کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 17

زندگی در چند بخش

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Ed passed his entrance exams easily. The next step was to start the training academy and pick up his gun and badge at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

At twenty-two, he was fully legal. He was a man. And yet he wasn’t sure what he wanted in life. When he got the call from the sheriff’s department to confirm his acceptance, he hesitated.

I was also tentative about what to do next. My junior college experience gave me one orderly year of studying police science, and one year of emotional chaos in acting classes. I had enough credits to transfer to a university. But now I wasn’t sure what my field should be.

If I stayed the course and chose the path that aligned with my aptitude, was I embarking on a life of compromise and regret? If I threw it all away and jumped into acting, was I being impulsive? Foolish? I’d seen what became of actors like my father. That all-or-nothing approach to stardom exacted a heavy toll. I knew an actor’s life would be hard. It could even be tragic. My father’s failure as an actor had contributed to the implosion of my family. He wanted success more than anything, and it eluded him. Maybe because he wanted it so desperately.

I didn’t know why he left. I had ideas; ego and alcohol were factors. But trying to boil it down to one reason was a loser’s game.

He left. That was all. He pursued a life without us. I was mature enough to accept that ours was not a unique condition. But I think his absence was what left me struggling in those years, grasping and Sneaky Pete-ing. I was still lost.

And I didn’t really have anyone other than Ed to talk to about how I felt or about what I should do with my life. Who knows where our dad was? And by that time my mom was drinking steadily. She was there, but not really there at all. By now she was remarried to a drinking buddy named Peter, and they’d moved to Fresno, dragging Amy with them. In subsequent years, they pinged over to Massachusetts and then down to Florida, where they bought a motel. It didn’t work out in the end. Terrible idea, really. No matter her physical location, my mom was flirty and coquettish, sashaying around the house singing Peggy Lee’s anthem of loneliness, “Is That All There Is?”

I had my brother. And we were on our own. And we were at a crossroads. We had talked about doing a big trip for a while. Why not now? Why commit to a job in the sherriff’s department when we could see the country? We could be free. Would there ever be a better time to go?

It was 1976. The Bicentennial. The pageantry was extensive: fireworks and Spirit of ’76 public-service announcements made by men in Founding Father costumes and tall-masted ships in the nation’s large harbors. Small towns painted their fire hydrants red, white, and blue. The Vietnam War was behind us at last. It had been three years since Nixon had tried to make our country’s loss more palatable with his Peace with Honor speech. They stopped the draft the year before my brother came of age. He’d had to register and his number was low, in the single digits. Had he been one year older, he would have gone.

Jimmy Carter would soon be president-elect. And despite the occasional gas shortages and high inflation, the country was starting to feel less fraught with strife than it had felt during the war. With the Steppenwolf road anthem “Born to Be Wild” playing in our heads, we blasted out of California on motorcycles for parts unknown. Duration unknown. Everything was unknown.

My Honda 550cc was loaded, my saddlebags and scoot boot filled with the essentials: a sleeping bag and pup tent, a mess kit and camp stove, a change of clothes and all-weather gear. I had a full tank of gas and $175 in my pocket. Ed’s bike had a bumper sticker on its rear end: “I’m Hot to Trot.”

It only took a few days to get the hang of life on the road. Ed and I developed hand signals to indicate our needs. Gas, food, sleep, mechanical issue, whatever: we had a signal for it. Since we had no money to spare, we were sleeping under the stars most nights. In the country we’d find a cozy patch of grass and bed down. But most cities prohibited sleeping on open land, public or private, so on weekdays we’d seek peaceful sleep at churches, synagogues, and temples. If we happened to hit a town during a weekend, when houses of worship were otherwise occupied, our search shifted to schools.

One evening in Yuma, Arizona, we were in a middle school playing field, lounging in our sleeping bags and heating up some Ovaltine on our miniburner as a nightcap. Born to be wild. All of a sudden four or five police cars burst into view. Having the background in police procedure, we were out of our sleeping bags with our arms stretched out wide before they’d gotten out of their cars. They surrounded us, guns drawn, barking orders. Ed and I glanced at each other. We calmly complied and lay prone on the ground, model suspects. With one knee in our backs, officers patted us down while others carefully searched our bikes and belongings. One officer sifted through our powdered beverage hoping to find narcotics. To his dismay, he found only Ovaltine. We were clean.

