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THE MEANING of QUANTUM RUN 356
I wanted to make a movie. I thought it was for the memory of my father, for my need to have the world see the truth of who he had been, what he had accomplished in his life. The producer kept asking me the same question: “What is the difference between just going somewhere and a ‘road run.’ ”
I took the question very seriously because I sensed that if I could verbalize what I knew, I’d have a kind of key to the entire project. Would people learn about a passion for the road from the movie? If they did not, the movie would be a waste in my opinion. The question must be answered completely. I have the answer:
The going somewhere ideal is: from the moment of leaving to the moment of arrival, the person or people traveling should remain the same. Sounds so reasonable, right? The person who leaves should be the same exact person who arrives. Great cost and effort is utilized in this cause, from first class tickets to professed ultra-safe vehicles that keep any hint of the outside world they are traveling through to a minimum. Enter chain restaurants and motels and gas stations to make sure no matter where one travels, consistency of experience is guaranteed.
A road run or road trip is basically the opposite. The ideal is that the person leaving is changed, and would not be the same person at the end. If we really understand our universe, it becomes obvious that the only real traveling we can accomplish is within ourselves. So the road run is a form of spiritual quest, a ritual performed to the god of aesthetics, which is consistently the portal to all spiritual growth. If you doubt this:
Imagine Fonda and Hopper in buzz cuts and dull suits, driving a powder blue Prius ( sounds like a cheap condom), staying at Hampton Inns, speaking in nerdy voices, doing their drug deal in Easy Rider. Frankly, not the same movie. Not quite the earth shaker that changed the world in 1969. They might have lived, but so what! And no matter what you want to say about the movie, the core reason for its power and influence is that the choppers and actors looked and sounded COOL.
The 356 is likely the most iconic design for a cool road going vehicle. It becomes a tool willing to drive relentlessly toward the concept of FREEDOM. Thus McQueen, James Dean, Paul Newman, Eddie Murphy, Marshall Green, know—as cool guys—that this is the car. Hell, even freedom from the gas pump. There are other vintage cool cars, but drive one across America three times end to end, then tell me how much of a road-going tool they are. We are not talking poser cars here. Amazingly, a few of the new offerings like the Challenger, have started to look pretty cool. And are they selling? . . .
[I wrote the section below 8 years ago in a published column (The Penobscot Falcon) titled: PERSONALITIES, COOL, AND THE AMERICAN UNDERDOG HERO]
There’s an American cool that stands alone as far as I’m concerned. For me it’s the true cool, the cool to aspire towards. It embraces individualism first. As Nicholas Cage said in the movie Wild at Heart,“This is a snakeskin jacket, and for me it’s a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.” It was pretty cool when he said that. Of course he backed it up by knocking senseless the guy who had insulted his jacket.
Then there are the components of straightforwardness, honesty and fairness, the willingness to suffer without whining, the holding in of turbulent emotion because one must feel to be cool. It’s never about being merely cold; a complete lack of emotion under the coolness is usually nothing but cruelty and arrogance. There are patience and calm no matter what the situation; each calamity is met with level thinking and action. There’s the friendliness in an open but cautious and understated way, the occasional lightheartedness, the steadfastness and unwavering faithfulness to ideals, and a careless cheerfulness in the headwind of unconquerable odds.
American cool is tough, but without bragging or drawing attention to itself. It always avoids a fight but usually finishes it. Of course there’s the handsomeness, the tender eyes and strong jaw, unruly hair and sideburns. In the female it’s a bright easy smile, optimism, languid assured walk, and again, the willingness to have ideals and not complain when these are challenged or threatened.
If you’re cool you don’t put on airs or condescend. American cool must be classless and loyal only to beliefs that, in the purest sense, are Christian. In a bizarre way it’s almost constitutional in its heart.
His name? Marshall Green. Note the rhyme. He even placed a Nurburgring badge on the rear grill of his 1952 356 three years before Jimmy Dean made it famous to do so. Frankly, I don’t think my father ever had a clue who J.D. even was, although my parents were watching Giant at the movie house in Gorham, New Hampshire when my mother knew the young lad wanted out.
My parents. Not sure of the 356 year. Looks like an 356A
My father in the gorgeous 356 coupe at the top of Mount Equinox, Vermont in 1952. I’ve tried to channel that color as much as possible in my build.
I am searching for ANY information on this car. The vin number was very likely to have been 11560. It was the first 356 Porsche in Canada and the 8th 356 in N. America. It was NOT purchased through Hoffman but directly from Ferry Porsche. It was a specially prepared racer with 1500 racing engine and aluminum doors, hood, and engine lid. Gray leather and royal blue corduroy interior.
The reverse side of the above photographic enlargement. Of course this was generated after the slide was shot and exposed.
Marshall Smith Green, 1925-1982, Scots Irish Maritime Canadian
Could not follow it in its flight.
That it can follow the flight of song?
I found again in the heart of a friend.
Who can tell me about this photo? Hints: It’s in New England. My father, Marshall Green, is standing nervously behind the crowd with the cap on. What a moment in time! More rare photos of VERY early racing Porsches coming soon, so stay tuned.
Please click image for larger viewing.
The above photo: The man in the white coat is Pennante, the Italian mechanic who my father sponsored when he raced for MG. Pennante made the first Ferrari V-12 engine by hand with Enzo in 1946. Look! He’s wearing a black tie and the classic white Ferrari overalls. I didn’t recognize him because he ALWAYS wore a pulled-back beret in every other photo. I realize now that he wore the beret to cover his baldness, which must’ve embarrassed him. I looked him up in Montreal with my dad in 1979. Very cool guy who still made his own wine and drove a mint 1965 Mustang through Montreal winters. I asked why the car didn’t rust. Because he sprayed his used engine oil in every body panel and crevice.
And this photograph just because I love it. I’m the little tike standing on his toes, and that’s my mother, and Francis Appleton known to all as App, a northern New Hampshire legend. An entire novel and hero onto himself.
My cousin is (was) a bit of a prig. He basically drove me nuts: “No, Eric, I am NEVER wrong.”
And my mother in probably 1954 after my father painted the 356 black. Have never understood why.
This is App about to charge up Mount Washington. My godmother Ellie is to the left of the Jaguar fender mirror looking oddly calm since App usually crashed. But of course this was 1953, so maybe it was his first try.
And who can tell me about this photo? (Please know that these photos cannot be reproduced without my permission. They were taken by my father and if I find them stolen, please glance at the movie page for picture of my lawyer. The Horn will be sent!)
Obviously Marshall Green, but where and what is the car? Around 1950.
[From Olivier Brun: It could be 0060, a 166 MM converted 195 by factory. At Watkins Glen Seneca cup, owner Briggs Cunningham, driver John Fitch. This car start at Le Mans in 1950, N°25 Sommer/Serafini, dnf.]
I know Briggs took the photo because otherwise my father’s hand would NEVER have been on the car. My father was far too respectful of machines to ever touch one without permission. Aa a cool aside, the car was blue. The first Ferrari Phil Hill raced was also blue. Oddly, now it looks blue to me in the B&W photo although before it had appeared to be red. The mind!
My father’s favorite car. Scroll way down to see an original brochure.
Can you spot my father?
Bill Spear’s Ferrari 166 Touring Barchetta, driven by Steve Lansing. One of the three Cunningham C2-Rs. Elkhart Lake 1951. Huge thanks to M. Lynch for this caption!
This is very likely Briggs Cunningham’s blue 356 from 1951. My man Geary has worked on it a bunch and realized its importance to me. It was Briggs who got my father interested in 356s, and told him to order directly to Ferry, to not go through Hoffmann. With Briggs to introduce them, what else was needed? A bunch of money!
Photo by Jim Sitz. The others by Marshall Green. Love this composition. And below, Jim photographing in color for the first time:
And a bunch more pictures of Marshall Green’s completion MG TD.
It all started before I was born when my father was racing cars for the MG factory during the late 1940s. He had a highly modified and tuned MG-TD, which had been sorted by an Italian mechanic called Pennante who had actually machined engines for Enzo Ferrari. My father sponsored Pennante’s entrance into Canada after the war, and Pennante did his part by turning my father’s car into one of the fastest in the under 1,500cc category. “He polished the inlet ports until they shone like a mirror.”
Pennante and Marshall after a win in the rain. I like that my dad has Pennante holding the cup. I know from my past that he always orchestrated photos so he would look his best, and he succeeded.
And all was well until a hill climb race at Mount Equinox in Vermont. I still have photos from that rainy dark day in 1951, and I found an online magazine article verifying my father’s story—all of his stories, it has turned out, were not necessarily true.
The “Climb to the Clouds” article reads: “The most outstanding performance was put in by Max Hoffman, driving a Porsche. Max took the 1½ Ltr. Convertible to the finish line in 4 minutes and 38 seconds, 18 ½ seconds faster than the MG-TD driven by Marshall Green.”
This really irked my dad. As he explained it, “Hoffman was this middle-aged fat guy in a fur coat with a nose like an anteater who couldn’t drive worth a tinker’s dam. I knew the car must be vastly superior.” And being my dad, he contacted Porsche in Germany. And the Porsche factory built him a specially prepared racer that turned out to be faster than even a Jaguar in a ¼ mile drag. It had aluminum doors, hood, and trunk lid; was sprayed “silver-blue graw” metallic; fitted with royal blue corduroy and gray leather seats, and had a 1,500 engine with a unique racing camshaft. But it had one major flaw.
“It was simply too beautiful to race. I couldn’t do it. The idea of denting such a machine was unthinkable.” My father loving good machines much more than people. He never really understood people at all since unlike a good machine they did not always give you back the care and love you put into them.
My father in the gorgeous coupe at the top of Mount Equinox, as if to say, I’m king of the mountain now, the photographer probably having had a stopwatch and timing the run up. And he never liked Hoffman or his idea of a Porsche—the Speedster, which, of course, has become the most valuable and coveted of all 356s.
As an aside, Porsche also offered my father the dealership for Canada, but when he tried to raise the needed money, the German millionaire he approached nicked the soon-to-be-prized dealership away from him. I have one remaining copy of the business card my dad must have had printed, a sad reminder of a failed dream.*
The car was eventually painted black, Dad insisting it was 17 coats of hand-rubbed lacquer specially formulated by a friend, but some years later when the riveted timing gear stripped off the camshaft, he learned there weren’t any of the needed replaceable parts for his unique engine, and was talked out of ownership by trading for a new VW bug. “I had a kid and a wife to take care of.” Apparently the beautiful coupe eventually ended up in northern Quebec as an ice racer. If only I could find the grave.
My father’s Herbert and Johnson (Hats for the King of England) helmet. It is the only helmet I ever wore on my motorbikes: BMW R90S and Ducati 900 CR. Helpful in a crash? No. But 30 years at silly speeds, so lucky!
His next Porsche was a 1961 356B, picked up at the factory in Zuffenhaussen. I was about five and still remember the frightening banging of body panels at the Reutter factory. I much preferred the quiet of the upholstery area and engine assembly plant. When it was time for my father to exit in his new 356, the keys were presented by Ferry Porsche himself. A number of white-jacketed mechanics were standing about watching, arms crossed, the fjord green coupe immaculate.
Ferry said, “Mr. Green, we certainly do not need to explain the operation of a Porsche to you!” And everyone smiled brightly. I don’t think my father expected all the fanfare, though who knew what racing stories he’d been telling. Then again, he had been the first buyer of a Porsche in Canada, about the ninth one on our continent.
And my father nervously and mistakenly put the car in reverse and nearly downed two mechanics.
That was the car I grew up with until the day my mother careened into a school bus.
The repaired 356 lost all appeal for my father, who only loved perfect original examples, and he eventually sold it with difficulty. No one wanted it. Porsches were not popular cars during the 1960s and kids always made fun of me because my family drove one, surprising to think of now.
Fast forward to 1973. I’m 16 years old, and although I haven’t finished high school, I’ve been accepted at the Rhode Island School of Design. My father has forked over the year’s $5,200 tuition with a caveat, “This is the last money I will ever give you. Use it wisely!” I can tell this expense is weighty—my family never had any money, the fancy cars soaking up any residuals—and I take my father’s admonition very seriously.
After a week at the school, the only art I’ve done is making a large Styrofoam egg after paying ten dollars out of pocket for the sheets of Styrofoam. I find out it will be two years before I’m allowed to touch a paint brush, so I speak to admissions and ask them if I leave, will my father receive a refund? I explain that I’ve been painting seriously for years and selling work for $200 to $800 dollars—I don’t need to be making Styrofoam eggs to learn about form. (Remember gasoline was 50 cents and a diner meal under $2.)
Admissions is annoyed and wants to see my portfolio and the painting I’ve brought to the college. Big meeting with the Dean and head of the art department—the college offers me a full four-year scholarship to stay. I still want my question answered about the refund.
About a year later, my father locates a dream, uses the refunded money, plus borrows all I have—$1,500 from painting sales—and buys himself a virtually new 1970 911 Porsche Targa for bizarrely, exactly $6,700. We drive it from New Hampshire to the Midwest through northern Canada, both shocked and delighted by how fast and wonderful the car is, and my father seems pretty happy, which is a fine reward for his having quit drinking six months earlier after thirty years of heavy alcoholism.
My dad at the Gorham New Hampshire house the day in 1974 when we were about to drive the 911 across Canada, cruising for hours at near 100 mph. That’s my hand on my father’s shoulder, complete with Italian leather driving glove, my father kind enough to allow me to drive half the time. I removed the rest of me from the photograph because I looked simply too goofy, particularly compared to my dad. (Never understood why Porsche placed the windshield wipers in front of the driver.)
About a week later, I leave to ride freights across the country as a hobo, and when it gets too cold in the Rockies, I end up living above a poolroom with jazz musicians in Providence, R.I. I’m broke, actually close to starving, and beg my dad over a payphone to return my $1,500. He mumbles something and I continue hungry.
On one of my prowls through the many colleges, looking for women or food, I see a handwritten index card: “For Sale, 1956 356A 1600S Porsche $1,400,” and I decide impulsively, illogically, that I must buy that car. It seems predestined although I have no idea why—build date and birth date coincidental? I negotiate sternly with the home front—involving my mother—and finally, just a week after I turn 18, I’m headed by bus to Westerly, R.I. clutching the roll of bills in my jacket pocket since I’ve never touched so much cash before. I’ve already spent a bit on a calabash pipe that I’d been eyeing in an old tobacco shop. I’ll smoke that soon enough.
Knowing little about checking an automobile for condition, I trust the seller, hand over the full amount without negotiating, and in the gathering December dusk, point toward Providence. An Alfa Romeo shoots past me. I downshift to third, stomp the accelerator, and repass at 95 miles an hour. Although no one heard it, that shout of excitement and pure joy must linger in the air somehow.
Within an hour I am motoring past the Ocean Theater and the Greek diner heading to my family for Christmas, heading for the Midwest, approaching one of the coldest drives of my life—26 hours, blizzards in western Mass, ten below zero in Cleveland, lost in Chicago, almost comatose by Wisconsin. It was just as cold inside the car because the heat exchangers had huge rust holes in them, dispelling any warm air that might have reached me from the air-cooled engine.
But what an epic delight that drive was! The first of many. I had my own Porsche and I loved it—the ivory dashboard, the red padded cover, the black leather seats, the sound of the racing pipe called a Bursch Extractor. I had earned the car with my artwork, which seemed even more satisfying. That my father told me it was pretty much a piece of junk only slightly rankled, although I realized soon enough he was at least half correct.
But people see things so differently.
One of the jazz musicians from Providence, Philip, was a bass player who had been friends with Charlie Haden during his junkie years. He told me later that my exit in the Porsche was one of the most stunning things he’d ever encountered. We had talked a lot over the past two months, drinking 15-cent Pickwick drafts together in a dive bar, the floor covered in sawdust, no stools, whores shooting in and out to scream at someone. The loft we slept in had no bathroom, I slept on the floor in an old black raincoat, the jukebox in the poolroom below thumping through the floor—we knew the baseline of “Rock Me Baby” by heart. We lived on 25-cent soup and stale bread at the generous Greek’s diner across the street, perhaps named the Town Chef at the time. I had been making drawings of street views every day in a big notebook that disappeared somewhere during the next year. Eventually I didn’t have enough money to hustle pool with, which had previously supplied at least some sporadic income. Betting on credit is hugely frowned upon in rough poolrooms.
“And then,” he said, “suddenly you show up in the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen and quickly load your hobo rucksack, wave good-bye, and roar down the avenue in a flash of silver-blue, that exhaust note reverberating against the buildings even when you were out of sight. Man, that really got to me for some weeks. I couldn’t get over it.”
