Prelude to the Itch The year was 1974. The month July. The time was of my life. The journey began somewhere east of Sanders, Arizona, and wends its way through today.
For my orientation, I grabbed a Triple-A road map of the United States that had been buried among assorted other free maps my mother had collected over the years from the auto club and gas stations, which she kept stashed in a shopping bag on the floor of her bedroom closet; and a paperback I tracked down tucked on shelf in a lower Manhattan bookstore--actually the original Barnes & Noble-- entitled, Where to Stay USA: from 50¢ to $7 a night. On the trip, the book would become my road bible. For transportation, I purchased a month-long Greyhound AmeriPass®--a bus ticket that gave me unlimited access to anywhere in North America that dog would run. For navigation, I used as bearings whatever wits I may have gathered and sense that might have been knocked into me in all of my eighteen years to sight my cerebral pelorus, with the needle of my internal compass pointed fast and true to the knowledge that my parents awaited my safe return.
Upon hearing of my intentions to travel by bus to who-knew-where, the only specific advice I can remember my father giving me, however, was, “Watch out for the queers in the bathrooms.” I didn’t quite grasp its meaning at the time it was offered, but I folded up his mildly stated caution and tucked it into the shirt pocket of my consciousness. As the trip unfolded along with that map of the USA and I found myself laying over and waiting in dreary bus stations in rundown downtowns of towns and cities of all demographics and sizes, I eventually had cause to also unfold, refer to, understand, and heed the basic context of my dad’s eight-word admonition; discovering by observation and interaction that, in addition to being focal points for the legitimate economy-minded traveler and an unintended sojourn for the occasional overland adventurer, bus stations for some odd reason tend to be magnets and are universally notorious for the strange, the bizarre, the desperate, the outcast, the malinger, the nefarious, the predator, the lost, the delusional, and yes, the queer--in most every sense the dictionary defines.
From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere. --One fish two fish red fish blue fish, Dr. Seuss, 1960
By the time I had wound my way from the Port Authority of New York to the post houses of New Mexico, I was fed up with riding the bus and all that came with it. The company of lascivious and maleficent bus station loiterers aside, almost anyone who has taken a Greyhound or Trailways for any substantial distance or duration will attest to the grueling marathon run by one’s patience and the small irritations that rub raw on, abscess below, fester within, and ooze from the hide of one’s dignity and pride during such tedious and agonizing rides.
As each passenger slowly marinates in their own juices, they also cure in the ambient, aromatic mixture of the various odors emanating from fellow travelers, the gaseous byproducts of inefficient diesel-fuel combustion seeping through the seams in the bus' floor panels and back seat cushions, the vapors escaping from the pot of blue stew simmering within the bowels of the vertical lavatorial tomb in the rear, and (at that time) the second- and third-hand smoke of cigarettes (cigars and pipes prohibited) wafting through, hanging in, and forming its own atmosphere. Bus cabin smog.
Then there are the pathetic attempts to get some sleep or doze or catch a contorted cat nap in the uneasy chair; an inactivity which more often results in one’s extremities falling asleep because of the inadvertent deprivation of normal blood flow to them rather than getting any satisfying, REM-filled shut-eye. And, if you do manage to fall into a deep slumber, there is the inevitable abrupt awakening at any given moment–motor-coach induced narcoleptic fits--when the bus pulls into a station for either you or some other bleary-eyed, rubber-legged rider to be unceremoniously offloaded while luggage laden. More often than not, this is an ensuing long wait for a connection--sometimes hours--smack in the middle of some unfamiliar town’s downtown as a tourist in a place which you had no intention of being a visitor.
All this travel fun is usually accomplished while riding semi-reclined alongside strangers trapped in equivalent self-imposed gregarious solitary confinement; the only thing separating one from the poor slob next to them being a thin, retractable, communal (at the time ashtray-imbedded) armrest and an imaginary personal-space dividing line only breached when those seated furthest from the aisle require passage through to get to the unisex, unistall, one-size-fits-all bathroom-in-a-booth way in the back.
Although there may be worse ways to get to there from here, few are inclusively cheaper and of one’s free will.
Having suffered these and other collective minor indignities--insanity from a thousand insults to the psyche--to the point at which I felt like the subject in the iconic Edvard Munch painting and wanted to SCREAM OUT LOUD (!!!), I became desperate enough to consider some alternative means of surface transport. And, with a finite amount of cash on me--seeing as all of my "travel advance" was tied up in the bus ticket, and being that there were no debit cards or ATMs in those days, and I was still years from even applying for my first credit card--the most viable choice I could conjure was to hitchhike. Low cost and little-to-no fetter. Or so I’d always heard it advertised.
Knee-deep in the Heart of Texans So there I was--having ridden the bus down the East Coast and through the shoal and deep South–moseying around Albuquerque pondering this possibility. It had been just two days earlier, after having debarked the Greyhound in the dank 2 AM darkness of downtown Austin, Texas, my attempt to walk a Texas mile or two to the University of Texas-Austin campus where my Where to Stay... paperback claimed there was a place to crash at Castilian Hall, one block west of the UTA campus between June 1 and August 15, had been abruptly and immediately curtailed by a city cop who cozied up to my backpacking visage in his black-and-white cruiser. After surviving a question-and-answer session on where I was from and where I was headed and whether I was carrying any kind of mind-altering contraband, and me asking if there was some problem which caused his Q&A, to which he trumped up the lame case that there had been car break-ins in the area, the officer extends his arm out the window and points across the street to the decades-past-new discount hotel which was just a Texas two-step from where I stood. In words as clear to me now as they were they moment they passed his lips, the officer offered in his as deep in the heart of Texas twang as I theretofore had ever heard in person, “Wah don’chew stay at thayt HO-tel raht therrr?!” During our brief discourse to that point, I was given the distinct impression that his bite would be way worse than his bark and, if I hadn’t taken him up on his own “where to stay” at this instant suggestion--whatever the room rate and amenities were--he, in a New York minute, would be chauffeuring me to a multiple-occupancy bed-and-breakfast/lunch/dinner free of charge and filled with charges. Something with a motif a little more institutional in decor and Spartan in style and with a lot less privacy. So, instead of testing the limits of my rights to liberty in a twist of the Third Amendment about being subjected to unlawfully quartering of a citizen against my will by the local militia, I graciously accepted his “authoritexian” hospitality. God bless America.
Almost before I knew it, I awoke alone and free to go in a drab and fraying fourth-floor hotel room to a steamy, bright-yellow rose of a Texas morning sun. After eavesdropping on the conversation of the hot and cold pipes in the wall feeding water to the shower stall, I quickly dressed, packed, and hit the streets of the Texas capital city; reinitiating my walk up to the UTA campus. On the way, and in a fashion reciprocal to the black-and-white welcome wagon that rolled my way the night before, I received equally unexpected greetings of a “howdy” here and a “g'mawnin’” there--unsolicited salutations bid from complete strangers as I wove through their early work-day moments. And nothing did they want in return. This was a phenomenon I had never before experienced in my New York City metropolitan upbringing, that was certain. At first, I was suspicious of such kind how-do-you-do’s, but once I realized these were sincere gestures, I easily responded in kind. God bless America.
Glancing at a newspaper stand along the way, my eye caught the headline singed across the front page of the Austin American-Statesman informing all in eyeshot that Richard Nixon had resigned as president and proclaiming that, as a result, our “Long National Nightmare (was) