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.
1952, 1975, 2018; Father, Son, Orphan:
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.
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.
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!
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.
These photos are by the incomparable Amanda Green. Please choose 10 out of 15 and contact either Eric Green or Allan Stallard at Animal Media. They will be used for display around a Quantum Run 356 exhibit at Anthony Brunelli Gallery in Binghamton. New York during early September.
10) Please note speed on speedometer:
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 when my mother knew the young lad wanted out.
My parents. Not sure of the 356 year. Looks like an 356A
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.
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.
For me? Tears. The wait has been very long. Note gas cap. Not sure if this has ever been placed on the offset in a 356.
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.
PLEASE CLICK BELOW TO WATCH TRAILER!
The guy who looks like a degenerate rock-band roadie is me. The handsome guy is Allan. The day was when the record up the mountain was set. My wife and that rather quick fellow named Travis (0 to 60 in under 2 seconds?). It was her luck that did it! And Travis’s iron balls.
This tartan plaid was created by my wife Amanda, and QC is now building the seats. I’m BEYOND impressed and excited.
The weaver on a 1950 Velocette in our dooryard.
The original prototype badge made and designed by Jack Luck in 1951. My dad formed the original group with Jim Gunn as secretary. It would turn into the CASC.
Inspired by Jack Luck, I designed this card for my father at the age of 13 or maybe 14. Hard to remember actually. See how the logo reads MGA?
The Porsche VW garage in Kingston, Ontario where my father traded in the 1952 coupe in 1960 and likely ordered his 1961 356B. Photos used with the kind generosity of Jean Paul Ecke whose father (Gerhard Ecke) was a mechanic at the garage and also owned two wonderful 356s. Any additional information or photos would be great appreciated.
For QC if he will have it
When I charged into that great darkness
As a young man, I truly believed everyone cared.
I held that hard thin wheel with such firmness
And even more belief. CHARGED toward whatever
Void could be presented. By God, it was a
Contest of wits, and win or lose,
All I cared about was how
Well I played.
Something in us always turns back to
Look at the setting sun or to embrace that
Bluing of dawn. Has nothing to do with not
Loving the night. The night is off time. No
Pressure, no expectations, we can let it run out
Reluctantly like an iced cooler in the desert.
And no real man drinks warm beer, although
I did once. Kangamangus Highway: “Say it!”
Then drive it on a January night under an APB.
These are the unspoken facts of heroic lives.
This is not the flickering of Hollywood stars
This is us, and we only do it for one thing:
Believe it or not.
It takes 18 minutes to chill a warm beer in
Ice. You can use the bag the ice comes in,
You can use motel vending machines for ice,
Don’t need a room card, any card works fine,
However, holding it out the window at speed
No matter how cold it might be outside the car
Only seems to freeze your hand before the beer.
Chill rivers and the Atlantic do not cut it, no idea
What Hemingway was talking about. Maybe wine
Does not need to be that cold to be good on a hot
Day. But you either drink grain or grapes and the
Irish do better with grain. Ever met an Irish wino?
These are things I care about because systems make
Life easier. And when you are a devil fighter you need
Strength, endurance and cleverness to last any distance.
In the mid-1980s I drove 41 hours without stopping. But
As the grumpy woman I rescued will tell you, “You slept for
About an hour.” And she is correct, at dawn in Ontario
I did close my eyes for twenty minutes. Yet Denver to
Northern Vermont with only a short break felt like a record to
Me. I was proud of that. I was proud that I went all the way to
California to rescue her, although we were only just friends.
But she asked me, and I went because she asked me. I drove her
Rambler across the country as she felt she couldn’t make it alone.
Did she ever thank me? Did she reciprocate for my effort? Although
I paid every one of my expenses, she still argued about money.
But now I know I didn’t do it for her.
I did it for the poetry of doing it,
Which again is GOD.
GOD is aesthetics.
GOD is trying the impossible.
GOD is the poetry of belief.
GOD is Travis wailing up
Mount Washington in 5 minutes and 45 seconds.
If he thought about it,
He could not do it.
I know this and I’m sure he does too.
As Nicky said: “If you think,
By then it is too late.”
When I draw, if I become too
Conscious, I get nervous
And then must quit.
Colored pencil will not
Erase, so each mark
Remains. Each mark
Is a testament of
Though they have EVERY advantage, the
Wealthy and powerful rarely write great
Novels or paint great pictures or make
Wonderful objects of grace and beauty,
Invent the things that improve the world.
Instead they keep destroying everything they can
In the false name if their self-serving propaganda.
When they say God they mean the DEVIL.
And this is as it is, for our lives are not for
Convenience or safety or luxury or ease.
We are here to understand and be tested,
For in death we will KNOW fully what
We have done and who we were
In her eyes, and she is as
Tough as they come.
Imagine sparring the
Devil for eternity.
So I can only pity
Those who are in such denial
And such deep unhappiness.
Because if you are really wealthy
You will never know who loves you,
And maybe that is why they have
Turned away from love into
Blind greed, the endless
And I will hold the hard thin wheel again,
I will charge across my country again,
Now I am free from worry about
Others. I know who loves me,
And that knowledge transcends
New poem, 2017
The Q and a VW seat.
QC and EG talk sports cars and the meaning of everything way into the early hours before the dawn. Ventura, California, 2018.
Amazing to be around the legend and mix within the hub of intense rare car restoration and fabrication. Such an assembly of brilliant workers will likely never happen again. Imagine fabricating a Porsche 550 from aluminum and steel completely by hand. Mind-bending! My father would’ve ben so at home for once in his life.
In 1961 at the age of 5, I accompanied my parents to Germany and the Porsche factory in Stuttgart so that my father could pick up his new fjord green 356B coupe. I recently found out that the reason 356 Porsches were offered in so many shades of green over the years was that Ferry thought the car looked best in that hue.
On that sunny hot august day, as Ferry Porsche showed my father through the improved facilities since the time of his order for the silver-gray 1952 coupe, the Reuter factory (where the car bodies were formed), which is right next door to Porsche across a narrow courtyard, was extremely warm and noisy. I was a very quiet child, rarely ever whined, but the massive banging of the drop forge pressing out fenders, etc., was horrible to my young ears—like being on a battlefield. I began to cry. Probably silently, but I remember the tears streaming and my discomfort growing. How different I was from most modern-day kids who would’ve thrown themselves foaming and screaming at their parents.
My father ignored me as usual, terribly embarrassed by his wimpy son I’m sure, but after a bit, Ferry gathered me in his arms and carried me into the upholstery room, which was soothingly cool and silent by comparison. He sat me down in a freshly made 356 leather seat (that wonderful unforgettable smell) and my tears stopped instantly. This seems like such a nice memory to have and, of course, I’ve been loyal to early Porsche and Reutter ever since.
This brings me to Craig L. who has agreed to make both interiors for both 1955 EMC356s. I couldn’t be more excited. I feel as if Ernest Hemingway suddenly agreed to help me write a short story.
This is Craig in his shop. Note the B&W image on the wall, which has quite the story attached to it. The photos are both by the car’s owner David Kroesen. A wonderful guy, I might add, unlike too many Porsche owners these days, he earned and deserves his!
This is a 1959 coupe in its original color that Craig restored in the 1980s
The cover of the magazine that changed Craig’s life direction.
And the small ad that Craig saw that fated day in the late 1970s, which he had printed out as large as possible and passed along to such notables as Steve McQueen and Gary Emory.
QC reunited by the image that meant so much to him after a longish wait of nearly 40 years. Cheers to the legend.
And Gary Emory (the guy who coined the term “Outlaw 356”) reunited with his dashboard after his B&W version was stolen 20 years ago. Photo by my field agent David K, QC in blue.
And I’ll end with this fabulously evocative photo by David Kroesen taken from his 1959 coupe in his garage at my 1976 print.
A dawn dashboard print in the back of DK’s 1959 about to be handed off to Jeff Zwart who retrieved it in a Carrera 6! But it wouldn’t fit! Photo by DK
The tool kit is missing only a spare fan belt and, of course, the car. Some tools were my father’s, some were mine, all are original, and QC made the gorgeous tool wrap out of leather. The strap matches. I wondered why I’ve been holding on to that strap for 50 years. Thanks so much to my father and to Craig! And Thanks to the Aase brothers for the NOS gauge, etc. These guys are the best for 356 parts. Talk to Bryce—he is one of us.
And an original from Stephan! Lower left is the actual 1957 manual.
And an old Porsche 356 plaid luggage bag, fitted luggage for the front bonnet restored by QC by a miracle and a lot of experience and talent. This bag was in intensive care.
These drawings are so beautifully done. The gold embossed cover is in English and the plain cover in German, 1952. The photo trifold is likely from 1951. My father always asked the factory for duplicates so that one set would be kept perfect, the other in the Porsche.
Some tasty bits:
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.
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
Photo was taken in the farm fields of Wisconsin, December 1975. The temperature? Only a tad under minus 5, but I thought my polyester pearl-snap suit had quite the look. I only look cold because of the wind (always raging across those flats) and the fact that the 356 had no functioning heat at this time. Soon enough I closed some of the large holes in the heat exchangers with tin and duct tape. Better? Only very slightly, but it felt glorious, even if it was the kind of heat your favorite pet blows against your chest on a cold afternoon in bed.
Winter 1975 In Neenah, Wisconsin, I take my “new” 1956 356A 1600S Porsche to an English mechanic recommended by my father. Not only does he damage the car by pushing it out of a snow bank with his plow, but he also steals many Porsche parts and replaces them with cheap VW ones (the horn suddenly made the distracted bleat of a sick sheep). He also pinches a brake line while jacking the car, which would lead to a brake failure at 80 mph when headed into the Rocky Mountains. At this point I still trust people, so have no idea how poorly I’ve been treated. I pay his ridiculous bill. Remember, I am still just 18 years old.
I drive to Ocean Shores, Washington to visit my father who has taken a job in Aberdeen and bought a house, building an enormous garage for his 911 Targa. My mother is stuck in Wisconsin trying to sell that house.
My father stupidly bought a house on Ocean Shores, and I went to visit him. My high school buddy Eric Murphy (I drove to see him in Portland, Oregon) blew up my Porsche engine within one minute of driving the car for the first time. He immediately accelerated flat out to over a 100 mph and then shifted back into third. I simply could not believe he could be such an asshole. I asked him what the hell he thought he was doing? “Well . . . you were driving it that way.” Even though we were only 18 years old, I will never forgive him. But it stranded me, and it took months to find a new engine, and after two tries I was finally running again with a much slower motor than before.
Then the man who had hired my father committed suicide, so my dad was fired. Then the entire chimney blew off the side of the house he’d bought. He ended up returning to Vermont in financial ruin, and I drove one of his cars back across the country for him although he had refused to help me repair my 356. I begged him! All he had to do was tell me what to do—he was a master mechanic and had just build himself a huge garage. Instead, he once again cheated me by talking me into selling my broken Super 75hp engine to a “friend” of his. He did the same thing with the amazing Marklin train set my grandfather had bought for me when I was around 12 or 13. It wouldn’t work because it ran on 220 volts, but he could’ve easily bought a converter. But then he had never wanted me. My mother actually told me that at 13 years old to try and further set us apart. It worked for a while.
But the trip across the country—my first big run in the Porsche—was a classic. Initially, I visited Ripon College, met Rich Bruce and saw Kathy Carlsberg, who I had had a huge crush on in high school. She had always kept me at arm’s length because I’m sure she saw me as too puny and unattractive. But even with her amazing Greta Garbo looks and perfect breasts, she chose misbalanced dominoes of abusive men until the age of forty when she finally found the right guy, at least as portrayed in her Christmas letters.
There was a moment on that trip West that no one will believe, but it’s true. As I mentioned, I lost the brakes at 80 miles per hour coming off an Interstate exit towards a stop sign. When I pulled the emergency brake, the rusted cable snapped and I was left holding the T-shaped chrome handle. I downshifted as the revs would permit, slid through the dead-end corner in a four-wheel drift, and basically enjoyed the entire moment as pretty exciting, but later in the day, toward dusk, I would finally become truly scared.
In the Rockies, on Interstate 90, I was met by a massive mountain blizzard. It became apparent the the Interstate was becoming impassible so I took the first exit and began searching for any form of human habitation. Cold? Very. Remember the Porsche didn’t have heat. Also no brakes. Then the Wipers stopped working. To see—I couldn’t pull over or stop or I’d be stuck and stranded and freeze to death—I attempted to roll down the window, but the mechanism jammed, so I had to open the door, hold it from flying completely open, peer through the crack into blinding flakes, steer and downshift for brakes with my other hand while maintaining the momentum of around 50 mph. Just as the pan of the car began to lift in the mass of snow drifts, and darkness had all but made visibility impossible, did I spot a motel neon. Imagine that sight! God does exist!
The next morning it was 20 below zero and no one’s car would start except my 356. How? A chicken baster—I extracted gas from the tank under the bonnet, injected the fuel into the four carburetor venturis, and off I went. That morning I also called my father, and I drove to the one official Porsche dealer in that part of the world during 1975. They fixed the severed brake line as well as the leaking gas filter, which had dripped constantly on my right shoe. Life was good!
My 356 on the West Coast. My father convinced me to detach the front bumper—weight reduction. He then left it behind in Wisconsin, refusing to move it. Funny what that bumper is worth today. Or maybe not so funny.
Slower Porsche engine (1500, 55hp) fitted, I drove back across the country on Route 12, missing the racing Bursch Extractor and the extra horse power. I think I’m the only person who has driven across the country on almost every non-Interstate highway that bisects the West. For instance: Route 2, Route 12, Route 14, Route 20, and Route 36, just to name a few. At times because of construction, the road would jag north for 40 miles, head east 5, and then return 40 miles. This becomes mentally exhausting after a time, even knowing that the point of being there is the road travel not the achievement of distance.
On a long driving trip, it’s not easy to turn around and backtrack. Maybe during the afternoon you suddenly remember that you left your dead father’s sunglasses in the diner where you ate lunch, or you realize that you took the wrong exit an hour ago—the sun is behind you when it should be slanting through the windshield.
It can be discouraging when you discover the mistake. Sometimes you might even stubbornly keep driving before accepting that there is nothing to do but U-turn, compounding frustration. You might pull over and glare at a map, hoping there’s some other choice, a shorter way, anything but the next hours of correcting a carelessness that will achieve so little.
One night after an endless day behind the wheel, I noticed the winking lights of the Starlight outdoor movie theater fly by for a second time. “That’s odd,” I thought, “how can there be two Starlight theaters within hours of each other? And on opposite sides of the road?” Then I felt like crying.
Life can be like this. No one wants things to get worse or head backwards, but they do. People invest their futures with Madoffs, they crash cars, they’re diagnosed with cancer, houses burn to the ground. We want to say, “No! Please! Reverse this last bit of film; this can’t be happening.” We are captive within not only our own natures but human nature in general. The realization of improvement gives us joy; deprivation and loss generates misery. Doesn’t matter where the mean water level is, or how high the rise or deep the drop.
One morning in the fall of 1974 I stood on a boxcar floor stranded in a freight train a few miles from the Canadian border in Montana. It was so cold that I was forced to jump up and down, my wool blanket wrapped around me like a poncho. I hadn’t eaten for almost a day, and I could see the fluorescent welcome of a diner in the predawn darkness. Chilled, hungry, despairing, I had all but decided to abandon my westward pilgrimage when the freight lurched and began to roll again. 20 minutes later the sky flamed into the most overwhelming sunrise I’ve ever seen. I was inexplicably happy. The day turned into a miracle of experiences that I still cherish.
Is the point of life to remain safe and live as long as possible? To gratify and enjoy oneself? To try to help others? To raise a family and protect them? To become rich and powerful regardless of the cost? To make spiritual gains? To learn about and understand what’s around us?
I haven’t a clue what’s right for others. I only know that if I’m forced to U-turn and backtrack, it serves nothing to become frustrated or bitter though that’s not always possible to manage. But I know that eventually I’ll have to accept what has happened—drive back those many hours to retrieve my father’s sunglasses, deal with the fact that I’ve lost a lot of money, that my ceilings and belongings are ruined, or that someone I love is going to die. And who knows, though I certainly can’t see it at the moment, I might actually be headed in an ideal direction, the day in front of me about to open into a long-awaited miracle.
I visited Kris in Watertown once again. He, however, got mad at me and kicked me out of his room and his side of his parent’s house because I did not agree that the most brilliant statement about art was this: “Art is!” My feeling was that a modifier would make the sentence more meaningful. I also was asked by his father, who owned an AMC dealership, to park my foreign junk a block away so no one could see such trash in his driveway. The 356 was so disliked at that time that I was refused gas in certain stations and was once told to, “Get that Nazi shit off my property before I blow a hole in it!”
Only his mother, Edie, who sat long hours with me at their basement bar area, drinking beer and talking about life, and his bother Greg, seemed to appreciate my presence and company. Greg was even always willing to give my old crate push-starts since the starter motor had long failed. Parking on a hill wasn’t continually possible. When Greg died, I wrote this to be read at his funeral:
“I first met Greg when I was around seven or eight years old. My parents had hired him as my babysitter because out families had been neighbors on West Broadway Avenue. Even at that age I immediately liked Greg. That was one of his gifts, everyone seemed to like him, but as a babysitter I’m not sure my parents approved.
What we ended up doing during the four or five hours my parents were gone, was burn all my carefully assembled plastic model cars. This was one of my first experiences with paradox. On the one hand, I was very proud of my cars, but on the other hand I was apparently also a bit of a pyromaniac, something Greg and I obviously shared. But I still clearly remember the evening in the backyard, Greg and I staring into those smoky flames, the plastic, aided by extra glue, burning feverishly. And Greg must have marveled at it as well since he consistently reminded me of the moment over the years, laughing in that delightfully self-effacing way he had. “Maybe I wasn’t that great a babysitter, making you burn all your models,” he’d say to me thoughtfully, almost apologetically.
During my teenage years I played a lot of pool, and Greg was always up for a session. Whenever I hitchhiked or later on drove into Watertown, we met at one of the downtown poolrooms or at the basement pool table in the Broadway house. You learn a great deal about a person’s character while playing pool with him, and Greg was my favorite competitor. Relaxed and calm, Greg played with a sweetness and sense of honor that affected my behavior towards the game. Greg always tried his best, and we were very evenly matched, but he had a graciousness about him, and he always wanted me to play well, and was pleased if I made a particularly difficult shot. This is unusual in good pool players. But Greg was unusual. He had a fragility, a delicateness, his handsome finely boned face so open, as if the world with all its aggressive endless desire and greed might have been a bit overwhelming for him. Greg consistently exhibited true kindness and generosity in our experiences together. Two attributes that I hugely respect and admire.
When I was in California in 1983, I visited Greg. He was amazed that I found him, that I cared enough about him to put in the effort. He seemed unduly pleased, and again, we had a wonderful time. I can’t remember not having a wonderful time with Greg over our forty-five years of intermittent encounters. Whenever we met, we immediately began talking comfortably and laughing together. Something simply clicked, which I know was more due to Greg than myself, since I’m not always easy socially.
One of my novels has finally been published this year. And Greg is in one of the characters. As a matter of fact, it was our meeting in California in 1983 that might have started my trying to write a novel twenty years ago. That one wasn’t much of a novel—pretty awful actually—but the Greg character who I named Kelly Harris is in two of my books. Of course Greg and I won’t play pool again, and I doubt we’d want to burn model cars, but for me and my readers, Greg will quietly live on in that lovely modest way of his. He had a wonderful influence on my life and my work, and I will miss him dearly. Good-bye, my friend.”
Kris was taking a pottery class in Clayton near Thousand Islands. We drove back and forth in his Rambler, smoking pot, and he introduced me to Led Zeppelin as well since I’d never heard them before, being a blues or avant-garde jazz or Jimi Marshall Hendrix listener only. Even at 14 I did a watercolor of Jimi that the school purchased. It was later thrown away when a student broke the glass of the frame. How I would love to see that again. I like Zeppelin okay, better than pot, which just made me feel stupid, which I found tremendously boring.
Then Kris and I set out on our classic road trip through New England. This will be featured in another posting; I leave you with this poem about our trip until then. The first few lines was an attempt to replicate a very famous Chinese poem—the feeling and sound hopefully transitioning from very light to fully weighted.
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 across 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.
Poem written in 1975
The photo above was taken by an English girl named Penelope. This was the morning after the night Kris spent hours trying to seduce her in a smoky gay bar in Provincetown, Massachusetts as I hustled pool making enough money for another week of driving around. Oddly, I ended up with Penelope that night. I did a painting of her later in the year when I was living in the Midwest.
I wrote this poem (below) on a typewriter in Montreal, the entire poem in one sitting, one finger, no mistakes. I still have the taped together manuscript. The poem was read on Corfu to two American girls on the beach as the sun set over the Aegean Sea and my nakedness and their nakedness caught the last light, my formidable erection dripping like a faucet. I was about to bed the nasty one with the wonderful breasts when my travel companion threw up all over us and my light cotton sleeping bag. Killed the moment. 15 miles of empty beach and he throws up on us!
Thousandth wielder at the ancient anvil
pounding at the cold metal of her heart.
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.
That night I entered sweat-slick bare-chested,
A twice-read paperback of Burroughs in hand,
Read the part about words falling like dead birds
Into the street. Sober, I realized your nakedness
under the sheet, your red hair against the pillow,
Black eyes turned to the moon-flecked wall;
Out of the conscious quiet a dog bark.
Stiffening in the pants,
Tried to speak of why I hadn’t
That morning so hot, Wendy,
About wet last night,
Once on the floor hard,
Long, gentle, again on the sofa.
Vomited in the small bathroom,
Brushed my mouth out,
Peppermint soap and my finger,
Vomited the humid smoke-dull pub
Where I drunk stared at your tits taut in black,
Red hair over tight tight black.
Oh again made you,
Sweat in a pool
Slapping against you,
Your hands, fingers
Digging into my ass,
The smell sweet of your sex,
Morning, your sister seeing us together,
Naked, hopeless, sticky.
Again, the after-coffee highway,
That night too, moon hung,
Cold, icy, Wisconsin.
First time made you, Ann, in the blue snow.
Threw down my coat for your ass,
Obsessed, pulling down your frozen pants,
Pussy so hot, your pungent juices
Dripping on the leather of my jacket.
In shivering haste, fast, deep,
We laid in that wind-turned valley,
Wine tripping our brains,
Moon glaring in our eyes,
My hand feverishly gripping
Your small trembling breast.
Inside on the worn blue rug,
Skin tingling, naked
Wine clumsy, savage
Tongues reaching salty lemon.
And at late, your brother patting my ass
And drunkenly turning to his own image in sleep.
I fell to the western sky
Trying hard to create distance.
Motels, broken neon, lone grain elevators,
Dirt-front gas stations, spicy pie, dank mornings,
All-night Cafes, hail storms at horizon, hitchhikers heading,
Curly black hair on the bed sheets, long pipe smokes,
Damp March cold creeping from all cracks,
And you, Lisa, in flannel.
Night of touch tender,
The curve of your back
Lifting my hand fanning over
Cheeks of white flesh, yearning;
Sleep glazed, pressing my hard penis
Into those cheeks hoping you would turn.
Morning kept stretching further,
You reaching in my sleep,
All dreams, all intentions.
And last, you crawling back into bed,
Smelling slightly of toothpaste,
With two steaming Styrofoam cups of black coffee.
Andrea, your lips a final warning,
It was at Grand Central Station,
Your eyes, hating, hopeless,
Left me, numb, walking. At long last
Tears clearing away all pretensions,
Lovely pure naked hurt
Pitifully tearing away inside,
Open sobs weakening like rising mist
Passing into the dark sooty streets.
And you, Andrea, lost in the fluorescent hole
Of the Holland Tunnel; only in memory
You choking on my come, staining brown sheets,
One sunny Sunday morning.
Long night, behind a long photo of Rome,
Espresso wakeful, rolling fat cigarettes,
Romantic broken-hearted gloom on mouth edges,
Eyelids dark, thick, tear lines in dirty face,
Rich coffee odor, white table cloths, red roses,
Old violinist spilling songs–you were there
Suddenly, alone, Louise.
Lost talk drifting into the narrow street,
The taxi draining out cold December limbs,
Glancing eyes, black brows, deserted Park Ave.
I showered in your fancy apartment,
Inspected my face in the clouded mirror,
And then, door ajar, steam and me towel-clothed
Penis bulging, moving toward you on the bed.
Sangria on ice and the post-late-show mounting
Of your craving body.
Dancing in your darkened room,
New York City out the window,
Last lights fading in your hair,
Dancing tensely careful
My penis in your moist center
For the last time.
Rainy December morning,
Down into the subway
I stand gladly alone
Filled with coffee and waffles,
The slapping rain no longer audible
Against the approaching train
Crashing out of the black.
Stef you saved me twice.
Always can hear the voice of your horn
Melting into the gold evening river,
Laying notes over the green ripples,
The ripe scent of late summer,
The garbled talk of the autumn rapids.
Still see you sauntering drunk
Out of the broken end of the big room.
Seen you all seasons–quiet, alive.
Pipes hanging, we molded sanity,
Blew smoke rings, savored toasted corn muffins,
Beans and brown rice. Evenings there was
Jazz, drip-ground coffee, Bass ale,
Slowly coloring meerschaum.
All moments, All visions,
The silent destiny of nothing,
Our own image in the shop windows.
Written in 1975
Eric Green attempts to channel James Dean in 1976, northern Vermont; Marshall Green behind with the grimace. JD died 61 years ago September 30th. I raised a glass at 5:15 California time just as I do every year. Words fail me. Yup. Even me.
[This is an account of the first time I was in the state of Florida; the second time almost killing me. There will never be a third as far as I can predict.]
The first visit was during the early eighties, driving through the Panhandle in a three-hundred-dollar Chevy Nova he’d bought in Chicago from a large black guy who insisted the rig had a racing transmission. What the car had was an indestructible straight-six, rusted-out floors, tasteful dents, a driver door that would barely open, and a trunk with two spares and five tire irons. Terry Gunked and tuned the engine, cut plywood floor inserts and painted seven large silver-green cascading arrows on the faded red exterior. Of course it was the transmission that finally ended the Nova’s seven-thousand-mile legacy.
The southern trip began the summer after his father had died and during the six-months he was getting divorced from Giselle. He was drinking beer every day from around noon until darkness. His partner riding shotgun was a friend from high school, Eric Murphy, who nervously placed Terry’s beer consumption on a timer, a faint beep from his new digital watch. One beer an hour, which was okay with Terry. He realized he wasn’t at his best in many ways, but Murph had struggled even to keep the Nova centered on a straight section of road, the car requiring a sensitive touch not a controlling one, which was just one of its many challenges and idiosyncrasies, so it was up to Terry to drive, sober or not.
There was a moment on the way to Florida. It became one of the favorite moments of his life although he knew most people wouldn’t understand its appeal. After about a week on the road, Terry and Murph had spent the night in New Orleans, and since they always slept in the car, one in back, one in front, they found a rural spot east of the city once they’d had their fill of crawdads, Dixie beer, and tourists. As they tried to sleep, the intolerable stagnant heat and viral mosquitoes vied for most irritating. They experimented with windows rolled up—fewer bugs more heat, and the inverse—neither worked. At the bluing of dawn, Terry pulled a beer out of the tepid cooler water—he purchased blocks of ice instead of cubes because they lasted much longer—and got the Nova rolling eastward again, Murph still attempting sleep behind him, the breeze through the moving car lovely, sweeping out most of the mosquitos.
The sun rose with foreboding intensity over the empty four-lane coastal highway, but it was still a quietly crystalline Fourth of July morning without any traffic, a sign for Biloxi, Mississippi visible against the dully lapping water of the gulf on his right.
During this era, Terry cut his hair over a paper bag, and since he couldn’t easily reach the back or see it, he simply left it. Years later he realized he’d been sporting a full-blown mullet, though for him it was a mullet of convenience, certainly not with any intension toward style. He had an Abraham Lincoln type beard, a jut of red on the chin, the sides skinny as a woman’s little finger. His signature outfit was sleeveless or V-neck T-shirts, worn-out jeans, and red flip-flops, never shorts. If he swam, he took off the T-shirt. That morning he felt particularly beat. Not quite as beat as Kerouac might have hoped for, but he had reached that state of final willingness to encounter pretty much anything, a state brought on by a long season of major emotional disappointment, resurfacing as acceptance and a barely submerged amazement and joy in everything living.
Photo by Anne Latchis, Waterbury Center, Vermont, 1983
He took a pull on the warming breakfast beer, a leftover Lone Star, and slowed for a stoplight. The first slanting rays of the morning sun glittered across his sunglasses. He heard a big-throated roar and a bike gang headed in the other direction braked for the same light across from him. Terry counted about twenty bikes and could tell immediately that these guys were the hardcore one-percenters whom everyone feared. Thundering cobbled-together choppers with raked-out front-ends, bizarre handlebars requiring awkward apelike grips, massive beer guts and fully tattooed tree-limb-thick bronzed arms, ragged shoulderless dungaree vests, eternally unshaven, eternally unwashed, each expression as grim as a hangman’s three-legged mongrel.
They stared at Terry, and he sipped his beer and stared at them.
And then his beat moment arrived. The light greened, the Harleys grumbled, barked, roared and, to the man, all twenty outlaw bikers gave Terry the raised-fist salute as they tore past. He held up his bottle in response and eased the Nova forward.
This was a Polaroid taken the same day as the story above as a huge storm built on the horizon although the blackness of the cloud bank didn’t reproduce. The Polaroid was later colored by my wife Amanda and is one of my favorite images ever. This captured moment feels like the road is.
It was in the early 1980s, and the idea was to buy a cheap car in Chicago and drive it through Mexico until it died or the road ended. The car portion went as planned. My high school buddy, Eric Murphy, and I purchased a 1970 two-door Nova from a black guy for $150 each.
The Nova was a battered faded red, had rusted-out floors, a door that wouldn’t open correctly, and came fully trunked with four tire irons and two spares on rims. But it was the engine that was the clincher: Chevrolet’s indestructible straight-six, which honored my faith by calmly puttering 8,000 miles without even a cough.
We fitted plywood floors, Gunked the engine clean so we could perform a tune-up, and, because of my obvious naiveté and arrogance at the time, I painted six gorgeous flowing silver-green arrows on all four visible faces. I even highlighted them in lemon yellow. Though the car was inexpensive, it cost a fortune in tickets. It attracted cops like a naked singing drunk; those arrows sure hadn’t turned it stealth, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first day of travel, Eric and I made it to Tulsa, Oklahoma only to encounter one of the many setbacks against our vision of the ultimate road run. Eric’s mother had died while we were happily clunking south on that flat cement highway past St. Louis. Instead of abandoning the trip entirely, Eric flew off for the funeral, and I got a job scraping and painting a farmhouse in Broken Arrow.
When Eric returned to Tulsa a week later, there wasn’t much left of me. The painting job was 10 hours a day in 100-degree heat for a friend of my mother’s. I had told the friend to pay me what he thought was fair. Turned out he was like weather. His five $20 bills barely covered my lunches and gasoline from Broken Arrow to Tulsa. On top of that, my legs, arms and hands bulged and itched madly with poison ivy (I’d finally identified the strange vines I’d removed from around his shed), my foot was tender where it had been impaled by a huge nail, and some of my fingers were rotting because of hacked off knuckles that wouldn’t heal. Still, I was ready for the road south.
Then Eric decided he couldn’t spare the time for Mexico.
We headed east instead, initially down through Texas where the oil boiled out of the macadam, one couldn’t buy beer, and every second signboard was about saving one’s soul. Then through Louisiana with cold beer again, crawfish and some stunningly delicious breakfasts. I fell asleep on the beach in Biloxi, Mississippi, and added severe sunburn to my already itching, limping body bound in bandages. We nervously passed over the Georgia swamps at night, the bugs sliming the windshield opaque and shrieking at incomprehensible decibels. But it was in South Carolina that I was jailed.
I’ll admit this right now. It wasn’t my best summer for physical or mental state. I was getting divorced, and my father had died unexpectedly. I was drinking beer all day, every day, trying to survive the heat. I hadn’t shaved or had a haircut in a year. Eric and I weren’t getting along that well since he wasn’t big on drinking. He even placed my consumption on a timer; I was allowed one beer an hour. So when the cop pulled me over for ostensibly, “entering a four-lane highway too slowly from a stop sign,” I mouthed off.
Not worth it. Guns came out, handcuffs, knocked to the ground, kicked, driven hours in the back of a cruiser to an all-black jail. Left to die.
The holding tank was cement walls that thickened at the floor to form a crude bench, painted a muck color maybe 50 years before. There was nothing in it except six of the largest black guys anyone had ever seen. I glanced at them. They all six stared at me. I suppose I looked pretty interesting. Besides the limp and the bandages, I had no shoes unless my rag-wrapped foot counted. At least I had on jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt, but the kicker was the splotchy peeling skin on my face and shoulders lending me a bizarre camouflaged look like an exotic forest dweller, like someone found in the wilderness after being raised by badgers.
I was far too angry to be scared. Among all the injustices my mind was shuffling was the lack of breakfast or lunch. At the time of my arrest I was about to clamp onto a delicious catfish sandwich slathered in special barbecue sauce purchased at a roadside stand. It had smelled heavenly—fresh-caught fish, famous family recipe. I craved that sandwich and a beer dredged out of the icy cooler on the Nova’s backseat. I cursed the cop who had stolen my food and freedom.
My rage was interrupted by one of the black guys. He had silently slid in next to me, suddenly leaning darkly against my blistered torso, offering his best terrifying empty glare, close and personal. It was effective. I gave him mine, attempting neutrality. I really didn’t care what happened next.
After a while he said, “What’s you in for, boy?” The “boy” was extra nasty as if carrying the weight of every black man who had been called boy in that cruel condescending manner of the past.
There was a pause as everyone in the silent cell waited for my response.
I took my time, holding his eyes. “Sunburn,” I said dryly.
They couldn’t help it. They all started snickering, then laughing, a couple guys slapping their massive thighs. After that I suppose we had as good a time as seven guys can have in a holding cell in Beaufort, South Carolina on a hot July day.
Around suppertime Eric had finally found me and bailed me out. The inmates seemed disappointed to see me go, but thirst and hunger were my focus. I satisfied both with religious abandon.
During those travels in the South, I had a lot of trouble with white people, particularly cops. In New Orleans, the city of supposed ease and let live, two minutes after exiting the Nova, I was knocked to the ground by undercover police and arrested for drug trafficking until an hour later they admitted I was the wrong fellow. Walking into bars or diners, I seemed consistently to provoke the ire of too many well-dressed clean-cut white males. It was exhausting and unpleasant.
One absolutely amazing thing happened. I still wonder at it. With all my difficulties with Southern whites, I began to ask blacks for directions or recommendations of restaurants. Somewhere in Alabama, in a sleepy town, I pulled up next to a young black guy and asked him if he knew a good place to eat. He told us, and then he reached up onto the roof of the Nova and handed me something. “Figure you might want this,” he said with a smile. It was my wallet. I was stunned; maybe Eric had a point about my drinking after all. I thanked the guy and offered him a couple twenties. “Naw, man, we’re cool,” he said, and walked off. All my money had been in that wallet.
After the classic road run through New England with Kris Marsala, I spent about a week repairing much needed bits on the Porsche with Inky Wardwell. Inky adored my dad and so wanted to be a racecar driver, even owning the helmet, goggles and full race suit. The problem? No racecar. Inky was a lovely guy, scrawny as a broom bristle with terrible pocked skin. One evening after drinking too much beer in Sacks Harbor, which is where I first met Sam Stallard at the age of two, I drove the Porsche back to Watertown, quite drunk. I stopped at a corner coffee and donut shop just up from the Crystal Restaurant, and bought a large coffee to go and for some misaligned reason a red star came up on my receipt, and I was awarded four-dozen mixed donuts. About the last thing I wanted since I’ve never eaten much sugar.
My wonderful great friend Sam Stallard in the 1950s. We arm-wrestled in the 1970s and always came to draw; it took me quite some time to realize the truth! I so miss you, Sam.
“Jolly gee willikers it’s good to see you, Eric,” Sam never failed to greet me with a huge smile, whether he was drunk or sober.
“It must’ve been odd, my friend, to be the first superhero before they even existed in the American consciousness.”
But I faithfully stumbled back to the car with my sticky boxes of dozens. Car wouldn’t start, or I was too drunk to push it rapidly enough and jump in, shift into gear and release the clutch before the momentum died, which wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Well, a few fellows from the neighborhood bar staring out the open midnight door noticed a couple sweaty failed attempts, and about a dozen guys and girls charged out of the bar to give me a monumental push. 356 1500 purring, I called back, “Would anyone care for a donut?” Huge cheers, lots of drunken grins; I kept one dozen to give to Edie Marsala for breakfast.
Late July, I parked my Porsche in an enclosed shed on the outskirts of Montreal and took a cheap flight to Munich, Germany to see my grandfather who was my only grandparent and whom I loved dearly. He was Dutch and his family brought windmills from Holland to Pomerania across the Baltic Sea. He was a revered hunter, and when the Russians entered Eastern Germany at the end of WWII, he was forced to walk away from his vast estate, pear and apple orchards, multiple servants (even a live-in gay tutor for my mother and uncle), the only Steinway grand piano in the region, along with his bees since he was a dedicated beekeeper. Before fleeing, he carefully wrapped all his gorgeous rifles in oil cloth and buried them. The weapons could well still be there on the estate somewhere.
Among other things, he survived tetanus without amputation, which was considered a medical miracle. He told me he didn’t want to live without his right arm. He married into nobility and though he was frowned upon by his noble counterparts as a commoner, to me he was the true gentleman in every way. He always wore a three-piece suit with tie and never left the house without a dapper felt hat. He smoked exactly four Cuban cigars, drank two Underbergs, two coffees, one section of cake, one schnapps, three large wheat beers with slices of lemon, walked two miles each and every day. He told me the secret to life was moderation! Lived to be 93 and stood as straight as a hemlock until the day he died of the flu. His name was Erich and of course he’s my namesake. If I wanted to smoke one of his superb cigars, he insisted I stick the cigar into my pipe bowl straight up, which he pronounced “peep.” Pizza he called “pits,” and refused ever to try it.
My great grandmother on the noble side was Jewish, my mother’s side of the family. My great grandmother actually stood on a balcony and screamed obscenities at Hitler in the 1930s as he came by in some massive parade. She was very wealthy and apparently quite fearless. Hitler’s SS guards came after her, so the family slid my great grandmother under a bed, placed my grandmother on the chamber pot in front of the bed. The guards after a moment of embarrassment, relented. I guess even SS guards had certain sensitivities. I hope people still know what a chamber pot is?
After a week, I took the night train to Paris, France, using my hobo experience to sleep comfortably in the baggage car. As a footnote, I could walk from my grandfather’s house in Ebersberg to the train station in town, and from there reach anywhere in Europe with my shockingly inexpensive one-month Euro-rail pass. And I ended up even taking the Orient Express from Paris to Athens, Greece, which was a completely miserable yet story-worthy experience, which will be addressed in a later post.
Paris was a revelation. I simply loved everything about it: from the coffee varieties with the heated twin silver pitchers for cafe au lait to the crisp croissants fresh from ovens each morning, to the language which sounded like an uncontrollable whisper, the lovely girls in light frocks swishing along the newly washed streets where the freed water was broomed along with medieval thatch on gnarled sticks, the strange undefinable citrus smell of the subway with its ancient wicker-covered seats, the Eiffel Tower, the beyond bewildering art museums where Impressionists reign, and the crazy pigeons hop and complain seemingly absolutely everywhere you walked. I would smoke fat hand-rolled cigarettes trying to look like Belmondo with the bored pout. I lived on baguette with camembert and Archie Shepp playing “Blasé,” which I must have listened to over a hundred times.
I sometimes walked the damp streets all night until the bakeries and cafes began to light and open, and I could score an espresso and croissant. I had oddly enough found a paperback of On the Road by Jack Kerouac at my grandfather’s with a lurid cover promising wild road kicks and wanton sex-escapades, which I then read for the first time without being overly impressed although I was hugely attracted to the idea of being beatific and to the frenzy of Dean (Neal Cassidy) who seemed to match my normal intensity for life at that time. Those Paris night walks made me feel pretty beat.
Of course I also met the French woman I would marry and who would make me, besides the abundant sex, pretty miserable.
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.
In August of 1985, I drove Anne Latchis back across the country in her 1965 Rambler American from San Francisco to northern Vermont. At one point I drove from Denver, Colorado to Waterbury Center, Vermont without stopping except for gas, food, and an occasional swim while going through Canada. It took 41 hours. This was all well and good.
What wasn’t, was my determination to coast without touching the brakes from the crest of the Continental Divide until the car coasted to a stop. I had been practicing the same thing in the same car the summer before on minor slopes, but this monstrous coast obsession was based on my feeling that I could outdrive Kerouac’s hero Dean. Somewhere I had read that Neal Cassady had done such coasts, and since Denver was his hometown . . . I recently telephoned and apologized to Anne, the owner of the Rambler. I still feel bad about what I did because it was truly stupid and dangerous even if it makes for entertaining reading.
The Rambler in Death Valley, 1984. Notice the Vermont plates.
The scene as fictionalized in my unpublished novel A Repair Manual for New England Melancholias:
By afternoon, they began the ascent to Loveland Pass. The tank was full of high test in hopes that the extra octane might trick the car into false youth for the climb. It strained along just as bluely as always. The car wasn’t much, but it was consistent. The landscape, however, changed again. The scrawny sagebrush was replaced by forests of pine, fir, and balsam. She added to their dashboard altar a contribution from above ten thousand feet, the smell expanding in the sunshine trapped by the windshield.
At the final apex of the climb, the car was whining in first gear. He almost expected it to start gasping. The embarrassing smoke screen drifted behind them like coal smoke from the stack of a Mount Washington Cog steam engine. They finally entered the black orifice of the Eisenhower Tunnel, the summit of Tenderfoot Mountain towering above them. She leaned out of the window and looked up as they ducked under the massive lip of the concrete portal.
“We did it! We crossed the Continental Divide.” She settled back onto the bench. “I was listening to the engine carefully. I wasn’t sure we were gonna make it. You’re very considerate of the car, Neal. I appreciate that.”
“You’ve got to caress it, feel it through your hands and feet, be sensitive to it.”
“I love it when you talk like that.”
He blushed. He’d forgotten about her sexual taunts.
She reached over and rubbed his shoulder. “Maybe we should get a motel room tonight? I’ll pay. Don’t answer, just think about it.”
He stuck the car in neutral, and they started to coast downhill over four freshly paved lanes, the new tar like black velvet. As always, it was a relief to be rolling again, not grinding like a damaged eggbeater. As they gradually gained momentum, he couldn’t help but think about her offer. He imagined her in a motel room slowly undressing, reaching around to unhook her bra. She smiled as if she could read his mind. Right then he made a deal with himself. He knew it was crazy, but he made it anyway.
They passed one or two of the cars that had honked angrily at them earlier. On every grade approaching the summit, he had periodically pulled over to let cars pass if there was a line, but people were still impatient and rude. Some of it probably had to do with the oily smoke, but what could he do about it? Now there wasn’t any smoke from the back. Not a wisp. The speedometer needle nudged past sixty, which was unusual, just as it felt dreamlike to be actually keeping up with the traffic. A kid who had shot them the bird from the back of his family’s station wagon on the way up pointed, astonished, as they passed. Neal daggered a tongue at him.
At seventy, the Rambler began to shudder but only slightly. They were vibrating when he reached seventy-five. Not a lot of vibration, but enough so that the sage and evergreen on the dash had begun to quiver and dance. Soon all the traffic was being reeled in. She glanced over at him, her complacent smile tugging downwards at the edges. Her eyes grew wider as she stared ahead at the highway. Trucks were screeching as they applied their brakes, other motorists meandered along, but everyone was spread out over the four smooth lanes so it was without difficulty that he coasted between and around them.
Eighty. He stopped thinking about Pam stripping. He stopped gloating and looking at the other vehicles; they’d begun to blur anyway. All his concentration was needed for the road. Had the Rambler ever gone this fast before? Would the tires survive? He’d stupidly forgotten about them. A blowout at this speed would be bad. Very bad. He darted a nervous glance at her: eyes even wider, mouth frozen as she searched his face. He ignored her. He had to.
Eighty-five. The car was shivering and trembling, but still controllable. It was having an orgasm but knew that the parents were home. He grinned, mad pleasure pulsing through his veins. Revenge! He would pass them all. All the expensive late-model cars, all the arrogant motorists with their damn tailgating, horn-blowing mentality.
Ninety. The Rambler didn’t care who was around. It could no longer contain its excitement. Like a puppy who’s been forsaken for the day and then hears its master come home, the car was jumping all over the road, rattling unrestrainedly. He started to sweat. Pam—eyes wild, white knuckles gripping the dash and the doorframe. And then, a quarter of a mile ahead, dense traffic caused by a pair of trucks side by side with a camper and a station wagon beside them in the remaining two lanes. All four lanes blocked! He hadn’t considered that. He couldn’t believe it. What the hell was wrong with those drivers? Didn’t they realize what was at stake? They should look in their rearview mirrors for Christsakes! A missile was bearing down on them, the fools. Did they want to die?
His brow itched as the sweat started to pour, his hands locked on the wheel as it jerked violently, possessed. She let out a chirp of high-pressure steam that sounded vaguely like Neal. His foot lifted and inched for the brake pedal. A mind of its own. He secured his foot back on the mat. He’d made his deal, he’d made his deal. But all four lanes were still blocked, and the Rambler was closing ridiculously fast. Shit, a slot had to open up, but if anything, the traffic was more plugged. It was too late for brakes. He could never get the car with its worn drums slowed in time. His brain flashed a message: Idiot! You fucking idiot! He’d finally done it this time.