*My father lost the dealership when he attempted to borrow the huge amount of money he needed. The millionaire he approached stole it from him. This same family (Stinnis?) hired my mother as a servant and therefore they met—my parents. The son attempted to rape my mom, then planted jewelry in her room so that she would be fired when she attempted to reveal his actions. This man later won Canada’s highest award for humanitarianism. Nice, eh? I begged my mother to write a letter to be published across Canada and the United States to unmask this scoundrel, but my mother refused no matter how I begged.
I painted this at 14 years old for my father. Notice that the driver is turning out of the corner because he is utilizing a 4-wheel drift. But I made an error—the front wheels would not be kicking up that much dirt since the car would’ve been rear-wheel drive. But I was a kid.
Leaving the house at the end of April 2018. Funny how you never know what is ahead, no clue whatever. Part of the charm and delight of the open road. As Garrett says: “Bring it!”
Derek McNeil, the cameraman, proves his solidarity. Celts prefer actions over words. Words are too easy, too easily forgotten.
April 29th 2018, a Sunday
The road run begins in Ventura with a sad good-bye to QC, the gentle Visigoth. I know I was holding back the tears as best I could. Of course barely made it two blocks before I realized I’d not finished lowering the other three tires for pressure. Did not realize it was the off-the-computer-red-flashing severe alignment toe-in that was creating the jumpy handling problems. In 3k miles the outside half of the two expensive Dutch front tires were completely bald. Try getting two new tires to fit a 356 in Michigan on the fly. It cannot be done!
Will always remember our wonderful breakfasts as we were waited on by gorgeous green-eyed Mexican cousins—about ten or twelve different ones, each as raven-haired and round-ass lovely as the other. My breakfast: grilled chicken breast, hot sauce, one scrambled egg, fresh fruit, and 50/50 orange/apple juice. QC’s breakfast: a mountain of French toast, a golfball of butter, syrup slathered, hash browns, double side of crispy bacon, and a waterfall of coffee. Of course he is 70 and as healthy as a young Viking.
The cross winds across the Mojave were so severe—red signs flashing huge warnings—that the highway was closed about an hour after my passing. Not knowing what I was getting into, I had left the top down. Mistake. No hat would stay on my head, so a sunburn was inevitable. Way too windy to pull up top. What a god-forsaken section of America, but an improvement over Interstate 5 into Los Angeles which is simply ten lanes of rutted bumpy living HELL, with traffic beyond evil, everyone in a black tanks, texting. Delighted to see Lone Pine!
Had the first of many wonderful meals at the Mt. Whitney Diner served by my favorite waitress ever—Kristie. (Hope I spelled it correctly.) A sweet sexy angel that happens to serve delicious food by coincidence.
Bought Aloe Vera gel and finally got to slather something. The hotel was full of crazy aged women who were parked there until the casket. I enjoyed them greatly—Mary was the standout! Then after two days of much needed rest, car repairs, I headed to Death Valley to meet Erik and Amanda who were flying into Las Vegas that evening.
My photo from 1984 of the Death Valley Highway sign
In my eagerness, I left probably 6 hours too early. All was good until I almost murdered two geriatrics at two different times at gas stations. It was the loudness of my compressor-powered Maserati twin-bell airhorn that all but killed them. The horn began raging whenever, simply possessed. A priest? I rebuild the damn thing the next day. Has the world of supposed mechanics forgotten the concept of lubricants? Lubricants allow the next guy to remove things without undue force. They work well, trust me!
It was raining and reasonably cool in Death Valley where it is usually about 105 degrees during the day. But it was lovely and I was driving like a fiend from another planet, front wheels fighting each other or not. The Devil’s Golf Course was just as I remembered it.
But heading back to the junction, the rear of my seat collapsed completely. Out came the tool kit again. Two hours in now hot afternoon sun and the seat worked again. It would fail often until I got up at 4;30 a.m. in Pocatello, Idaho and spent three more hours truly fixing it this time. Until then, my old hobo pack held up the seat back to varying degrees of success.
Same spot in 1983 above.
Heading into the Valley in 1984:
In 1983, Death Valley, over 100 degrees
Had an amazing supper of fresh-caught striped bass under the bamboo awning at The Oasis as the rain fell through the cracks and dried on my overly hot skin. I called out to doves in their voice, or my attempt at their voice, and they filled the rafters as no humans were on the veranda. How blessed I felt!
As I waited at the Zabriskie Point parking lot way to0 early for my baby as evening drew down night’s blind, I met two guys who were photographing my 356, a common occurrence. “You’re not Germans, are you?” “No! We are Portuguese!” I had had enough Germans and Porsche idiots telling me my 356 should be in a museum or climate controlled garage. Fuck them for a few days. “Then you must know Miguel Olivera, I said.” “Why?” They were stunned. “Because I bet he will win the Moto2 World Championship.” Instant friends now, they met myself and Amanda at the Dow Villa in Lone Pine the next day. At the end of a lovely time, Amanda already speaking Portuguese, I casually asked: “What do you guys do for a living?” “Oh, kind of acting.” I googled. WOW! World famous! And very handsome. Both!
Drew my father’s signature with a Sharpie until the rising sun in Lone Pine made it far too hot for a New Englander to concentrate.
Variations of signature. Top right is actual. The bottom right is how it was presented to me in California after much argument over the telephone. Why do people always “know” when they don’t know? Left is is my two day fix in the hot sun, working 600 sandpaper bent around a Pink Pearl dipped in water to remove the overly thick lines that, of course, had to be applied with unremovable Porsche enamel paint. I was told the signature could not be removed no matter what. I have long stopped listening to “experts.”
Erik and Amanda arrived in total darkness in the Zabriskie Point empty parking lot at about 10 p.m. in a rented new Dodge Challenger Hemi; Erik, of course, doing burnout donuts. He hit a hoe at over 100 mph in the rain on our run back to Lone Pine, which blew a hole in the bottom of the rental. Maine urchin divers? What are you gonna do? He took a photo of the speedometer at 149 mph.
Next day just before Erik went on a massive bender (even for him!) and missed being in the movie. In the morning he fled back to Maine with only one speeding ticket. I had bet two.
Ben Taylor arrives in rental. Garrett Randolph, my novice-to-Porsches but certainly not the road or wilderness wingman, arrives in his new-to-him immaculate 1998 Boxter, German silver over sienna red leather.
My buddy Ben who I met in Lewiston, Maine mid-1980s. He was going to Bates; I was a townie. I’ve always worried I ruined his life, but God, She is the only one to determine such things.
We hit the road north with a film crew following after shooting amazing scene with Rod from Lloyd’s of Lone Pine. He tells the cameraman Derek how Slim Pickens got his name. They (Rod and Slim) were rodeo clowns together for many years. Lone Pine and Rod, a good friend of Ridley Scott is Rod, are simply the best! Ben and I bought matching hats from Rod. I found out in talking to Rod yesterday (June12th) that he got himself one as well, so we three have matching hats. Love mine! I ended up buying a bunch more of these great hats—one for Sam Ladd, one for Ben’s daughter, and another for myself since I thought I’d lost mine. Our Maine Coon found it under the porch, pushing it out with him nose. I knew once I bought the second, the first would appear, which is now kept pristine in the library of our house.
The movie crew only asked me to do this six times I think!
I love this photograph: Three amazing beauties in one rectangle!:
Ben and I, although exhausted, filming street shots in Reno at 11 p.m. Then we were kept up until 3:30 a.m. expected to tell brilliant stories about the road. People who run movies basically want to kill their protagonists. I suppose that makes for gritty footage.
Here is the wonderful letter I received from James, manager at the equally wonderful Reno Hotel where we filmed in the lobby:
May 10th 2018
356 plugs cleared in the morning. Ran great! Wheel vibration is about half what it was. Exhaust pipe color slightly rich but brownish. I am beginning to get that feeling of the engine oil and my blood running together as one fluid. Feel and hear every nuance of the car continually. When Patches is delighted, so am I. Only a 356 does this to me.
Speedometer is dead accurate! Hit an actual 100 mph a few times yesterday, but insane cross winds prevent anything more. The wind blows ALL the time out here. Hit 85 in third gear easily. Beginning to use 5k rpm at 2500 miles on odometer as engine breaks in more fully.
The old hobo calls himself Bill. I tell him my name is Cody. Everyone on the road probably uses a made-up name. We’re sitting in a rail yard in Minot, North Dakota, trying to cook some green tomatoes over a fire we made.
“Amazing the things people’ll leave lying around,” Bill says.
“Well, these tomatoes for instance. Perfectly good.”
There was a pile of them in the gravel as we walked up the stopped freight. (When a train blows its air, you know it’s not going anywhere for a while.) Bill immediately gathered them up, which I never would have thought of since I’ve never eaten them. We’re frying them in bacon grease on a piece of metal we found. Bill had a peanut butter jar of it in his suitcase.
“Cold!” he says, rubbing his hands near the flames. “You got anymore fixings?” Bill calls my tobacco that.
“You keep smoking it, there’s not going to be any.” Still I toss him the pouch.
“Watch that one!” Bill points at a tomato slice that’s getting burned. I flip it over with my knife. He watches the food intently, even telling me how thick to slice the tomatoes. “Little thinner,” he kept saying. “They crisp better that way.” He had a few stale crackers we crushed up, or I crushed up based on his instructions, and I pressed the slices in them. After Bill rolls one up, he loosens a stick from the fire and lights the cigarette with it. I’ve never seen a guy enjoy a smoke more. Seems he loves pipe tobacco, but he’ll probably smoke anything as long as it has nicotine in it. I only smoke a few bowls a day, and if I’m honest with myself, I know part of doing it is just for the idea of it, the style of it, and I don’t inhale. But Bill just wants to be a chimney like my stepfather, though my stepfather never seemed to enjoy anything.
“I’m givin’ her up.” He gives a big exhale of smoke. He smokes cigarettes like a pothead.
“Giving what up?”
“What’re you gonna do?”
“I’m goin’ home, son, back to Billings, find a fleabag, see if I can get on the dole.”
“Too old. Winter comin’. This cold just kills my bones, she gets right in me, and I never could stan’ the heat. Tried it down south, but it weren’t for me. I just sweat like a pig. Hey!” He points at another burning slice. The food is cooked and I slide some on a tin plate I carry in my gear. I pass it to Bill. My half I slide onto a flat board I rubbed clean. Bill uses a stick and I use my knife. I’m not going to let him use my knife.
“Hey, these are good.”
“Told ya,” he says, though he hadn’t.
The tomatoes are so good we slice up the rest of them though we’re out of crackers, and I get my last can of beans out of my pack. I hate to use them up. B&M baked beans from Maine. Bill’s eyes light right up when he sees the can. After the beans bubble I serve them with more fried tomatoes.
“Damn, son, this here is one fine meal. Wish we had some whiskey or wine to wash her down.”
We finish and Bill licks my plate clean which sickens me. Fuck, I figure I might as well give him the damn plate now. But he seems so happy I don’t say nothing. I know he wants tobacco and though I’m almost out, I fill my pipe and toss him the pouch again. We light up from the fire and I toss on some more scraps of wood.
“If it wasn’t so cold, she’d be perfect,” he says. “Son, I been thinkin’. You’ve been mighty nice to me these last two days. I know yer pissed I smoked up all your fixings. Way I am now, I take what I can get. Never know when she’s gonna end. You get as old as me, you might think the same way. But I’m gonna give you something in return. Bill always pays his way. Just the way I am.” He has another big toke. “I’m gonna give ya something I’ve carried with me for many years waitin’ for the right time. I was hopin’ to use her myself, but now I see I ain’t goin’ to make her. Maybe you will. That’s why I’m given et to ya.”
Just as the harvest moon rode into the eastern sky and iced the barren yard out on the plain with an eerie greenish light. Just as the haunting stillness wrapped around them both, touched only by an occasional snap from their fire, Bill’s face now excited in the glow of the flames—
There was a loud noise.
It vaporized everything.
Doris was banging her dinner gong.
“God damn it,” muttered Jimmy. The ringing rose through the house like a fire alarm. Time to face another Callahan culinary horror show. He jumped for the fridge and downed a B pounder. Since the arm-binding night, Doris was adamant against alcohol. But sober, her food was an impossibility. He had to get the cast off—soon, no matter how his arm suffered.
Imagine these words becoming worn by the road as if each syllable is bent by the hungry miles and each paragraph twists the binding crooked.
The day before the first day on the road, I brought eight paintings [to become the Forum 8] to Desroches Gallery in Montreal, Canada. Trouble and confusion at the border forced me simply to jump in the Volvo and drive off without any correct papers or authorization, listening for the gun shots—there comes a time when we are no longer willing to go along.
Next day—out on the road, northern Vermont, 1980, the New England July sun, my now-so-familiar leather pack leaning, the triangular form of the highway under foot, the thin clouds following the sound of vehicles passing, my thumb held high.
Leaving Burlington, one of the first memorable rides was in a mint yellow 1957 Chevrolet Belair. It was driven by a cool Long Island guy in shades who looked a bit like Richard Gere. The bizarre thing is, this was Carlo Connors who would three years later come look at my father’s 911 when I was considering selling it after he died; my mother gave the car to me since it was my college money that had purchased the Porsche in the first place. Carlo and I have been friends ever since.
And I could not resist this photo of Carlo’s father Paul, one of the main reasons the world loves the Irish from northern Maine (Millinocket). He was one of the best!
At a crossroads by a gas station and dairy bar in Charlotte, an aged battered Ford driven by a very fat woman picks me up. I squeeze into the backseat crammed between really fat kids with buckets of fried chicken, as an old Mexican in the passenger seat, his face like tree bark, his hands bent knotted strong reaches me back a nearly-empty warm pint of Canadian Club, which I must sip from attempting to hide my disgust. When he finally understands the distance of my intention to reach the West Coast (his English is terrible), he jerks toward me with great joy and mad nodding a freshly opened pint. He has at his feet a paper bag full of these pints, and as I exit, he insists I keep the just opened one with huge unspoken ceremony, which I foolishly keep pulling on as I await my next ride just because I love the man and his indomitable toothless poetry.
In the hot southern Vermont sun, in the overly sweet haze of C.C., images of Club Super Sex in Montreal the night before keep returning—that strange spatial relationship between a dancing naked woman showing (flaunting) her assets and me glued to them. A purely visual experience: the woman being only a body and me only part of a paycheck—though the physical distance is slight, the emotional distance is extreme.
The mechanical condition of the next car is the worst of all my rides ever. It was as if someone were pounding the bottom with a sledge hammer, obviously the U-joint in the driveshaft, which I explain to the driver. “It’ll be fine, man. Been doing that all day.” But after ten more miles, the joint gives. We both sat for a moment, the front seat vibrating in the afternoon sunlight and silence, and the driver seemed little concerned, so I left him with the Mexican’s pint of C.C. and continued walking toward Bennington.
I finally approach Hal Stowell’s at dusk—his place always pivotal of any true road trip during this era—I actually managing to talk my last ride into dropping me right at the driveway, a hitchhiking first considering the many back dirt roads leading to the cabin. At that time, I could usually excite drivers into going way out of their way for me, allowing them to believe they were part of something magical and important. (Buying them beer always helped!) I was always attempting to do this because every moment I was alive seemed like a miracle. Maybe this was from being so very sick and inside most of my childhood?
The next morning Hal dropped me off on Route 2 heading west out of Greenfield. Funny how many good-byes Hal and I have had at the side of a highway. It was so sentimental and tender to watch Hal’s faded-blue early VW bug U-turn and head back east to Wendell, that chugging exhaust note disappearing. He was a wonderful friend and mentor, who I owe so much to for opening my mind to written poetry as well as the poetry of being alive.
I shouldered my pack, looked up at the dark sky. Rain was held in the humid clouds as myriad black flies collected around my head, the strange caterpillar defoliation giving the hills a terrible burnt pink color. Just as the rain began, an old mail van pulled up and I avoided storm. There is always a moment at the beginning of a cross-country road run where you wonder, “Do I really want to do this?” You’re usually hung over, generally tired, bugs bite, no rides, hungry, wicked thirsty and so on. This might be why so few people have hitchhiked for long distances; the real road breaks the weak and uninspired quickly.
In Albany, I stood at the mouth of the New York State Thruway sipping Bushmills whiskey as a black cloud came off the horizon and drew over, a powerful rain following, the trucks shifting up out of the tolls, all lights now turned on in the storms darkness, last sun raking the booths. I was so overwhelmed by the moment that I painted the memory a year later. I actually had a woman who worked for the state photograph the very same tollbooth for me, but it was so ugly that I invented my own version.
I walked a great long bridge at Niagara Falls at night, down below me the churling river and glowing power houses, the turbines throbbing, the sky a weird orange. On through the night into darker Canada, crossing the border always easy since I’m a Canadian citizen, finally finding Interprovince 401 which is so straight and wide toward the East and Kingstown that I once fell asleep driving a drunk’s car while hitchhhiking (1974 with Kris), waking up doing 80 mph up the grass median. Falling asleep at the wheel one time cures you forever, believe me!