On the road we couldn’t make plans because everything was always changing. Everything: where we were, how we felt, what we thought about, the weather. Riding in a car, you’re a passenger. You’re shielded by glass and metal, protected from the elements. On a motorcycle, you feel it all, moment by moment: the soft breeze at dawn, the warmth of the early light, the bugs, the heat, the dust, the thick smell of desert blooms and the scent of dirt after a rain. The road beneath you. The elements. You have to be present so you can react and adapt to whatever you encounter. That felt like freedom.

When we were broke and severe weather made it dangerous or just plain uncomfortable to be outside, we stayed a few times at homeless shelters. One night, as a storm threatened, we sought refuge at the Star of Hope Mission in Houston, Texas. We locked our bikes together to a post and covered them as best we could, hoping the storm wouldn’t drown them.

Inside the shelter we learned that the protocol was to bolt the doors for the night and require all of us homeless men (temporary or otherwise) to listen to some proselytizing. Normally, I was open to those moved to speak about their faith, but the guy at this shelter was a fear-mongering zealot, delivering the news about how God would damn to hell anyone who drank or did drugs. I found his threats offensive and laughable. It was ridiculous that people had to be subjected to this kind of fire-and-brimstone speechifying simply because they needed a place to sleep for the night.

After the dark sermon we were led upstairs in single file and told to strip naked and turn in our clothes for the night. We handed our garments to an attendant, who gave each person a numbered tag to claim them in the morning. The attendant put the clothes of about one hundred transient men into a walk-in closet and locked the door shut. Great. I’d probably never see those pants again.

Next was a parade to the showers. Every man was given a bar of soap—more like a tab—and a hand towel intended to serve as a bath towel. We took turns pulling the chain on a half dozen shower heads. The tepid water drizzled over us, washing our bodies clean of sins, or at least some road grime. Dropping off the towelettes in a drum on our exit and the excess slivers of soap in a bucket, we were shown to a hall where fifty-some-odd bunk beds were arranged in tight rows. It looked like an internment camp. We were assigned our bunks. Younger, able-bodied men on top; older and infirm men got the preferred bottom.

One hundred men sleeping in the same room. One hundred men who happened to have the worst eating and drinking habits in the country. A cacophony of belching and farting. The smell of gas, stale alcohol, fumes from festering wounds left untreated, and years of poor hygiene that no shower could ameliorate. Most were hardcore smokers, with deep hacking coughs to prove it. Decay permeated the room. I thought back to my morgue experience. Which was worse, the smell of formaldehyde or this? I was hard-pressed to say. I looked over several rows of bunks to my brother. The lucky bastard got a bunk by a window, which he’d cracked open just enough for the cool breeze to lull him to sleep.

I tried to sleep with the covers over my head. Good luck. I prayed for dawn to show itself, and when the first signs of light came through Ed’s window I jumped out of bed and was first in line to get my clothes and get the hell out of there. The attendant from the night before sleepily took my chit and opened the vault. He handed me my clothes, and oh God. While I’d awaited the morning, my relatively clean clothes had been wrestling with everyone else’s filthy duds in the sealed enclosure. I had no choice but to put these deliriously toxic things on. I was desperate to get outside to my motorcycle. But not so fast.

First: breakfast. In our putrid state we were marched into the mess hall and seated on long communal benches, a tin plate and cup set before each man. We were served a plop of porridge, a package of melba toast, and coffee. I tasted a speck of porridge. Looked like Spackle—tasted like Spackle. The coffee too matched my expectations. It was the hue of scorched butter. The taste reminded me of my childhood habit of putting coins in my mouth—that slightly bitter, metallic flavor, with an aftertaste of rust.

I looked several feet down the bench to Ed, who was grinning. He’d been watching me from Spackle to rust. His grin made me smile, too. Then I looked across the table and saw a dour face staring back. The fellow leaned forward and whispered, as if we were in a prison movie planning our escape and couldn’t risk drawing the attention of the guards. “Hey, ain’t ya gonna eat that?”