Then, he saw something. He hopped the vibrating nose toward the breakdown lane, aimed for the gap between a semi and the guardrail—a metal gauntlet of death. It was like trying to coerce a sprinting bronco to cross a chasm on a greased log.
Ninety-five. She screamed. Loud. He barely heard it. Wuuuhh! Blinders of bright steel and spinning rubber within inches of the Rambler’s flanks, and then, in less than a second, they were free, their pounding hearts and a cloud of dust the only testament. Before them—clear lanes, nary a vehicle. A gorgeous sight. The grade lessened. The speedometer needle sighed. The Rambler fell into post-coital melancholy. He thought of the Eldorado. It wouldn’t have fit through the gap.
She glared at him, lips still parted. “Neal!” It sounded as if she had never spoken his name and was unsure of the pronunciation.
“What?” He was as deadpan as possible.
“What were you doing?” She sounded pretty dangerous.
“What do you mean?”
“WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU DOING?”
“I didn’t want to touch the brakes.”
“You didn’t want to touch the brakes?”
He shook his head.
“For God sake, why not?”
“I made a deal.”
“If I didn’t touch the brakes my luck would change.”
She started to laugh hysterically. At first he was worried—she really sounded a bit crazy—but then he started laughing too. He’d never felt so excited, and he’d only told her the first part of his deal.
Both photographs by Anne Latchis, this from the drive across in 1985.
A black preacher, mildly senile at 84, escaped from a nursing home in Maryland and drove the car north, still wearing his pajamas, crashing the vehicle into a guard rail on Interstate 91 in Saint Johnsbury, Vermont. The car was collected by a garage owner known as the Wizard and towed to Railroad Street Mobil while the escapee was returned to the home. Had his desire been Canada, or to forestall the clamp of approaching death, no one will ever know.
A week later I received a phone call from the Wizard, a nickname earned through his remarkable abilities with machinery. “Eric, would you know anyone who might need a car that doesn’t look so great, but runs perfectly?” He had pulled the main dent out of the body and realigned the front end. “Should run fine for a lot of miles,” he added.
Wizard, grisaille on marble dust panel with acrylic wash, 1986
These photographs just in (July 2016) from the owner of the work, Carlo Connors. Thanks, bud!
No idea it was about to become a legend, the car was a bicentennial Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale Holiday Coupe, and after my friend Ben paid 200 dollars for it back in 1989, it ran with only one (rather clairvoyant) stutter for an additional 100,000 miles until it exploded into an oily fire one morning in Santa Cruz, the Wizard’s prophecy holding true. Ben left Maine for California that fall in the Preacher—the obvious nickname. I painted a small flowing arrow on the door for good luck and can still see his taillights heading west. Little did I know that afternoon that Ben would not return to his birthplace for the next 26 years.
In 1991, I flew to L. A., met Ben, and after a day’s work with screen and Bondo we closed over an elongated rust hole around the rear window of the Preacher that allowed water into the trunk, changed the engine oil, and began our three-state voyage north. This was a road trip, without air-conditioning, before GPS, no set route, no sleeping in motels, only full of willingness to experience whatever happened. We had been invited to a wedding in Seattle, but that was the only mark on the calendar or map.
Leaving the smog of L. A. behind, we motored toward Death Valley, sweet desert air swirling through the car. It was in Baker that the Preacher showed its clairvoyant side. Baker is one of those places that everyone who has visited seems to dislike. I am no exception. We had stopped to stock up on supplies before our descent into the Valley, finding ridiculous prices on everything everywhere in town, even water. But Baker was a monopoly and knew they had you.
After some grumbling, we paid and exited, only to find a large green puddle under the Preacher. I can attest that replacing a water pump (insanely priced but at least they had one) in 107 degree heat and blazing sunshine is a misery, the tools burning my fingers.
To be rolling again, ice cold beer soothing in hand, evening cooling, desert sunset glowing red at the horizon is the kind of contrast that makes the open road wonderful and memorable. Each moment has a way of being charged by emotion of one kind or another. For me, it was also the first time I wasn’t behind the wheel; my consistent role since 1975 had always been as the driver of ever road run. Ben decided he wanted to helm the entire trip himself, and I knew this was important to him: the road inspires the concept of the hero.
At Zabriske Point we stopped in the 100° darkness and wandered about. Suddenly the entire area was lit in blinding light as if a massive strobe had been switched on from the sky. I was so startled I was knocked to the ground. Looking up I saw the acid green tail of a meteor flash across the heavens.
We continued west through the heart of Death Valley, the sole vehicle, pulling over occasionally to allow the antifreeze to stop boiling. How glad we were to have that new water pump installed! At the deserted visitor center, we washed from a hose off a spigot and experienced another oddity in our ignorance. We were both instantly freezing, actually shivering uncontrollably. We jumped into the Preacher, turned on the heater and attempted to warm up—in 95° dryness. The rapidly evaporating wash water had plummeted our core temperatures dangerously.
As we rose in elevation, the outside air cooled, and once we entered a reasonable sleeping climate, we took a few hours’ rest. During that summer, I was obsessed with my first novel Some Broken Heroes, which I had just finished. I realize now that it was just awful, but at the time I was excited and wanted to live out some off the things my protagonist had done in the book. One of these was buying a cowboy hat in Lone Pine.
Once we reached Route 395, the highway seemed to claim us. No, we didn’t gamble in Reno. We did swim in Mono Lake, by far the most brackish water I’ve ever been in, not to mention being nibbled by myriad tiny shrimp as we gazed at tapered monoliths that could’ve inspired Gaudi. This wonderful place was bizarrely deserted. I think Mainers imagine California to be crowded, but I discovered, at least during that era, how empty parts of it actually were.
After crossing over miles and miles of untouched tundra, we motored into Alturas, which would become the hometown of one of my later fictional characters. There was a lumbering hotel out of another century, a classic barber shop across the street where Ben got a haircut, the whole place feeling like a Western movie from the 50s in early Technicolor. A bit farther up the road, not even sure why, we stopped at a roadside jumble store run by two lesbians. When I bought a blanket, they told us about a secret hot springs stream over the Oregon border.
I still dream about that stretch of road. It ran through an antelope reserve, a simple paved swath without shoulders ambling through empty tufted grasslands. The only vehicle we saw in over an hour was a ramshackle pickup driven by a weathered Native who waved calmly in passing. One antelope, skittish until we slowed to a crawl, actually leapt across our path as soft clouds meandered in the distance.
We found the secret place, and just as described, incomprehensibly hot water flowed in and out of bubbling pools in the middle of an enormous flat field of rough grass.
Strange things happen on a road trip. I called Ben yesterday and asked him if I could relay this one. “Why not?” he said. “It’s part of the story. It shows how the stress of travel can build up over time.”
What Ben did was lock the keys in the running car, parked many miles down a dirt road pretty far from anywhere. No cell phones in 1991. I stared at the idling Preacher—every window closed, every door and the trunk with the tools locked, and I said the wrong thing: “What did you do that for?” I said this because I honestly thought Ben might have intended it as a conceptual art piece. After all, he’d once handed me a flaming sheet of paper in my parlor that read, “I rage.”
Ben kind of lost it as I examined the car. He yelled and cursed me. I ignored him; after all, the situation needed to be solved quickly. I realize now I could’ve placed something over the exhaust pipe to at least choke the engine and save fuel. As it turned out, it wasn’t that difficult to force down the power-window glass and snap up the lock, maybe 15 minutes.
That night under a modest moon, we lay in our separate hot-spring pools, steam rising as the air turned chill in a world so silent as to almost have a sound. There can be a true poetry to travel. For me it began as a longing and then an overwhelming desire from reading books by Stevenson about going to sea, or the treks of Basho through feudal Japan, or Guthrie and London riding freight trains, or Kerouac and Cassady driving automobiles across America.
Ben in the Preacher, the only known photo. Note the arrow I painted on the side the day Ben left for California never to return to Maine as a resident. [For many reasons this might be my favorite photograph of all time.]
We all know about the precariousness of expectations and how damaging they can be, but I must admit, I had believed that Ben and I would be joyously welcomed once we arrived in Seattle for the wedding. I had assured Ben of that. After all, these were my two best friends from high school, and during that era the three of us had been inseparable.
Admittedly, I had missed our senior year by quitting and taking to the road, but regardless . . . Murph and I had hitchhiked from the Midwest to Maine and back together at 16, not to mention our later southern run in the arrowed Nova, and Pete and I had hustled pool side by side for years, formed our views on honor and integrity mutually, and he had been the best man for my first marriage. In high school, Murph had emulated me to such an extent that many people had assumed we were identical twins or the same person.
Sure almost twenty years had passed, but weren’t these the bonds of a lifetime? Hadn’t I looked them up and visited during the early 80s to reconfirm our friendships? Hadn’t I given them both one of my early paintings? And now Peter was marrying Murph’s sister, and I had traveled across the country to witness the event.
But I’m getting ahead of myself in the road narrative. After Ben and I had left Los Angeles in the battered Preacher and eventually found our way to the abandoned hot spring river in an Oregon antelope reserve, that morning, we again headed north, paused in Bend where I found a string tie woven entirely from natural horsehair to wear with my cowboy hat, which I’d saved pristine in its box for the wedding.
As we crossed the wide Columbia River, I told Ben one of my favorite freight-riding stories from my cross-country run in 1980. About waiting all night beside the same ancient scarred icehouse where I had also waited six years earlier during my first run. I told him how I had ridden a flat car out of Pasco with a tiny Mexican tramp as a clear dawn opened around us. How we drank warm Rainer beer, and the vibration of the train created foam towers out of the bottle ends, the Union Pacific trains across the river looking like bright yellow lines in the warming sun. How we found a diner just opening alongside the tracks in Wishram, and I treated the tramp to a hot breakfast. In exchange he gave me a chart, which he insisted would allow vegetables to grow three times their normal size.
I thought of searching for the diner, but we needed to reach Seattle by late afternoon for the rehearsal dinner and festivities, and I was eager to see my old friends again. When we arrived in Seattle, I found a phone booth and called, finally getting Peter after trying twice.
“Bud, we made it! We’re here, in town. Can’t wait to see ya.”
But the conversation did not proceed as I expected. Basically, Peter mumbled uncertainly and then told me he would see us at the church at noon tomorrow. I was stunned. What had happened to the previous emphatic invitation? “And don’t be late,” he added. And don’t be late?
Ben and I found a budget motel room, and after much-needed showers, we sat outside on the hood of the Preacher, our backs against the windshield, and drank beer in the last sunlight. There wasn’t much else we could do.
At first I thought of just leaving, heading south and trying to outrun the depressing withdrawn tone of Peter’s voice. Then I changed my mind, remembering weddings could be confusing and complicated and our exclusion might simply be circumstances. The event was about the bride, not the groom’s friends. “Ben, we’ll put this behind us. We’ll go to the wedding tomorrow and be absolute gentlemen. Okay?”
In the morning, with dismay, I realized my entire forehead had broken out in a bizarre rash. If it was emotion or alien bacteria from the hot springs, I’ll never know, but at least I had my new hat for cover. At breakfast, Ben spilled maple syrup down his vintage yet new Beau Brummell tie that he was so proud of. But we maintained our poise.
Precisely on time at the church, we were almost the first ones there. We stood in the entrance room and waited. When I saw Murph come in, I beamed and walked over with my hand out. And he introduced himself to me. “Hi, how are you? I’m Murph, the brother of the bride. Are you a friend of Peter’s?”
When Peter arrived, he would barely speak to me and would not meet my eyes, but at least he recognized me. I’ll admit something right now: Murph’s sister, for whatever reason—I’ve never known since we had had such limited contact—had apparently never liked me, but after eighteen years I hardly expected that to remain an issue. But it was. When I asked for a photo with Peter—everyone in the wedding party posing for the hired photographer in front of the church—the moment was negated by her intrusion.
With the shock of her rudeness, I was beginning to falter. Learning that the actual ceremony was in 45 minutes, Ben and I dashed to a bar across the street and swamped a couple quick drafts. As we sat there, I didn’t know what to say, having told Ben so many stories about these two friendships—I had known both families so well, sharing much of their lives. To think how many meals they had eaten from my mother’s kitchen, or I theirs. “Darn,” said Ben. “Wow.”
We made it through the ceremony and then Preachered to the reception where I dropped off my wedding-commemorating artwork, which I had carried 4,000 miles as a gift for the bride and groom. At least Peter’s mother and sister along with Murph’s wife were delighted to see me, although when I was asked to remove the hat, I declined—vanity taking precedence over agreeability. That one concession aside, Ben and I maintained our gentlemanly behavior for nearly a couple hours, then we bolted.
This photo shows Murph, Peter, and myself at the reception (the one stolen moment while the bride was otherwise occupied). Makes me wonder if anyone ever knows the true story behind a photograph.
As a footnote, Peter called me ten years after the wedding and tried to apologize. Problem was he kept bursting into tears. The marriage had turned out to be beyond impossible, and the divorce custody fight had lasted eight years, destroying Peter financially, careerwise, and even dumping him in jail more than once. I still haven’t seen either Peter or Murph in person again.
Leaving the reception, Ben and I landed at the Redhook Ale Brewery, where, I’m embarrassed to say, we both overdrank. On exit, it was the one time during the trip that I took the wheel, the old car solace somehow, getting us out of Seattle. As the evening sun slanted through the Preacher, Ben began to pound the dash with his first. He hit it hard enough and often enough that the vinyl cracked and foam padding began to crumble out. “Ah, Greener, ah, man, damn it, damn it,” he said over and over, the tears now on his cheeks, my face a mask.
The next morning, we decided we needed at the least to wash our faces in the Pacific. My hangover was akin to a furry crocodile, my mood worse. We found a beach on the map, but once there, the ocean was cacophonic with jet skiis. For the first time in my life, I craved a rocket launcher. The repression of the day before was surfacing, and Ben, during our recent memory-refresher phone call, insists he had to restrain me from attacking what I considered overly rude people. He also said I never showed any negative emotion during the time of the wedding. This I was surprised to hear considering I remembered being a washing machine on agitate cycle.
We followed the coast south. We stopped for a hunk of Skagit salmon, which was rather tough and overly salty yet helped physically. But the Sequoia forest was heavenly in its majesty and its drizzling quiet. Driving through an ancient Redwood is something you never forget. And then we crossed the inimitable Golden Gate Bridge and my last true road trip had ended.
One of the basics of writing good fiction is balancing the torturing of the reader with the payoff of a reward. Writers attempt to form compelling characters and then allow circumstance almost to destroy them. This hooks us into the novel because we want to know if they will survive their desires, risks, and enemies. After a certain amount of torture—this can’t go on for too long or the reader gets annoyed—the writer relents and grants the character some wonderful fortune. Dickens was the master of this give and take, up and down.
Life is not fiction. And in reality, three or four people can collide cruelly through no fault of any of them. This is fate and can lead to tragedy. Many times, clear communication can avoid these problems, but on occasion even that is impossible. We all want different things and solve issues in a variety of ways, and, of course, no one can know the future on which to base his or her actions.
Road trips are many times poetic simply because of what we bring to them. If Ben and I have a Kerouacian-style dream, then we will be pleased with that kind of trip. If European five-star hotels are the vision, then the time travelling between and staying at them will be just as appealing.
A forum friend, Sarge, wrote: “Poetry needs a dream.”
I think he hit an often-overlooked bull’s-eye with that phrase. The quality and poetry of a road trip is up to the travelers to create by what they focus upon and how they judge what happens and what’s around them, even if it’s wrenching a water pump in 100-degree heat. The morning after the wedding, I found everything unbearable, but that was the issue of my mindset, and by afternoon my world expanded again. Road trips are blessed by constant change and thus contrast, which might be one reason they leave vivid memories.
In life, as it is on the road, we need to find what fits us, and then it’s our willingness to give our hearts to that thing that matters—the rest is far less significant. At least that’s my conclusion.
Eric thanks his friend David K. for finding an original horn button with the perfect patina. Now here is to joining it to the perfect 356. Cheers!
This is a PS mockup of the future dashboard. Delighted to hear comments. Once it’s reality, hold your tongue.
DK and QC do their magic!
Stirling Moss has been the only hero in my life. This film helps explain why:
A gift to me from the Q. First edition, 1957, of course. Bless both of them!
Great photo from Jim Sitz:
He steered, his hands tight to the wheel, his eyes screwed into the lit part of the road ahead. The Rambler seemed to continue on with a momentum that was beyond both of them. They passed the silent brick buildings of farm towns, the peeling paint and faded letters of cooperative storage elevators next to the railroad tracks, lone water towers so stark against the night sky. He rolled down the window, stared out at the gloom, over the vast, fertile plain of Middle America. The air was mild now, warmer after the storm, laced with the smell of wet earth and young corn shoots. There was that sense of incredible distance without a visible horizon, a distance that seemed so close in one instant, infinite in the next.
Very famous driver, very famous car, very famous moment, very famous hill. One hint: NE; Second hint: 1958. Prize of 10k already was won by Lee Turner.
In a perfect world . . .
And just for the silliness of it, this is the author with probably the toughest man who ever lived—Bruce Shoebottom. He actually wrote me a poem inspired by my books of poems, which meant the world to me.
For years . . . my wish
The clarity of my own image.
I ran as a dark heavy cloud
In dampness, as rain,
No longer able to absorb.
As escape, a personal exile,
The horizon as self,
The carving highway
as a chisel,
The cry of the wind,
My voice as tearing tears.
In digging deep,
found only my other hand.
The wet dawn releasing a
breath of silent shimmer,
of might . . . and gone.
Vision: the two lines of a circle
At beginning, at end
if you should find yourself
by some wild chance
in distress on the mountain road
in monkton vermont
late at night
and happen to see
the odd glow from inside
of the remaining
twenty some odd
and so choose
the 1970 grey Beaumont
perched up on the hill
as a source of rescue
as a reward for your bravery
I will distinguish between
the indigenous rappings
and wind swept cryings
even your most quiet
The first four lines where written by maybe the greatest poet of all time: Anon. I added the rest. God, Anon. had so many styles. My favorite poet along with Rihaku and Ezra Pound.
for Greg Marston and Ben Taylor and Stan Walker
An eagle soars in a cloudless sky,
The lake shores echo the loon’s wild cry,
The deer drink deep and their white flags flash,
And the squaretails rise on the Allagash.
With caddis tied during winter’s cold,
As waders reach the icy water’s hold,
To bring to net the river’s pride,
No word spoken, stray thoughts aside.
Across the rocks the rapids madly swirl,
So gently offer, let the line unfurl,
Now rollcast over, slack abate,
That sudden strike of solid weight,
Remembered tug in swift reaction,
Bent bamboo tip stems the action,
But wait, the prey’s not ready yet,
So joust some more before the net.
The pan is cleaned and scrubbed with sand,
In the fire’s shadowed grassy strand,
An age-old tale, an age-old prize,
On the Allagash, where the squaretails rise.
A poem from my book Service Manual for Melancholiacs published in 1997 by the Doctor True House Press:
Something about this heat
Makes me want to drive down
Streets in Chicago or Detroit and
Listen to Al Green, loud, the best of,
Those songs, loud in the heat with
All the windows cranked down and
No AC, just that dusty sticky
Summer wind, the sky chalky as dried clay
And the asphalt and cement—mean
In the dull sunlight.
You think of wanting rain, but
don’t want to give it up yet.
And we’ll find the last great
Cocktail lounge—dark and hot—with a
Horseshoe-shaped bar and a bar back:
Mirror and pink neon, and we’ll drink
Gin with tonic, all those distilled
Botanicals, and the glasses will
Sweat insanely . . . and we’ll
Play soul music on the jukebox
Glittering with multi-colored
Lights and the gin
Thinning our blood.
Man, I don’t want a car with decals
I want chrome, lots of chrome.
Writing poems is pretty much a thankless task as even Keats knew only too well. The better the poems the less they are recognized as wonderful in their own time. It’s the usual story. But then, the poet gets something like this! Thank you Lee Turner from the center of my poet’s frail heart.
“Three Thumbs Up! We all loved the poem. Takes me back to the mid eighties cruisin the streets of Detroit in Jeff’s 1976 Eldorado convertible. God that car was Immense! I don’t think I have ever been in another car that felt so big, it seemed like two and a half car lengths to the front bumper when you were driving it. Hit the gas and the 510 cubic inch motor would start churning and that long hood would raise up in front of you, it was just like accelerating in a boat with the front coming up until you get up on plane. The bar, I’ve been there, outside of the old Clark street Caddy factory where Jeff worked watching a robot machine pistons all day. All the auto workers went there, check cashing in a barred room off to the side with a Samoan the size of a small house with a .45 in a shoulder holster and a shotgun leaning against the wall. Beautiful wood bar in front of me with one area dark and chewed up badly. Jeff saw me running my hand over the rough area and said matter of factly “shotgun blast”, he pointed at the old tin ceiling which was perforated with many bullet holes and more shot gun patterns. ‘They used to rent out an upstairs apartment until one of the tenants took a bullet in the leg from below’.
“For me the radio was playing the blues. The ‘Famous Coachman’ came on WDET radio at midnight. An oldtime Detroit Blues Legend he had a voice that only a lifetime of unfiltered cigarettes and whiskey can give you. The was no pasteurized white friendly blues, this was the real thing!”
Covers designed by Amanda Green. One photo by Anne Latchis, the other by a witch.
The O-scale water tower under construction with a Lee Turner plow on the right. Turnerize: to transform average O-scale model railroad products into steam era masterpieces.
Tower and gondola car just a few days before the contest. Note coin for size.
When I was a teenager, I entered a model railroad competition at the encouragement of my father. It turned out to be an exceedingly positive experience, one I’ve relished over the years since my father died shortly after, and it was one of the nicest times we would ever spend together.
To read the previous column: http://www.penbaypilot.com/article/eric-green-fathers-wing-foils-and-model-contests/48069
40 years later, I recently entered another such competition. The outcome, however, was almost the inverse.
My good friend Dennis Brennan http://www.brennansmodelrr.com a noted and famous model railroader flew out from Missouri so that we could attend the 36th National Narrow Gauge Convention together. Dennis is the only person I’ve ever known who is always happy. I’ve never understood this. I can call him at any time of the morning, really early including the one hour difference, and he’s consistently almost annoyingly perky. But we had never spent time together. This was a full week.
I had been building an O-scale water tower over the past month, working intently every day. I was very proud of my tank with its peeling paint and weathered wood support structure, not to mention its iron-banded roof. My cut man Lee Turner—who was offering tips based on extensive photographic documentation—was truly impressed. Lee Turner might be the finest O-scale modeler on the planet. My friend Earle Mitchell, whose ancestor had been the 14-year old cabin boy on the Mayflower, had even written a story utilizing his grandfather’s character about the creation of the tower, giving it narrative reality. I would slay them dead at the contest, these narrow gauge snobs. They were coming to Maine, my home turf, where I would be victorious again, same as in 1979, this outing kinda for the memory of my dad.
So . . . things were looking good! Lee was heaping praises, Dennis was flying in as backup.
I even refinished two models from the same batch that had won multiple blue ribbons in 1979 in the NMRA convention in Granby, Quebec. How could I miss? Three beautiful models, two proven winners!
First, I took a wrong turn picking up Dennis at the Bangor Airport. Ouch! I ended up in freaking Brewer during noon rush hour. Let me tell you—ain’t no rush around there at all, just a lot of potholes and pottier drivers. But, I salvage my reputation by buying Dennis lunch at Dysart’s truck stop—Still wonderfully the same and good.
Dennis is almost a perfect match for the Green household. His Irish half appeals to me, and his Greek half clicks with my wife, kinda like Domino slats where one Domino mates perfectly with two other halves. What I hadn’t reckoned on was Dennis’s drinking—likely from the Irish side. Now, the guy only stands about 5’ 3 1/2” in lift shoes, but this guy could probably fell Andre the Giant in a drinking contest. Maybe that’s why he’s always so happy?
Our first morning together, after an evening where I collapsed at around 9 p.m. and Dennis continued on with my wife, talking and drinking wine and Metaxa until midnight, he popped into the kitchen, all happy at about 6:30 a.m. It was a huge day for me, my water tower model needed finishing, and both tiny HOn3 cars needed air hoses applied, weathered, etc. I was tense, had a wicked hangover after matching Dennis beer for beer all the previous afternoon. Dennis kept telling me, “It’s all good,” a phrase I particularly dislike. “No it isn’t all flocking good, Dennis.”
The HOn3 gondola car with air hoses attached above and missing below. The whole car isn’t much bigger than a large thumb. Almost everything was made out of either balsa wood, paper, or wire. 1980, refinished 2016. It’s even hand-lettered.
I kicked him out of the work room twice when things went wrong, but everything seemed puffy and roses soon enough as the three models were completed by noon, which gave us a couple extra hours to get to the contest in Augusta. I cracked a frosty, grinned at Dennis, and then proceeded to knock the entire delicate working spout mechanism that I was so proud of off the water tank.
Crisis! Running out of time. Wouldn’t have been so terrible if I hadn’t, in my haste, AC glued the darn thing back on crooked. Now the tower was in intensive care, and the doctor was losing it. I was sick of staring blind through an Opti-viewer attempting to align miniatures far too small for human hands. It had been an entire month of this lunacy; I was burned out!
The spout mechanism actually works (seen in lower photo) because I cast counter weights from hot lead to balance the heavy brass spout. The ring is to activate the water release valve.
We made the contest that afternoon with about ten minutes to spare, this after needing to sign in downstairs at the huge convention center and both being required to shell out 115 dollars. I’m still completely unclear what that 115 dollars was for? For the privilege of hanging out with some of the most dour, unpleasant, unhappy, ugly, slovenly dressed, and clinically morose old men on the planet?
The contest director, Bob, took an immediate dislike for me. Cowboy hat? Models too good? The other guy running the contest, Greg, was either dead drunk or had just had a severe stroke. Either impediment being a perfect choice to handle delicate models that fanatics had labored months over. He kept trying to grab my insanely tiny 40-year-old balsawood and paper gondola as he slurred and drooled at me. I kept batting his hand away as Bob explained how many rules I had broken. Looking back, maybe Greg was trying to tease me? Of course they disallowed Mitch’s wonderful story about the water tower [story below]. The tower doesn’t make sense without the story, but arguing with Bob only delights him. I do not enjoy delighting Bob. I do not enjoy anything about Bob.
So, contest entered, next day, we motored into Augusta in the 1966 Chevrolet Impala, my wife onboard, looking stunning and lovely as usual. I told her to tell the contest lads she was just my girlfriend, and sure enough, the old coots immediately attempted to flirt and pick her up. Quite the professionals! I was also asked to remove a small plywood board with some track attached, which I’d hoped to place under my E.B.T. boxcar. This broke the rules. The fact that the guy next to me had his model resting on a gorgeous furniture-quality rectangle of sceniced landscape was ignored. I mean his caboose on display rose off the table about eight or ten inches above my puny boxcar, lovely with its lacquered mahogany base, perfectly executed narrow gauge rail and hand split ties, etc. Still can’t explain that one. Note many things remain mysterious.
The tiny E.B.T boxcar. Every year “Friends of the East Broad Top” give an award. Since only one other offering was up against mine, I figured I had a chance. The fact that the model competing against my boxcar looked like a half-eaten Twinkie on toy train trucks, I will not comment on at this time. Cheers to the winner!
I noticed that my models where relegated to the darkest corners of the room, barely visible. The model which would eventually win, was outfitted in glaring spotlights, had its own special table, dead center in the room. Obvious? Humorously, it was a mediocre model that I noticed garnered many shakes of the head, not praise, and this assessment was deserved in my and Dennis’s opinion as well. It was certainly bright and gaudy!
But onward to utilizing the twenty bens I had in my pocket. We were all starting to have a pretty good time, walking around the huge vendor’s hall, looking at displays of running trains in various scales, riling up as many grumpy old men as we could, when—the inexplicable happened. Everything, and I mean everything shut down and closed at noon, and we were very rudely pushed out the doors into the blazing sunlight. Closed until 6:30 p. m. Now, that is one hell of a siesta period, even for those geezers.
Stunned, there was no choice but drive east in the Impala toward Rockland. Plan B was to visit the Dowling Walsh Gallery and show Dennis the painting for which he had traded his famous Sandy Harbor railroad pike. We motored smoothly along Route 17, opened a few beers dredged from the iced cooler, and felt the relief of being free from criminally depressed, nervous, narrow- (get it? narrow) gauge nuts and bolts.
Okay. Here comes the National treasure part. I know Maine has a few great diners left—Moody’s and Dysart’s being two. I won’t stall this column ranting on about what the perfect American diner used to be like and how they are either all gone or overly cute and precious. Why? Because I don’t have to, because one still exists that meets every possible criteria and hits the diner bull’s eye. The Come Spring Cafe in Union is one—old-school and “undiscovered.” It was so tasty, the waitress Brenda so charming and might I add cool in that ideal Maine way, that it all but brought tears to my eyes. Go there! Who knows how long it will last. The turkey Ruben is a sacrament. The haddock Ruben just as good. Everything homemade, of course. And that tomato basil soup? I’m headed for the Impala and the highway west now!
Dennis Brennan at the Come Spring Diner looking pretty darn sober. http://www.brennansmodelrr.com
Dennis liked his painting Midway in the original, we dipped at Lincolnville Beach where I’ve been swimming for only 57 years, and we beached the Impala back in Belfast once more. Always wonderful to be home although my agorophobia seemed less intrusive with Dennis around.
Morning, Friday, blazing hot temperatures, hang over into the red part of the gauge, back to the train meet to buy a few things before the bizarre noon closure of the vendor’s hall, and then head back home with my three models. Sounded pretty simple. But add that Freaking Bob—nothing is simple. Bob told me that if I removed my models before Saturday basically the Pope would curse me, I’ll be barred from heaven, stray dogs would bite my ankles and then pish on me once I’m down. What to do? Dennis and I consider our options. We decide to act like gentlemen, refusing to lower ourselves to these ill-mannered standards.
So . . . next day, Saturday, we drive the two hours yet again! We pick up my models, receive a few brutish comments from the drunken Greg, who claims to have smashed his fist into my gon. He thinks this is hilarious. Oddly, I’ve actually begun to like Greg quite a bit. I give him a $25 Time Diptych booklet from my second to last show, which he seems to admire (not easy to tell with him), and we head home.
Okay! I admit it. I’m crestfallen. I feel as if I’ve been shot with poisoned arrows. To have won nothing, NOTHING, really hurts. After all, I know my models are very good. You do not impress Lee Tuner with anything but the best. Hadn’t I won everything last time out?
Nothing to do but begin drinking again. At least I have Dennis, who is always cheerful, always ready for a drink. As a matter of fact, in one long week he didn’t turn down a single proffered beverage. I fling my name tag into the dry dead grass in front of the convention center and stamp off. OUCH!
The next morning, when I was asking Dennis how he could drink so much, he stared at me deadpan. I mean, I had never seen or even heard of anything like this guy (all 137 pounds of him), and I’ve been around a lot of alcoholics. Dennis looked at me, looked up at me, and said, “Well, you got to understand, I used have a drinking problem, you know.”
As an aside, I have exaggerated Dennis’s consumption a bit for comedic purposes, although yesterday on the way to the airport, all came clear. Dennis had stopped drinking. “I don’t want to arrive home drunk.” He looked just awful suddenly. “You, okay?” His face was paste, his normally sparkling green eyes basically closed from swelling. “I have a terrible headache, and an even worse stomachache,” he said, moaning a tad. “That’s called a hang over, Dennis.” “But I’m not vomiting continually.” “That’s called alcohol poisoning, Dennis.” “Oh. But I didn’t drink yesterday, did I?” Then we both really began to laugh.
As yet one more aside, I learned online from another modeler that I actually might have won something for my gondola. Bob probably stole my ribbon. Having seen his model—an untalented George Sellios on a mixture of meth and acid—I can understand why he needed my ribbon. Please enjoy, Bob!
The ladder that Dennis inadvertently stepped on after we returned from the contest.
The ladder after Dennis foot work.
Dennis painstakingly repairing said ladder that evening. He was up at dawn still adjusting rungs. Cheers to a great and legendary friend. No one rides shotgun quite like this man.
The disallowed document by Earle Mitchell:
THE STORY OF THE FAR NORTH PENOBSCOT CENTRAL TOWER:
William Gooding Mitchell was young, he was cocky and handsome, and he wasn’t going to listen to any of the idiots around him because he had had three months of university engineering after the war, so when he was hired to build a water tower, he wasn’t going to fail. He decided to multiply normal engineering practice by twelve. Why twelve? It was that much stronger than ten! And the roof would be banded in iron. No snow load was going to outsmart him and bring down his roof!
William Mitchell was chief engineer for the Penobscot Central Railroad as well as the Passagassawakeag River two footer line, both in Maine, both originating at Sandy Harbor. His new territory was the most northern spur to Eagle Lake, which had lost money every year since its inception. He would change all that. How? By building a water tower that signaled progress and affluence!
The Eagle Lake line went up the east branch of the Penobscot to a birch dowel mill at Nine Mile bridge on the Allagash. There were six switches along the way with flatcars on the sidings being loaded with fir and spruce pulpwood for the mills south on the river. It was a weekly run and lasted as long as it took to pick up the flatcars along the way. The harder the choppers cut wood the more cars to take out. They dropped off empties and shuffled fulls around until they had a full trainload out. It took more than a tender full of water to make the trip, so it was decided to put up a tank at Two Bears Spring about half way in. Before the tank, it had been swamp water, which, as William now knew, ruined a good boiler.
Caleb Reed was the stationmaster at Two Bears Spring if you could call it a station. It was a makeshift building that doubled as a station and freight shed with a cot for the master. Caleb Reed would crew for Mitchell on the run in as brakeman, fireman, whatever needed to be done—not too bright, he adored William. And then he would mind the water tank until the next run the following week. He had lots of time on his hands so he welded up a weathervane for the tank top. It was the three-masted schooner Dauntless on the vane, a memory from his long-past youth, and it swung smartly into the wind when it shifted, not that a railroad crew really needed the wind direction.
But both he and Mitchell were born on the coast near Sandy Harbor—a revered bond as far as Caleb was concerned—and knew the weather well and checked the direction of the wind every time they passed the water tank. Everything went smoothly most of the year—although William Mitchell was taken aback that no one seemed to notice the dignity and beauty of his tower, not to mention the size (largest on the line by far)—but along toward Thanksgiving it started getting colder and the water tank started to freeze up. This was a frigid part of Maine compared to the coast.
It froze from the outside in, so for some time, the tank gave enough water to keep the engine and the snow plow going. Along toward January it would freeze solid at around 30 below if you left it, so Caleb Reed placed an Atlantic end heater stove inside the frost locker under the tank. He would feed the coal or wood fire—whichever he had—all winter as the cold came and went, the ice would make and give and sooner or later, spring thaw would come and break the back of winter, and Caleb Reed could let his fires go for another year.
And all was good with Caleb and William.
One year a couple friends made the trip from Sandy in one pretty cold winter and stayed the week with Caleb. They brought some spirits with them, which Caleb didn’t know much about, but that went fast, so they started drinking the vanilla extract, but that didn’t last long. So they started straining sterno canned heat through bread, and that worked alright, except it was wood alcohol. One guy went blind and they almost lost another, and everyone was so drunk they left the lids off the stove and all but burned the frost locker down. They would have burned the tank if it wasn’t waterlogged and full of ice.
William was furious. His gorgeous tower, the symbol of his arrogant youth—which if truth be told had become a laughing stock as the line lost more and more revenue—was defiled. William fired Caleb, put in a waste gate to drain the tower each fall, and that seemed to be the end of it. Except Caleb, after becoming a terrible drunkard in Sandy Harbor, strayed back to his old haunts. He didn’t rebuild the frost locker, but they say you can still smell wood or coal smoke even on coldest January nights, even if there aren’t any train sounds or locomotive whistles.
Caleb’s Roost which was modeled inside the tower support structure. We even had Caleb standing there drinking a Narragansett. Oh, well . . . Maybe someday National modeling contests will include a category for model and story combined. What do you say, Bob?
True progress started pushing dirt roads in from Bangor and began moving wood on trucks and that drove the nails in the coffin for the Eagle Lake spur line. Seventy years later you can still walk the rail bed and get a nice surprise when you make the grade at Two Bears Spring. The old tank rotted years ago and fell in, but the iron roof trusses, spout, bands, chain and weights are still there along with the remains of the old stove, and topping it off is the old weathervane still turning into the wind forecasting the weather for anyone who might happen along.
Notes found recently (2016) written by either Caleb or maybe William or an unknown in a partially burnt journal:
“The old chain had to be abandoned because it only allowed the spout to raise so far before the counter weights bottomed out against the timber. A bush-fix was applied using newer pulleys and stout rope found at a ship yard which allowed the weights to clear the timber to raise the spout higher, for the taller smoke stack of the newer engine.”
“Bill Mitchell’s uncle Charles worked at Rigby Yard at Skowhegan Junction. He worked on the section crew, but he really was the blacksmith. He was the local wizard and had a reputation for being able to mend or make anything. His nephew was having troubles with the roof on the water tank. It had fallen in under a snow load the second time in three years. Uncle Charles forged up four v-trusses that fit to the tank top and bolted together at the peak. It was through bolted with clamps under the roofline and had a system of collarties and cable that kept it from pushing out the tank sides. Critics thought it was too heavy for the tank and would crush the roof by itself, but it was the last thing to go when the old tower fell.”
Slipped tank band and peeling paint. I figured out my own technique for weathering the wood and creating the peeling paint effect. Really easy! When you know how. So long 36th National Narrow Gauge Convention in Augusta, Maine 2016. You will never see my shadow again.
The schooner was made from paper and wire.
Dennis Brennan made everything but the water tower. It’s installed on the Sandy Harbor Penobscot Bay railroad on out third floor. We actually moved this model pike from Missouri to Maine. Truly an impossibility.
Here I am in 1981 a few months before my meeting with Gregory Gillespie. The painting on the easel Marquee was one of the three I brought to show him. Note my innocence! Both Polaroid portraits by Michael Cerulli Billingsley.
Terry watched her, how she acted in public, and it bothered him; she was always looking around to see if there were admirers. This made their relationship feel even more foundationless, although she insisted that wasn’t true. “You is crazee,” Giselle would say, tossing her signature locks. He supposed their bond was primarily sexual—they were in their early twenties after all—but her hunger for admiration and male interest seemed disquietingly insatiable.
He’d married her to keep her in the country—they met in Paris—and he was continually suspicious that American citizenship had been her goal all along. That rainy night when he’d been fortunate enough to sneak her across the Canadian border into Vermont, he’d seen her sheer stubbornness for the first time, she demanding they return to the customs depot so she could have her visa stamped.
“But you’re already in the country,” he said. “You’re in! Giselle, it’s fantastic. It’s amazing they never asked you a direct question. You don’t need anything.”
“Non. I must ave eet.” Her English wasn’t so great, which is why he’d begged her not to say anything at customs. She’d merely simpered at the man with her huge eyes and pouty lips.
When they had finally turned around—Terry by then worn out from attempting to convince her—the border guards had spent over three hours dismantling the 356 Porsche. They had even unbolted the steering-box cover plate, from what could only have been malice, a response to being deceived. Luckily they had only removed the seats and not cut through the thick leather. This mistake had begun a series of three-month visas that required renewal and eventually expired altogether. But he believed he loved her and wanted her to stay with him. His loyalty was absolute, more from his own nature—as he would eventually find out—than because she deserved it.
They lived in near poverty in a cheap duplex next to a river in a northern Vermont town. The apartment was continually drafty and damp, the stonewall that held back the rushing water mere yards from the exterior of the structure. In the winter or during heavy rain, the flat roof leaked, streams sometimes running down the ugly paneling. The bitter elderly landlady was no help. “The roof never leaked before you moved in,” she said in dismissal.
Giselle blamed her lack of English when it came to finding work, so their income was his problem. Terry’s dream since he was thirteen had been to be an artist, but he labored painting houses and driving one week a month to Montreal to assemble pulp testers eleven hours a day for a tiny company above a poisonously odoriferous drycleaner. Between the two jobs he worked relentlessly on his art and attempted to keep his wife happy. There was no house painting in the winter, so during those months, besides the time in Canada, he painted up to fourteen hours a day, his brush water freezing overnight, his hands so cold he had to wear gloves on occasion, the kitchen the only room with a decent heater. One year he finished eleven paintings and destroyed ten. He had a clear vision but couldn’t quite seem to find it.
As a teenager, he had been successful selling paintings of conventional realistic landscapes and interiors, buying his vintage Porsche from the money he’d earned, yet he wanted something more. He was influenced by Japanese thought and haiku, hoping to create paintings that were as much about the moment of seeing as about technique. He utilized carefully constructed compositions and flat planes of clear color, and after a few years, believed he was succeeding. He sold the Porsche and bought a vintage Volvo wagon so that he could paint larger pictures.
During these years, Giselle took long walks by herself. She disappeared for hours on end, sometimes returning after midnight, never willing to explain where she had been. “It is nothing, Terry. I am needing this time alone.” He was especially in agony while in Canada, sleeping on a cot in an unheated enclosed porch of a family friend, wondering what she might be doing. He suffered but was too busy to become depressed. Then, on occasion, she began to bring strange men or couples home to the apartment. One of the single men saw some of his paintings and was stunned. “Do you have any idea what you’ve accomplished?” he said.
Soon P. D. Reno planned a trip to New York City for the two of them, Giselle’s flirtations being outweighed by the power of engaging artwork. Reno insisted Terry bring an original painting along with professional slides featuring his new work, and they eventually ended up in the office of Raymond Kolan, who, besides being one of the most prominent lawyers in the city, had also founded the Art Dealers Association of America. His collection of Matisse, Soutine and Vuillard was barely contained by a massive coffee-table art book. Of course Terry knew none of this that morning. After a half hour of intense questions, Kolan said he wanted some time alone with the painting and the slides while Reno’s father, a lawyer in the same firm, took them out for a lunch.
Terry had never been to a private club before. After the embarrassment of being tented in another man’s forgotten jacket and snared in a gaudy tie, he was, simply put, overwhelmed. People ate lunch like this? Huge sloped beds of hammered ice cupped every kind of seafood he had ever imagined—cracked lobster, three kinds of crab, dozens of foreign bivalves lay in a matching variety of luminous shells. Steaming roasts were carved by samurai knives balleted by swarthy men in impeccable white uniforms, but the shock came when Terry returned after excusing himself mid-meal—his plate and the half-dozen confusing utensils were not only new, but his food had been artistically rearranged. It was an alien world, and Terry promised himself never to be so unprepared and unknowledgeable again.
It was a blindingly nervous moment reentering Kolan’s office. His painting had been hung precisely on a prominent wall, Kolan greeting him with a smile of approval. Terry sensed he had crossed some kind of magical line, and forced himself quiet and calm.
“With your permission, Mr. Stafford, allow me to see what I can do on your behalf. Is that agreeable to you?”
Agreeable? Terry could only nod at the bizarreness of a dream coming true. And wouldn’t Giselle have to rethink everything now?
Kolan was obviously a very sought-after and busy man, but within six months he had introduced Terry to two major New York galleries after almost enticing Andre Emmerich to represent him. It was unthinkable yet true. He met with both dealers and chose the Borum Gallery over Midtown Gallery because the rooms at Borum where far less cramped and Della Carpko seemed more energetic and excited by his work. As it turned out, Midtown Gallery would close its doors before the decade ended.
The Forum 8: Poolroom, 1977; Passage I, 1978; Shell, 1978; Onyx, 1979; Glance, 1979; Passage III, 1980, Annex, 1980; Passage IV, 1980
[These paintings never saw a public wall until last summer when Jake Dowling from Dowling Walsh Gallery was willing to show them. That was a long wait, eh? Thank you Jake and Mary Dowling! You two are the best. Your support and belief has meant the world to me. As an aside, Jake Dowling has sold, over last couple years, all but one painting in the 25k price range.]
One cold November morning, Terry carefully stacked his eight paintings into the back of his Volvo and drove from Vermont to Manhattan unloading the work on Madison Avenue. Della could not have been nicer or more complimentary about the originals, and he was offered a show for the coming spring—this was unusual, but the newly opened timeslot due to a cancellation seemed provident. Other patrons in the gallery were also excited by Terry’s work, and he even received a dinner invitation, which he declined, feeling more stunned by all the attention than anything else. He realized that all his years on the road—hitchhiking and riding freights across the country many times—hadn’t prepared him for anything like this.
After looking at the paintings, Della began talking to him about Gary Hellespie who had just had a retrospective at The Hirschhorn Museum, reviewed by John Canaday and titled Why the Whitney Should be Kicking Itself. She was shocked Terry didn’t know of him, so she gave him two softcover books of his paintings. “You must study Gary! You must meet him!” she said. “He’s a genius. He was just twenty-six when I discovered him, and to think you’re only twenty-three. Maybe you’ll be my next Gary? What do you think of that, Mr. Stafford?”
Terry went to a bar. He felt at home in the old place, which had remained unchanged since the 1930s when it had been called The Gaiety. The colorful vintage neon over the angled street-corner door had appealed to him. He sat drinking drafts at the long wooden bar top, attempting to understand what had just happened. He took out the paper the gallery secretary had given him and read it again: “8 paintings given to the Borum Gallery on consignment for exhibition.” He wanted to shout but ordered a turkey sandwich instead. Then he called Vermont from the payphone near the door and told Giselle. For once she seemed truly pleased.
It snowed lightly as he drove north up the Taconic Parkway toward the dawn. He still felt unreal more than elated. Was this how it was when dreams were realized? At least he knew the work was solid; he had put everything he had into those eight paintings. He’d need to borrow money to buy a suit and some shoes. He’d always craved fancy shoes, and with painting sales imminent, he would finally have some real money after so much skimping. Would Giselle start spending it? She seemed always to be wearing something new, claiming she’d found it at Goodwill for pennies. Once his mother had pulled him aside and said, “You realize that’s about a four-hundred-dollar sweater, don’t you?” He hadn’t known how to answer, wondering how his mother would know. Would Giselle lie?
And then during the weary and nervous month of February, Terry telephoned Gary Hellespie. The older man was rather formal, almost unfriendly, decidedly arrogant on the phone, but Terry asked if he could come visit and show him his latest work, which Terry was tremendously excited about and felt was a leap forward from the ones at Borum.
“I’ll need to see slides first,” said Hellespie.
Terry was a bit taken aback—weren’t they in the same gallery? Didn’t that mean anything? Hadn’t Della Carpko told him to contact Hellespie, almost requesting it? Again, it was a world Terry knew nothing about. But he promptly mailed the images that had gained the admiration from Kolan and Carpko. After waiting impatiently over three weeks for a response, Terry telephoned Hellespie again.
“Yeah, I got them.”— “I suppose they looked okay. It’s never easy to access much from slides.”—“Yeah, I suppose you can come down, although I’m quite busy right now.”
Regardless, they set a time and date.
Do we sense the major mistakes in our lives before they happen? Are there warning voices? Some kind of vague sign that the road around the corner ends in a sudden severe drop?
It was the end of March when Terry loaded his three new pieces and Volvoed to Hellespie’s studio in Massachusetts. He was wearing his new shoes for the first time, figuring he’d break them in so they wouldn’t be too uncomfortable for the opening in New York, which was now under six weeks away. His show had been named Terry Stafford: New Talent. He was very proud of the shoes, if rather embarrassed he’d spent over a $100 for them, which was close to a month’s rent. “Irresistible” was how he rationalized the cost. They were Italian bone-colored wingtips with an almost skin-like greenish cast, a tall stacked leather heal, and a perforated stylized PC for Pierre Cardin, looking more like a mushroom than initials.
The shoes in 2017. I still wear them to each of my art openings.
Slightly early, he ended up waiting nearly two hours in the cold March wind for Gary Hellespie. He thought of telephoning, but that required finding a payphone, and he didn’t want to miss the man, expecting him every moment. When he finally showed, he immediately commented on the shoes.
“You don’t like them?” said Terry.
“I suppose they would be appropriate for a gigolo or a pimp.” And after a few moments, “I talked to Della about you . . .”
“Really? What did she say?”
“She seems quite taken with you.”
Inside, Hellespie showed him what he’d been working on. The painting was huge by Terry’s standards, probably seven-feet square, depicting a series of over-sized levitating eggplants, carrots, turnips, tomatoes and a squash on a common dark background. The vegetables were miraculously rendered down to every blemish and each bead of moisture, all in oil paint. Terry stared for a long moment, uncertain what to say. He was still a bit miffed about the denigration of his shoes. The comment seemed uncalled for.
“That looks like a lot of work,” said Terry.
He was silent, trying desperately to think of something appropriate to say. He always had trouble lying. Even as a kid he couldn’t seem to lie. He simply went mum. “They really really look like vegetables,” he managed. “Amazing how much.”
“You don’t like it?”
Could the man read his mind? “It’s different than your other work I saw in the booklets, so it’s taking me a moment to adjust.”
Some of Hellespie’s early paintings during his twenties had been interesting, perverse, sexual, referential in terms of art history, maybe a bit grotesque, but clearly creative. Terry had genuinely admired some of the street scenes done in Italy. This painting seemed like an exercise in futility. Why render a bunch of floating vegetables? Wasn’t the point of art to be more than the sum of its parts? Shouldn’t the work touch the viewer, have some meaning or emotion besides what it so blatantly reproduced? This could be merely a montage of cutout photographs.
“Maybe some of your earlier paintings might have been a bit more challenging.” Terry knew instantly he’d said the wrong thing, but had no idea why. Would Hellespie care what Terry thought of his painting? It seemed improbable. Hellespie was famous, successful, why would he give a second of emotion to Terry’s opinion? Hellespie shot off into a backroom and returned with a relatively small painting of a naked baby on immaculately rendered stone and tile steps onto which blobs of oil paint, as if the actual palette had been smeared into it, were stuck onto the surface of the panel.
“Like this? Is this more challenging?”
To Terry’s horror he didn’t like this one any better than the vegetable medley. Hellespie had remained reasonably polite, but Terry could tell he was annoyed, which was confounding. He was shocked the meeting was going so poorly and didn’t understand why. Then Hellespie suddenly insisted on seeing his paintings, so he returned to the Volvo and brought them inside, telling himself to try to improve things, although he had no idea how. He sensed he could come across as arrogant when it was really just a lack of social skills. You didn’t learn those in poolrooms and hanging out with hobos.
But Hellespie adamantly disliked Terry’s three recent paintings. “Della said you’re self-taught and it shows. You desperately need dialogue with other artists. My advice to you would be to enroll in a good school and learn the basics, meet other artists your own age, receive their critiques along with the guidance of a competent professor.” This sounded so condescending that Terry felt himself getting defensive. He didn’t tell him he’d attended RISD for one week at sixteen and turned down the proffered full scholarship. Hellespie’s remarks stung deeply, but he tried not to show it. Couldn’t Hellespie see what he’d accomplished? Maybe these new paintings weren’t so solid after all? “Can you tell me specifically what you don’t like?”
One of the paintings was of a tollbooth in brilliant sunlight, the booth vibrant lime against a huge rising storm cloud of dark purple, the image invented, the booth his own design, based on a moment Terry had experienced hitchhiking. Terry had wanted to prove that the ugliest colors could be made beautiful in the right contrast. The painting would much later be noted by John Updike as one of his favorites in a letter to Terry. Hellespie now pointed at it:
“Like this thing! Everyone in New York is doing this. What’s the point?”
Terry attempted to explain, how three identical trapezoids formed the composition, how the tollbooth poles moved in a sequence toward each other in the perspective like two lovers coming together, how the one half of the rising cloud was the other half moments later, attempting to express time passing. In the next forty years Terry would never see another painting of a tollbooth remotely like his.
Terry went to a bar. He knew the area from having lived in the Wendell woods when he was seventeen and eighteen, a time before he had found a cheap flight to Europe and met Giselle. Brokenhearted after his meeting with Hellespie, he began to drink drafts and hustle pool. He couldn’t be beaten. The bets increased. All the guys shooting pool were black. When a new guy walked into the bar, one of the players would call out. “Gerome, man, git your ass over here and take this honky mothafucka. He holdin’ all our bread.” Terry left with well over seventy-five dollars, pretending he was going to the bathroom, running after he exited, just in case—this was a world he understood. He backtracked carefully for his Volvo and headed home.
About a month before his show was to open, their one phone, a red wall phone in the kitchen, rang. Terry stared out at the last remnants of early April snow as he answered. It was Della Carpko:
“Mr. Stafford? I’m sorry, but your show has been cancelled. Please come and collect your work as soon as you can.”
Then the line went dead.
Terry called the Borum Gallery back immediately, but they were sorry, Della had already left for the day. Of course, they would give her his message. He called twice a day for a week, but she never seemed to be available to take his call. After two weeks, his despair was overwhelming. Finally, reluctantly, he telephoned Gary Hellespie.
“That’s too bad. Sorry to hear that.”—“Do I know why?”—“I suppose I might have mentioned something to Della. I might have told her I didn’t think you were a good fit for the gallery.” Terry could hear the man’s smirk over the wire—a garrote—as he hung up.
Within weeks, Terry began his bouts with bleeding ulcers.
Terry thought of sending Hellespie a hyper-realistic painting of a bitten off carrot, but in the end, he never mustered the energy.
Even when Terry collected his work at Borum, he never saw Della Carpko again.
Within the year, his father died suddenly of a heart attack in the one place on earth he hated the most, JFK Airport, and after claiming the body in New York, Terry began to take care of his mother, a task that would last for almost thirty years.
His marriage with Giselle ended after she confessed to all the other men she had been having sex with during their relationship. She said the impulse behind her confession was to come clean, find honesty between them, because she truly and finally loved only him now. She claimed sleeping with others was the only way she could know for sure that he was the one. She was fiercely angry when he declined her offer of eternal love. After their divorce and settlement, in which Giselle would take everything Terry owned including five paintings (two from the group of eight that never made the wall at Borum) and Terry’s dead father’s car, which she promptly rolled into a ditch and abandoned, he would find out that Giselle had been fabulously wealthy all along, her family owning many six-story Art Nouveau buildings in Paris as well as over 40,000 acres of land in outlying hamlets south of the city.
Terry refused to show his artwork for almost ten years, and his trust in people never returned.
Twenty years after their meeting, Gary Hellespie hung himself in his studio in Massachusetts. He died owing the Borum Gallery over half a million dollars. Out of love or loyalty, Della Carpko had continued his yearly stipend long after his work had stopped selling.
No matter how Terry has searched online, he hasn’t been able to find the Hellespie painting of the floating vegetables, although it might well have been a precursor for much of the popular hyperrealist painting of late. Terry, for what it’s worth, finds that he isn’t any more moved by the new flotilla of well-executed hot house wonders and sweet desserts than he was back in 1981.
Here I am a couple years after my meeting with Gregory Gillespie. Note the shoes, which were brand-new in the first photo. I’ve begun to lift weights and I’m learning to box. The painting on the easel is called Departure and was [is] about the death of my father. The gloves on the window sill are handball gloves. The red leather jacket was custom-made in honor of the windbreaker James Dean wore in Rebel Without a Cause. Montpelier, Vermont, 1983.
A B&W postcard I hand-painted-colored in 1983.
Me on my BMW R90S about the same year.
Departure, acrylic on panel, 29 by 44 inches.
Two letters that substantiate my story:
I hadn’t thought of Bobby Black for twenty-five years and wouldn’t have even remembered his name if Irene hadn’t shown up.
Twenty-five years ago I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, staying in a third-floor loft above Duke’s poolroom, and I spent my afternoons playing pool, either there or in Pete’s around the block. At that time, Duke’s was run by Italians, had new tables, a linoleum floor instead of warped hardwood, and housed most of the local gambling action. Pete, a white-haired black man, owned the other room, and though he charged less, his pool tables were about as ancient and level as his floor—too uncertain for real money play. Both halls were second-floor walkups with city views reminiscent of the Depression. Tucked next door was a Greek diner that offered bowls of soup and stale bread for a quarter. Across the avenue was the Ocean Theater with its spire of swirling Deco neon, turquoise waves rippling mechanically down the marquee every evening. Around the corner along an alley, a bar with fifteen-cent Pickwick drafts, sawdust, and angry whores.
That autumn I’d been riding freights across the country and had come back East to search out a friend. He was living above Duke’s with the rest of his grumpy rock band. They allowed me a corner in the loft for my blanket and gave me a job lugging their equipment at gigs. At seventeen I was underfed and wore a slouch cap like a twenties newsboy. I dressed out of Goodwill in baggy wool suits that rarely cost more than a dollar, and I smoked a pipe. Corncobs, briars, one was fired up constantly like the stack of a tramp steamer; pipe tobacco was not to be skimped on and was inexpensive then anyway.
Being from Maine, at that point in my life I’d had only minimal contact with black people besides Pete. His poolroom was usually empty in the afternoons, and I favored the quiet, the cheap rates, and playing pool with him. By evening I was hauling amps and cables, or drinking beer, and mornings were for sleeping. Duke’s jukebox was my alarm clock, the thump rising through my blanket at around noon. Somewhere in me I still carry the bass line of Rock The Boat, which was the consistent morning favorite. During one of our talks, Pete warned me about Bobby Black. Bobby had a reputation for crooked gambling, guns, robbery, and should be avoided if possible.
It was in Duke’s that I glanced up from a shot to see Bobby holding me in the sights of his bored scowl. He was much larger than I was, his body heavily muscled, his face unreadable.
“What’s you looking at?” he said.
“I ax you a question. Who you think you looking at?”
“You calling me a nothing?”
“I’m not calling you anything.”
“But you looking.”
“I guess so.”
“You think you can just look at who you want?”
“I’ll try to be more careful.”
He considered this. “You be watching who you look at.”
I nodded and went back to my game, but it didn’t end there. It started something with Bobby. Every time he saw me, he’d say, “Man, I wants ta shoot you,” or, “I wants you. I wants you, boy,” pointing a finger at my head and clicking. I didn’t want to play Bobby or have anything to do with him. Pete had filled me in: Bobby only played for money, he intimidated his opponents into missing, and he got violent if he lost.
I couldn’t afford to play Bobby. The rock band paid poorly, and even my coffee I managed by convincing a floor girl at the A&P into saving the sweepings from around the grinding machine—a free mix of Eight-O’clock to Bokar. I didn’t need Bobby taking my money, but what bothered me more was that I thought I could beat him. I doubted he could intimidate me. I’d been through a lot riding freights and I felt pretty tough in my own way. Besides, I’d been hustling pool since I was fifteen and knew all the gambits. Or thought I did.
Every day I seemed to meet him on the stairs that the loft shared with Duke’s. “Man, I wants you. What you so afraid of? Come on, boy, let’s shoot. You and that goddamn stink pipe. What’s you smoking in that thing anyway?”
I tried to ignore him and the fact that he scared me. But just like everything else that scared me, I had trouble leaving it alone.
So one afternoon I got on a table with Bobby, even though Pete had warned me again. Maybe the old man could see it coming.
We started with a dollar game. Then two. Then five. I was careful to win by only a ball or two, but Bobby was getting more and more irritated. Finally it was double or nothing at ten. Bobby tried every dirty underhanded trick, but the problem was, he pissed me off so much with all his intimidation and chatter that I forgot about everything else. So on that twenty-dollar game I ran the table. After the last ball fell, for once Bobby was silent.
“You owe me twenty,” I said, which back then was a lot of money to me.
He examined the skinny white boy and my heart pounded. All Pete’s warnings roared back and my anger turned to fear. I wondered if he’d pull out a gun and simply shoot me, but instead, Bobby started laughing and shaking his head.
“Twenty-dollar kid, twenty-dollar kid,” he said and walked out of the poolroom. After that he chanted it at me every time he saw me, but he never suggested we play again, and he never paid me a dime. After a while I was just relieved to be done with it, and a few weeks later Bobby stopped coming around. I asked Pete if he knew anything, and he told me Bobby had been arrested for armed robbery. Soon the rock band broke up over something I’ve forgotten, and I moved on as well. That seemed to be the end of it.
It was twenty-five years later that Irene arrived in Maine. A friend of ours brought her to the house to meet my wife and me; he wanted our impression. He’d met her at a country fair while she was on vacation with a few girlfriends, and had invited her up to visit. A couple weeks later she did. I immediately liked her because she was dressed way too fancy for rural New England. Everything she had on was iridescent cobalt blue—eye shadow, nylons, the three-inch heels, and dangling glass earrings. I could sense that my wife liked her too, and we all settled in the living room with cocktails. Irene was a storyteller and told us about the first time she did LSD; every fifteen minutes she ate another tab because she didn’t think it was working. It took her about three days to come down.
After the third round of drinks, I asked her where she was from and she said Providence. We chatted about the city and I told her about having lived there. She told me the neighborhood I’d stayed in was gone, deleted by the wrecking ball of urban gentrification. We lamented the destruction of so many things in our pasts, and for some reason I thought of Bobby Black and I started to tell her the pool hustling episode. Toward the end of my story, at the twenty-dollar kid part, Irene’s face was no longer that of a polite listener.
“What is it?” I said, concerned I’d upset her.
“I can’t believe it.”
“What?” I said again.
“You’re the twenty-dollar kid!”
I was confused, and told her so, and she started laughing.
“You’re not going to believe this.” She shook her head, her big nest of hair and earrings dancing. She took a long pull from her drink.
“I worked the Claremont as bartender for six years until they closed us down. For the last six months, this guy sat at my bar almost every night. He’d just got out of prison and he looked it. He really freaked me out, and we got all types in there, believe me. When he was drunk he’d start in about the twenty-dollar kid. ‘It was the twenty-dollar kid got me,’ he’d say. I thought it was some drug thing, like an eight-ball or something. So one night I asked him, ‘What is this twenty-dollar kid shit?’ I was sick of hearing it. You know, every night, twenty-dollar kid, twenty-dollar kid, over and over.” She went after her drink again, ice cubes ringing.
“Turns out he was robbing a drug store. He’s got the money, or whatever he was after, and is already on the sidewalk, when he gets this stupid idea. As he said, ‘most fuckup thought of my life.’ There’s something he spotted inside that he wants. He runs back in to get it, but by the time he’s on the sidewalk again, so are the cops. He does ten for armed robbery.”
She looked at me.
“He went back in to grab a few pipes for some kid.”
A young man walks along a road, and beside him walks his many long hitchhike trips like cousins. They are not me, but they are my family, my support, my back.
I remember walking into Ray’s lunchroom,
The long, curved counter and the red padded stools,
And you, so young and fresh on my arm;
We left the spring rain outside.
I remember that.
It was all too long ago,
Too damn long ago . . .
And now it’s winter
Another long New England winter
And I’m tired, and my love is a withered husk.
A dozen years
And I can still smell the soft breeze
As we walked out of Ray’s lunchroom
And headed back to your bed:
Back to the smell of you
That matched the wet air for sweetness.
I rage at this winter darkness
I rage at this winter emptiness
I rage at this winter loneliness.
It’s all I can do.
“I hitchhiked 22,000 miles, about seven times across the nation.” I used to be proud of that number because I felt they were true road miles. This meant that I simply set out in a direction, and though there might have been a vague destination, the whole reason was to be on the road, not to arrive anywhere particular. In other words, I wasn’t commuting; I was out there for the coarse poetry of the thing.
In 1973 I sewed together a leather rucksack patterned after a worn-out canvas one retired by my father. I salvaged the simple T-frame and all the metal bits—stitched, awled, punched holes for rawhide lacing. At the time everyone thought I was nuts. “That’ll be way too heavy,” they said. I carried that pack with my Coleman stove, canteen, coffee maker, wool GI blanket, rain tarp, journals, sketchbooks, and so on for many miles. As it turned out, a leather pack wasn’t such a bad idea.
My first major hitchhike was from Wisconsin to the Maine Coast and back when I was 16. I can remember many of the rides that summer, can still see the faces and hear the conversations. I even slept one night just south of the Lincolnville ferry landing on the beach and reached the Belfast waterfront the next morning.
The tester from that 2,000 mile run was a 23 hour wait in Sudbury, Ontario, the nickel capital of the world, which approximated a gasoline alley appendaged to the lunar surface. After 23 hours, walking backwards for about 20 miles through the barren gray rockscape with my thumb held high, I figured I’d achieved invisibility, not usually accessible to most 16 year olds. In desperation I finally waved down a Greyhound bus, which, much to my disbelief, actually stopped. Turns out the radio had been airing bulletins about escaped convicts.
At the bus station at Sault Saint Marie, I bragged about my endless wait, insisting in my youthful arrogance that it must be a record. Another traveler shook his head, his face obviously related to the walnut. “Let me tell ya, I heard of a fellow got stranded in northern Canada on Route 117. He waited day after day for a ride, taking a coffee and sandwich every so often from the diner near the edge of town. A week went by. There were no buses, no taxis, about a car every hour or two. Eventually,” he paused for the punch line, “the fellow ended up marrying the waitress at the diner and never left. That’s the longest as I know it.”
One ride from the late 1970s stands out. That spring I hadn’t been drinking because of stomach ulcers; the long winter had me fairly pent up, and I needed to get away from the snow. So I headed southward, from northern Vermont to New Bedford, MA. I was standing in a shallow valley on Interstate 195 when a car careened almost airborne over the rise and began to shoot past me in a blur of angry noise. Suddenly—full brakes, tire squeal, a monstrous fake-wood-paneled wagon fishtailing to a smoky, dusty silence. Then the fishtailing began in reverse until the vehicle was along side.
I hopped into the backseat. The driver, mullet haircut, broken nose, T-shirt though it wasn’t much above freezing, turned to me. “Damn, buddy, that was lucky. We almost didn’t see ya.” With that he jammed the accelerator and didn’t release the tension until the battered wagon was bellowing down the highway at nearly ninety-five. It took me a moment to understand what he meant by his greeting. At first I thought it had to do with not running me over; then I realized it was about the impossibility of not picking me up, a generous attitude that immediately intrigued me.
As I was figuring this out, the co-pilot, ball cap backwards, about six molars and an eye tooth, another T-shirt, handed me a beer. The way he handed it to me without asking, I couldn’t turn it down. Bizarrely it was a Krakus ale imported from Poland. “They was on special. Freakin’ gets you there though.” It tasted wonderful and hoppy after the months without.
“Sorry about the cold,” the driver yelled above the racket. “Exhaust was killing us.” The hammering of the broken muffler, the 90 mile-an-hour wind pouring through the rolled-down windows, and the radio at volume made yelling imperative.
It was about ten minutes later that something snapped and the muffler hit the pavement. I’m sure sparks must’ve been spraying from the stern like a firework. A quick stop ensued while Molars wrenched off the culprit and tossed the entire unit attached to about eight feet of serpentine pipe into the ditch. Back to full tempo, the engine now thundering with a Nascar soul, Molars began to flick delicate almost feminine downward karate chops in the direction of the windshield. It took me a moment to understand this as well, Molars grinning back at me as he admired the effect, giggling with delight. He’d cut his hand during the modification and was painting lines of blood on the inside of the glass and the dash.
While Molars had implemented the car repair, the driver and I had chatted, opened another Krakus. They were fishermen about to ship out in a few hours. Whatever I offered the conversation made the driver grin and nod as if I had nothing but mainline wisdom; we seemed to agree on everything. When we were back at blazing speed, Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” came over the tinny radio, distorted by the maximum volume. They both started singing, really putting their hearts into the whistling section. I’ve rarely met two more content guys.
Here’s the kicker to the story. During the run to New Bedford we picked up a second hitchhiker, maybe a college kid, nice teeth, trimmed beard, nylon backpack and down parka. As the wagon began to reach altitude again, the new rider glanced nervously at the speedometer, at the driver, then at me. He had turned down the proffered beer. Wrongly assuming I was the sanest, he tried to whisper to me, sitting up straighter and straighter on the seat, eyes locked on the highway ahead, hands clenched. I just smiled. After maybe five minutes he said, “This is my stop! This is it. Right here.” He pointed frantically “Right there. Please!” We let him out in the middle of nowhere.
“What the hell was up with him?” said the driver, seeming concerned for the first time. I shrugged, Molars threw another spray of blood, and we thundered off down the highway.
