will remember me 100 years from now and I’d be surprised if I ever met someone who will be remembered 500 years from now. It reminds me of a story about a man who burned down one of the great libraries of ancient Greece so he could be remembered forever. They killed him and forbid people to say his name under penalty of death. One historian broke the rule so we still have the guy’s name although I can’t find it for the life of me. The point is that everything Sartre finds this depressing, the Comedian in the Watchmen uses it to excuse his amorality but I just think it’s funny. I run around the world getting so worked up about the purpose of life, trying to figure out what’s true and where I can make the world a slightly better place. But it’s all going to become dust anyway. That’s kind of funny.
The beauty is in the contradictions because the other resonating lesson of the play is the beauty of life and our failure to grasp every moment with joie de vivre, a phrase tattooed on the wrist of a wise and vibrant ex. As Emily Webb relives her 12th birthday from beyond the grave, the intensity of life overwhelms her:
I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back – up the hill – to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.
Good-by, good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners … Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking … and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths … and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
[Looking to the Stage Manager] Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.
A strong message to appreciate life, to stop and smell the roses. That’s easier to remember now as I slowly ramble around the country but I hope I have the strength to remember it as life speeds up with babies and changes and hard times.
And I’ll close with my favorite line:
Wherever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense…