[This is an account of the first time I was in the state of Florida; the second time almost killing me. There will never be a third as far as I can predict.]
The first visit was during the early eighties, driving through the Panhandle in a three-hundred-dollar Chevy Nova he’d bought in Chicago from a large black guy who insisted the rig had a racing transmission. What the car had was an indestructible straight-six, rusted-out floors, tasteful dents, a driver door that would barely open, and a trunk with two spares and five tire irons. Terry Gunked and tuned the engine, cut plywood floor inserts and painted seven large silver-green cascading arrows on the faded red exterior. Of course it was the transmission that finally ended the Nova’s seven-thousand-mile legacy.
The southern trip began the summer after his father had died and during the six-months he was getting divorced from Giselle. He was drinking beer every day from around noon until darkness. His partner riding shotgun was a friend from high school, Eric Murphy, who nervously placed Terry’s beer consumption on a timer, a faint beep from his new digital watch. One beer an hour, which was okay with Terry. He realized he wasn’t at his best in many ways, but Murph had struggled even to keep the Nova centered on a straight section of road, the car requiring a sensitive touch not a controlling one, which was just one of its many challenges and idiosyncrasies, so it was up to Terry to drive, sober or not.
There was a moment on the way to Florida. It became one of the favorite moments of his life although he knew most people wouldn’t understand its appeal. After about a week on the road, Terry and Murph had spent the night in New Orleans, and since they always slept in the car, one in back, one in front, they found a rural spot east of the city once they’d had their fill of crawdads, Dixie beer, and tourists. As they tried to sleep, the intolerable stagnant heat and viral mosquitoes vied for most irritating. They experimented with windows rolled up—fewer bugs more heat, and the inverse—neither worked. At the bluing of dawn, Terry pulled a beer out of the tepid cooler water—he purchased blocks of ice instead of cubes because they lasted much longer—and got the Nova rolling eastward again, Murph still attempting sleep behind him, the breeze through the moving car lovely, sweeping out most of the mosquitos.
The sun rose with foreboding intensity over the empty four-lane coastal highway, but it was still a quietly crystalline Fourth of July morning without any traffic, a sign for Biloxi, Mississippi visible against the dully lapping water of the gulf on his right.
During this era, Terry cut his hair over a paper bag, and since he couldn’t easily reach the back or see it, he simply left it. Years later he realized he’d been sporting a full-blown mullet, though for him it was a mullet of convenience, certainly not with any intension toward style. He had an Abraham Lincoln type beard, a jut of red on the chin, the sides skinny as a woman’s little finger. His signature outfit was sleeveless or V-neck T-shirts, worn-out jeans, and red flip-flops, never shorts. If he swam, he took off the T-shirt. That morning he felt particularly beat. Not quite as beat as Kerouac might have hoped for, but he had reached that state of final willingness to encounter pretty much anything, a state brought on by a long season of major emotional disappointment, resurfacing as acceptance and a barely submerged amazement and joy in everything living.
Photo by Anne Latchis, Waterbury Center, Vermont, 1983
He took a pull on the warming breakfast beer, a leftover Lone Star, and slowed for a stoplight. The first slanting rays of the morning sun glittered across his sunglasses. He heard a big-throated roar and a bike gang headed in the other direction braked for the same light across from him. Terry counted about twenty bikes and could tell immediately that these guys were the hardcore one-percenters whom everyone feared. Thundering cobbled-together choppers with raked-out front-ends, bizarre handlebars requiring awkward apelike grips, massive beer guts and fully tattooed tree-limb-thick bronzed arms, ragged shoulderless dungaree vests, eternally unshaven, eternally unwashed, each expression as grim as a hangman’s three-legged mongrel.
They stared at Terry, and he sipped his beer and stared at them.
And then his beat moment arrived. The light greened, the Harleys grumbled, barked, roared and, to the man, all twenty outlaw bikers gave Terry the raised-fist salute as they tore past. He held up his bottle in response and eased the Nova forward.
This was a Polaroid taken the same day as the story above as a huge storm built on the horizon although the blackness of the cloud bank didn’t reproduce. The Polaroid was later colored by my wife Amanda and is one of my favorite images ever. This captured moment feels like the road is.