FRANK, FRIENDSHIP, AND THE HANGING SCAFFOLD
An e-mail arrived the other day from a woman I haven’t seen in almost 30 years, and it put tears in my eyes. We’ve stayed in touch on occasion because during my early 20s I worked for her husband. Frank was Italian American, from the Jersey shore, and at that point in my life I’d never met anyone like him. He had quite an effect on me over the four years we painted houses together. When he returned to New Jersey with his family, I waited for my career to take off before looking him up again. But he died before that could happen.
The paint crew Frank assembled in Vermont during the late 1970s was unusual. Two members had PhDs in art and philosophy, a couple shook from hangovers every morning, one Vietnam vet could move a 40-foot ladder like it was a toothpick, and one never finished high school and had no fear of heights. That was me.
When I first met Frank I thought he was a big friendly guy who was overweight with a face as pretty as a choir boy. Then one day on the job site, a cruel, tattooed biker carpenter with biceps like footballs started taunting Frank. Frank took it in stride for about ten minutes. Then he said, “If I hear one more word outa you, I’m getting down off this ladder.”
This stunned me coming from Frank. He was usually so easygoing if not actually sweet. If he noticed someone who appeared down and out, he would walk over and say, “Waddya need, a couple bucks or something, buddy?” and pull out his roll of bills.
The carpenter made another nasty remark, and Frank calmly set aside his brush and paint. When he approached the carpenter, the guy immediately took a couple violent swings at him. With startling quickness, Frank stepped around the punches and hit the guy in the face maybe four times with only his open hands. The blows stunned the carpenter; he staggered back and slumped to the ground, his face a livid red. Frank surprised me again when he said, “Are you okay, buddy? Come on, talk ta me,” and extended his hand to help him up. I saw then that Frank had hands the size of pie plates.
After that I asked Frank to teach me to box, and I began to notice the style with which he handled many situations. Though only a half dozen years older, he seemed to know about the things I didn’t, and he began cautiously to give me advice like an older brother. Back then my dress shoes were hand-me-down Wallabees from my father. One evening after work when we were headed out drinking, Frank looked at my feet, shook his head in despair, and said, “Green Bean, take off your shoes for a minute.”
I stared at Frank: ” On the street here, you want me to take off my shoes?”
He nodded, “Just for a second. I gotta see something.” So, I took off my shoes and handed them to Frank. He promptly threw them into the Winoski River which was channeled like a canal through Montpelier. I was shocked, but Frank put his arm around me and we walked to the shoe store down the block. He bought me new socks as well, and as I was being fitted (bone colored wingtips) he explained what a shoe was. He told me how his father, a gambler in Atlantic City, had his little toes amputated so he could wear a pointier shoe without annoyance. I wish Frank could see my collection of Italian dress shoes now, particularly my black snakeskin loafers.
Frank managed to get the job painting a number of downtown buildings in Montpelier, Vermont. In order to paint a five or six-story building, we needed a hanging scaffold. This is a platform with two winches that raise and lower the base on metal cable. Two large iron hooks are aligned near the edge of the roof, and the cables dangle from these down to the platform.
Frank rented the rig from a guy called Crazy Louie, and one morning he asked me to try it out with him. Crazy Louie had three teeth and wore white plastic loafers with a gold clasps. The hanging scaffold looked as if it had been used to paint the Coliseum in 80 AD. Frank asked Louie where the safety harnesses were, and Louie laughed. “You don’t need them,” he called back over his shoulder as he shuffled off. “I ain’t never used one. They’d juss get in your way.”
Frank and I looked at each other, shrugged, and started cranking the wooden platform up the side of the five-story building that was eventually to hold the New England Culinary Institute. At about three stories, Frank glanced over and asked how I felt. “Great,” I said. “You?”
“You can’t touch the building.” This was true. If you reached out for the bricks to steady yourself, the platform swung away and you felt yourself being sucked into the void. Frank’s voice sounded a bit nervous, and I secretly enjoyed this since he seemed to be fearless about most everything.
As we reached the five-story mark, near the cornice, I looked up. The cable, about the diameter of a pencil, was badly frayed at the juncture with the iron hook. I heard Crazy Louie laugh. I thought of Frank’s 225 pounds. At that instant the cable slipped on the reel and the platform jerked down about an inch. Silence.
“You okay?” Frank said in a strained voice.
“I can’t move. I seem to be frozen.” I hated to admit this but it was true.
“I can’t move either. Is mosta your cable all bristled and busted?”
I nodded slowly, unable to take my eyes off the remaining dozen threads that supported us. “What’re we going to do?”
“I’m gonna talk us down, okay?”
It took a while, but eventually, each coaxing the other, very gingerly we managed to winch ourselves back to the pavement. The ground felt amazing. We knew we’d almost died together, and that’s a bond, believe me. Frank took me directly to a bar and bought us two cognacs. A machine shop replaced the cables the next day.
We’ve all had friends like this, those who have truly touched us, changed our lives, been an influential component in our formative experience. There were even times when I found myself saying, “What, you wanna cup a coffee or something?” in his voice. I always figured Frank and I would hang out together when we were middle-aged, mulling over all the things we’d done. Before Frank died, he owned an Italian restaurant in New Jersey, and he’d telephone and tell me stories about Sinatra, Joe Pesci, and Mickey Rourke, who all ate his food. “Come on down and see me, Green Bean,” he’d say. “I’ll fix you the best dinner you ever ate.”
How I would love to have that option now. To once again hear Frank sing “Under the Boardwalk” or imitate De Niro in Raging Bull, both which he performed perfectly. It’s a mistake to put off for too long visiting those who have meant a lot in our lives. It’s easy to find excuses for not making the effort, but when it’s too late, the chance is gone forever.
And his wife’s e-mail that put tears in my eyes? She wrote how her son, Frank’s son, whom I knew as a young boy, cooked a fantastic meal at the same Italian restaurant this Thanksgiving. He served the feast to 300 homeless people in a fire station where long tables had been set up. She wrote that everyone had a wonderful time, and asked me when I was coming down to visit.
My friend Ben Taylor resting in my 1965 Impala with the original 396, Vermont, summer of 1992.
The three of them sat across the ripped bench seat of the Biscayne. Cody had bought the car a couple years ago from a farmer who’d marooned it in a field, and though it only had a six-cylinder that smoked, it would take them to the coast. Brad had purchased another new car, the red Camaro already traded in, but his rides were always sports cars and didn’t seat three across a bench. Cody could smell Stephanie beside him, heard Brad against the door.
“Why are we doing this?” said Brad for what seemed like the fifth time, taking yet another sip from the Thermos of rum and coke, then replacing the cigarette.
“I wanna see the ocean,” she said.
“It’s so late. It must be nearly four in the fucking morning.”
“Two,” said Cody, stretching out his damaged leg as best he could. Nine months and the thing hurt most of the time.
“Besides, it’s such a beautiful night,” she said.
It was. The landscape seemed draped in a damp shroud, or almost hermetically sealed in translucent verdant cling-wrap, the moonlight so unusually green. Was it because it was April, or was it always this way? Cody couldn’t remember.
“Turn the damn headlights back on,” said Brad.
“No, leave them off,” she said. “You can really like feel the outside this way. It’s kinda cool.”
“There’s no one on the highway,” she said. “Besides, you can see fine this way.”
“Zen driving,” said Cody. They were on the four-lane section of the Mohawk Trail now.
“Fucking Zen nothing. What would you know about Zen?”
“Be nice,” she said. “I’m having a good time.”
Cody drove with some degree of frustration. He wasn’t sure why he was Zen driving with them; he certainly shouldn’t have told them his name for it. He knew it sounded foolish, but the way the car began to float along the smooth highway, the way the countryside appeared so ordered and quiet, the odd calm he always felt as the park-like world drifted past the windows and over the windshield, it was something he held sacred. Why did he want to show her? Was he somehow flirting? Stephanie was his type—physically; he didn’t know much about her beyond that. It was annoying that he and Brad must desire the same looks in a woman: petite, high breasted, disheveled hair more complicated than any maze. And her smell. It was taunting him with every mile east. He reached behind him for a beer though he didn’t want to drink, his stomach acidic and hungry. Brad was doing enough drinking for everyone. Regardless, she kept rubbing Brad’s leg, nibbling on his ear, or kissing his cheek, drunk or not.
Stephanie and Brad had started drinking and then called him late, almost ten o’clock, begging him to join them at Brad’s apartment. Cody realized now that Brad had just wanted him to drive them to the coast because he was too drunk. As Brad had whispered to him, “She gets these ideas, and she doesn’t like to be denied. Please please just go along with me on this one.”
“We’ll have champagne for breakfast,” she said. “But I wanna see the ocean first.” Stephanie was from New Mexico, a sophomore at Bennington. Her father had sent her a special bottle of champagne for her birthday, and she insisted on drinking it on the beach. “We’ll be there for the sunrise, won’t we?”
Brad began to snore.
“He’s so funny, isn’t he? Such a giant teddy bear.” She rubbed his leg again. “Is he still helping you with color?”
“What’re you talking about?”
“Brad told me he’s been teaching you color theory. He’s such a tremendous and engaging teacher.”
Brad hadn’t been teaching him anything.
“Aren’t you so into color?” she said. “Brad said you wanted to be an artist too.”
“What else did he say?”
“Just that you’d been really depressed and that he was trying to get you into art as therapy. He really is the sweetest guy I’ve ever met.”
He didn’t respond to that either. Instead he said, “You ever notice how last names that are colors are always cool tones?”
“Think about it. There’s Blacks, Grays, Greens, Browns, Violets, Whites, but never anyone called Brad Yellow, Brad Orange, or Brad Red.”
She glanced at him. “Are you sure?”
“Check on it.”
“It really doesn’t matter though, does it?”
“I just thought it was interesting, that’s all. You think people would want to have bright colors as last names, but they don’t.”
“When will we be at the beach?”
“What’s it called again?”
“Oh yeah, right.”
“What is it?”
He accelerated, the ancient six blowing smoke in the agony of being roused from its rolling torpor.
“Why are you going so fast?”
“So? Stop then.”
“They probably don’t like us driving with no lights.”
“Are they coming after us?”
“I think so.”
“Then pull over. What’s the big deal?”
“We’ve been drinking.”
“Should I wake Brad?”
“Don’t. Can you hide the booze?”
“Just do your best.” He searched the rearview mirror for headlights.
“In a minute.” A rest-stop-ahead sign flashed by, his eyes completely adjusted to the darkness by now.
“I don’t like going this fast.”
“Can’t you hide the booze.”
“Don’t tell me what to do. I’m waking Brad.”
“Don’t.” He said it in such a way that she stopped moving. His attraction to her was flipping to dislike. Headlights appeared in the distance as he saw the entrance to the rest stop. He keyed off the car, the compression of the engine slowing them. The hand brake was needed to stop them in the darkest section of the lot; using the foot brake would’ve been a red flare of stupidity. He quickly pulled off his windbreaker and covered the beer and the rum bottle, praying the headlights would continue past. At least she was silent, Brad still snoring. The lights turned toward them. “Pretend you’re asleep.”
“Just damn well do it.”
He heard the vehicle approach rapidly and then slow, felt the hot beam of the spotlight across his eyelids, searching his face and the interior of the Biscayne. Then the sound of tires chirping on sandy pavement. He cracked his eyes: the cruiser’s taillights were moving away, a second car careening along in the darkness of the highway, the cruiser’s blue lights beginning to pulse as it took up chase. “Was that ever lucky,” he said to himself. “Thank God for the other car.”
“I’m waking Brad.”
“So wake him.”
“I don’t like being talked to like that.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude.”
She seemed to consider this. “Are you that scared of cops?”
“I’ve had a few tickets on my motorcycle.”
“The one Brad helped you race?”
“Didn’t he finance it or something?”
He caressed the motor to life, pulled on the headlights, and headed out of the rest area. Within a couple minutes they passed the blinking cruiser with the other car pulled over, the cop leaning in the window, the gumballs illuminating the scene like a blue strobe.
“The cop arrested someone else,” she said.
He considered putting on his windbreaker over his T-shirt again, but as much as it annoyed him to admit it, he wanted her to see his arm muscles. She probably didn’t care though; Brad had arms like frog legs.
It was still night when they arrived at Salisbury Beach, the place closed for the season. Brad had woken and began drinking again, Cody amazed that someone could consume so much alcohol. He was good for a few beers now and then but had never liked the feeling of being out of control. He parked near the entrance building, the gate shut, in the distance the deserted amusement park and fun-o-rama brooding in the moonlight. The three of them walked toward the water, Brad carrying the champagne and smoking a cigarette, his arm around Stephanie. He seemed livelier after his nap.
“This is really good shit, you know?” He held up the narrow-throated bottle.
“My dad wouldn’t send me anything cheap.”
“We don’t have any glasses.”
“You guys share it,” said Cody, not that they’d asked. Suddenly he felt lonely. Watching her round ass move across the sand didn’t help.
Brad popped the cork, mouthing the overflowing bottle like a porn star. The two of them settled on the sand, drinking, laughing, Stephanie kissing him every so often, the waiting for the dawn forgotten. After ten minutes Cody wondered if they even remembered he was there. He walked toward the waves, the soft sand difficult for his leg. A lapping surf, white lines of foam cracking open and dissipating, the horizon black and trembling. He slipped off his boots, socks, windbreaker, T-shirt and jeans, and ran into the ocean, the plunge into darkness slapping angrily at his heart, an icy void surrounding his body for an instant like the fear of crashing. That was all he could stand. He staggered clumsily as he waded back, nearly falling, the ferris wheel an inverse frozen firework above the dark land.
She was standing by his clothes. “Are you crazy or what?”
He was shy that she should see him naked, but also slightly thrilled. He thought her eyes passed across his crotch. It was odd how many woman looked there; if he hadn’t repeatedly witnessed it, he wouldn’t have believed it.
“You don’t even have a towel.”
He shivered uncontrollably as he pulled on his pants and jacket, using his T-shirt to rub dry his hair. Without his boots she was taller than he was.
“You must be really cold.”
He didn’t answer.
Brad was tilting the bottle, smoking yet another cigarette, still sprawled on their indenture in the sand.
“Why did you do that?”
He wondered why she cared. “I wanted to know what it was.”
“So what was it?”
She laughed. “You better go warm up in the car.”
He nodded and turned. As he walked past Brad he heard him say drunkenly, “You always have to be the fucking hero, don’t you?”
The dawn finally came as they reached Williamstown. Feeling exhausted as if after a trauma, he turned the Biscayne north up Route 7, the road potholed and difficult to read in the flat grayness. Brad snored again, Stephanie seemed listless and bored. Outside Brad’s apartment, after they left him staggering through his doorway, she asked if he could drop her at the dorms. When they arrived, she didn’t get out of the car. He watched the sky fill with pastel behind the dorm buildings, each with a single light over the doorway.
“You’re different than I thought,” she said, her glance intent.
“Just different. At first you seemed so angry and difficult. I bet you’ve got a really sweet side.”
He was confused but too tired to figure it out where she was headed. Her hand began moving across the seat toward him like a spider. Then he thought he knew. “Brad’s going to get me into the school,” he said, reminding her of her boyfriend.
“You think so?”
“He said he’d try, but it takes time.”
Her fingers were touching his thigh now. The touch made him shiver again; he’d never really warmed up after the swim. Her hand found his penis through the cloth.
“Don’t,” he said. “Brad’s my friend.”
Her hand jerked back and she laughed, her head tilted back against the bench seat. “You really think so?”
This is the original Porsche bonnet badging from my first Porsche coupe from 1956. I straightened her and gave her a couple coats of the unrivaled gold leaf paint that I’ve had in a mason jar since 1982. Good Paint that!
My father’s original Reutter coachwork badge from his 1952 coupe, so impeccably faded, received two spray coats of Swiss UV gloss varnish so that it maintains that perfect patina.
CARS, ERAS, AND WHAT BEATS HEART
I’m going out on a limb, but I’m hoping the limb won’t snap and dump me on the ground. Like many people, I’ve had enough bruises this winter, but here goes.
Everyone knows that the American car industry is in a coma with the life blood barely blipping. As I write this, Ford and GM shares are under a couple dollars, which nearly matches their price after the Second World War. The companies remind me of a couple Frankensteins, sutured and patched, pathetically staggering around to the point where no one has even pity for them. At least I always felt kind of sorry for Frankenstein.
A week ago, my girlfriend and I once again managed the six-hour commute to Albany, NY. During this particular drive, dull interstate basically the entire way, I looked at cars. I looked at everything I passed and that passed me, and I came to the conclusion that I didn’t much care for any of them. Most were unappealing—generic blobs with fancy headlights and taillights at the corners. The lights had absorbed most the of the design audacity, the rest seemed to be a platform—sedan, compact, SUV—each a slightly elongated or steroided or boxy variation of the theme. The only way I could tell who manufactured which blob was by locating the logo. I know that modern cars require minimal maintenance, are much safer, that some are fuel efficient, but any advantage seems to end there. To my eyes they are soulless transportation devices, not cars.
When I was younger, I liked cars. My father had raced hill climbs during the late 40s and early 50s and was obsessed with anything automotive. He’d raced for MG, his factory mechanic newly arrived from Italy in 1947 or 8, having just machined a Ferrari engine with Enzo, or so my father later insisted. My dad even bought the first Porsche sold in Canada in 1952, a specially prepared one-off with aluminum hood and doors, hand-ground cam, the machine so beautiful my dad ended up not being able to race it. I still have photos of a beaming face in a loose fitting suit standing at the Montreal car show in front of this gleaming silver miracle of curves. And he managed this on an engineer’s salary, not from any family money. That’s how much he loved cars.
So the car passion crackled around me from a young age. Our family went to F1 races at Watkins Glen every year during the 60s, we owned the first BMW 2002 in New England, our final house, designed by my dad, was a double-bay garage with a small apartment above for people. I think he added this reluctantly.
In 1975 I bought a Porsche coupe much like his original car; I managed it by selling paintings—again, no family money. Of course it wasn’t much over $1,000. Every time, and I mean every time, I sat in a diner and looked out at that low sensuous shape, I was delighted. The car gave me immense aesthetic pleasure, even its shadow on the pavement as I drove, or its ivory dash and thin steering wheel, or the bark of its four cylinders reverberating down a city street, or its inconvenient gas tank which required opening the front bonnet to fill. I still miss it and want another one. Annoyingly, now that car would be worth around $100k, and I must accept that my next drive will only be in my dreams.
A friend of mine in Pennsylvania sells vintage cars. He won’t touch anything newer than 1972. Lately, he’s been selling every car he can get, traveling constantly to car auctions across the country, tracking down endless leads—he buys a lot of cars. Why is his business chiming when no one is supposedly buying automobiles?
Here comes the limb. I think most modern cars have lost their gut appeal, the “I’ve got to own that one” draw. They’re safe, they drive fine, are full of conveniences, but they are dull, and they don’t drive hearts to beat recklessly or hands to reach deep into pockets. I guess no one is willing to risk financial ruin for dull and generic with fancy headlights, a dozen airbags, and a press-button locking system.
I have a 1966 Chevrolet Impala with the original paint and original 327. This car gives me as much pleasure as the Porsche did though it’s very different, based on an entirely different philosophy of what a car should be—so much so that I’m sure my father would’ve hated it. How many manufactures with that level of diversity can we find today? Individuality in a manufacturer used to appeal to the individuality in the consumer, and we’ve lost that.
I modified my Chevrolet when I bought it. I’d owned a 1963, 1964, and 1965 Impala, and I knew just what the 1966 needed to be mine, look good, and run without problems, which, besides a starter motor ($32 with core), it has done for ten years. I’m able to perform all the labor myself, so when I motor along the highway, the invaluable vent windows angled, my mind visualizes all the intricate mechanisms; I understand them, and it adds to my enjoyment. The Chevrolet was a primarily mechanical solution while modern cars are at least 50% electronic solutions. I can’t work on those, and apparently neither can anyone else.
During the 1980s when people started to collect 1950s and 1960s cars, there was the nostalgia argument to explain the interest. But 30 years later, not many people are collecting 1980s or 1990s cars, are they? And most 1970s cars (a few of the early ones still carried the 1960’s passion) have rightfully met with the crusher or the scrap yard. It wasn’t nostalgia after all; it was inherent appeal. One way to tell a classic design is to see how it holds up when the car is worn, slightly dented and rusty, maybe a chrome strip missing; does it still look good?
If I could walk into a car dealership tomorrow and purchase my 1966 Impala or my 1956 Porsche coupe brand-new at a reasonable price, I would find a way to get the money. I would have to because I’d crave the things. I know this fantasy is not possible for a number of reasons, but I think you get my point. Sure there are a few modern cars that are breathtaking, but they are almost all high-end sports cars, and for most of us, unaffordable.
Then there are the retro-designs inspired from the 1960s which I keep noticing, wondering about, but in the end, I’m not sure they hold up. They are cars with a borrowed personality and though they’ve borrowed well, I’d still prefer something original. I want a car I can gaze at from a diner window, that will make my heart beat every mile, that I will look cool standing beside. Whenever my girlfriend drives the Impala, and I watch her pull away, she looks so good in the car I laugh. It’s not the same when she’s in her Jetta.
I try to imagine Humphrey Bogart in an SUV or James Dean in a Prius, but it’s just not the same. Notice that even in many modern movies the heroes drive old cars. As with shoes, there’s comfort and convenience, then there’s style. Of course many people can’t afford to think past the need for reliable and cheap transportation, but my Impala has been less expensive to run than my Honda, which I use during the winter. I’m lucky though—I don’t have a daily commute and I don’t have children. That, I know, would change everything.
What I miss in cars is uniqueness, risk in design, personality, and that unpredictable combination of elements that generates longing, that something which makes me want to own it, drive it, and damn the lack of cup holders. I want an automobile that offers me consistent pleasure in aesthetics, that adds to the good moments in my life, maybe even gives me the illusion of being keyed close to cinematic when I’m gliding down the highway toward my uncertain future. When that magic returns, perhaps the buyers will return as well.
Assembling early 356 tool kit from things found in the shop, long unopened drawers, thinking of my father, and so on.
For me, beyond common words . . . I held the wheel in my hands and said, “Dad! We are going to do it. We are actually going to create a perfect 356 together.”
The boy hadn’t been right for days. Even after they left the mountains behind, Route 2 now joining the railroad and the river through miles of birches, he was miserable. And he usually loved that section of highway, the white bark of all those ancient trunks. No matter where his family moved, once a year that stretch of road meant the start of vacation. As his father guided the sputtering Volkswagen Beetle, the August sun flashed between trees across the windshield. Any of this would’ve normally cheered him up, but even when his father’s face appeared in the rearview mirror and winked, the boy didn’t smile back.
“Delaney’s, Boo,” his father said, inhaling a Camel. “We’re going to watch lobster boats. I know that much. Tomorrow morning those lads’ll be pulling traps right below us.” His father was obsessed with boats, having dragged the family to every boatyard in Maine on each vacation. Years of it and still no boat.
“It’s good the rain has stopped. A perfect day now,” said his mother in her clipped way. But it wasn’t perfect.
Five months ago the family had moved to yet another new town. If it was in northern New England and had a mill, they’d probably lived there, but this time they’d gone west to upstate New York. The boy had joined the fifth grade in the last half of the year and was having trouble making friends. There were a number of problems as far as he could see: His family didn’t own a TV or a new late-sixties American-made car with a chrome grin, they’d rented the only house in the neighborhood left over from before the development, and then some of the kids had overheard his mother speaking what they thought was German. She was actually Swiss, but he knew it was useless attempting to explain that.
“He’s a kraut. Spazo’s a kraut!” This from Joey Ligamori. Joey, famous for having masturbated a dog, was the ringleader at the school bus stop, and every morning there was some new torture waiting. His books had been tossed into trees or puddles, he’d been tripped into dog shit, tied up with clothes line so he missed the bus and been forced to walk to school though he’d run most of the way. Over an hour late, he hadn’t bothered to offer an excuse to the principal. He’d received detention and a note that required signing by his dad.
“Why were you so late, Boo?”
“Missed the bus.”
“How’d you miss the bus?”
“Just missed it, I guess.”
“That ain’t the truth though, is it?”
He shook his head.
“I think you should tell me.”
He told. His dad rubbed his unshaved jaw a few times and nodded sagely, chewed on the fingernails of the hand holding his cigarette, smoke wreathing his handsome face. “New guy always has trouble, has to earn his wings. Just go up to the biggest bully and punch him in the nose. Works every time.”
He’d need a footstool to hit Joey Ligamori in the nose. It was fine advice for a six-foot factory worker with biceps like footballs, but he couldn’t imagine his little fists doing anything but bouncing off Joey Ligamori’s big belly. And then that summer fresh trouble had arrived.
In New Hampshire he’d fished or played ball with his friends, but these guys collected GI Joes. It was the first he’d heard of such a thing, and it made no sense to him; nevertheless, he wanted to belong. A week before the family had left on the vacation, Joey had approached him with the usual scorn and shove. But after he’d picked himself off the ground, Joey’d said, “If you wanna prove you’re not a goddamn kraut, you better get a GI Joe.” He’d raced home to tell his mom the news: all he had to do was get one of these toys and they’d accept him. Then maybe the looming school year wouldn’t be as terrible. But he’d been worried, knowing how his mom could be. She had disdain for so much he thought was okay.
“I will not have my son playing with soldiers,” she’d said.
“But, mom, it’s just a toy.”
“It is a soldier and that is glorifying killing.”
“It’s not real,” he’d said quietly. “It’s plastic.”
“Will, I’m sorry, but I can not have it and that’s the end of the matter.”
The next morning he’d walked to town and priced the dolls, realized they were out of reach. He’d considered stealing one, but they came in boxes with clear plastic windows, too big to slip under a shirt or into a jacket. That evening he’d talked to his father. “Ten bucks for that stupid damn thing. Come on, Boo, you’re smarter than that.” Two days later he was in the backseat of the car, crammed in with luggage, and he was still angry with his parents. What did they know about being tortured?
His father swerved the Volkswagen toward a gas station and country store. “Why are you stopping now?” said his mother, her delicate features in profile for a moment.
“Won’t be a minute.” The ratchet sound of the hand brake.
“Harold, it is not even noon yet.”
“Won’t be a minute, honey.” He lumbered across the dirt, his work boots raising dust with each step.
Soon the car was headed east again. His father lifted the quart of beer from his crotch, took a long pull.
“Boo, this is Ballantine’s ale. Best stuff ever brewed in this country.”
“Do not be telling the boy about beer.”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with beer, nothing at all.” He drained two more inches, the bubbles rising madly, then settled the damp bottle between his legs again.
“You know what I’m talking about.” She said it nastily.
“That what they teach you that in that special watercolor class?”
Her body stiffened, and he snapped open a steel Zippo and fired a cigarette, exhaled, the smoke collecting in the backseat though both rear wings were angled open.
About every three-quarters of an hour the Volkswagen nosed toward a store. Though the highway was only occasionally slowed by a town, his dad seemed to have a special sense for where the cold ale was. Once he was forced to drink a Schlitz.
“Not a bad beer, Boo, but not the greatest either. Always drink the best you can get. That’s my motto.” Another wink.
“What’s all this? It’s my vacation and you better believe I’m gonna enjoy it. You two are both too gloomy. Cheer up for God’s sake. This is a reward for working all year, not a bloody funeral.”
On the fifth beer they arrived at Delaney’s Cabins. His father retrieved the key from the office; a young blonde woman in a tight summer dress followed him outside laughing. His mother watched, and though he couldn’t see her face, he felt her disapproval. When his father touched the young woman’s arm, he glanced over at the car and smirked. Soon the Volkswagen was careening down the gravel road between pine woods. They had stayed at the same cabin as long as he could remember, the end one in the row of five, at the cliff’s edge, overlooking Penobscot Bay. At the sight of the ocean his mood slowly dissolved. Something about the distance and the pure color seemed to drain everything else from his mind.
They parked beside the white cabin, its paint as scaly as their rented house, which seemed so far away now. His dad popped the Volkswagen’s front bonnet and set a plaid suitcase on the grass. “I’ll bring in the bags. You two go ahead down to the water.”
His mother turned to his father.
“I’ll be down there in a minute.” He sucked smoke from the Camel as she said nothing. “Don’t worry so damn much. At least I ain’t taking any four-hour watercolor classes.” With that his mother walked across the lawn toward the sea. “Come on, honey, I shouldn’t’ve said that,” he called after her. “This is supposed to be our vacation—let’s enjoy it.” But his mother didn’t turn back. His dad retrieved the luggage from the backseat, picked up the plaid bag, and headed into the cabin, somehow balancing everything.
Now that his father was gone, his mom returned and sat down at the rickety picnic table near the car. “We should take off our shoes first,” she said. “We will only get sand in them.” He sat beside her and unlaced his sneakers, set them carefully on the seat, his socks balled up inside. He knew she liked things neat. Then he walked behind her along the grassy edge of the road and onto the narrow path that led through the woods to the sea. Every year, when he was alone, he would force himself to run along this gravel road, his feet screaming because of the sharp pebbles, then onto the mud path, smoother but still hot from the sun, and finally onto the moss in the dark part of the woods, so cool and soft on his tortured soles.
Two-dozen wooden steps teetered steeply to the rocky beach below them. A hand-lettered sign mounted on the end post: Use at your risk. “Be careful,” his mother said. “Hold the railing tightly. These stairs are very slippery and dangerous.” It was the same warning every year, but somehow it cheered him to hear it again. She said so little that he listened to everything with care.
He stepped along rocks which gradually became smaller until he stood on the narrow crescent of sandy beach with the icy tide nipping his feet, his mother just behind him at the edge of the water. She didn’t like to get her feet wet. There was that smell of brine and freshness touched with seaweed in the sun, a smell that made him feel as if he’d never really breathed air before. He heard the high-pitched complaint of a gull and glanced up. Suddenly the threat of Joey Ligamori and GI Joe no longer seemed real. This was real. This immense shout of perfect blue sky and water vibrating at so straight a line. He turned to his mom. He wanted to say something, to explain. Instead he smiled, and she reached forward and rumpled his hair. It felt strange; she rarely touched him. He just wished that she would feel what he was feeling. Just once.
After an hour, the sun was lost in the pines and the beach had turned cold. He could tell his mother was nervous. “Your father is not coming. We better go back,” she said, and gathered up the few stones and bits of driftwood they’d found, cradling them in her untucked blouse. They trudged up the steep steps. She always looked so skinny to him, and he worried he would never grow to his father’s size. As if sensing this, his dad occasionally sneaked them out of the house when his mother was resting, and drove them to a diner or hot dog stand, once even ordering two foot-long chilidogs. His mother didn’t believe in eating meat. Her fine black hair, pale skin, and almost black eyes were his as well and he envied his dad’s ruddiness, green eyes, and sandy mop. Then he could’ve crushed Joey Ligamori with a single blow.
The path through the woods was eerie without sunlight, and he glanced over at her. She clutched the gathered bits to her frail chest, awkwardly plodding along. With a rush of tenderness, he reached for her free hand. The hell with soldiers and Joey Ligamori. Besides, the watercolor of flowers she had been working on was lovely, so precise, each bloom and leaf carefully finished before beginning the next one marked out in pencil. She’d begun taking the classes a few months ago, surprising him because she’d never done anything like that before, preferring to stay inside whatever house or apartment they lived in. She dropped his hand after only a moment, saying nothing.
At the cabin they couldn’t get in. The door was latched. His mother called through the dark screen. Nothing. She pounded. They circled the dusky cabin, yelling his father’s name through every window. At the one on the far corner next to the cliff, he heard something and looked in. A body snored, sprawled on top of the flowered bedspread, a bottle of whiskey half empty on the nightstand.
His mom decided on the car horn, beeping intermittently at first, then just holding it. Three or four vacationers left their cheerfully lit cabins and appeared in the twilight like zombies. Finally, his dad, hair standing straight up, let them in with a crooked smile.
In the morning they sat out on the back steps and watched the lobster boats.
“Look at that sun, Boo. Like a million sparklers going off on the Fourth. We’re lucky to have weather like this.” The coffee cup only chattered slightly as he lifted it off the saucer. He drew hungrily at his cigarette, exhaled toward the sea. “Someday we’ll get a boat. The hell with the mills. The mills eat a man alive. You and me, Boo, we’ll be out there, fishing together every day, pulling traps. That’ll be the stuff, eh?”
He grinned at his dad. He’d heard it every year.
That evening they went to the docks. He wore a clean sweatshirt, the cool cotton soothing against his sunburned skin. His mother said she’d stay in the car, she was tired from the sun. Huge boats hammocked by wide straps hung in the air supported by steel trolleys. Masts and spars, sanded and awaiting varnish, rested on saw horses; other craft balanced on their keels buttressed by thin rusty poles with flat ends. “A yawl, Boo. That one’s a yawl. Look at those lines, eh? See, the rudderpost is before the mast. A ketch, the helm would be behind the rear mast, like a schooner. But we don’t want a fancy boat like that. Too much upkeep and no good for fishing. Just an old lobster boat with a strong diesel is all we need, right?” His dad squeezed his sunburned shoulder and he tried not to wince. “It won’t be long now, you wait and see.”
His dad gave him a dime for the pop machine that stood on the wharf. He opened the narrow glass door and couldn’t decide what he wanted to drink. He slotted his coin, and gripping both a root beer and an orange crush by the neck, he allowed fate to make the decision. He pulled. Both jammed. He tried again several times, but got nothing. He couldn’t ask his dad for another coin.
They went to the restaurant where they always had their one special dinner out. His mother ate raw oysters, one of her rare extravagances. “It is only for once a year,” she said, and stared at the six shells resting on cracked ice with their pallid cargo, which to him just looked slimy. He knew his dad didn’t think much of them either, since he’d never try them. His mother had long given up asking. “As a girl I ate them with my father before the war. My father knew a lot about oysters. He was educated in so many things.” She always said this as she carefully trickled the lemon on each one. It was one of the few times she ever seemed truly happy. And with a relish he envied, she slid them into her mouth. He wished she’d feel, just once, that way about him.
The next day it rained, and after a cold, wet morning at the boatyards, his father sat at the cabin’s tiny dinette table. A forest of empty Ballantine’s in gold cans, an oversized clamshell ashtray, his attention glued to the foggy drizzle collecting in droplets on the screen, the cabin heater humming, the chime of the bell buoy. His mother read from a paperback novel, then The New Yorker, looking up annoyed the few times he tried to talk to her. He asked her if maybe she was going to work on a new watercolor, and she shook her head. “I left my materials at home,” she said.
In the late afternoon the rain stopped and he left them and headed along the gravel road, up the hill to the motel’s office. At first he was too shy to enter, but eventually he pushed open the screen door and immediately, intently, examined the rack of postcards, the assortment of gum and Lifesavers, unable to answer the young blonde woman’s questions with more than a mumble. Every time he glanced at her he could feel himself redden, but his eyes couldn’t stay away for long. Then she disappeared, telling him to wait. When she returned she handed him a thick slice of freshly baked banana bread with butter. “I’ve never tried it before,” he managed to tell her. “Oh, I think you’ll like it,” she said. He couldn’t imagine how you could make bread out of bananas. As he walked back through the blue dusk to the cabin he ate the moist warm bread with the cool sweet butter. He thought it was the best thing he’d ever tasted.
The following morning it was foggy again, but by noon the horizon emerged like a magician’s trick. As they walked the path to the sea, the woods dripped and there was a delicate tapping on leaves. The three of them settled at the beach on a massive boulder which had been carved by the tide to resemble a bench. His mom passed around thin cheese sandwiches with only a smear of yellow mustard on white bread. They were cut on a diagonal forming triangles, his father insisting on that.
Every hour his dad sent him back to the cabin for another beer. “Always drink it icy cold if you can,” was his advice. Once as he returned, carefully carrying the damp bottle, he overheard his father say, “But what kinda class is that with a teacher like that? Negros can’t know nothing about watercolors or art. Honey, sometimes I think you don’t think things out.”
Toward late afternoon he said, “Boo, I think it’s time for my swim.” He only went in once a year. Removing his boots first, he took his swim trunks and disappeared behind the boulder, then reappeared, stepping gingerly, his skinny legs bone white below the muscled sunburned torso. He lit a Camel and moved cautiously over the loose rocks to the sandy horseshoe of beach, waded slowly into the ocean. When he was in up to his chest, he let out a startled cry, and down he went, the cigarette left floating on the surface of the water. His mother jerked to her feet. “Harold?” she yelled. They both knew he couldn’t swim. She cried out again. Then his dad came up sputtering, and like someone shot in the leg, dragged himself to the rock bench. His mother spent the next hour patiently extracting sea-urchin quills out of the ball of his foot with her eyebrow tweezers. His dad grimaced and worked at a beer.
He awoke in the middle of the night. His father was snoring and he wondered if his mother was asleep. You could never tell with her. His parents had taken the two tiny bedrooms and he a cot in the main room. They didn’t sleep together, his mother had explained, because of his father’s snoring. Slipping out from under the itchy wool blanket into the darkness, he crept to the screen door.
Outside it was only stars, pine tree tops in black silhouette. A cool breeze drifted in from over the cliff. He felt his way with bare feet over the gravel along the dirt to the moss where some of the day’s heat miraculously remained. After a while he pulled off his underwear and lay there, wanting to absorb the softness through all his skin. His mind drifted and the young woman from the office was with him. His center lengthened and swelled. He tried to keep his hands away—his mother had told him how wrong it was. But the ache was overwhelming and he had to stand.
At the steps he carefully let himself down, the sand slippery between his soles and the rough wood. Across the loose rocks to the beach. The black ocean lapped over his feet as he inched in deeper and deeper, worried he might step on a sea urchin and go down. He shivered as he stared up into the heavens, the dizzying swathe of the Milky Way like an ancient wisdom. It looked so close, but he knew how far away it all really was. He thought of her again, the fullness of her chest in the printed dress, and reached for himself, the icy water just below his hand. He stroked, tears spilling down his cheeks. At his moment he thought he would hear a sound, a splash, something. But there was nothing but an intensely pleasurable burning sensation as he almost fell into the water.
The next morning it was over. His dad placed the bags back in the car and they drove slowly up the gravel road to the office. No sign of the young woman as his father paid the bill. He was relieved, fearing that on seeing his face she might know something. Soon they were on their way home. A last glimpse of ocean, past the white trunks of the birches, through the mountains, his dad not stopping for anything, not even beer, until they got well into Vermont.
Outside Burlington, they visited a surplus store his dad favored for work clothes. His mother still in the car, he waited as his father tried on a heavy canvas mustard-colored jacket; “Carhartt, Boo. Always buy the best if you can.” While his dad tried on boots, he wandered up and down the aisles and came upon a bin at the back of the store. It was full of GI Joes, perhaps a hundred of them. He couldn’t believe it! No boxes, no accessories, just the dolls dressed in their green army uniforms, all jammed together as if in a mass grave. The sign on the bin read: Sale, any one $1.
He raced over to his father. “Dad!” He grabbed him by the arm. “Dad, I got to show you something.”
This time when his father winked in the rearview mirror, he smiled back.
“Great vacation, wasn’t it, Boo? The best ever, eh?”
He nodded, their secret safe. Actually, his father had been almost eager to buy it for him, which made no sense.
They drove over the top of Lake Champlain, paid the toll at the bridge into New York State, and before too long pulled up in front of the rental house.
Once the bags were unloaded and his mother had disappeared into her bedroom, his dad handed him the package. He ran over to Joey Ligamori’s. He stood a moment in front of the new split level, before the golden door with the three oddly shaped windows, his heart pounding. Finally he pressed the bell. It rang with a fancy kind of multi-note chime he’d never heard before. Joey’s mom answered and left him standing on the steps as she turned to call for her son. When the big kid appeared he didn’t seem to recognize him for a second, just stood there holding the door cracked until he said:
“Oh, Spazo, it’s you. What d’ya want?”
He held out the bag like an offering. “I got a GI Joe.”
“‘Bout time. Let’s see it.” Joey came out on the steps and grabbed it. He unrolled the bag and shook the toy soldier into his hand. He stared in disbelief, then he started laughing and slapping his leg.
“Spazo, this is a nigger GI Joe. What the hell is wrong with you?” Joey dropped it onto the steps where it rolled over and lay brown face up on the new cement. He turned in disgust and went back into the house. The door slammed.
He picked up the scuffed doll and walked home. The house was quiet. His mother was probably in her room as usual, and his dad was drinking beer at the kitchen table; there was the haze of cigarette smoke in the doorway and the clink of a bottle. He headed down the dark hall for his room, his mind in complete confusion. Suddenly, the doll was snatched from his hand. He turned, alarmed.
“What is this?” she said.
“Will, where did this come from?”
“I don’t know,” he mumbled.
“Did your father buy it for you?”
“Mom, it’s only—”
“I know what it is. I can see what it is.” There were tears in her dark eyes now.
His father walked into the hall, his cigarette in at his side. “I bought that for the boy.”
“How could you?”
“How the fuck could you?” He was yelling.
“Harold, he is French. He is from Paris. He worked at the Louvre for nine years before moving here. There was nothing dirty or whatever you are thinking, but what would you know about culture or real tenderness?” She slid slowly to the floor and just sat there, crying, cradling the doll in her hand.
He looked at them, his parents, one red with anger and frustration, one a bundle of misery, and then he said something that neither of them heard.
The author in 1963
“Sometimes I think I can almost catch it.” Casey touched the bottle to his lips, then absentmindedly lowered the fifth without drinking. “As if it were there just out of view, at the corner of my eye. That’s the feeling anyway.”
Nate waited for him to continue, his friend’s face grayish even in the glow of the fire.
“As if it were just over my shoulder, and if I turned quick enough, I might actually see the truth.”
They were drinking Scotch, the best they could buy, each with his own bottle. After all, why the hell not? thought Nate. “But you never seen it?”
“Not enough to really know. It’s more a sensation than something you could verbalize, like a vague half-remembered dream, or a lost memory from a previous life, more sensation than reality, but for years I kept hoping I might get a glimpse.”
“You warm enough?”
Casey smiled. “I suppose I might as well be warm as possible now, huh?”
Nate wasn’t sure what he meant, so he tossed another hefty stick into the flames, the riled sparks ascending as dashed swirling orange lines. He looked up but couldn’t yet locate a star, knowing that on a cold clear evening like this one, soon enough the sky would be brimmed. They’d probably even be able to see the Milky Way. “Can’t believe Beth wouldn’t come with us.”
“Some things strike me as perfect. A certain moment, certain works of art, nature. Anything we can’t imagine altering. The shadow of the earth crossing over the moon turning it red—”
“Nothing’s perfect.” He regretted the comment immediately.
“But that’s not true—things can be perfect. You know what I keep thinking of?”
Nate shook his head, but his friend didn’t notice, transfixed by the fresh flames embracing the new branch, or perhaps just his memories.
“I keep thinking about this one day I spent in Wisconsin. It was about six months after I’d gotten out of the hospital the third time. I was at my healthiest . . . and remember, I took that road trip by myself to see some of the country?”
Nate nodded, smelling the pine sap as it dripped in the heat, his boots beginning to warm.
“It was the furthest west I’d ever been, and I was so full of joy to be traveling and not lying sick in a bed, the contrast overwhelming. I noticed this bar with a gorgeous old neon and couldn’t resist pulling over, which was the point of my trip anyway—doing exactly what I wanted.
“This was an original bar, probably built in the thirties after prohibition ended, not a fake retro place like you see now. A hot August day, I was in a T-shirt. I’d been working out some and though it wasn’t much, I felt okay in the T-shirt. For once I wasn’t so sickly and thin. I even had a tan.” He looked over. “You probably can’t imagine what it’s like always being embarrassed by your body, actually despising your body. Sometimes wanting to destroy it, maybe even shoot away the part that’s tormenting you, if you only knew exactly where to aim.”
Nate reached out to stir the fire although it didn’t need it, then glanced across the snow field losing the last blush of evening light, sloping downwards for perhaps a half mile toward the ice-rimmed beach, the bay in the distance a flat silver hide all the way to the island, everything now a grayish-blue monochrome except for the color of the flames. He wondered where Casey was going with this, having heard it before. They’d known each other since they were kids, Nate growing up only a few miles inland from Casey’s family’s summer estate on the coast. Nate’s dad had clammed and egged, fishing when he could get on a boat, but Nate had avoided the ocean since his father’s death, working at landscaping, carpentry, and odd jobs after he’d dropped out of high school. Now well into his forties, he hadn’t experienced the kind of illness Casey had, but he knew what pain was, his back and particularly his knees barely getting him through the work day any longer, his fear that he couldn’t continue increasing, especially during the winter months. If he couldn’t work anymore, what the hell would he do then?
“I was picked up by a woman in the bar. That had never happened to me before.”
“You never told me this part.”
“Some things get ruined if you tell them, but I figured tonight, why not. Besides, I’m starting to feel the whiskey. These pain pills really kick you when you drink with them. You sure you don’t want one?”
“Tell me about the woman. Was this before Beth?”
“No, but we hadn’t married yet. This woman who picked me up wasn’t great looking. As a matter of fact I suppose she was pretty overweight and plain, but she had wonderful skin and she was funny.”
“So what happened?”
“I went home with her. She lived by this lake in a tiny cottage. I still remember the name of the lake. Winnebago. There’s something nice when you say the word. The lake has this weird aberration where every few years it produces tons of big dumb bugs that the sturgeon feed on. The bugs only live three days but become so overwhelming they cover the houses along the shore. Apparently the sound is deafening. Anyway, we went swimming together in this lake, no bugs that particular year. It was very shallow and calm and you could walk way out before it was even chest high. It was eerie wading out into almost complete darkness. At first she kept her underwear on, but then we were naked. We held each other in the tepid water for a long time. Her hair smelled lovely.”
Nate didn’t say anything for a minute, waiting. “That’s it?”
“It was perfect. You said nothing is ever perfect. That was.”
“What happened to her?”