Stranded in London, Ontario at around 3 a.m., I start a drag race in the style of Natalie Wood in Rebel without all the girlish hopping around and handing of dirt. I was simply sitting on a cement berm on the outskirts of town in the middle-of-the-light lull when a souped up Mopar with six guys in it burned rubber a few feet from my feet. I guess they appreciated my cool of not moving because they returned with a hotrod Camaro and I was the signal tree. The six guys won.
In the early morning, a brandnew red Eldorado with white leather interior glides up and then the driver pays for a stop of donuts and coffee. The guy was so excited about his new car he had to share the joy with someone. I slept in a farm field for a couple hours until the dew woke me. Another long walk over the Sarnia Port Huron bridge with its strange feeling of scale because it’s so increbibly large. I remember other hitchhikes when I’d walked the same bridge, never once getting a ride over it.
The Blue Water Bridge which I walked across about half a dozen times.
As a hitchhiker, it can become like watching a series of poorly written TV sitcoms. Each ride is its own bit of drama and humor because people want to talk, tell you their lives, complain about their lovers or kids or drug dealers or bosses. They rant on as they would on a psychiatrist’s couch. This can be okay if it doesn’t go on too long, but since you’re moving forward, which always feels good, you can tune out or pretend to fall asleep. At one point (mid-1970s) I dressed all in white and received rides from people who insisted they had never picked anyone up before. The height of your thumb is critical as it displays attitude, the fact that your luggage is in front of you fully visible, that there is a sensible area for someone to pull over just past where you are standing; sometimes I used a written sign WEST if I wanted to go East. [They stop to tell you you are headed the wrong way.]
Then there are the classic moments that you remember forever and that become stand-alone stories:
Some years ago when hitchhiking west, I was picked up in a cloud of dust by a broken-looking jacked-up Buick pointed north out of Detroit headed up through Pontiac to Flint, Michigan. Now the driver of this rig had a CB and his handle was “The Waterman” and he talked something like this: “Yall dis da Waderman comin’ atcha, yeassur, dis da Waderman, movin’ goood, feelin’ goood; I godcha wader, I godcha juice, I god wadcha need tagit loose.” And the response by the truckers in that area was something like this: “Come agin, good buddy.” They didn’t understand a word. He looks at me: “I’z world-wide, man. Worl-wide!”
Well—I suggested we get some beer. And once it was understood that I’d be paying, the Waterman immediately nosed the Watermobile, or the Black Medallion as he called it, to a package store. I bought us a couple racks of Stroh’s—the fire-brewed beer and a few pouches of beer nuts. Back on route, I snapped one open and proceeded to drink it. The Waterman, however, just went nuts: “Aww, man, whadchu doin’ man. Keep dat ting low, man. Keep dat beer low!” The low sounding like a long moan. Then the Waterman gave me a lesson in Drinking Beer on a Highway. First his head swiveled madly on his neck, his eyes searching insanely—backwards, front, to the sides, above for helicopters—then he slumped way down on the bench seat, impossible now for him to see the road, I ready to grab the wheel, then he yells, “Alright man, gimme da beer. Keep it low!” I slipped him the Stroh’s bumping the thing along the floor mats. Crouching even lower he tipped the beer back and took a swallow. He came up for air then and hopefully to see if the Buick was still on the road and he handed me back the bottle, real low. The fucker was empty! Some sip.
Thus we piloted up the road, I trying to imitate his drinking technique, he muttering crazily every so often on the CB. After our third beer, the Waterman suddenly fought the Buick to a lurching stop in the breakdown lane. He hops out and wrenches up the hood—damn, the Watermobile has died, I figure. I get out my side to assist, being a bit of a mechanic especially on 60s GM. “Right man, right, preten’ you workin’ on da wires, preten’ you workin’ on da motor like.” But the Buick isn’t wounded, the Waterman is just having a pee.
I still use this pee-stop technique today, though I don’t keep my beers quite as low as he did.
These are the gems of rides that you pray for when on the road. I’ve had lovely young women take me home and cook me a huge breakfast—nothing else. Her young husband was in the military. I’ve had lovely young women pick me up with other interests as well. The thing is, you never know what might happen. I’ve turned down only about three rides in 22k miles and correctly so each time. That’s just pure instinct. I’ve even been in a car that was in an accident, which is very strange: “Well, thanks for the lift. Hope you’re okay. Sorry about the car . . . ” as you walk away from the disaster.
After the Waterman reluctantly turned off—beer was gone—I got a ride with a junkie in a van who couldn’t believe I wasn’t holding. “Things been tight. I hear you, man. I dig you, man. Really tight. But you got NOTHING?”
Then the back of an open gravel truck in with a couple wheelbarrows, the wind at 50 mph feeling wonderful over the beer buzz. And then just as suddenly—no rides. Dusk is settling in, bugs are beyond horrendous, I’m in the middle of a Michigan swampland, so I’m forced to hitchhike both directions—a rarity. Finally at dark, a hopped up Nova takes me to a crossroad store and gas station so I can at least get a sandwich. I watch the store close and am left in darkness. Besides some rednecks trying to pelt me with beer cans, not much happens until dawn when the same Nova picks me up again, big lockup of brakes, heading to work in the other direction. “Oh, man, I couldn’t believe it when I saw you still standing there—I had to stop!” It had been a 10-hour wait. My record was 17 hours in Sudbury, Canada in 1973. It’s a gleeful challenge among real road hitchhikers to tell their longest wait, but this wins: “This guy I knew got stuck way up on Canada 17 by a cafe. He couldn’t even get a bus, nothing, just had to keep hiking. He eats at the cafe twice a day, right? Runs out of money, right? Starts washing dishes at the cafe, right? Eventually marries the waitress! Now that, my friends, is the record.” [Told to me in the Sault Ste. Marie bus terminal.]
Near the Ludington ferry dock, I eat at a classic lunch counter, a wonderful dollar breakfast, talk pool with owner Steve and then wait on the beach for a bit until the smell of dead fish is too pungent. A dumpy girl in an ill-fitting bikini keeps eyeing me. It all seems so sad. The boat leaves at evening as heat lightning drums the lake. Trying to find a guaranteed ride exiting from the ferry, I talk with too many people and finally connect with a madman. This guy will not stop talking in his paranoid-hyper way. He’s obsessed with magnet motors, Jesus, North Dakota farmers fighting among themselves, and shifts between subjects mid-sentence. I don’t care. I just don’t want to be marooned all night again. In my exhaustion, I feel as if the country is beginning to come apart, and I wonder now if this was the start of the loss of American, when the wealthy took our country away from us.
Leaving Green Bay, another guy tells me about his wife and kids being murdered, and I feel certain he has killed them. This kind of anxiety is another challenge of the road. You pass through so many lives in a day, it can overwhelm. You don’t eat much, you drink too much (I always had Bushmills in my pack), you rarely sleep except fitfully. All part of it. But I’m in Wisconsin and headed through the night to the Verbrick’s which is a second home to me and where I’m always welcome. Reaching the outskirts of Neenah, I walk the last miles past foundries and across huge farm fields, the flatness amazing, the smell of the wet summer earth amazing, the lightning still cracking, then a fierce pounding downpour, and at dawn the three red blinking radio transmitters that I know so well from my high school years.
I sneak silently and damply into the Verbrick’s house by Lake Winnebago just as the sun breaks the horizon. Curl up in the corner on the living room carpet under the painting I gave Paul and Barbara so long ago, and I sleep. When I wake towards noon, Mrs. V has the signature perfect breakfast ready for me. She has also taken my pack and washed and folded all my clothes. She was the most Christian woman I have ever known, and I loved her like a second mother. I so miss you, Barbara! I’m crying as I write this.
The author with Barbara and Paul Verbrick, Seattle, Washington, 1991, the last time I would see either of them although Barbara and I talked every Christmas until she died. My hat, purchased in Lone Pine, California was brand-new that day and the palomino jacket was still pretty fresh even if purchased in Burlington, Vermont, 1983, but that’s a whole other story.
Chapter One [Excerpt from A Repair Manual for New England Melancholiacs]
On one of those blissfully soft spring afternoons that New Englanders wait for all winter, Neal MacKensie was stopped by a jacket hanging in a shop window, and he stood transfixed, excited, like bubbles rising in water from someone holding his breath for too long. He looked through the glass, unable to move.
It wasn’t an ordinary afternoon for him—frozen parts were thawing and an odd sap seemed to be mixing dangerously with his blood—but then it wasn’t an ordinary jacket either. Although he was certain about the past winter’s arctic cruelty and the emotional damage it had brought him, he had no idea what do about the jacket. So he simply continued to stare, considering, weighing his options.
The negatives aligned first: he couldn’t afford it, he’d never cared much about clothes, and he hadn’t had a drink since Christmas; with a shudder he realized that it wasn’t a jacket you wore sober. But there it waited, magnetically calm, hanging splayed behind the glass, above a sandy rock, next to a half-rotten cactus. An obvious stray, the jacket was the first thing that had dented his depression in months, so he walked into the store.
“Can I help you?” she said, tall in cowboy boots and ponytail.
“That jacket.” He pointed.
“In the window? Isn’t it a beaut?”
She studied him for a moment, and his uncertainty returned. “Would you like me to get it for you?”
He nodded tentatively. She placed one boot on the edge of the window display and reached with a skinny arm, but when she held the jacket out to him, he couldn’t touch it.
“It’s a forty. Don’t you want to try it on?”
He nodded again. She guided each of his arms into a sleeve, settled it across his shoulders, smoothed it with her palm, and stepped back. “Wow. My God! That really does look amazing on you. You couldn’t ask for a better fit.” She brushed a nervous finger across the bottom of her nose. “It’s like tailor-made.”
It probably looked foolish on him, but he didn’t care—it felt fantastic, like some kind of psychically protective armor. Cut as a western-style sports coat, the electric-yellow leather shined like overly lit skin and was piped along its lapels, pocket flaps, and ostrich yoke with vibrant turquoise cloth. A row of four mother-of-pearl buttons at the sleeves and two in front reminded him of pool-table diamonds. He rubbed his hand across the smooth hide as if it was the first thing he’d touched in months.
“Look in the mirror.” She steered him to his reflection. “Amazing, huh? What did I tell ya.”
He stood there stunned, almost elated. The color alone was overwhelming, reminding him of a Matisse painting—pure joy. “How much?” What was he saying? What was he even doing in this store?
She lifted the tag on the sleeve. “Two ninety-nine.”
He shook his head, reluctantly began to take it off.
She touched him to wait. “Can you put a couple hundred down?”
“A couple hundred?”
She swayed toward his ear and whispered. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but we’ve had it awhile.”
“I want the jacket. Actually, I really need the jacket, but I’m getting on a plane to California in a few hours, and I won’t be back for two weeks. At the moment, all I can do is fifty.”
She sniffed a couple times, the way someone sniffs who’s just done a line. “I guess a Western store in Burlington, Vermont wasn’t the brightest idea. You want a tequila?”
“A tequila? You’re allowed to do that?”
She walked behind the counter. Two shot glasses of amber appeared. She handed him one, downed the other.
He stared at his. After the winter of not drinking, the vapors hit him so fully that he felt it all the way to his core. The abstinence, along with his vow of celibacy, hadn’t been easy. Still, he knew only too well why he’d quit everything. The shot stared back at him with its one tarnished golden eye.
“You’ve got to have that jacket. Can you do a hundred?”
“I shouldn’t do fifty.”
She glanced out the front window. “Okay, seventy-five.”
He threw back the shot.
Mrs. V and Kristan brought me out onto the road that morning, July 1980. My pack seemed as light as my mood was high after a delightful few days at the Verbrick’s—those perfect breakfasts (best of my life), drinking gin and tonic, drinking Special Export (one of my favorite ever beers), playing croquet and badminton, attending the old Neenah theater from my high school days with the miraculous wall insets of miniature dioramas themed on paper making, swimming in the algae green water of Lake Winnebago, that languid relaxed summer pace that we all crave and remember with such joy.
I hitchhiked to Stephen’s Point and found the freight yard by afternoon, some tired diesels shunting boxcars, an ancient brick roundhouse. Talked to a couple brakemen who told me the next westbound was not until 10 that evening. Noticed the Dewey Hotel and Bar, which was just off the tracks. This turned out to be my favorite bar of all time, a true trackside workingman’s bar with schoops (huge stemmed goblet) of ice-cold fresh Point (brewed in town), peanuts in shell poured on bartop scooped from a wooden barrel with an empty can, crushed shells covering the floor. It was also part liquor store, and I was bought a shot of Rich and Rare which was a whisky Hal and I had drank at one time, probably because it was amazingly cheap and still reasonably palatable.
Two Polaroids taken of Dewey’s since I went back many times through the 1980s. The above was probably in 1984. The bar is long gone. Hurts!
I stumbled out of the Dewey into the evening light, ate a Maine sardine sandwich by an aged rusted steam locomotive, and then just lay back on the burnt grass and weeds of an empty lot, the sounds of the freightyard close by, the pink sky swirling above me, as happy a moment as I’ve ever experienced. As the sun settled, I hit a more popular bar toward town to hustle a bit of pool before my trip and added another $25 to my stash. Around 9 p.m. I found myself a woodfloor boxcar on the freight train, which had now been made up and was awaiting its 10 p.m. greenboard. Suddenly a violent wind started blowing sand past the doors, lightning began exploding, trees bending madly in the gusts, and then a rain laced with dirt arrived that shot almost vertical obscuring everything. I was glad to be in my temporary home. As the train rumbled out of the yard, I spotted Dewey’s, the neon sign reflected in the wet street. I called out in delight at the pure beauty of what a moment can be!
Can a Nuts . . 30
Beer . . . . . . . 25
Schoop . . . . . 35
Shot . . . . . . . 65
Let me speak of the past:
Let me walk into a freight yard
Into the afternoon summer sun,
Across the sandy heat, the stench of tar,
Of creosote, a tired diesel shunting,
The thistle and the gravel;
Middle of the country—1980
Awaiting a 10 PM call westbound.
Let me walk through the open door,
Under the neon of the Dewey Hotel and Bar
(Last true trackside workingman’s bar),
Let me hoist a schoop of cold Point,
Let the barman pour out a can of peanuts
Scooped from the wooden barrel,
Let me scatter the shells on the floor,
Let me feel the breeze through the door,
Let someone buy me a shot of whiskey
Because my smile is as clean as a shout;
Let me just sit there and drink,
The stacked cases of beer at the back
Almost reaching the ceiling.
Let me wait for the first outbound freight
Of a western run. And then
I will stumble out to the yard
And board a wood-floored empty boxcar
And sit against my pack in the door as a
Thunderstorm arrives across the darkness.
And as the freight rumbles toward the west
I will lean against the side of the doorway
That cool rainy wind against my face
And I will see the red and green neon
Of the Dewey Hotel and Bar sign
Dancing in the wet night street.
Very poor quality as well as oddly distorted B&W photo of a painting done in 1980, acrylic on panel, 32 by 48 inches, Point. [Wish I had a better and color photo because I remember this painting very fondly.]
Next morning, I walked up the seemingly endless rail yards of the Twin Cities, which will always remind me of my first night on the freights in 1974 when I almost quit and turned back. So, six years later, I waited all day by a highway overpass for a freight, there being a nasty bull on the prowl, so I stayed off railroad property where he couldn’t touch me, the brakemen in agreement to signal when my train would continue west, and they would also hold up the track number. Once the train would begin to move, I would sprint and leap into a boxcar, a technique I perfected and practiced in Neenah as a 15 year old. Not the preferred safe method, but hobos must be adaptable or they need to become librarians or accountants. Freight trains don’t just halt in cities and then continue like passenger trains. They are broken up and reformed constantly depending which cargo goes to what location. This can take hours or days.
That day was really hot and humid, and I just sat drinking Grain Belt, only purchasing one or two at a time so they would be as cold as possible, the old Hal Stowell trick that I learned in 1972 when we drove together to P.E.I., Hal stopping for singles, over and over, I nervous (not drinking beer yet because of my father’s terrible alcoholism) about Hal getting too drunk, which at that time he didn’t do. Besides, Hal might be the slowest driver who has ever lived, 45 mph on an Interstate being pretty reckless.
This from my good friend Lee Turner, who (among other skills) is the finest weatherer of O-scale steam engines and cars in the world: “Railroad yards are generally of two types, a flat yard and a hump yard. A flat yard as the name implies is flat and the cars are pushed and pulled into the proper tracks. A hump yard is so named because when a train arrives, the locomotives and caboose (back in the day) were removed and a strong locomotive would push the entire train over a hill, the “hump.” At the apex the cars are uncoupled singly or in small groups while rolling at slow speed. As they crest the hump they gain speed and roll down into a broad fan of switches called the bowl, which sort the cars by destination into the appropriate tracks. Originally the railroad used Hump Riders, men who would scramble up the moving cars and control the speed with the handbrakes. This was extremely dangerous so the railroads developed the retarder, a device that clamped against the wheels of the rolling cars to slow them to the proper speed so that they would make it into the assigned track but not collide heavily with the cars already in that track. There would be towers in the bowl with men to control the direction of the switches and to control the speeds of the cars by the retarders. The men controlling the retarders had a list of all the cars coming over the hump in order and with the weight for each single or group of cars to allow them to use the correct clamping force needed.” Just the best! Thanks, Lee.
I watched as train after train was humped, the cars coasting silently to their track position like ghosts in that debilitating heat. The Midwest has these days, perhaps the South does as well— just stagnant, hot, humid, awful. The highway above me churning with constant trucks, banging as they hit the overpass compression gaps. I kept worrying I might miss my train as I ran for another cold beer, the package store way too far, especially in the heat, but who can drink warm beer, and who can stand heat without beer? It wasn’t as if I could lug a cooler trying to race down a freight train. My pack was plenty. Finally, in the relative cool of evening, I caught the train, being forced on the run to jump a poor boxcar, but at least it was a box and not a cement car or an auto rack where I would’ve been exposed. One thing I know, freight trains don’t suddenly stop for any reason because they can’t, so once I was on, the bull was licked.
The box bounced and pitched so fiercely that I had to stand, no way to lie or sit without injury. A bizarre factory out on the plains covered by thousands of small bulbs, spewing horrid black smoke appeared like a Dante vision of Hell. Somehow I did not notice passing the Mississippi River. The warm wet sweet night smell of the great fertile plains came in through the doors as I stood balancing, my legs aching from the constant jolting, holding onto the boxcar door edge, the moon sinking just where the perspective of tracks and train met. I felt that sense of incredible distance that the American Midwest can give, that sense of everything being very close and very far in same instant—a lushness, vastness, middle of my country feeling, Minnesota, that tremendous great moist flat land under a wondrous night sky.
Finally the train slowed a tad and the horrible shaking of the boxcar settled enough so that I could curl up on the metal floor in my wool G.I. blanket and sleep.
I was awakened exhausted at dawn in North Dakota some miles outside Bismarck—as I would learn soon enough—and noticed an upsetting quiet, which is likely why I woke, a moving train always the hobo’s friend. Only when the train stops is there the immediate possibility of danger. Looking out of the door to where other boxcars should’ve been coupled, there was only empty track. “Damn!” I yelled, quickly gathering my gear, jumping down, and running up the gravel, calling over to a brakeman who in a thick German accent explained one track over was the westbound already moving. Scrambling dangerously between the rusty gauntlet of two boxcars I found another open empty and barely managed to leap in at the last possible moment—when a train outpaces your running speed . . . I had almost been set out in the middle of nowhere. Not a pleasant way to begin the day, but at least the random box I’d grabbed was a smooth roller.
My freight rattled past towns with farm machinery sales lots by the tracks, the clear blue sky touched only by high clouds. We rode into the Badlands about noon, maybe later, finding the time only on banks or courthouses as the boxcar passed small towns huddled against the bleak landscape that I loved so much, remembering my drives in the 356. I wrote down names of towns in my journal as we rumbled through having no map.
The dirt roads that wound out of the dry pale grass and crazy (to a New Englander) green sage, infinite small tufts, these roads crossing the tracks pale red, the striped hills with blackish tops stood suddenly out on the plains, whole groups and sometimes only these hills but always the sage. I hung in the door, let the wind of the moving freight batter my face, occasionally had a pull of Irish whiskey, that faithful Bushmills, which still [now!] brings back the freights with any sip. The floor of the box was covered with flour and the usual lumber, metal strapping, and so on, but going barefoot, the flour and dirt formed a thick crust on my soles, which later, using a sharp knife to remove, I cut my toes with three scraping sweeps before I saw the blood and felt the pain. Days later a hobo would tell me that I had the dirtiest feet he had ever seen. You will never be dirtier than on a freight train.
The freight kept pounding away; as long as we are moving I’m happy. We reached Montana at Wibaux. Many towns in the West that touch the tracks have grain storage buildings and many times with the name of the town and some farmer co-op name is lettered on the side of the clapboards. These bring a certain but undefinable emotion as I see them rise up in the distance, wavering unattached to the plains like ghosts at first, and then while passing read their faded white letters against the pealing red paint, watch them diminish in the distance again all to the pounding sound of the slowing and then accelerating freight train. I get an unusually clear sense about towns because I pass beside them rather than through as you would when driving. The rail yards are usually on the outskirts of towns and near the poorer section, and this only increases my understanding through this unusual overview.
The freight started snaking along a huge wandering river by early evening. The water was smoothly flowing along when it suddenly began to chop insanely, trees lashing, smaller ones actually flailing the ground. A black sandstorm struck, the sun through the sand a haunting reddish orb. And with the sand came rain. It all passed very quickly and then the settling sun burned slowly very crimson as darkening plains came up to meet it. I sat in the door drinking whiskey, eating oily Maine sardines. On the evening sun that lit the plywood walls of the boxcar with a pencil I wrote:
Bean rode this box and drank fine Irish whiskey and is the baddest bo anywhere. Minnesota – N. Dakota – Montana July 1980
We made it through Billings only to have the air pulled at Laurel. [This is the favorite sentence of all I have ever written, which was taken from my road journal in 1980.] Spent the night frozen in an empty sided boxcar waiting waiting for a westbound to be made up. A lot of waiting in hoboing. Jack rollers were in the yard, and the few other stray hobos were in a panic. [Jack rollers are cruel men from a nearby city who attempt to rob or kill hobos and tramps knowing no one will ever come after them for the crime. They usually have at least one gun and run in packs.]
The huge masts of crime lights gave parts of the massive Dickinson yard ghostly fluorescent sections. I walked to the yard office, entered the hot bright smokey air, filled my canteen, asked about trains heading west, workers staring at me, perhaps at my pure friendly hobo bravado. I stood most of the night in the boxcar, too cold to sleep (and not easy to do with the knowledge of jack rollers a foot) as I listened to the random crashing and banging of couplers, the growl of diesels, then the gunning up to shove freight down the yard—a busy place. Lash-ups occasionally thundered by beside my car, the headlight flashing inside the cold box. I wore my G.I. blanket against the chill, but still shivered, amazed it could be this cold in July. Finally a blueing in the sky, yelling up to an engineer in a diesel, I found my train, waiting again until the bull found me: ”Wanna git off my train?” A nice enough fellow, more a big flashlight guy than a gun guy, just doing his job, not interested in sending me to jail. I walked up the highway beside the tracks, sun just visible now over low hills. When the freight began to roll, I ran and hopped the boxcar right behind the five engines—a mistake!
The day turned warm, sun through the big open doors, and I stripped to a T-shirt. At Livingston, a stop, which you always knew when the air brakes were released with a great out-breath hiss—the mountains now visible in the distance. I walked to a gas station, got a map, looked in a mirror for the first time in days—you tend to age years in the matter of days on the rails, and even with washing, the dirt becomes ingrained. After my first hobo run at 17 years old, it took two back-to-back baths to get clean. I returned to the yard—listening the entire time for the warning horn blow that would signal departure—and began talking to the two hobos who rode the boxcar behind me. Once you have claimed a car, it became yours like a home, and no tramp is allowed to enter it without permission (hobo code). We sipped from our assorted beverages (morning beer for me, Thunderbird fortified wine for the tramps)—July—heading into the western mountains—sunlight in the dust—talking about the road—imagine it!
Freight began moving, and we jumped into our respective boxes. In the mountains I could see the end of the freight and caboose snaking along way below us as we wound higher very slowly through land only the train tracks crossed, nothing else but true wilderness. Three extra diesels were cut into the center of the train for the climb—helper engines. My car was a Santa Fe Aircushion and rode like a Pullman coach, probably my favorite car ever since along with its smooth ride, it had a fairly clean wooden floor. By this time, I had learned to choose my rides carefully when possible, but as I mentioned, I had made one poorly calculated error. At least when at the front of the train there was virtually no hump, which is the slack being pulled out of the couplers. This becomes magnified the further back you are riding, sometimes enough to knock you down if you’re not holding on. I had never rode this far forward before because of fear of detection.
Warm diesel exhaust from the multiple lash-up occasionally gusted down past the doors where I sat, legs dangling, watching deep pine woods fall away behind and beside me. Many people do not understand that the diesel engines only turn an electric generator; the train is actually moved by the rotation of electric motors driving the wheel axles. When the train stopped at the crest of the grade to disconnect the helper engines, I scrambled down the roadbed to wash in an icy clear stream that formed small pools. Nervous at being left behind to be eaten by bears, I filled my canteen quickly.
Okay—The mistake. Did anyone see it coming? I bet Lee Turner did, my expert on all things American railroad. Tunnels! The first tunnel was sudden blackness, an extremely loud grinding growl, hot exhaust covering my face like a giant evil hand attempting to kill me through asphyxiation. For a short second my animal mind reacted that I was actually being murdered, and then an instant later my rational mind figured out what was happening—truly terrifying. Afterwards, I leaned out the door catching the fresh wind, coughing horribly, my eyes burning, reacting to the light with thanks to God the tunnel hadn’t been any longer. In 1985, five years later, I would ride through the longest tunnel in the country, which is west of Denver, Colorado, but I knew not to be just behind five or six poisonous diesel engines.
Some notes from Lee Turner on tunnels: “Yup, tunnels are not a fun place. Under the Detroit river between the US and Canada there’s a railroad tunnel. I was railfanning in the early 1980s and watched a freight coming through. About three minutes before the locomotives came out of the tunnel, black smoke started pouring out of the bore gaining in intensity until the engines popped out almost blowing a smoke ring when they did!
“Imagine what it was like behind big articulated steam locomotives back in the day. With steam engines it was much worse because you had the heat and moisture from the steam as well as the overwhelming coal smoke. That’s why the Southern Pacific turned their Mallets around and invented the cab forwards saving their engine crews who were already at the limits of what was humanly survivable. On approaching a tunnel the engineer and fireman would close up the cab as much as they could, douse their kerchiefs with water, cover their faces with them and lie on the floor until they were out of the tunnel. Many mountain railroads provided gas masks for their engine crews. Other times, crewman lost their lives when the train would stall in the middle of the tunnel and the smoke and steam from restarting the train would suffocate them. The Great Northern route to the Pacific Northwest goes through the Cascade tunnel which is eight miles long, which during the steam era had to be run with electric locomotives pulling the steam locos and cars.” [Thanks again, Lee! So freaking cool to know.]
I’ll get back the the 1980 run in a moment; we were just coming out of the deadly tunnels, riding directly behind a poisonous lash-up, but I must tell a story from my first day on the freights in 1974 when I was 17 years old.
I had been riding a very slow drag that seemed to pick up single boxcars here and there, then venture calmly on. The freight had left Wisconsin where I had boarded her and had run into Minnesota at night fall on that increasingly cold early October day. After nightfall the train just stopped for what seemed forever. I couldn’t hear anything, so I slunk out of my boxcar and walked beside the maybe 30 car long drag until I saw a tiny lit barroom across a rural highway attached to a ramshackle house. Since I was pretty cold by then, but also feeling rather cocky that I’d ridden freights all day long—even if at one point the train had headed backwards, this to attach a car way up a siding—I entered the bar, setting my leather pack politely by the door. One man in a red plaid shirt, with a blue handkerchief tied around his neck sat working a glass of draft on one of the five stools in the dimly lit narrow room. The middle-aged extremely chesty barmaid asked me what I wanted. Not daring to order a beer at 17, I said, “You know what town I’m in?”
She told me, and then said, “Old Style okay?”
I nodded and in disbelief watched as a fresh glass of draft was set before me just as calmly as in a dream. I worked my beer, delighted but mum. The plaid shirt and barmaid continued talking, laughing together, obviously quite happy. After my second beer, which will probably be the two best tasting beers of my life, plaid shirt turned to me:
“You ready, partner?”
I looked behind me although I knew I was the only other person there.
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Ready to go?”
“Sorry, I’m not sure I understand.”
“We rode in together, right?”
I was really worried now, but the engineer clapped me on the shoulder and said, “Come on, I’ll let you ride in one of the units since she’s a chilly one tonight. But don’t touch anything, okay?”
And that’s how I arrived in Saint Paul!
From the novel Holed Up:
I’m leaning up against an abandoned railroad station, the sun on my face, looking west. The Great Plains are flat, different than I’m used to, the railroad tracks are two straight lines touching at the horizon. I’ve never been this far west before and everything seems different. The sky is bigger and bluer with giant clouds, the cornfields smell sweeter, as does the wind that I imagine travels all the way from the snow on top of the Rocky Mountains. A diesel horn is blowing in the distance. I’ve never hopped a train before, but I’m going to try now.
He stopped reading. He hated it. This writing stuff was a lot more difficult than he’d figured. How was the reader supposed to know how he’d felt from that? Or care? That he’d stood on the weedy cement slip of the station, the cool early-autumn wind fragrant from the fields, the light crystalline, the hot sun on his face, that much was true; but how about his hope that the sun might burn up some of his blemishes after he’d washed his face from his canteen, or how his body and mind were humming with excitement because he was finally going to hop his first freight and ride it through the West—The West—of which he’d only dreamed, and then the headlight approaching, the wailing of the diesel horn same as the shout in his throat, the train drawing closer, the rumble intensifying, his mind at a perfect junction of poetry and reality, freedom and pure joy mounting to a pitch until he thought he might explode. And then the engineer waving, and he, uncertain, waving back, and then the boxcars, some empty, flooding past in a rust-colored wall, and he leapt from the station platform, sprinting madly beside the train along the uneven gravel roadbed, slinging his pack onboard an empty boxcar, his palms on the rough wood floor—he’d practiced so many times in freight yards, but now, he’s doing it for real, like the first time you ease your penis into a woman and you can’t believe it’s actually happening, which at sixteen hadn’t, so this would have to do—and he’s in, lying on his back, his heart and lungs hammering with the cadence of the wheels under him, then he’s sitting up and he’s riding a freight train. He, Jimmy Hakken, was riding a freight headed to the great West! That the train stopped after about a mile and backed up, what did that matter?
How could he write all that? Certainly not by describing some wind gliding down an imaginary mountain. He felt like chucking the computer through a window.
“Good old Jimmy Hakken!” That was an excerpt from my novel where Jimmy is living in Scoggton, Maine, waiting to execute Wendell Alden II, attempting to write about his life to pass the time.
This is a terrible photograph of a painting I did at 17 years old shortly after I returned from riding freights in 1974. It was an acrylic on about a 50 inch panel painted too quickly (probably a couple days) and completely from memory. I destroyed it because I wasn’t achieving what I wanted from the image, mainly I didn’t care for the surface quality, not aware of painting in layers. For instance, in 1977 I destroyed 10 out of 11 paintings, keeping only the poolroom. I was self-taught and there were many things I had not figured out yet. Still, the image has something worthwhile now in a historical context. The moment was a freight train waiting on a passing siding somewhere in Montana, the burnt wheat fields striped by the cut wheat fields very stunning visually, a hotshot about to blast by in a simply overwhelming rush of sound and energy. The hobo I was riding with warned me about the suction while standing in the door and probably saved my life.
Okay, back to the 1980s:
We came upon Canyon Ferry Lake in the distance, past Helena, great wide burnt-grass rolling plains. Finally at evening we reached Missoula, Montana where the freight got humped. Out of the hot sun that baked the Missoula yard, I walked that evening into town with a rather worn skinny tramp whose heel on his cowboot boot was missing so he kind of limped along as if he were crippled, which didn’t seem to bother him at all. We passed along shaded streets, the high dry hills ochre in the distance, arrived at a small park more just a vacant triangle of grassy land among the houses. Dancing on this grass was over a dozen pretty girls in very scant rainbow-colored leotards, one of them calling out commands. Man, it really knocked that hobo and myself apart—from raw reality to this dream in a few blocks. I figured I was in a Fellini film. Anyway, we found a supermarket and bought Olympia beer for me and more Thunderbird for the tramps back in the yard.
And the reality fictionalized inside Jimmy Hakken’s mind:
Jimmy stopped and leaned back in his chair. That next day, he’d ridden with Bill as far as the freight yard in Billings. He could still see the old hobo walking toward his hometown, the warm afternoon sun on his back, a tired gait taking him over a couple dozen track rails until he was lost from sight. He’d been surprised at how sad it was to see him go—the loss of all his tobacco and food aside. After waiting in the empty boxcar for a lonely hour, Jimmy had decided to head into town himself, at least buy a few things; he was starving. He’d lied to Bill about money, telling him he had none when there was some hidden under the inner sole of his shoe. At the time he didn’t realize everyone hid money there.
As he’d walked into town with his pack, through neat rows of nearly identical suburban houses, he’d come upon a small park. On the bright green September grass raked by afternoon sun, a dozen girls had danced in differently colored leotards, all turning in unison. To his young eyes they were prismatic angels. He’d stood and watched, fantasies accelerating in his mind like a freight train with a green board. The dancing women were so surreal it made everything seem possible. He’d find his father in California. They’d go to Las Vegas together. His dad would have the money to place on the roulette table, the wheel would turn exactly on the specified hour, and the little steel ball would lock onto their number. It could work; against all odds, it would work. And why not? Didn’t everyone have an even chance at being lucky? His dad would slap him on the back, tousle his hair. His dad would love him for being a hero. And beautiful girls in leotards would fall at his feet, him, the unwanted mill-town kid.
Jimmy jerked to his feet and headed for the fridge. Now the beer was shouting.
It was well after dark when the freight finally got made up, and I attempted to sleep as it lumbered out of the yard tracks, believing we were headed west. But when I awoke and looked out the door, I realized we were still stuck in the Missoula yard. I couldn’t understand that, but as I’ve mentioned, hoboing is patience. During my first frieght run as a teenager, I would be bored waiting and just hop any train going anywhere, just to be rolling, but retracing the exact same line a couple days later felt odd as well, not that any of this really mattered to me. I was just delighted in being out there.
That morning was extremely frosty as I waited for the sun to reach inside the box. The Rockies are cold even in July even for a New Englander! We followed Clark Fork River through to Lake Pend Oreille, the land fully pined with large powerful sweeps of dark monstrous trees lifting from each bank, the rail line fitted in along the south side of the lake. My attention was divided between these overwhelming views of raw nature and an amazingly raunchy pornography magazine that the heel-less tramp had offered me—he having already read it cover to cover. I left it in the car for the next traveler. This struck me as humorous, this hobo library, rolling literature of the worst kind, passed from hobo to hobo around the country. But the contrast between the wilderness, the mountain peaks in morning light, and the glossy images of spread female legs was befitting the freights.
On a freight train
above wet glistening pink
deep monstrous pine.
We tracked over a long bridge at Sandpoint, Idaho, and then eight miles outside of Spokane, Washington, the hogger law was sanctioned. A railroad truck picked up the engine crew. The freight sat sided, spilling tramps, everyone grumbling and mulling around, their much anticipated drunk stalled on a siding. I laughed, pulled on a clean T-shirt, waved good-bye, and began hitchhiking, reaching Spokane before the engineer.
For me, Spokane will always be the place where I watched a man die who I might have saved, as well as the place where I almost died myself, this when I was 17. That day had a huge effect on me, and ended my first freight run. Some things really scare you and the memory of that day still bothers me. I will let Jimmy Hakken tell it, but it’s my story:
In Pasco, Jimmy’d left his train and walked along the tracks.
There is this scarred, abandoned icehouse with a bunch of hobos under it. They’re drinking wine. As I walk by, one of them waves. I realize they take me for a tramp, which secretly pleases me. I stop and go over. The guy who’d waved says, “Got any smoke?” There’s four of them so I shake my head.
“Where you headed?”
“Ain’t a train till this afternoon.”
“You going to Portland?”
“We’re all headed there. You want some wine?”
It’s Thunderbird, and the thought of drinking after these guys is not pleasant. I shake my head.
He liked scarred because the timber frame of that ancient structure might have been recycled from the ark, but his drinking after the hobos—their gapped-tooth mouths, their scabbed lips, their rotting gums—not pleasant hardly matched his disgust. And the dialogue about tobacco—though it always happened that way, the reader already knew it. If there were ever going to be any readers. Why would anybody want to read about some kid trying to find his father?
He got up and circled the apartment. He couldn’t shake the memory of that day. It was the first time he’d watched someone die, and the worst part—he didn’t try to save the guy.
He’d joined the hobos in their drinking, surreptitiously wiping the bottle with his shirt. By afternoon everyone was drunk. Someone who claimed to be a bank robber tried to befriend him. Wearing unsoiled khakis and a fairly new jacket, the guy had teeth, and seemed more intelligent than your average hobo. The oddest thing was his clean-shaven jaw, so blue it might have been in a cartoon. After demonstrating to Jimmy how to steal wine and beer out of a trackside grocery, the thief explained in detail how to crack safes—which drills, which chisels. He doubted the thief knew what he was talking about, but listened anyway. Then trouble started. He was soon to learn that drinking among bums usually led to violence.
Two guys began arguing. A sledgehammer of a guy with hair that looked as if it mopped floors, was insisting he was a hobo. Another tramp was shaking his head. “You ain’t no ‘bo—you’re a bum.” He said it as calmly as a judge with a verdict. “You never travel, you never work, so you’re a bum.” Sledge staggered upright, yelling. The tramp stood as well, his ill-fitting overalls hanging on his tiny frame. “I don’t give a damn what you say—you’re a bum, and that’s the end of it.” In response, Sledge grabbed a scrap of lumber and whacked the tramp in the head with it. He tried to cover up with his childlike hands, but the second blow brought blood. No one seemed to care. Jimmy got to his feet, and coming from behind, wrenched the weapon from the large man’s grip. Sledge turned on him now, bellowing. Jimmy held the stick ready like a baseball bat, his hands shaking.
“Leave the kid alone.” It was the thief.
“Git out-a my way. This got nothin’ do with you.”
“You heard me. Leave it.” He turned to Jimmy: “Come on,” gathered his bedroll and battered suitcase.
Jimmy backed away from Sledge and shouldered his pack.
“I’ll fine ya, ya punk,” called Sledge to their backs. “I’ll fine ya, and I’ll kill ya. It won’t matter where ya hide, I’ll fine ya and kill ya.”
“Ugly drunk,” said the thief. Jimmy tossed away the stick.
As they walked, a long row of freight cars began creaking and moving a few tracks over. The thief turned to him: “We can still catch it. We better get you out a here, ‘fore he starts lookin’.” There weren’t any boxcars, so the thief grabbed the ladder on a hopper car and pulled himself onboard. “Come on,” he yelled, his hand outstretched. Jimmy just made the train. It was ten minutes later, as they tracked into the desert, that he realized what was wrong.
“We’re headed east.”
“When do you think this freight will stop?”
“No idea.” He opened the suitcase and pulled out a pint of tequila, offered it.
Jimmy shook his head.
“Suit yourself.” The thief shrugged, tipped the bottle, licked his lips.
The car they rode on was a massive cylinder that held dry powdered cement, poured in at the top through hatches and released out the bottom through hinged doors. At each end were diamond-grated platforms under the sloped angle of the enormous drum, one taken up by brake machinery. It was on the other that the thief and Jimmy crouched, only a three-inch lip of metal around the perimeter protecting them from rolling off onto the roadbed and under the wheels. As the freight reached speed, it became too noisy to talk. He was miserable—headed away from his father, his temples pounding from the cheap wine and beer.
Evening brought cold, and the thief got drunker. He opened a second pint. His suitcase seemed to be filled with them and little else. When night left only a brutal red blur at the horizon, the thief sidled up next to him and mumbled something—the foul alcoholic breath, spit-covered lips touching his ear. With the clatter of the rails and the car, he couldn’t understand at first. But when the guy reached toward him, grabbed him by the thigh and tried to pull down his zipper, he did. Jimmy punched him in the throat. The man fell backwards and just lay there on his side. Then, like a wounded animal, he retreated on hands and knees to the other side of the platform, his eyes wet in the last light. Jimmy stayed wary, but the thief just muttered to himself and kept pulling at the pint.
The freight left the black desert and entered the outskirts of Spokane, slowing only slightly, the city lights and the red swirl of crossing gates reassuring. Suddenly, the thief staggered to his feet, stood a long moment, swaying—Jimmy barely breathing. He pointed oddly at Jimmy, mumbling something. Then he turned clumsily and simply stepped into nothingness. Jimmy leapt to that side of the car. The body was still tumbling along the gravel as if it would never stop, and then it whacked soundlessly into a steel electrical box. All he could do was throw the man’s meager belongings out after him, the pints probably shattering when they hit the roadbed. In seconds it had all vanished in the darkness, but never in memory.
The freight is still going kind of fast. I head into the Spokane yard, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing much. I think of spending the night in the Idaho mountains, and I decide I might as well jump as freeze to death. At that point I didn’t know the secret of jumping off a moving train, which is to run like crazy when you’re in the air. I jump like I’m leaving a porch step. When I come to I’m looking at the night sky. My head feels wet. It’s blood. But I figure I did better than the other guy.
Back to 1980, the westbound freight rolled slowly out of Spokane, the paved city streets below chocked with cars, noon sun, hot-looking Western secretaries (healthy cornfed girls) going to lunch counters from air-conditioned offices, not noticing the hobo hanging in the boxcar, feet dangling, corncob pipe smoking so sweetly, but I noticed them, enjoyed their wiggling asses in tight summer dresses, their highheels and nylons over nicely defined calves. The land got sandy and then suddenly we were in the desert, which I’d first ridden with huge emotion on a full moon night in 1974 (poem below). I noticed my bare feet made bizarre black footprints on the boxcar floor, and it took me awhile to figure out the truth. It was volcanic ash, a very white gray, from Mount St. Helens, which had erupted some months early. I was stunned that the ash had travelled that far.
One memory haunts more than all others.
It lies in the mind like full moonlight:
Cool, silver, green,
Like a loam of longed for love.
Through all these years it holds me,
Keeps me with its relentless purity.
“That which shall not be reft from thee,
That which can not be reft from thee.”
At a young age I saw the American West
For the first time from a boxcar door.
Everything now much bigger than I knew,
But in my sudden smallness
Came a strength—
A willingness without fear.
And so there see me in the October night,
And so there see me in harsh chill wind,
The desert by moonlight (Spokane to Pasco),
Moon so bright to eclipse all stars,
Sky an immense ringing iced silence,
The flatcar boards under worn shoes,
Patched corduroys flagging thin legs,
The drumming of metal wheels and rail,
The occasional cry of wheels and rail,
The freight train flying like a lost angel,
A mad phantom fleeing youth’s expectation.
But I am there, I am aboard,
Standing, huddled; silent, screaming.
God release me from this memory
So that I may just be average;
For then I knew I cared more
For beauty than for pain
And that there was no return.
Watch the signal lights,
Way out on the black arc
At the front of the train,
Watch the signal lights
Change from yellow to green to red.
These pure primaries against the monochrome
Of the desert night under that moon.
Ask me not to be a painter now,
Forbid what should be forbidden,
For it is unfair to feel so deeply.
That a life will be spent gaining inches
When this distance is read in miles.
Poem written in 1998
I rolled into Pasco, Washington reading boxcar graffiti—I was only a few days away from Herbie who always drew a Mexican sitting under a palm tree—and thus began the odyssey of 32 hrs of beer drinking. I suppose I could blame the dryness of the desert covered in volvanic ash, but it’s the only time I’ve drunk for that long. Maybe it was the joy of riding across the entire nation once again. There is a feeling of the coast to coast America run that is unrivaled. What a great landmass we have!
Leaving the freight, I walked well over five miles past western motels with gorgeous 1950’s neon signs into the outskirts of Pasco along myriad freight cars as the sun burned down, everything shimmering below a pale azure sky broken only by red and lime green motel signs. I stopped at a pay phone to note my reflection in the chrome not to make a call. Then found a store that sold beer. After purchase, I sat in the shade and watched the street show of Hispanic greasers in black T-shirts washing hopped up Chevys at a carwash. A street fight started, two gangs standing by their shiny rides, a cloud of tire smoke left drifting in the heat when they exit, chrome flashing as cars gun by, cute girls in sweaty tank tops and tight jeans or hot pants, pert tits in the sun. It really feels like the West to me, and I’m indescribably happy just to be there a part of it all. (Life hadn’t battered me yet, I still lived with so much hope and desire and love for everything, even my dad was still alive.)
After a few reviving beers, I walked slowly up to the closer end of the railyard where outbounds leave for the coast and where hobos have waited many years: witness the dark graffiti covered wood hide of the ancient ice house. The strcture loomed in the hot evening light behind us, the worn pitted cement, the weathered gray black splintered timbers a crisscross of lines. A perfect place to drink, wait for departing trains, and share a few tales with fellow hobos.
We sat about on crates and drank beer with yet another highway overpass too near, big trucks passing mmm kwang kwwang. I talked with a very clean hobo—a true rarity—Clarence as darkness gradually came down like a slow fine rain. Drunk hobos staggered by and we kept working beers and talking about his missed relations with wives and woman and how they took his money, etc. Also discussed the differences between black and white women, their asses, what they wanted. Clarence being black refused to have anything to do with black women. He told me where good places were to pick up girls around the country, his favorite being Eugene, Oregon. A big moon rose above us, its shine on the myriad rails, the huge yard spreading out in the warm summer air, in the distance far off Pasco Main Street lights. A fight started because two tramps who had lost their beer, which is a regular occurrence among drunks. Clarence and I calm them down. Long freights with multiple engines start leaving; we yell to the engineers: “Portland?” Heads shake, diesels grumble, depart.
My freight is finally about to leave—a cement train. The diesel headlight makes the icehouse leap out as we stumble down the gravel, dozens of drunk hobos yelling, moaning, crawling onto cement cars, which have little platforms that ride out over the wheels, a mere lip of metal keeps you from falling between the cars. [Always choose the end without the brake equipment.] I slept strangely, kept waking listening to the wheels under my ear kuchunkadunk a kuchoonkadoonca feeling the warm night wind, stars in the desert sky. Freight stopped in Wishram at the first bluing of dawn.
When I was seventeen years old,
Somewhere west of Fargo, North Dakota,
I jumped between two cement cars,
Two railroad cars rolling seventy: leapt
Over the blurred gravel roadbed
Over the two grinding couplers
Over the shrieking wheels
Back and forth past death
From one swaying metal platform
To the other I jumped:
Over the arc of my fear.
I wanted to be a poet,
I wanted to touch all nature,
I wanted to be a young hero.
Then, some weeks later,
Again riding on a cement car,
This time east toward Spokane,
I watched the drunk tramp beside me
Just walk off.
I watched his body hit the gravel
One bounce and a sickening tumble.
I felt my guilt flare:
I could have tried to stop him,
But instinct had held me back.
I threw off his pathetic baggage,
Though he was long gone in the distance,
Then sat huddled in the growing darkness.
Six years later,
I rode through a desert night,
I laid on that same platform,
A three-inch lip holding me
From rolling off and under the wheels
As I tried to sleep,
A warm rack of beer vibrating
Beside me in that soft night wind.
The moonlight moving over my eyelids
The banging of the cement car in my dreams
The clear smell of the desert in my dreams.
I slept and I slept.
Poem written in 1995
Sometimes you think you’ve entered a dream. That was my experience in Wishram, Washington on the Columbia River that morning, and I’ve always wanted to return, just to see if it was a manifestation or if it was real. But by now, the way everything changes, I’ll never know. As I walked past grumbling or snoring hobos, a lit diner appeared out of nowhere, out of the blue fog off the river, an apparition of perfection, and I opened the door to an Edward Hopper painting, even the waitress was a Hopper goddess. She poured me a fresh cup of coffee and went off to fix my potatoes, eggs and rye toast. (I had long ago given up eating four-legged animals.) Can you imagine how that breakfast tasted? It was the first real food since Barbara Verbrick’s delights. Makings things even better, the train crew ate there as well, so I had no worries about being set out.
Bill takes a wallet out of his jacket pocket. It’s long and cracked and worn round on the edges. After a long stare at the thing, he removes a folded piece of paper that looks worse than the wallet. He holds it up like a winning lottery ticket.
“Son, I’ve carried this for a dozen years. It was given me by a little Mexican fellur who said he was some kinda medicine man, but he spoke good English and rode the West. We caught the same flatcar one morning ridin’ along the Rio Grande. Guy looked a hundred years old. I had some beers in a bag, a little cool from the night air. And when I shared the beers with him, he give me this paper. So it’s being passed along. I don’t know where he got it. Feeling I had was that he wrote her up himself.”
His face all serious in the fire light, Bill hands me the dirty thing. I unfold it and it almost falls apart. On it are some numbers in a grid and a diagram. I keep looking, not wanting to putdown Bill’s gift, but I have no idea what it is.
“That, son, will make you a fortune. You see them numbers at the top? Them’s dates. You see them others? Them’s addresses. Next row? Them’s times. Then comes the key ones. They’re roulette numbers on a roulette wheel. The diagram shows you where in the casino the tables are. You know how roulette works?”
“Well, you hit a number it pays big-time. You see that number there, eight-five? Well, she’s coming up, as you know. Next year. And then you got yer month and yer day. Then you follow her down, and you got yer address. Them casinos is all in Las Vegas, Nevada. You hearda the place?”
