It was in the early 1980s, and the idea was to buy a cheap car in Chicago and drive it through Mexico until it died or the road ended. The car portion went as planned. My high school buddy, Eric Murphy, and I purchased a 1970 two-door Nova from a black guy for $150 each.
The Nova was a battered faded red, had rusted-out floors, a door that wouldn’t open correctly, and came fully trunked with four tire irons and two spares on rims. But it was the engine that was the clincher: Chevrolet’s indestructible straight-six, which honored my faith by calmly puttering 8,000 miles without even a cough.
We fitted plywood floors, Gunked the engine clean so we could perform a tune-up, and, because of my obvious naiveté and arrogance at the time, I painted six gorgeous flowing silver-green arrows on all four visible faces. I even highlighted them in lemon yellow. Though the car was inexpensive, it cost a fortune in tickets. It attracted cops like a naked singing drunk; those arrows sure hadn’t turned it stealth, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first day of travel, Eric and I made it to Tulsa, Oklahoma only to encounter one of the many setbacks against our vision of the ultimate road run. Eric’s mother had died while we were happily clunking south on that flat cement highway past St. Louis. Instead of abandoning the trip entirely, Eric flew off for the funeral, and I got a job scraping and painting a farmhouse in Broken Arrow.
When Eric returned to Tulsa a week later, there wasn’t much left of me. The painting job was 10 hours a day in 100-degree heat for a friend of my mother’s. I had told the friend to pay me what he thought was fair. Turned out he was like weather. His five $20 bills barely covered my lunches and gasoline from Broken Arrow to Tulsa. On top of that, my legs, arms and hands bulged and itched madly with poison ivy (I’d finally identified the strange vines I’d removed from around his shed), my foot was tender where it had been impaled by a huge nail, and some of my fingers were rotting because of hacked off knuckles that wouldn’t heal. Still, I was ready for the road south.
Then Eric decided he couldn’t spare the time for Mexico.
We headed east instead, initially down through Texas where the oil boiled out of the macadam, one couldn’t buy beer, and every second signboard was about saving one’s soul. Then through Louisiana with cold beer again, crawfish and some stunningly delicious breakfasts. I fell asleep on the beach in Biloxi, Mississippi, and added severe sunburn to my already itching, limping body bound in bandages. We nervously passed over the Georgia swamps at night, the bugs sliming the windshield opaque and shrieking at incomprehensible decibels. But it was in South Carolina that I was jailed.
I’ll admit this right now. It wasn’t my best summer for physical or mental state. I was getting divorced, and my father had died unexpectedly. I was drinking beer all day, every day, trying to survive the heat. I hadn’t shaved or had a haircut in a year. Eric and I weren’t getting along that well since he wasn’t big on drinking. He even placed my consumption on a timer; I was allowed one beer an hour. So when the cop pulled me over for ostensibly, “entering a four-lane highway too slowly from a stop sign,” I mouthed off.
Not worth it. Guns came out, handcuffs, knocked to the ground, kicked, driven hours in the back of a cruiser to an all-black jail. Left to die.
The holding tank was cement walls that thickened at the floor to form a crude bench, painted a muck color maybe 50 years before. There was nothing in it except six of the largest black guys anyone had ever seen. I glanced at them. They all six stared at me. I suppose I looked pretty interesting. Besides the limp and the bandages, I had no shoes unless my rag-wrapped foot counted. At least I had on jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt, but the kicker was the splotchy peeling skin on my face and shoulders lending me a bizarre camouflaged look like an exotic forest dweller, like someone found in the wilderness after being raised by badgers.
I was far too angry to be scared. Among all the injustices my mind was shuffling was the lack of breakfast or lunch. At the time of my arrest I was about to clamp onto a delicious catfish sandwich slathered in special barbecue sauce purchased at a roadside stand. It had smelled heavenly—fresh-caught fish, famous family recipe. I craved that sandwich and a beer dredged out of the icy cooler on the Nova’s backseat. I cursed the cop who had stolen my food and freedom.
My rage was interrupted by one of the black guys. He had silently slid in next to me, suddenly leaning darkly against my blistered torso, offering his best terrifying empty glare, close and personal. It was effective. I gave him mine, attempting neutrality. I really didn’t care what happened next.
After a while he said, “What’s you in for, boy?” The “boy” was extra nasty as if carrying the weight of every black man who had been called boy in that cruel condescending manner of the past.
There was a pause as everyone in the silent cell waited for my response.
I took my time, holding his eyes. “Sunburn,” I said dryly.
They couldn’t help it. They all started snickering, then laughing, a couple guys slapping their massive thighs. After that I suppose we had as good a time as seven guys can have in a holding cell in Beaufort, South Carolina on a hot July day.
Around suppertime Eric had finally found me and bailed me out. The inmates seemed disappointed to see me go, but thirst and hunger were my focus. I satisfied both with religious abandon.
During those travels in the South, I had a lot of trouble with white people, particularly cops. In New Orleans, the city of supposed ease and let live, two minutes after exiting the Nova, I was knocked to the ground by undercover police and arrested for drug trafficking until an hour later they admitted I was the wrong fellow. Walking into bars or diners, I seemed consistently to provoke the ire of too many well-dressed clean-cut white males. It was exhausting and unpleasant.
One absolutely amazing thing happened. I still wonder at it. With all my difficulties with Southern whites, I began to ask blacks for directions or recommendations of restaurants. Somewhere in Alabama, in a sleepy town, I pulled up next to a young black guy and asked him if he knew a good place to eat. He told us, and then he reached up onto the roof of the Nova and handed me something. “Figure you might want this,” he said with a smile. It was my wallet. I was stunned; maybe Eric had a point about my drinking after all. I thanked the guy and offered him a couple twenties. “Naw, man, we’re cool,” he said, and walked off. All my money had been in that wallet.