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کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 19

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Vagabond

We made plans to rendezvous with girls. We even pinpointed and triangulated the locations of our recent paramours on a map for maximum efficiency. The little dots represented free places to stay, eat, and rekindle relations. We called it the GIDGT, the Geographically Incredibly Desirable Girlfriend Tour.

We rode through Georgia and the Carolinas up to the northeastern states, headed for Maine. We were happy to be traveling again, happy to be unmoored from the encumbrances and worries of humdrum, normal life.

Being on the road simplified things in some ways, but complicated them in others. There’s no complacency on the road. We always had to be aware. We became experts at recognizing potentially dangerous situations. Still, for every danger, there was a delight. Every face you see is a new one. Adventure and surprise are right around the next corner.

Around the Carolinas, we encountered a group of bikers at a truck-stop diner. They were doing the same kind of aimless, indefinitely long trip as we were—they were just a lot dirtier. Their hogs rattled and spewed choking exhaust out of the tailpipes they’d modified to ensure maximum decibels as they twisted their throttles. We rode dependable Hondas that comparatively made no sound. They sat back in their seats, while we sat upright. They had “ape bars” reaching for the sky to hold on, we had our arms at a comfortable horizontal level. We rode with windscreens—they had to pick the bugs out of their teeth; we did Coke and Sanka while they did pot and cocaine.

So when their leader came over to inspect our bikes, we were a little . . . nervous. We could tell right away he was a ball-buster. And his look was so on the nose that if you were to cast him in a movie, people would say: too cliché. Torn leather pants, thick leather belt with a skull buckle, leather vest and jacket, leather bracelets and necklaces. The man liked his leather. He had the hair of a rock-and-roll wannabe. He reeked of the road and snickered at our bikes and packs. Snickering was acceptable—much better than a fist to the throat. He gained instant, albeit measured respect for us when he noticed our California plates. “Whoa. You ride all the way from Cali?” Yep, we said proudly. He nodded his approval. The interview portion of our introduction was going surprisingly well. Then our rough-and-tumble friend asked, “You got bitches?”

A pause. Had I heard him wrong? “What’s that?” I said.

He repeated, “You got bitches?”

Ah ha, I didn’t hear him wrong, he just asked us if we had bitches.

My uneasiness made me get risky with my new friend. “Well, my brother and I argued about this . . . I thought he was responsible for bringing the bitches, but he insists it was my mistake . . . so, here we are on the road with no bitches.”

He stared at me blankly, no inkling that I was fucking with him. It was a stupid move on my part. He took his time and assessed our situation . . . just stared. Did I screw up? Were he and his posse about to beat us to a pulp? He got real serious and hyperfocused, despite his obvious inebriation, in order to bestow upon us a valuable life lesson. He said, “You gotta get yourselves some bitches. My bitch is in there right now.” He pointed to the truck-stop diner. “She’s making cash giving head to truckers, while I just had me some steak and eggs . . . steak and eggs!”

She sounded like a keeper. I turned to Ed and he said, “We gotta get us some bitches.”

“Right away,” I replied. “Like in the next town!” We thanked the motorcycle Zen master, hopped on our bikes, and left quickly. We were on the road, living wild—for us. But compared to other anarchic road warriors, we were squares, and always would be.

• • •

Our GIDGT was going according to plan, sort of. We were making our way up the Eastern Seaboard, but as per our habit, we were running behind schedule. Our aim was to make it out of New England by late summer. The fall in New England is beautiful if you’re by the fireside sipping apple cider. Not so great on a motorcycle. We didn’t make it to New York until October.

A lot of important things happened in 1977. Apple Computers became a company. Elvis gave his last concert and took his last breaths. The Son of Sam murders were solved. My brother and I arrived in New York for another historic event: my Los Angeles Dodgers were taking on the perennial powerhouse New York Yankees. The 1977 Bronx-Is-Burning World Series. And we were there. Ed and I had to go. But of course we had no tickets, and we were running low on money. So we figured we had to sneak in . . . to Yankee Stadium . . . during a World Series. All balls—no brains. The greatest thing about youth is that you’re not yet battle-weary, so you’ll try anything.

We locked up our bikes near the YMCA in Midtown where we were staying and hopped on the subway to the Bronx. We arrived at Yankee Stadium. You can have something described to you a thousand times and still be unprepared for what it’s like in life. Pre sky boxes, pre corporate sponsorship, Yankee Stadium was a giant energy machine—full of loudmouths and troublemakers and dyed-in-the-wool fanatics. It was a monolith, and you could feel its history, its majesty. We were in awe. We had to find a way in. We sniffed around to assess our options. We couldn’t see any way to climb a fence or steal into a service entrance. Security and police were everywhere. We were just about to sulk back to the subway when some guy with cartoonish buck teeth whispered, “Youze wanna get inta da game?” We had him repeat the sentence just to hear his lyrically thick accent.

“Sure,” we said. “But how much?”

“My cousin’s da ticket take-a at gate tree,” he said. “Ya each put a twenty under deez old tickets, an yer in.”

He handed us a couple of used tickets. Ed and I looked at each other. Are we doing this? We nodded to each other and lined up at the cousin’s gate. We saw cops on the other side of the turnstiles watching happy ticket holders enter the stadium. Our hearts pounding, we slipped the bogus tickets to the cousin with our twenties folded underneath. When he felt the bills in his hand he just said, “All right all right, enjoy da game.” And just like that we were in.

We found two seats behind the Dodger dugout along the third base line. Heaven. A few outs into the game an usher reminded us that we didn’t actually have seats. We resigned ourselves to pinging around the stadium, getting kicked out of seat after seat for the rest of the game. We zeroed in on two empty seats about ten rows behind the Yankee dugout. We made our way there, pausing to check our fake tickets to give our neighbors the impression that we were in the right place, before slipping into our temporary seats. The first half inning was just ending. We wondered how long it would be before another usher would give us the bum’s rush.

It never happened.

We watched the entire game from those fantastic seats. What luck. Well, with two exceptions. The Dodgers lost that game—they’d go on to lose the series. And at one point a New Yorker right behind us, a die-hard Yankee fan, didn’t approve of us rooting so enthusiastically for our team. He gently reasoned with us by brandishing a knife and threatening us through gritted teeth, “Sit da fuck down and shut da fuck up or I’ll stab youz in da fuckin’ backs!”

For the rest of the game, we became Yankee fans.

• • •

Winter was closing in, so we scuttled plans to go farther north and headed back to Florida. We decided to ride south on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs from Virginia through to North Carolina along the crest of the Smoky Mountains. The ride is beautiful on a motorcycle—unless it’s rainy, foggy, and cold. That’s how Ed and I found it. Stuck on a serpentine, slippery road without the payoff of a nice view, we were miserable. The rain was pelting so hard it was a miracle we saw the PICNIC AREA ONE MILE AHEAD sign. We hand signaled to each other. We needed to find shelter. We turned off the parkway and glided down the road to a small clearing near a running creek.

The picnic area was basic: four corner posts and a modest roof sheltered a table. We drove our bikes inside, rearranged the table to accommodate the bikes and pup tents. Our fancy digs for the night. We opened up one of our carburetor valves with a screwdriver to trickle out fuel for our camp stove, and we heated up some water to dissolve two chicken bouillon cubes for supper. We shared a couple of rye crackers. And then after dinner there was gin. As in gin rummy. Ed and I got so good at knowing each other’s strategy that the games would go on for hours. Thank God, because the rainfall was relentless. All we had was time.

Eventually, we brushed our teeth and scrubbed our faces of road grime and retired to our tents. Tomorrow we would continue our sojourn south. I climbed into my sleeping bag and cracked open my one literary companion on the trip: a thick anthology of plays I’d included when we packed up our Hondas back in California. I’d so loved my acting classes in junior college that I thought if I was going to be an actor, I’d better start reading. I’d better start learning. I had just finished Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which I loved. I was just starting Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. I got a few pages in before I felt the pull of sleep.

The next morning was like the day before. Rain. Looked like we would have to spend another night. On the plus side, we wouldn’t run out of drinking water, the main ingredient in Top Ramen, Sanka, Postum (a powdered malt beverage), instant hot chocolate, and, of course, bouillon soup. Add to that a bag of raisin and peanut mix, and rye crackers. Or the saltines we’d stuffed our pockets with at roadside cafés—and we had a veritable feast.

Day three: more rain, steady rain, no sign of any other soul. We thought about leaving and finding the next town to check into a motel but realized that could be ten or one hundred miles away. No GPS in those days. We didn’t know exactly where on this beautiful goddamn Blue Ridge Parkway we’d landed. We’d have to wait it out. Our routine continued: meager meals, followed by some calisthenics to keep us loose, conversation to keep us sane, gin to keep us interested, and reading to pass the time.

Day four: the same.

Day five: the same.

I stared out at the rain, mesmerized by its constancy—the utter lack of change. I grew up in eternally blue-skied Southern California. I’d never seen rain like this. Thick streams of water cascaded off the roof in columns. They looked to me like bars on a jail cell. I slowly stuck my hand out to disrupt the flow—momentarily breaking the bars. But I pulled my hand away and the bars were back. I felt stuck. I felt like a prisoner.

Did I really want to be someone who jailed others? Police officers did so many noble things. But was that who I was? I didn’t know. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be.

I was becoming dark in my thoughts. I was road worn. Fatigued. Was I losing my mind? I was extremely hungry, and worried about running out of food. Ed and I had fewer conversations. What was there to talk about?

I turned to my book of plays. I sank deep into Hedda Gabler, reading by the daylight filtered through the rain clouds. The entire drama unfolds in a single room. But though I was stuck at that rest stop, the play didn’t make me feel more claustrophobic. The opposite. It set me free. I forgot about where I was. I forgot time. When I got to the last page I was straining to make out the words. My only light source was a street lamp fifty feet away. It was night.

I was astonished. I hadn’t noticed the change from day to dusk to night. How could I have missed that? I was so completely absorbed in the play that the story took me away.

As I lay there drifting off, I had a feeling. It cast out any shred of ambivalence about what I should do with my life, how I should be. I knew at that moment, lying inside a sleeping bag in a pup tent under a shelter on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia: I was going to become an actor.

After being pelted by a week of ceaseless rain, my active mind had shut down and, at the risk of sounding overly—who cares? It’s true. Somehow my heart and soul had opened up. I saw my future. I saw it so vividly it was as if I’d had a conversation with my older self. At that precise moment I conjured a credo that would guide me for the rest of my life: I will pursue something that I love—and hopefully become good at it, instead of pursuing something that I’m good at—but don’t love.

When I awoke the next morning—day seven—the skies were clear. A sign? Maybe. It felt that way. I rode away from that shelter knowing exactly what I was going to do.

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