I nodded. Who hadn’t?
“They’re all on the same big street. They call her the strip. You go there, find yer table, wait fer the exact time. She’s gotta be exact now.” He snapped his fingers. “Then you play yer number. She’ll hit, and yer a millionaire just like that.”
Bill is looking at me with his toothless grin like he just made me rich.
“But you never tried it?”
“Son, you got to raise at least a hundred to put on yer number. Now, I raised her one time, and I headed fer Las Vegas. No doubt about that. Trouble was, the thirst outran me fore I ever got there. And I ain’t raised that kinda money since.”
“But you think it’ll work?”
“You can’t be certain about nothin’, but I’ll tell you what. I asked that little Mexican fellur the same thing. He looked over at me and says fer me to watch. He takes an empty beer bottle. Now the freight, she’s flyin’ along past a rock wall on one sider us. He throws that bottle at the rock cut.” Bill made a throwing motion like you’d toss to home plate. “And you know what?” He waited until I shook my head. “She bounced. That there bottle didn’t break, she just bounced.” Bill shook his head and started laughing. “Damndest thing I ever seen.”
In reality, after my breakfast, I went to wash in the restroom, and on exit realized that the train crew was gone. I grabbed my pack, paper bag of warm beer, and ran. I barely managed to climb on a bulwark flatcar. At the same instant that I jumped on, a tiny Mexican tramp hopped on from the other side. We both sat back panting against the bulwark as a clear dawn opened around us. He was one of the smallest dirtiest men I’d ever seen, yet wore a pale-gray wide-brimmed felt hat that looked almost new, which I’m sure he treasured. He called himself Ray Panama, and I gave my road name Cody. After fifteen minutes, I decided to attempt a beer, and oddly, it wasn’t that terrible. “How ’bout a beer for breakfast?” I asked him. Of course Ray was delighted by my offer.
We rolled along the edge of the Columbia River, which along that stretch was as wide as a lake, huge sandy banks rising up hundreds of feet to where the tracks ran. Along the other bank, so far away, other trains pulled in the opposite direction. The sun hadn’t cleared the ridge, but the sky was an intense morning blue. Ray had an ancient Polaroid camera and kept snapping pictures (no film).
So we drank warm Rainer beer, and the vibration of the train created up to four-inch foam towers out of the bottle ends, which we found hilarious, everything delightful, particularly the Union Pacific trains across the river looking like bright yellow lines in the warming sun. One of my favorite moments, except for one tragic thing. Needing a pish from the flatcar at 75 miles an hour, Ray lost his hat. Ouch! It simply blew away forever. Somehow I’ve never gotten over that.
Ray gave me a chart which he prized that was supposed to allow a person to grow vegetables three times their normal size, if only you could figure out all the strange symbols and lines. After we finished each beer, we threw the bottles off the train against the rock cuts which were surprisingly close. They shattered wonderfully in firework-like explosions. Then I threw one bottle that ricocheted unbroken from the rock cut and then scampered across the flatcar wooden decking to rest base up in the middle of the car. Panama decided the bottle was bewitched and asked if he could have it. “Of course!” I doubted it made up for his gorgeous hat, but maybe it served him well somehow. One can only hope.
Did anyone have it besides me? The photo is from the spring of 1977 in northern Vermont and I’m waiting for the snow to melt enough and the barn to warm enough so I can rebuild the engine (again) that dropped a valve on Gotham Hill, New Hampshire just before Christmas.
Photo by my mother; car: my 1956 356A 1600 Super which I bought for $1,400 in 1975 and had already driven across the country many times.
And me at 18 years old in 1976 probably attempting to look like Belmondo! Ha, ha, ha. I was embarrassed by my looks, so I was always hoping to look like someone else.
The Crystal neon when it was still working, probably late 1980s
Two photos of the Crystal Restaurant in Watertown, New York were I have eaten many times with great joy and nostalgia. It is one of the only places that still remains intact from my youth, and it has been featured in my novel A Repair Manual for New England Melancholiacs.
For Kris Marsala 1954-2018
Classic road trips do not begin as classics. It’s not as if two guys look at each other one morning and say, “You in the mood for a classic road run?” And the other guy nods, “Sure, why not?” Nothing like that at all. And many times it’s only after the run is completed, and it’s fermented in the memory for a number of years, does it become classic. But my run with Kris Marsala around New England that summer of 1975 driving my blue Porsche coupe is a true stand out. A true classic!
It began innocently enough. Kris was 21 years old and at the height of his handsomeness. I was maybe at the height of my fearless cool, having ridden freights for years, hitchhiked over 15k miles, I was a weathered tough road guy of 18 years old. Although I hadn’t began lifting weights or learned to box yet, my pool hustling skills were formidable, my Willie Hoppe pool cue always at hand, and my heart had not been dimmed by the world yet, or completely broken as it would soon enough. I had a true positive rage to live, and Kris was willing to accompany me.
At the quiet beginning (unusually vague in my memory) we headed east across upper state New York on Route 11. We must’ve stopped at McCarthy’s diner because at that time it would’ve been impossible for me to drive past any classic diner without at the least a quick pull in for a coffee. I drank an inordinate amount of coffee during this era, which ending in around 1980 when I discovered coffee wasn’t a health food as I’d thought. Bleeding ulcers shortly after ended my coffee craze forever. But I ground my own beans by hand, and always carried my expresso vacuum pot (hilariously even to Europe—I brought sand to the beach). Even on the freights I had a single cup drip coffee maker and always drank from my prized G.I. mug. The stain inside was a thing of great value to me although Kris’s mother Edie once scrubbed it clean by mistake. In talking to Kris recently, this was one of the only things he remembered from the era.
Among other story gems, McCarthy’s is the diner where Hal Stowell knocked a dime sized hole into his stemmed cocktail glass while over-energetically stirring his Bloody Mary one afternoon after soaking up endless beers from Montpelier, Vermont to McCarthy’s. The thick red drink silently exited his glass onto the Formica tabletop as he gazed drunkenly into whatever space drunks gaze. His next sip was an empty icy surprise. I, of course, fell off my chair laughing, annoying everyone. Why do so few people embrace true happiness in others?
One morning in Provincetown, Massachusetts before heading up the Maine coast and over to Islesboro, which was simply a quiet island with a slow ferry back then. No billionaires, no movie stars, and only one bar and a general store. I had made my first corncob pipe there in 1971.
This photo shows the Bursch Extractor racing exhaust, which sounded incredible as we tore through city streets, the sound echoing off the brick and cement gauntlet, Kris hanging out of the window, half his body out of the car as he loved to do then, showing off his well-muscled naked torso, screaming at the cute girls, “It’s the Mille Miglia, it’s the Mille Miglia, it’s the Mille Miglia,” over and over.
Sir Stirling Moss, one of my absolute and true heroes. My father insisted Stirling had taught him the 4-wheel drift, as my father taught it to me, but I’ve never really wanted to know the truth. I SO want to believe he did.
This was written by Jim Sitz in an e-mail to me on January 21, 2018:
Stirling was still not sure of Fangio being generous
that hot summer day 60 years later when we dined
on a grilled cheese sandwich in London [Fortnum & Mason].
Stirling made the point that he sure worked for it!
Years before we had had a lovely lunch just after his return from
Italy in celebration of his Mille Miglia win, which
I think gave him the proudest day in his career.
I had told Kris about my hero Stirling Moss (who taught my father the 4-wheel drift in the late 1940s), Moss having won the great Italian road race in Italy in 1955, driving for 10 hours at an average speed of 100 mph, a feat that will never be equaled by any human being again. Moss’s winning Mercedes had plaid seat inserts. The Quantum Run 356s will honor that with plaid seat inserts woven by the author’s wife Amanda. I’m very excited about that part of the car since plaid inserts were very rare in all but a few 1955 Continental 356s and there were only around 200 of those ever made. The cloth has been sent to QC, who called on the tartan’s arrival in California, crowning Amanda the finest weaver on the planet. I could not agree more; besides, who am I to argue with the Q?
The car with the front bumper still attached (dent is NOT by the author who has never dented anything minus one Harley Springer front end). My father talked me into removing the bumper—weight reduction—and then left it in Wisconsin after that house sold, refusing to move it although the move was paid by his new company. As I’ve mentioned, he detested my 356 and basically refused to have anything to do with it until the third engine dropped a valve on Gorham Hill. Then, finally, we rebuilt the 1500cc engine together, finding that someone had cloned 1300 heads onto the 1500cc block. No wonder the valve stem overheated and snapped. Porsche engines from that era received an unwarranted poor reputation. Trust me, the issues were never with the engine but rather because of poor handling by careless drivers and mechanics.
And the photo “cleaned” by my new French friend Gregoire who loves early racing and rare Ferraris. His contact here:
As an aside, a week or two before the valve broke, my father was listening to the engine as the car idled in his Vermont dirt drive. After a few minutes he looked at me, “That doesn’t sound quite right, Boo. You’re going to drop a valve.” To this day I get shivers remembering that. My dad didn’t understand people, but he understood machines as few ever will.
After a coffee and fresh-made cinnamon bun, Kris and I continued along the remote bleakness of Route 11, past the green vertical neon of the Casablanca sign, through the lost towns of Canton and Potsdam, and eventually over Rouses Point into Vermont. Strange to think my parents had not yet quite moved to Morrisville, or later to Waterbury Center, where my mother would live until 2005 when I moved her to Belfast, taking care of her for the last 4 years of her life. I’m sure we stopped at the hobby shop in Swanton and the Blue Lion in St. Albans because I always made the same stops that my father had made during my childhood. What wonderful memories that hobby shop held because even then I was obsessed by model trains. It was the first excitement on our way from Watertown to Beloin’s Cabins in Camden, Maine, where we spent every summer vacation, every year until we began to head to P.E.I around 1968.
Hal Stowell’s cabin during that time was my spiritual home, and Hal was always welcoming, which, as I look back from my mature viewpoint, is kind of amazing. I simply don’t open my door if visitors don’t call first, and if they catch me in the yard, I’m rude and annoyed. I can’t abide drop by visitors, and it has cost me some friendships, none I minded giving up.
But Hal always had a warm greeting and always met the poetry of the moment, which must have been exhausting because of my intensity. Everything mattered so much to me then! And I’m probably not much better now, but maybe wiser as to overwhelming people, or maybe not (I do try). I can hear a few people snickering. “Fuck you! Try my brain for a few weeks and then report back.”
Of course I always called first and brought beer. And of course I always searched the homespun package stores around Wendell, Massachusetts for something interesting: Rolling Rock when it first showed up in New England with its stubby bottle and tiny label. Later it would go to the impressive silk-screened long neck, Black Horse Ale, Pickwick Ale, Ballantine’s or the rare Ballantine’s I.P.A that was actually and truly aged in wood for 9 months. Narragansett and Haffenreffer and Black Label pounders. I wrote this poem for Hal in 1979:
ONE FOR HAL
The two of us on Route 2 that afternoon
Were a vision of our own time:
Drinking pint bottles of malt liquor,
Singing the naked melodies
Of the open road.
The broken muffler, a low ringing
As we climbed out of the dark valley;
The sun etching the telephone wires,
White gold against the purple shadow of evening;
The pale clouds cut by the black poles,
We follow the two ever-changing curves of the road.
We reach the hill pass, light blinding our eyes,
Our pipes filling the car with a blue soul.
Then the hairpin
Down into the cool shade of the valley again,
Through the tunnel of brick factory-lined streets
We stop in search of better beer;
You a quiet image through the package store window,
I watch the working girls heading home.
And my thoughts:
Like the infinite sun-exposed specks of the windshield,
Like my memories.
You return with two racks of dark bottles,
Ballantine’s aged one year in the wood,
And we reenter the script of the moist dusk.
And our voices:
The whining of the hot tires on pavement,
The cap popped off a cold ale.
And these words, this voice, our voice
I give you,
A prayer to what we have left.
The above 50 inch pencil drawing was given to Jake MacKenzie who lives in Monkton, Vermont. Here I am with Jake (photograph below) in my hometown of Gorham, New Hampshire the morning after I presented the framed drawing to Jake at the Town & Country Motor Inn. As an aside, I believe the drawing is worth three times what Jake’s home is worth. “Might be a first, eh?” Not that I don’t like Jake’s trailer and home!
After the obligatory visit with Hal—at least I rarely stayed more than an overnight and always took Hal out to the Spring Hills Diner for supper—Kris and I headed for Providence to search out the friends who had lived over Duke’s Poolroom on the third floor. It was bizarrely hot, but the Porsche seemed to run fine in almost any temperature condition—from -15 to over 100 degrees f. As I’ve said, 356 Porsches were phenomenal cars as they left the factory; it was the carelessness of American owners who ruined them.
But when we reached Providence, stopping at a bizarre massage parlor in a cement strip of 1970s buildings (nothing quite as ugly ever again) on the way down, everyone I knew had long since moved on. It felt strange, maybe for the first time in my life, to sense that things did not last. When I returned to Providence during the 1990s, the entire area I knew had been razed.
We left the heat of the city and pointed the Porsche to Cape Cod, for the cool air as much as anything else. Heat or not, Kris was still yelling his Mille Miglia cry of joy. It should be noted that Kris at this time smoked pot continually—from the moment he awoke to when he settled for the night. He even swallowed the roach ends, telling me that the more THC in his system the better. I, on the other hand, never touched the stuff, and felt that it did not improve Kris’s insensitivity or obnoxious arrogance.
Rich Bruce’s mother had an amazing house in Woods Hole that was just off the main road on the right before the draw bridge approaching the sleepy downtown that it was in 1975 because Martha’s Vineyard had not been “discovered” yet. We called Rich, and spend a few days with him and his wonderful mom, Edith, a true free-thinker from the old school. She was the stuff!
That night we swam in the calm black ocean, which after the long drive and the blazing city was everything you wanted it to be. I should point out that Rich was a fair match for Gregory Peck during his 20s, so when we drank draft beer at the crowded Captain Kid that evening, I didn’t even consider talking to girls, assuming no female would choose a misshappen aardvark over two tall well-built movie star types. Women were always on my mind, and I must say, Kris for all his faults, has been obsessed with females his entire life as a true Sicilian should be. He truly loves women. Not that many men do, regardless of anything.
Even on the phone today, and even with PD, he talked glowingly about a young woman whom he met on the train returning from seeing my drawing exhibition in New York at A/M/Y. It was wonderful to hear him sounding happy. PD is a cruel way for anyone to end their days, and having watched his father gradually being submerged by the disease doesn’t improve matters. And one thing about Kris Marsala is that he’s as tough as they come. I’ve never heard a single whine from him in 57 years of friendship. “Cheers, old old friend!”
Above is my photo of Kris, below is Kris’s photo of himself.
And Kris and the woman he rejected. He claimed her smell did not appeal to him. A perfectionist! I know the issue!
Kris when he OWNED late night TV talk and Letterman was a pawn.
And the PROOF! These days, the honor of your word seems to be not enough. You are losing out so much of what makes a life great!
Kris and I could not have been more different when we first met again after high school. Of course I never finished high school, leaving after my junior year to attend RISD. And although I’d known Kris since I was two, being a couple years older than me, and being the most popular boy in school, he ignored me when our parents got together.
I was an original outsider, and although students knew who I was (because the much-loved anthropology teacher gave a lecture about me being the only unconditioned student he had ever encountered in 20 years of teaching), I was always by myself, eating my mother’s strange lunches outside behind the school—winter or summer—never in the cafeteria, or hanging out at an abandoned farm or in the extensive freight yards around Neenah, Wisconsin where the family had moved from New England in 1971. And I was working on my painting up to 14 hours a day. Painting bugged me. It challenged me. It annoyed me. I never wanted to be a painter. I had wanted to be a poet. But when I began selling work as a teenager . . . and Kris’s dad Chuck was one of the first people to buy my work. Edie called him from the Midwest where she had fallen for two of my paintings and couldn’t decide which one to purchase. Chuck’s response? “Buy ’em both.” That was another $825 in 1974, and I’d learned by 1975 not to loan my dad any more money.
Kris’s father had done very well in the car business, had a huge AMC Rambler dealership with a body shop and multiple bay repair shop called State Street Body Works. The family was wealthy by my standards, with an in-ground pool, a white living room, with white shag carpet, white brick fireplace and a grand piano (black), full five-stool bar with neon lights and pool table in the basement where I always slept, a cottage on the river, and Kris always had a free Rambler of his choosing and a gas card! This was amazing to me, who was always loaning his broke father money and who grew up in four-room ranch houses. The Marsala mansion even had a drawbridge heading to the front doors, which I can’t remember ever being used. They even had a TV room with a massive color set and wraparound sofa, where as my family never owned even a B&W.