“No,” I whispered back. “You can have it.” I slid my food over to him. His toothless grin said thank you.

When we escaped the clutches of the Star of Hope, Ed and I went straight to a Laundromat to wash the stench from our clothes. I wasn’t sure they could ever be clean again. In spite of our stench, we felt freer than ever after our night in captivity. And more exhausted. Before sunset that night, we pooled our meager funds and got a cheap motel room, somewhere in east Texas, and I collapsed instantly, feeling dead.

After that, we agreed—no more shelters. From then on, we slept at schools, churches, parks, golf courses, and historical sites. Late one night we found a park that seemed remote, tossed our sleeping bags over a fence, and bedded on the grass, faces up to the open sky above. In the morning I awoke to a plop. It was dawn and I didn’t see anyone around so I lay my head back down. Plop. There was another one. I turned my head and saw an egg rolling down a hill toward me. A bird? When it rolled to a stop I saw that it wasn’t an egg: it was a golf ball. In the darkness we had bedded down on a fairway. We grabbed our sleeping bags and waved to the puzzled golfers as we scaled the fence.

We arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas, after dark on a weeknight and set ourselves up on a perfect patch of grass by the back door of a church. We’d be up and out by sunrise before anyone was awake.

In the middle of the night, a car woke us up as it drove onto the loose gravel driveway. Its front tire stopped within an arm’s reach of us. In the pitch black, I could see Ed’s fear. I lay frozen, too. The door creaked open and we saw two black shoes crushing the gravel beneath them. Another man got out of the passenger side and followed the driver into the church. They were murmuring to each other, trying to be stealthy. They didn’t want to get caught. We couldn’t make out a word. Were they there to rob the church? I glanced at Ed. He reached for the all-purpose knife he was carrying, the only weapon we had. It was possible they didn’t see us. We were in dark sleeping bags in the shadows, and we’d parked our bikes elsewhere. We waited in silence. The church’s back doors flung open and we saw one man walking backward. Then we saw that he was pulling something on a flat dolly. A desk? A couch? No. It was a casket! We remained silent, terrified. The men opened the back hatch of the sedan and slid the casket in. Suddenly, they were pulling away; the gravel crackled and popped beneath their tires like gunfire.

Would they come back for us? Should we run? Remain still? Did they need more bodies? We were half asleep and barely sane. We finally calmed down enough to devise a plan: we wouldn’t leave, but we’d stay awake, on guard. We’d remain alert.

We woke at dawn. So much for alert. We looked around and realized that, due to fatigue and darkness, we’d camped behind a mortuary. We hurried to wrap up our sleeping bags, and a few people came out the back door and asked us to come inside for some coffee and donuts. We joined them in the kitchen, and they told us they’d seen us the night before. “We sat in the car for a minute trying to figure out how to make our delivery without waking you guys last night. We whispered so we wouldn’t disturb you.”

Only when we were beyond road-weary did we spring for a dirt-cheap motel. Once, in rural Louisiana, or maybe it was Mississippi, it was pouring, so we drove our bikes right into the room with us. The next day we backed them out. Amazingly, we didn’t draw the ire of the manager. For that matter, our filthy bikes didn’t much affect the general cleanliness of the room. A real five-star situation.

We had no problem finding temporary jobs as we traveled. We’d bus tables at a diner for cash, or we’d get jobs at that venue ever in need of sober workers: a carnival. When we were living with our grandparents and killing chickens, Ed and I briefly had after-school jobs at a nearby carnival. We worked a game-of-chance “joint” (the carnie name for “booth”). I held a fistful of darts and exhorted passersby, “Hey, come on over and take a chance.” One time I even accidentally punctured my own hand with a dart when a girl I knew from school came over to say hello.

So we sort of knew our way around a carnival, and we got a job during what was called slaw. (I don’t know why exactly—maybe from the word slaughter?) It was how the carnies described closing down the carnival at that location. We dismantled the whole place top to bottom and stacked it on trucks. The Tilt-a-Whirl, the Wild Mouse, the Ferris wheel, and the joints all had to come down. It was hard work, but decent pay. I think we got $8 per hour. Cash. Enough to get us to wherever the road took us next.

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