“I don’t know. I told her my name was Jim and that I sold insurance in New York. How would she ever locate me in Maine? Now I wish I’d told her the truth.” He closed his eyes. “I think she really honestly liked me.”
“Were you worried Beth would find out?” Nate lifted his bottle, a touch of icy breeze traveling up from the water, the fire agitated for a moment, the heat from the flames brushed rudely away from his face. It was bound to be a real cold night; they wouldn’t be able to stay too long even with the fire.
“I suppose so. You know what still breaks my heart? When I got up in the morning, she’d washed all my clothes. They were all folded and perfectly neat and clean, sitting on a chair beside her bed. Christ! Over twenty years and I still think about her.”
“Do you wish you’d done it different?”
“Beth would have stopped it. She’d have found a way.”
Nate was startled by the comment. Casey never spoke negatively about his wife. But what did he mean: “Beth would’ve stopped it.” Beth didn’t own Casey, did she? If anything, it was the other way around. The touch of wind moved the snow; the fire reacted again, and a hot cinder was spit from the embers like a watermelon seed. Nate had built the fire near a pine grove, cutting off the dead bottom limbs, using the tips with dried needles as kindling, then feeding it gradually with the thicker ends. The pine burned quickly and hot but was unruly, though not nearly as lively as cedar.
He’d hauled Casey on a wooden sled most of the way. At first Casey had insisted on trying to walk, but after only a few minutes of trudging through a foot-deep drift, he’d simply fallen. When Nate helped him onto the sled he realized he didn’t weigh much over a hundred pounds. Coming here had been Casey’s wish, and who was he to deny him? Casey’d insisted on this precise spot overlooking the ocean and islands, and once they’d arrived, Nate had arranged him on the sled as a bench, placing his back and head against the pack. Nate had formed a seat for himself from green pine boughs and a blanket, positioning both seats far enough away from the fire to avoid the restless sparks.
“You glad you stayed with Beth?” Nate couldn’t hold back the question.
“Why not? You know it won’t never leave here.”
“Does it ever strike you as odd, you and I being friends for all these years?”
“Antithesis. Backgrounds, looks, strengths, economics, health.”
“Sameness don’t make friendship.”
“You’re the most logical guy I’ve ever known.”
“You’re the kindest.”
“You think so? How strange. I’ve never thought of myself as particularly kind.”
“I could’ve never made it without you.”
“Oh, bull. You’d make it regardless of circumstances.”
“Let’s cut this out. Praise mixes poorly with Scotch.”
“Are you scared? You must be scared.” He wished he hadn’t said it. Why were all these things popping out of his mouth? But he knew why; he was nervous.
Casey looked over. “Scared about what?”
“‘Bout what? Tomorrow.”
“The surgeon would be so angry to know I was out here drinking in the snow.” Casey chuckled, obviously pleased with himself.
“You know you should be resting. I thought this was a terrible idea.”
“Best thing I’ve ever done. You’ll see.” Casey tipped the bottle again. “I’m going to surprise you.”
“Okay. God, I sure hope so. Fuck those know-it-all doctors, right? Maybe this is the best thing for ya.”
“I don’t mean that. I mean right now.”
“You’re not drinking enough, but then you have to drive back. Always the conscientious one, never a waver.” Casey raised his hand. “Hold on, I want to tell you this. I didn’t want Beth here tonight.”
He mulled that over for a moment. “You got me, I’m surprised.”
“Here’s something else. I’ve come to believe she actually wanted to lose the baby.”
Nate was silent.
“You’re shocked. I’m not so kind now, am I?”
“It’d make you more so. If you stayed with her knowing that.”
“I’ve only come to believe it in the last few months. The trigger was that she never wanted to try again. First it was all she talked about, obsessed. Christ, was she obsessed. Then all those fertility treatments, her juiced hormones making her even more difficult to live with. All I heard about was the baby. But when she was finally pregnant, I think she became terrified of having the child, began to realize what it really meant, the endless years of being a mother—she changed her mind. I’d always believed her moods were the delicacy of her emotional state caused by the loss, but I’ve come to see her differently recently. It was guilt. Guilt that she secretly hadn’t wanted the baby, and when she lost it, she somehow believed her thoughts had affected the birth. She still feels guilty. It must be awful living with that. There’s such initial attraction in wanting, in focusing on one thing, in believing that having it will fix everything in our lives, but then once we achieve it, reality sets in, and we can become uncertain and fearful. Poor Beth. But who knows, if we’d had the kid maybe she would’ve been fine. Everyone has inexplicable fears.”
“She wouldn’t try again?”
“As a matter of fact she placed a moratorium on sex after she lost the child.”
Nate was silent again. No sex? For all those years. How could anyone live without sex? He felt even more bitterly towards Beth but didn’t dare speak. He looked out at the bay. Old timers said that some winters the water had frozen all the way to the island. It didn’t seem possible, but he’d seen a photo once. They’d even dragged a few houses to the island across the ice using horses. Decent-sized houses too, not just some shacks. People had more guts then. Casey cut into his thoughts.
“I know you’ve never liked her. You think I didn’t notice, but I did. You think she only stayed with me for the money. No one wants to be around someone sick, so you can’t hold too much against her. We all have our issues. She probably didn’t expect me to live so long.” Casey chuckled. “It’s strange to have one’s heart and one’s body at such odds.”
“I like her okay.”
“Why not let the unspoken jump out into the fire light?” Casey gave him a look. “No one will probably ever know Beth as I do. What I feel for her is pity. She didn’t have much of a life even if it was comfortable. But enough of that. I want to ask you something serious.”
Didn’t Casey think what he’d just revealed was serious? He took a small sip and waited.
“What do you think is the meaning of all this?” He waved the bottle toward the horizon or maybe the heavens. “I mean the absolute truth.”
“The big question. Though our culture seems to ignore it. Maybe I’ve been closer to the question than others from being ill. Gives you too much time to think, lying in a bed every day.”
“You wanna know what I think the point of life is?”
Nate thought a minute. “Getting my work done?”
“Really? That’s yours? You’ve certainly always gotten your work done. Christ, what you’ve done for me alone would’ve exhausted a normal man.”
“You been easy to work for. You always notice and appreciate stuff. And you pay good.” Nate attempted to joke but it sounded sour. He took a big drink to clear himself. This was becoming tougher than he’d thought. No wonder he was nervous. If things didn’t turn out tomorrow, this could be their last evening together. He glanced at Casey and could sense the intensity in his face. This attentiveness increased his unease. His meaning of life had more or less been survival, but he sensed Casey didn’t want to hear that. He tried again. “I think it’s making memories, you know, forming good memories for others. I don’t mean just good deeds, but even like with stories or movies would fit in with it. Think of that woman who did your laundry and how you still think of her, then tell me. She added to your life, your memories, right? It has meaning because of that.”
That stopped Casey. “I like that,” he said after a while. “That’s lovely.”
“I don’t explain things as good as you do.” He was relieved that Casey was pleased.
“You didn’t have all that time to do nothing but read.”
The conversation stalled and Nate tossed on another pine limb. They were surrounded by darkness now, and he couldn’t make out the distant ocean and islands beyond the saucer of gilded fire light, the stars above them through the rising heat and smoke. To see the Milky Way he’d have to move out of the fire’s range. The night was at his back and he almost shivered. It was odd to feel such warmth against his front half and such cold gripping the other. He supposed he could turn and thaw his back but didn’t want to appear weak. He wondered how Casey was holding up. Casey never complained, and Nate could only guess at what he went through being so sick. Anyway, there was an extra blanket in the pack if he needed it. Maybe the liquor and pills kept him from sensing the cold too much.
“Here’s mine,” said Casey.
“My theory of existence. The meaning of life.” He pressed the bottle to his lips. “I think our big mistake is thinking we’re the center of everything. Our reality on Earth might be merely a remote outpost, and we’re here because we’ve been rejected from the main entity. We were too spiritually unfit, too fucked up to stay among the others, and we get sent here to experience and learn what we truly need to know. Kind of recycled into something more appropriate, kind of a training ground for corrupted souls. Of course most of us don’t figure it out. I suppose we either vanish or are sent back again for another run through the wringer. There are certainly more of us all the time.” Casey laughed at his own joke, then began coughing, his face switching to a grimace of pain. For a moment it was obvious how sick he truly was. There was something about Casey that made it easy to overlook his frailty. “What do you think of that?” he said.
“Not sure. I guess it’s possible. Sure would explain why so many people are bastards.”
“Life can’t just be about material success, can it? Building all this stuff, owning all this crap you really don’t need. Look at the teepee compared the skyscraper, that tells you a lot.”
Nate didn’t respond. He knew only too well that Casey had never lived in a teepee. But then why should he? Besides, Beth in a teepee? Now there was a big laugh. “Isn’t a trailer kind of like a teepee?” he said, but Casey ignored the joke. Nate had always figured that his worn-out trailer made Casey uneasy. But when you live in a mansion, everyone else’s home must seem pathetic.
“How can the meaning of life be greed? Does that make sense?”
“Depends on how little you have.”
“But the wealthiest seem to be the greediest.”
Now Nate laughed. “Is that true?”
“I’m not as wealthy as you think. Besides it’s never interested me that much. I read this article about happiness. After a massive study they found out the happiest people only earned between twenty and twenty-five thousand a year. As they became wealthier, they became more miserable.”
“Guess I’m lucky then.”
“I’ve always thought so.”
“There was that one time.” Nate said it reluctantly. It would always embarrass him. Excessive emotion, particularly in himself, always embarrassed him.
“Yeah, there was that. But you did the correct thing.”
“It was a close call.”
“Neither of us has been all together lucky when it’s come to women, have we?” Casey’s bottle moved again. It was getting less than half full, while Nate’s was missing merely a couple inches.
“My time to surprise ya. Now that I look back on it, I was lucky there too.”
“I sure didn’t see it then, did I?”
Casey shook his head. “You were rather angry. Not that you displayed it, but I could tell.”
“Know what you said to me?”
“When I called and asked for a gun. Know what you said?”
“You said, ‘When do you need it?’ I always remember that. You didn’t have no idea what I needed it for, but that’s all you said.”
“I figured if you’d asked it must be important.”
That stopped them for a moment, Nate trying to find the stars again. He considered the extra blanket, but if Casey wasn’t that cold then he wasn’t going to give in either. “Did you ever for a moment want to hurt Beth?”
“Odd question, I guess.”
“She threw a glass paperweight at me once.”
“Missed my head by a few inches. Went right through a window.”
“I fixed that window. Thermopane in the dining room.”
“So you did. I can’t remember how I explained it.”
“Yeah, why lie when you don’t have to?” Casey chuckled again, Nate again pleased but amazed to see him so happy. He was getting drunk, yet not that drunk. But then, Casey had always been able to drink without showing the effects. “Don’t hold any of this against Beth. As I said, she didn’t have it so wonderful either. When you live intimately for so long with someone, maybe it’s too much. You get to know everything unseemly—their fears, terrors, phobias, every mood, bizarre desire, nightmare, their pasty face in the morning, ache and gripe, even their digestion. Maybe it’s too damn much.”
“You put it that way, maybe living alone ain’t so bad.”
“You never did remarry.”
“Once seemed enough. Didn’t wanna make you be my best man twice.”
“It’s not easy to live alone when you’re sick.” Casey said it resignedly, which prompted Nate to say something he’d long thought.
“I woulda taken care of ya.”
“I could never ask that.”
“I’d still do it.”
Casey looked at him a while. “That was a very nice thing to say.”
“You’re gonna make it through this thing. I know ya are.” Nate worried his voice was sounding emotional.
“It’s always the instinctual against the intuitive or maybe you could call it the poetic intelligence.”
“Another way of looking at life.”
“You lost me.”
“We have our base instincts, our hungers, our needs, but then there’s the beauty of living beyond those, of doing or making something wonderful and lasting, be it by deeds or by fabrication. Sorry, I’m feeling rather transported at the moment. A strange idea just hit me. I need to rest for a minute if that’s okay.”
“No need to say nothing.”
Casey stared toward the sky and didn’t say anything for so long that Nate began to worry. He couldn’t help but follow Casey’s gaze every few minutes: same black pulsing infinity with stars. Back when he’d been a teenager, one morning before school started, he’d stood in front of the rundown brick building and fixed his eyes on the roof. Before ten minutes were over he was surrounded by students and a few teachers, all looking up, all asking what was going on. Human nature. If Casey needed some quiet, that was fine with him though the wind had picked up again, the smoke smarting his eyes on occasion. He fed the fire to create more updraft, Casey not moving, not bothered by the smoke, not even drinking.
After what felt like well past half an hour or even longer, he finally asked, “Case, you okay?”
Casey screwed the fifth into the snow. “I’m Columbus.”
“Actually, I’m Jesus too.”
Damn, he knew coming out here hadn’t been the smartest idea. “Buddy, we best be headin’ back.” Nate stood, rubbed his hands together over the flames, deciding he could leave the fire to burn itself out. The pines were too far back to catch no matter what the wind.
“Sit down a second. I have something amazing to tell you.”
“Really, we best get goin’. You got a long day tomorrow.”
“Please . . . ”
So he settled on his bough seat again.
“You’re those people as well.”
Casey held up his hand. “Thoughts I’ve been guessing at for years . . . I finally feel it. I really believe it might be true.”
Nate decided there was nothing to do but listen to his friend. After all, it was his night.
Casey was staring at him, an odd smile on his face. “What if reality isn’t what we think it is, and matter doesn’t exist and time isn’t merely linear? What if the only thing that exists is a massive construct of consciousness which is an energy forming the illusion of everything? What if a lifetime only seems to be a separate entity, but it’s actually just a minuscule nodule of this enormous construct? You can actually enter it for moments. The beauty and perfection of the construct is overwhelming because you realize you’re everything: Plato, Jesus, the ocean, the stars, anything you can imagine. You’re even me and I’m you. But that doesn’t make any sense, does it?”
Casey laughed. “And you think I’m drunk.”
“Actually I feel bizarrely lucid.”
“You’re sure talking a bit strange.”
“But this fits all the criteria and explains everything.” He was still laughing. “Besides, I felt it. I know it’s real.”
Nate didn’t respond because he had no idea what to say. Maybe the stress of the pending operation was too much for Casey? Or the possibility of dying.
“Maybe I suddenly know this because I’m going to die, or my body is going to stop.”
Casey had read his thoughts. “You’re not gonna die. You’ve got a decent chance tomorrow. But we better get you back. You’re supposed be there at nine, and it must be near ten by now. If we head back now you can still get some sleep.”
“Containers. How else can you explain containers?”
“Think about it. The universe might be enormous, but if it exists as matter it must have an end. Then what contains it? Infinity can only exist if nothing exists because everything has an opposite. A construct of consciousness is both infinite and doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t require a container. What’s amazing is that it’s billions of connected but separate consciousnesses that create the shape and form. A massive reality of agreement growing more complex as the separate entities increase.” He paused. “Why did I never see this before? This is what Blake was alluding to. No wonder every culture believes in a God or gods. It’s the construct that they’re intuitively aware of.” Casey began laughing again, slapping his leg in glee. “But, my God, if everything agrees the world can become anything. We can change anything. We can become anything as long as opposites remain intact. How wonderful. Think what it means.”
Nate didn’t know what to say; Casey seemed to be seeing the world for the first time. What could he say to that? “Change anything?” he said.
“You said we can change everything.”
“We can. We’re the construct. God, I painted all the Rembrandts, the Vermeers, the Gauguins, the Hoppers. I wrote Moby Dick. No wonder we understand books and paintings the way we do.” He was giggling. Then he frowned. “Of course I did all the awful things as well. No wonder you can imagine doing anything in your mind. You actually did it!”
He glanced over, looking embarrassed for a second, then away. “Sorry, I was just feeling this odd connectedness, as if my spirit had flowed out into everything. I was building the pyramids, could actually feel the Egyptian sun on my back; I was Columbus with the sea spray against my face watching the Indians on shore, I was Jesus with a nail through my wrist, I was my mother giving birth to me.”
“Casey. Did you take something?”
He turned back slowly, holding Nate in his gaze. “This is real. I know it is. Everything aligns. Quantum physics is just beginning to discover the beginning of this. Of course the mind alters controlled experiments; it can alter anything. Of course the smallest particle will eventually prove to be consciousness. It is everything. And the construct is always perfect because it’s the exact centered balance of every opposite, every desire, every vision and need.”
“What are you talking about?” Though Nate was pleased for his friend, he was feeling distracted and a bit alienated. It was as if Casey was talking to himself rather than to him. What did he know about constructs and being Jesus? Besides, he was getting damn cold as the winter night increased.
“We are constantly all modifying the world, including the past and the future. Time. Of course it’s not linear, it only has a perception of being linear while you’re a nodule. That explains the odd dreams I’ve had. Why I dream things before they happen. This is why psychics can foretell fragments of the future, describe objects that have remained buried for a thousand years.” He stopped for a moment, frowned again. “But maybe the beliefs and boundaries of the future construct affect the past? That might be a problem. That might complicate radical change. No wonder everything changes so slowly. I wonder if finally in the end everyone realizes the truth of the construct and gets overwhelmed by the perfection of it.” He began to laugh again, picking up the whisky and taking a drink. “What a gift to see it now. I can finally look out at the stars and instead of confusion and longing, I feel only joy.”
A gust of icy wind caught the stand of pine, and the sound of the lifting limbs struck Nate almost as an omen. The fire flared, he closed his eyes to the smoke, and again he felt strange. There was something in Casey’s manner that made what he was saying impossible to dismiss. He knew Casey believed what he’d been saying for whatever reason he believed it, either the drink, the painkillers, or the fear of dying. It was a few minutes before Nate was able to say, “So we create everything together with our minds? Is that what you mean?”
“More or less.”
“Then why disease, why sickness and misery?”
“So there can be health and joy. Everything must have an opposite. Without contrast we wouldn’t be aware that anything existed.”
“How about bugs then? Black flies and mosquitoes. Why would our minds make them up?”
Casey laughed. “Birds. The billions of bat, dragonflies, fish, and bird consciousnesses. Even those sturgeon. Maybe sometimes they overdo it a it, but the amount is up to them, isn’t it?”
“Animals are part of it?”
“Of course. Everything.”
“These are some strange thoughts.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t done a better job explaining. It’s too new to me and I feel overwhelmed. It’s probably impossible to verbalize anyway, yet I felt I had to try because I wanted someone to know. There isn’t much time.” He smiled slowly. “Time again, Nate. Time. You’re going to have some, my friend. Maybe you’ll do some reading, think about this stuff. Maybe take a trip somewhere if you want. See Europe or Asia. After all, you’re not even fifty yet and you’re healthy as an ox.”
What was Casey talking about now? He could barely afford the payments on his new truck, his trailer, land, taxes and insurance, heating oil and food, not to mention going out. Everything had gotten so expensive. European vacations? This was one difficult and weird evening. “I sure don’t have that kind of time.”
“I’ve left you a letter, all my books if you’re interested, most of my unpublished writing to sort through if you want, my gun collection and the Nash. I’m leaving you a third of my estate. You shouldn’t have any trouble with Beth. I know you’ll be kind to her. Remember, in her own way she’s been through a lot. Besides, if she contests the will or creates a problem, she’ll lose everything. I’ve made that very clear with my lawyer.”
Again Nate was taken aback. Everything seemed to be moving at a blinding pace while at the same time it seemed so motionless and silent. Even the fire had stopped snapping, and the sea breeze had left the pine grove, probably blown itself out for the night. He felt as if he’d taken something. “I don’t know what to say.”
“No need to say anything. You’ve already said it over the years with your work and friendship. It’s the least I could do in return.”
“Case, you’re gonna pull through. Don’t talk about a will yet.”
“I have one last favor to ask.”
Nate nodded. “What?”
“I’m sorry, but I need you to leave me now. I still have so much to think about and I’m getting tired.”
“Leave you? What’re you talking about?”
“You need to go back.”
“You’re gonna get real cold. I don’t know if I can build the fire up enough to keep you warm for very long. I suppose I could come back in a couple hours, but even that’d be risky; you could fall asleep. I think we’re in for a real cold night.”
“I’m going to allow the fire to go out.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“I came here to die.”
Nate stared at his friend. “Come on, that’s not possible.”
“It’s what I want.”
“You can’t expect me to just walk away.”
“I’d do it for you.”
“Don’t ask this.”
“In a way I’ve already done it for you. I knew you planned to shoot them both when I loaned you that gun.”
“But I didn’t.”
“That was your decision. This is mine. I can’t go back into that hospital. I’m exhausted, Nate, and I’ve suffered enough. Too many years of it, and there’s no more fight in me left. I’m not going to die on some overly lit table connected to tubes. This is what I want. I’ve had the most wonderful evening of my life. Talking with my best friend, watching the darkness cover the coastline I love, seeing a glimpse of truth I’ve searched for my entire life. I’ve been blessed once again. Now I want some time to think alone, then drink my fill, then I’ll fall asleep. Send someone out for me tomorrow. Don’t come yourself. I’ll only appear even more pathetic dead, and I want you to remember me like this in the fire light and darkness, a smile on my face and the liquid peat in my hand.” He lifted the bottle. “If you come to need it, I’ve left an additional letter for the police to prevent any suspicion of negligent homicide, so you shouldn’t have any trouble there.”
Nate stood awkwardly, feeling the whisky, the confused unreality of the request. He looked up at the swirling smoke lifting to darkness. “Please come back with me. The operation will work this time. I know it will.”
“You must do this for me.”
“Don’t force me to ask again. Don’t force me to beg. The night has been perfect. Don’t ruin it, please.”
Nate reached down to pick up a thick stick, tossed it into the flames. Then added a few more as if it would somehow change things, maybe warm up the entire hillside. “This is what you want?”
“I just walk away?”
“I don’t know what to do.”
Neither of them said anything as Nate turned his hands over the now boisterous flames, sparks snapping onto the snow. Then Casey said, “Hey! I just thought of something?”
“What?” said Nate with eagerness. Had he changed his mind?
“For once—no hangover.”
It took a moment, but then Nate chuckled and they both began to grin. Nate could feel an uncontrollable emotion rising in himself like a boat breaking from its mooring. “God, I’m going to miss you.”
“You’ll have time now. You won’t have to work unless you want to.”
“I’d rather have our friendship.”
“That’ll always exist.”
“Case, come back with me. Take a gamble on the docs one more time. If it don’t work, we come back out here. I’ll even buy the Scotch next time.”
“If I go back now I’ll have a horrible hangover.”
“There’s that.” Nate stared at his friend a long time, unable to move.
“Thanks.” Casey was holding out his hand. “Thanks for everything.”
Nate shook it. “Damn,” he said, and turned. He wanted to say something more, but his throat was tight and his mind numb. This couldn’t be happening, could it? Without any real decision he began to walk back towards the truck through the snow, but his spirit seemed to remain at the fire as if he weren’t actually moving away. With each additional step he realized he was going to cry. He looked back at the fire once through wet eyes, the lashes beginning to freeze, and his hand as if with a mind of its own lifted. I can come back in an hour, he thought. I can always do that.