Kris was a hugely popular guy in Watertown along with his steady, the gorgeous Lisa Beaverson, who would soon enough dump him and run off with an older balding bee keeper. I’m not sure Kris ever got over this first great disappointment in his life. He used to say, “So, you know, I asked her how it was with the bee asshole, and she looked me right in the eye and grinned, ‘It hurt! Is that what you want to hear? And I loved it!’ Jee-sus! Talk about cruel,” Kris would moan. But all said and done, Kris had an addictive cool, a tough powerful style that matched the body, was an amazingly fast runner and had a hilarious dry sense of humor. Of course, he also wanted to be an artist and a poet and a singer. He would eventually have a successful cable talk show called “The Krazy Kris Show” that even Letterman liked.
Kris also had perfect skin, which I much envied, not to mention the massive arms and chest like Marlon Brando that Kris always showed if the temperature was above freezing, Watertown having a much more severe climate than New England besides northern Maine. So there I was, extremely skinny, uneven complexion, yet I must have had something Kris wanted because he latched onto me. I guess I’ve never really known what it was.
I took driving very seriously and my father had begun to train me in racing moves on gravel (because of my begging) at about 14 years old. I practiced incessantly, as I did with anything I wanted to master, and by 16 I could double clutch, had a perfect toe-heel change, could slide cars in the wet as well as the dry, could shift without touching the clutch if needed, could spin a car using the handbrake at speed, and so forth.
I always wore Italian leather racing gloves, and each section of a road run was like a race for me. In the 356 Porsche, I was only passed three times on secondary roads over the years I had it, once by a Lotus, once by a 911 Porsche, and annoyingly once by a Chevrolet Nova hotrod that pulled beside me at over 100 mph and then simply disappeared—laughing. I was the only kid who passed the driving test on my first try. If you made even the slightest error, you flunked. I had a perfect test. This really annoyed Eric Murphy and Peter Verbrick, my two high school friends.
Leaving Rich Bruce, such a gentle quiet soul back then, we headed out through Edward Hopper territory to the tip of the Cape. When we decided at mid-afternoon to swim, I was arrested by a female cop for nudity. I always swam naked, so at first I figured it was a joke. It wasn’t, and she almost cuffed me! Being naked, I wasn’t carrying any identification, so we walked back to the 356 together, I feeling odd naked next to a female cop; I was shy then about my physicality. But on seeing the car, she offered to forgo my ticket if I gave her a ride. I agreed. “Now, how do you want me to drive? Are you going to give me a ticket for speeding or reckless driving?” She told me to go for it, and believe me, I gave her the ride of her life. When we returned to the impatient Kris she was quite flushed. “Wow, that was simply amazing.” This might be a first and last.
Gayness wasn’t the same in 1975 as it is now, in the sense that it wasn’t overt or even particularly interesting. None of the friends I knew cared if you were gay or not—it just wasn’t an issue. Fine either way was my feeling, and I was actually attacked once on a train in Europe when I was 13. Being a soccer player I destroyed the rapist’s shins. Then at 14 I was accosted in the middle of the night waiting for a bus in Portland, Maine. Later, after riding freights and hurting my head jumping off a train stupidly, I was messed with in the restroom of the Spokane, Washington bus station. Even with these occurrences, all of which I easily deflected, I’ve never had an issues with anyone’s sexuality, excepting the two fat lesbian neighbors who insisted on exhibiting their preference every Sunday morning when I walked to our barn. It wasn’t a problem besides that it was so unattractive seeing all that blubber against blubber rolling around moaning, particularly when severely hung over.
Provincetown in 1975 had a lot of homosexuals. Kris and I, always intently looking for girls, couldn’t figure out what seemed different. Kris of course immediately picked up a luscious English girl, Penelope, in a lunchroom where we had gone for a sandwich and a coffee. She explained the situation to us, and suddenly the bulb lit.
That evening, the three of us went to Penelope’s favorite tavern, and I spent the evening hustling pool. I made an inordinate amount of money, well over a hundred dollars. It was almost as if all these gay guys just wanted to give me money. They were amazingly friendly and funny, and I had a tremendously good time. After about three hours, I went to check on the love birds. Kris was apparently in the washroom, I’m sure to smoke more pot. I sat down beside Penelope and said the obvious, “You have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.” I said it because it was true. The palest blue, huge, dark prominent lashes against the whitest skin.
Kris ended up sleeping in a rubber boat on Penelope’s porch, and when it began to rain during the night, the boat quietly filled with water. Kris was the proverbial wet hen in the morning. I was crazy about Penelope. A few months later when I returned from Europe, I visited her at her college in Maryland, but she had another boyfriend by then. She was too gorgeous to leave alone for months, and I was as far from settling down as a boy could be. We sat in the manicured lawn outside her dorm room, my Porsche looking stunning in the late afternoon sunlight. I took three early autumn leaves and carefully removed the centers as we talked. When I painted Penelope that winter from a nude drawing I’d done that Provincetown morning, I painted in the three leaves.
The next summer, Penelope sent me a drawing she had done of herself naked against a flaming sunset. It was a pretty terrible watercolor, but I loved the pure gesture and sentiment of it. By then I was involved with the French one. There are so many misses in life.
Early 1980s, when I invented (kidding) the mullet, which Kris later claimed as his own. Yes, he did look much better in it, but what some smart girls noticed (I found out way too late) was the package. No idea what that means.
Warning: Mature Content to Follow in This Section
The street in Providence, Rhode Island were I blasted my 356, that wonderful exhaust echoing. Duke’s Billiards—I lived above it for a few months—would’ve been on the left, the Greek diner with the generous 25-cent soup was right of the movie palace, which was called the Ocean in 1975.
Kris and I dropped straight down through Vermont to Hal Stowell’s cabin. Hal was my tremendous hero through this era, and of course he had magically appeared after Andrea kicked me out the winter before. I’ve never told the truth about why Andrea kicked me out, but I suppose there is no reason to hold back now.
Her obsession with me was because of the book The Little Prince, which was her great childhood favorite, and I still have her copy that she gave me sandwiched on a low dark shelf in the library of our house, her name written in childish huge letters. When she saw me that evening at the RISD I was wearing a self-designed handmade suit of pale yellow cotton duck. I had traded Betsy Carlson a painting since she was a talented seamstress. Andi introduced herself, and after I left the college the next morning, we began to correspond. Then, I hitchhiked that winter in 1974 to visit her at her beckoning. [This has all been written about in a former entry.]
The suit a couple months old in 1973, Gorham, New Hampshire, the author writing! The author rarely wore anything except that suit. Even the belt was pale yellow cotton duck and thin as a crayon, the buttons including the fly were hand-carved maple.
What I’ve never told about my week with her (and ignored in my poem about her) is that she went to a doctor to have herself fitted with a diaphragm so we could fuck. During the doctor visit she found out her college professor (she was in her final year at RISD and was getting her senior show in painting together) had not only given her an STD and made her pregnant, but he was also flunking her. Her fury and anger were overwhelming as she was a very upper-class spoiled girl and had never had to deal with anything negative before. As my roommate for one week recently e-mailed me (and I paraphrase):
“But then I remember you landed this crazy cute rich chick and you still bailed. The two of you — just can’t imagine her living in the woods when she was hob nabbing with the likes of Dick Cavette the TV guy in NYC swish splendor. I saw her at various swish soho parties. I always had secondary (not good) thoughts about her although she was an extremely attractive young lady. And had ambitions, whatever they were, way beyond mine.”
I tenderly held and soothed Andi’s sobbing body for a day or so, took her out to eat at fancy joints until I was broke, and then she simply asked me to leave. I felt an overwhelming emotional attachment (love?) for her because of having shared so much, so quickly, but she never gave me another thought after the lightning struck. I’m always amazed by people who can be that self-serving and cold.
As a footnote, I tracked her down online recently, and actually contacted one of her former husbands—a famous and nice enough guy. But, ha! She still refused to have anything to do with me.
Taken in one of those photo booths that were in bus stations. Providence, January, 1974, I was 17 by less than a few weeks, Andrea Shapiro (Andi Shapiro) was 21. Think of that!
COAST There is something about a cold June morning, And you’re leaning against your beat 356 Porsche, And the sun has been soaking into the metal, So it’s warm against your back, You shivering a bit in a T-shirt, But it’s okay because you know That the day will be sweltering as You drive Down East. The day opens in a way nothing else can. You are alive in a way only the true road gives: No plans, no expectations, no worries, no fear, For this is Maine, this is your home state because Some place must always be home, oh, vagabond. Each of our pasts seems to move backwards. It recedes and we reach out to hold it tight, But time gives no favors and no slights, It just quietly travels on. As The antiqued diner with a mottled bar top Those classic diner smells, so embracing As the wind lifts salt brine off clam flats A generally nasty smell but now— And you think, “My God, I do exist.” Forgive the false cloven hoof, For today I chase you from sight, For no evil can withstand such Obvious joy within absolute humility. Because when you truly understand the road, The only way to survive is to become nothing. Just surviving is enough, completely enough And that is its beauty and truth.
Poem written in 2017
The Maine Coast has always been my favorite place on Earth, and to live here is a daily joy. I simply like everything about it, and the true Mainers exemplify what I admire in people as well, although I’ve always preferred animals and nature to most people. After all, I’m misanthropic, melancholic, quite agoraphobic now, as well as germaphobic and reclusive—a hermit who loves only one woman and one cat—a Maine Coon of course. Perfect combination of attributes for mid-coast Maine.
Kris and I stopped in Boston to visit Peter C. and after I took him through the streets of the city at intolerable speed, I noticed the tires looked peculiar. It was the dirty canvas backing protruding through the rubber in far too many spots; overly energetic hard 4-wheel drifts on dry pavement will do that. New Uniroyals fitted (funny I remember the tire manufacturer), we pointed north after a good night’s sleep at Peter’s family’s glorious apartment in Cambridge filled with rare harpsichords and spinets that his father had collected or made. Poor Kris’s night was far drier, mine far less wet, but all road heroes need sleep on occasion.
It began to feel like Maine when we stopped at L.L. Beans. If you’ve never been there in the 1970s or earlier, you’ve never been there. It was simply the best then, and no wonder it became so famous.
But also the narrow passage up to the old Bath bridge, such a rumble over the metal grid, which I attacked just a tick under 80 mph, and the nostalgic pass through Wiscasset ( these wonderful NA names!), the sinking schooners still signaling the glorious windjammer past with a rotten wooden mast or two before they eventually vanished. How I loved the sight of those schooners as a boy.
Of course NOTHING says Maine to me more than Moody’s Diner. Why is this photograph taken a month ago so unusual?
Because the clock is near noon and the place is empty! Moody’s still looks great but it was heaven itself in 1975, appearing exactly as it did in the 1950s. The tiny washrooms could make a grown man cry, and that yellow counter that you see in the photo was the same yellow counter Kris and I sat at, rubbed our summer-tanned forearms across. What wonderful sensibilities to keep something like that and not to change it, but that’s the gift of a family owned business that stretches for generations. The hot turkey sandwich on a grilled homemade biscuit!
For me, the memorable part of the whole trip was now. We stopped at the Smiling Cow in Camden, the place where I’d purchased my first art supplies in the 1960s—simple felt-tip pens and sketchbook pads of drawing paper—and after walking out onto the back porch over the tidal river, gazing at Camden harbor, we realized (were told) that the last Islesboro ferry was leaving in under five minutes.
Okay, I’m guessing here, but I would wager few cars have ever passed that distance quicker than that blue coupe on that June afternoon. Gloves on, I was flat out—and Eric Green in 1975 in his Porsche 356A was pretty quick. I 4-wheel drifted (new Uniroyals!) off Route 1 as the ferry was just inching away from the slip. The lads on the boat, GOD bless them! signaled, and I jumped the slight difference to cooly place the 356 on the boat deck. Kris, of course, was calling out his mantra with wicked abandon. It was one of those crystalline moments that few get more than once. There, Kris! We will always have that.
1992 oil on linen painting of Route 2 approaching the White Mountains along the Androscoggin River near probably Bethel.
Kris and I visited Uncle Don (in name only) who had a house on Islesboro and whom I’d known since 1970 when I first visited the island. Many of my firsts happened on Islesboro, like skinny dipping at night with girls at fourteen, or smoking my first corncob pipe, bought off the rack at the country store there, with Borkum Riff because I wanted to connect myself with the square-riggers printed on the pouch. Uncle Don thought I was brilliant for figuring out how to drill a hole in a hand-carved pipe stem. I burned it through with a red-hot piano wire heated on the gas stove. I learned from Mitch the other day that this was how Mainers made syrup spiles out of sumac. As an aside, my father could’ve bought 8 prime waterfront acres in 1968 for 2k. “Not a good buy,” he claimed to convince my mother who was all for it. “No one will ever want to deal with that ferry.” Thanks, Dad.
Donna was Uncle Don’s daughter and she was getting married the next day at eighteen years old, my age. It seemed way too young to get married although I would marry just a year later. To celebrate a kind of co-ed bachelor party, the three of us set off around the island in the Porsche with lots of beer. I think it was Tuborg or Labatts. We ended up next to the ocean in a moonlit bit of beach. Somehow I was invited to Donna’s top half and Kris to her bottom half. The three of us enjoyed this greatly until it was discovered that Donna’s grandmother’s engagement ring had vanished, which she desperately needed in mere hours. We sifted sand until dawn, and strangely I can’t remember if we ever found that ring or not. I do remember the sad weary blueness of all that sand in the hung-over dawn—we all felt terrible. Donna got married that day, and Kris and I slunk off on the early ferry back to the mainland.
The ferry docked at Lincolnville Beach where I had camped so many times during my past hitchhiking days. We stopped in Belfast, but once again could not find Sam Appleton although his restaurant was finished and operating. Leaving Belfast during that era, I always took the Moosehead Trail and then Route 137 through the rolling dairy farms. Same route I hitchhiked in 1973. I always utilized roads with cool names like the Mohawk Trail or the Pilgrim Highway, which filled me with romantic ideals.
Most early Maine roads were built across ridges and then they dip down to water—streams, rivers, lakes, where the towns congregate around since water was so vital. Dirt path from settlement to settlement, which were eventually widened and then paved, missing the correct base of gravel and drainage to prevent frost heaves. We drove past the paper mills of Skowhegan and Rumford, the stench in Mexico all but unbearable, an actual slap to the face and then an immediate sleeve to nostrils. It reminded me of Gorham when the Brown Company reek blew down the Androscoggin River. Of course I adored all this kind of thing back then, and still know a lot about paper mills and paper making, all my father’s inventions being within that industry.
Entering the White Mountains and arriving in your hometown, driving an early 356 Porsche, your own Porsche at the age of eighteen, after driving with your father so many times in his Porsches is a feeling beyond words. Past the Shelburne Birches, past Reflection Pond, past the Town & Country Motor Lodge, over the railroad tracks and the Peabody river (pronounced Pibbidy river) and up the steep drive to Prospect Terrace and the last house of three, my Godmother’s grand Queen Anne Victorian. Oh man, oh man!
Of course we played straight pool at Archies and drank a couple birch beers, a pop which I’ve never seen outside of New Hampshire. And for the one and only time Kris beat me at straight pool. He couldn’t miss a shot—perhaps the exact blend of pot and lack of sleep. I kept going outside to admire the sight of my beautiful blue coupe parked next to my favorite ever poolroom.
This acrylic on panel painting done in 1977, the first version of which Chuck Marsala bought in 1976.
We went to a bar then, probably up in Berlin, maybe the Club Joliette de Raccateurs, and at about midnight, I decided we would head for Lake Placid where Kris had a girlfriend he wanted to visit. I remember this old guy who owned the gas station where Route 16 joins Route 2 which then sets out alone for Vermont across the north slopes of the White Mountains, this old guy, really drunk, turned on one of his pumps so we could gas up, a lovely gesture, Kris and I then push-starting the 356 up the slight incline that became the enormous rise of Gorham Hill.
My godmother’s porch in Gorham, with parents and my godmother in cast. I loved those field stone steps and rebuilt them for free during the 1980s.
The house that began my obsession with Victorians and large houses in general. Hal Stowell and his Volkswagen the summer of 1972 when we drove from Massachusetts to Prince Edward Island to catch the total eclipse of the sun. That is another entire road trip story, which began many of the rituals that followed through the years. I must have been 15.
The headlights began to dim to the point where I simply had to shut them off just to keep enough juice in the system to fire the plugs through the coil and distributor. I stopped a few times to whack the voltage regulator, but the old generator was too worn to do much good. (Soon Inky Wardwell and I would replace the brushes in Sacks Harbor.) Kris kept falling asleep, and his head would snap backwards cruelly into nothingness because the Porsche seats did not include headrests. He’d wake from the pain, mumble illegibly and then repeat. This must have happened fifty times. It was a glorious run while the moon was out, but bizarrely dangerous when the clouds closed over our only light, and I put the car into a few panic slides to keep her from the void of true darkness and disaster. Kris bizarrely slept through it all.
I had not at this point memorized Route 2 from so many crossings as I have now. Of course in the last ten years much of the road has been straightened, and I no longer take the original pure Route 2 run through Lancaster, New Hampshire to cross the Connecticut River at Lunenberg, Vermont and enter what Stan Walker always called “The Waste Lands.”
The dawn lightened the world when we reached Rouses Point and Lake Champlain. I stopped the Porsche and simply got out and lay down exactly on the center white line, the lake perfectly reflecting the rose colored sky to become one like a vision of God. I was so elated I wasn’t even really tired although I was entering my third day without any sleep. I felt the cold damp Macadam on my back, I heard the 1500 tick as she cooled, I looked up at the sky and knew I had done it, achieved it, truly felt it—the road, the blessed road. 15 minutes of silence and bliss. Then I gave the car a light push, jumped back in, slipped the clutch in second gear and off we continued.
That black night, came out of black hills
Tired headlights eyeing the endless road.
Quiet constant: vision of one slant pole
Curving white line into the damp fog.
Last midnight gas, tired old drunk filling the tank,
Push-started, our heads bouncing with beer.
The old Porsche grinding out the distance,
Hill curves out of Vermont,
Kris your head snapping back in sleep,
Bridge into New York State,
Rose dawn falling in a clouded Lake Champlain,
Earth smell, the last sip
In a broken Thermos of coffee.
The toll bridge into New York State took our last coins leaving us 17 cents. I begged the sleepy guy in the booth—I’d woken him and could’ve just driven right by—but he insisted we pay. Now we didn’t have quite enough money for coffee, and we really NEEDED coffee more than the state needed our 50 cents. I couldn’t get on a pool table till afternoon, and I hated to play broke. It was poor ethics although sometimes it was unavoidable. That said, I very rarely lost when hustling. And then we arrived at the girlfriend’s apartment and Kris disappeared with her, as I fell asleep on a dirty sofa. It was about 8 a.m. on a Friday morning in late June 1975. That road run had ended. They all do . . .
Now, if you reread this poem, you’ll probably understand where every line came from:
On light wings we came
Following pretty girls in old cars,
Salt brine reaching our nostrils
Steaming from our pores.
With our youthful energy
Pulled the ripe scent of the country
Into the hanging mouth of the city
Noon sun flooding the windshield.
We found the familiar Poolroom
But all friends had since moved away,
Those times left in the dusty stale air
And on the wide dark stairs.
New addresses, an old Italian barber
giving us directions (a hundred hands)
We found only empty warehouses,
The freight yard with
Its barren ghost noises
Thus hot and bare-chested
We drove past the city blocks
(Dark-skinned girls gleaming on the cement corners)
Listening to the wailing strains of Charlie Parker,
Rolling smokes, gunning up the highway
Under nameless signs, The humid afternoon
Blasting through the windows
Into our hair.
Then the sun settling, spinning itself
Into the dusk-black sands of Cape Cod.
First lights blinking on,
Blushing evening, brush-stroke moon.
Other friends found with lone pay phone,
Hot coffee thoughts,
The last easy miles,
Grinning faces at the cambered porch,
The outstretched blue arms of the Atlantic.
Midnight we swam,
Salty, cold, naked, dangling,
We yelling into that huge caldron night,
The moon a perfect scratch in the blackened metal:
Silver, new, curled—and our voices
seasoning the mild ever-retreating air.
The morning opened
Hinged on the horizon of the ocean,
We followed the coastline north, uncomplaining
Hungry for every moment,
The small Porsche our home,
The glove box lid our table,
Eating powdered sugar donuts,
Splashing down sweating cartons
Of cold milk.
Kris, your straight nose in the sun,
Your hairless chest shining,
Your eyes licking the long green hills.
So the miles laid themselves short,
So we tore them off as if the road
Was a long strip of paper,
So we saw all the tanned faces
Followed all the trucks
Smelled the summer night deep
The silver ocean,
Rumbled by all the June days
Like a kick stone down a smooth hill.
That last night at Hal’s cabin,
We three rattled over dusty dirt roads
To the Spring Hill Diner.
And under the flickering neon,
We grumbled out of drunk night
To the bright white counter,
The wall menu, the thick cups of coffee.
Hal went to bed early that night
As he does often now:
His energy burning out early,
His poetry like a long-since-shaved beard,
Life hung on his strong shoulders
Like great flour sacks of earth,
His days hard beside an angry woman.
Yet still his eyes searched out
The fruit of the night
Its juice wetting his lips.
That last night, over the last beers,
Our words grafted us together;
The beer cold in the swooning June air,
Flies aiming for a hole in the sky.
Your eagerness lighting in your smooth face,
Your ego like a draft,
Your lack of attachment supposedly a vision.
We slept on the cabin floor,
Morning the rooster woke us,
Hal rummaging back
Into the pattern of his days:
A clean shirt
His honest good-bye
A poet’s finesse
Still on his eyebrows,
In an angry world.
Both poems written by Eric Green in 1975
1952, 1975, 2018; Father, Son, Orphan:
The Real 356: An investigation into Ways to Live
I have been bothered for a while trying to understand verbally what makes a car a “real” 356. Is it a vin. number? Is it the COA? Is it matching number body panels, engine and transmition numbers? Is a replica, a real 356? Does it have to be made by Porsche? What if over 50% of the parts are NOS Porsche but the rest isn’t? What if it started as a rusted lawn planter and you replaced everything with fake parts but have a good vin. number and a COA? What makes it a real 356? And why are real 356s so appealing where as fakes are not? And then it hit me . . .
A real 356 is an emotional feeling. It comes from a certain smell, a feel to the Reutter seat, The rough wool carpet against your palm, the way the machine slots down a curvy road at speed, the delighted wail of the air-cooled 4, the thin hard wheel in your hands, the way nature seems to be in the car as much as around it (Amanda said it was basically a motorcycle on four wheels). And most important—the way the moment seems to be in your heart. It is a rare state of being alive and being in an object that you know is amazingly beautiful and near perfection. And this is why James Dean, Steve McQueen, and Marshall Green, my father, loved them. These were really cool handsome guys, cool because they were sensitive and compassionate, and also fearless and tough as hewn oak, and they wanted a ride that matched them. In tandem with the perfect machine, they knew what was possible! The immaculate glory and emotion of the open road.
I have it worse than most. I was conceived in one of those Reutter passenger seats according to my mother, who freely offered all the information I really didn’t want to hear. My first memory was as a baby looking up out of my basket placed on the folded down rear seats, looking up through the rear glass of that 1952 coupe at the rain being carelessly illuminated by the streetlights of my hometown, Gorham, New Hampshire, 1958 likely when I was two. It was being beaten up about every week at school in Massachusetts because I dared to defend the value of my father’s then 1961 356B coupe. Porsches were distained or worse hated: “Upside-down bathtub, fancy Volkswagen Bug, Nazi piece of shit.” That although the Austrian Komenda had designed the body. Americans didn’t like them mainly because they didn’t have the patience or intelligent skill to maintain and repair them correctly. They required a new way of thinking, and too many Americans can be obnoxiously inflexible and ignorant.
In the fall of 1975, I was walking along a Brown University hallway in Providence, Rhode Island when I was inexplicably drawn to a hand-written file card tacked to a bulletin board. It read:
1956 Porsche 356A 1600S For Sale.
Without any logic or good sense I decided I had to purchase that very car. I had been living above Duke’s Poolroom, sleeping on the floor in a tattered black raincoat I had bought in a general store on Isleboro, Maine for a dime. I had been near starving, scouring the bleak windy streets for lost change, hustling pool when I had any money to hustle with, too proud to beg. I was seventeen years old but would turn eighteen on December 1stand my father owed me $1,500 he had borrowed, money I’d made selling paintings. But he finally return the debt, and I bought that very 356 eight days after my birthday and promptly drove it over 30 hours west through heavy snows and 10 below zero in Cleveland, Ohio without any heat in the cockpit, and I had the 356 bug in me forever. I had discovered—the feeling, the magical illusiveit. A feeling that only comes from a 356. And my 356A was as my father impolitely pointed out to me—a junker. Still, the junker got me across America many times, and through New England with a style that can’t be rivaled. The car makes you cool although I never realized it at the time. For me it was simply in my blood, and as I always said, if the 356 is running correctly, it’s as if our two fluids are joined, her oil in my veins, and my blood in hers. That is a real356.
But . . .
After driving through 5 hours of blizzard in 1978, I had to take the old Stage Coach Road in northern Vermont because I dreamed I was Stirling Moss, or could drive like Stirling Moss, my only hero (stupidly, I found myself still doing this just months ago), and the road hadn’t been plowed in at least an hour. And on the final hill, forced to driving at near 55 mph just to maintain momentum through the deep snow, as I took the final down slope, now reveling in the fact I had actually made it to my parent’s rental home once I reached the bottom of the hill, the 356 nosed into a major drift and began to sled or toboggan on the pan, and it dropped very gently over a slight ravine and headed at growing speed toward a 1 acre open field. There was no controlling the car—no steering, no brakes, nothing. And in the center of that field was one 100 year old oak post. Nothing else but that one post. And like a fucking magnet that had been waiting 100 years for my beautiful 356 junker . . . yup! Perfect dead center collision cutting off the post.
I ran through the snow crying, the tears freezing, and I couldn’t bear that I had wrecked the thing I loved most. Sold her and bought a 122S with a P-1800 racing engine. But it would not be the same again—or so I thought. And every damn year I watched the prices of 356s rise as my art career did nothing. At 40k for a good one, I threw in my garage rag and gave up. Yet . . . the Celt doesn’t quit easily. Who else would slave every day for 45 years without any recognition or even a paycheck?
Then, after 45 years of being ignored, suddenly sales of my work rocketed. The first show titled Time Diptychs earned a quarter of a million dollars, and that was just the beginning. It soon enough dawned on me I could buy anything Porsche except a good original 550 Spyder and a few of the rare 356 Carreras.
But . . .
I had harbored a fantasy all my life. It was to do what my father did, and order a custom made early 356 just as I wanted it. Every color, every fabric, every curve, every single thing would be exactly as I dreamed it, and believe me, I knew exactly what I craved having had 40 years to consider it. And I realized with surprise that the last thing I wanted was another old worn out 356, or paying for a restoration and relying on someone else’s honesty to fulfill my dream. It was after all—my dream. I thought of Rod Emory, and he would’ve been a reasonable choice, but I believed I could figure another way. And I did. And the last thousand miles my wife Amanda and I took from Belfast, Maine to the north shore of Prince Edward Island was perfect. Simply a dream come true, and it was WAY better than I ever imagined. It was the full 356 experience times . . . you pick a number. It was it.
Which brings me to the new breed of owner, the ones with the 100 point restorations, the numbers matching trailered, pampered gorgeous Carreras that are started maybe once a year with great trepidation. And they stand next to their gloriously polished machines on manicured lawns with other like-minded folks, and grin because they think the have something special. To me you look like those pathetic misguided idiots who have their photo taken with the lion they have slain, their ugly expensive boot on the lion’s head, holding some ridiculously powerful firearm. (Let’s go in the woods together. We will each have an ancient recurve bow and 6 hunting arrows. Then we will will find out who you are.) And the new 356 owners have come to the party too late, ruined it for the rest of us, and have missed the entire point of why a 356 is so wonderful, and why James Dean and Steve McQueen and Marshall Green loved them so much. I have one bit of advice:
Get in the damn perfect Carrera and drive it as fast as you can (or faster than you can) on only back roads across America and maybe, maybe, just for one brief moment you might get a glimpse of what the poetry of the 356 moment is, and how that machine is one giving fucking enabler. It is not a trophy to hang on your wall with the lion’s head and the woman who likely married you for the wrong reason and is now realizing she is paying for every cent. Seriously—go do it now. You will thank me!
For my father—dead now for over 35 years—Marshall S. Green. Dad, thank you for understanding in 1951 that this was one of the most beautiful cars ever. There are many wonderful Ferraris, Maseratis, Bugattis, Jaguars, etc., but they are all very male in their looks and aggressive stance. The 356 is the only truly feminine car body, and I find women more beautiful than men. But that’s just me.
40 years is a long time to wait to fulfill a dream of honoring your father who died broke and forgotten and denied his legacy in the automobile world, the model airplane world, and the paper-making world. I am going to correct that as long as I am still alive.
Here, we will concentrate on my father’s automotive history. He created sports car racing in Canada with Jack Luck in 1951. He bought a very early MG TC. He raced a highly modified TD for the MG factory, which was undefeated until it came up against a very early Glockler-Porsche in 1951. My dad immediately contacted Ferry Porsche in Germany and bought the first 356 in Canada in 1952, which arrived in May of that year (vin 11560). Understand, he was still at home living with his mother (awful woman) in Montreal and accomplished this on an engineer’s meager wages. My dad never even knew what a silver spoon was. Nor would he have cared.
These movies arrived yesterday. This was the first time I saw the car actually driving, this 356 I’d envisioned over a 40 year period. I had planned for about every detail, including the exhaust sound, but what I did not plan on was this: I burst into tears on seeing and hearing it DRIVE. And that’s what this car is for and only for: to drive the open road. “Cheers, Dad! We did it!”
Just got off the telephone from talking with Rod from Llyod’s of Lone Pine. I bought my second cowboy hat—a Resistol felt—in 1991 from him. It was great to chat, and I hope to stop by and see him, and buy another hat, on the Quantum Run in May.
From my novel: A Repair Manual for New England Melancholiacs:
Chapter NineAs the sun cleared the Inyo Mountains and surfaced into a faultless sky, they sputtered in the direction of Lone Pine. The town lay squat and quiet, the wide main street with its wooden buildings like a Hollywood set awaiting a gunfight. On the right was the Silver Buckle Cafe.Inside, lacquered pine walls embraced the smells of coffee, bacon, sizzling potatoes, and toast. Tables covered in red and white checkered oilcloth glistened in sunshine, each with an identical still life of glass and chrome, a menu vertical between the familiar shapes. A waitress walked over with a steaming Silex and the roadside greeting, “Coffee?” more of a statement than a question since it was already pouring.They scraped the last poached eggs and hash browns from the stoneware plates. Pam excused herself. When she returned, he headed off with toothbrush and razor. Breakfast on the road is more than just food. They left the restaurant and clunked along a wooden sidewalk that fronted a row of commercial buildings. Mount Whitney, silvered by the crystalline light, hovered above the town. They stood a moment inhaling the cool air, the sun already hot on their faces. “Now doesn’t this feel like the West?” she said. They walked again. “Hey, look, let’s go in here.”The place smelled of leather the way a sawmill smells of freshly cut lumber. She rubbed the saddles, her graceful hand casually encircling a horn, her eyes finding his. She was always teasing him, and he didn’t know what to do about it. They wandered around examining all the riding gear, the cowboy and cowgirl paraphernalia. He noticed a flock of ten-gallon Stetsons along a wall, found one that fit—a Panama straw with Professional Bull Rider stamped inside the band—and the Eastern Dude in him flared uncontrollably. When he showed her, she laughed hysterically. Though he knew he had to conserve what little was left of his money, he bought it anyway.There’s a settling point in the drama of loss where the bottom dweller finds unusual pleasure in small things. As he viewed his image in the full-length mirror, he certainly realized that some might see him as a lean fool, but he’d always wanted a cowboy hat and, Pam’s laughter aside, thought he looked pretty damn sharp in it.They sent Greg a postcard with a red Greetings from Lone Pine, California across a high-noon view of town. It looked pretty much the same on that distant sixties’ day, only the cars were vintage. The Rambler would’ve fit right in. He drew a quick sketch of himself with hat, jacket, and sideburns accentuated, under which he penciled, Best, Eastern Dude, still unwanted, still on the loose.At the junction of Routes 395 and 136, there was a cluster of large leafy trees that formed a gateway to Death Valley and the east. Once they’d passed through that gateway, it was as if they’d entered another world. The land was so open and barren, he could feel it flowing into him, affecting him strangely.“This place is so empty,” he said. “It’s like we’ve shrunk.”“The desert,” she said. “You’re used to trees. Have you ever been in a desert?”He hadn’t, but he felt unusually safe and peaceful. They were alone with the earth—no trees, no other cars, only a few vaporous clouds dusting distant mountains. Monstrous yet graceful slopes of sand ambled to the road, which curved in a gentle arc to the horizon. They motored toward that horizon, the cinemascope of the windshield ever changing.
The cowboy hat I purchased from Rod in 1991 below.
Thanks to Allan Stallard for the amazing voiceover. I spent two days in an 18 degree closet, and after 42 voiceover attempts, I tossed in the proverbial rag. And rightfully so. Allan, this gives me shivers every time I listen to it. Thanks to Derek as well for the superlative images.
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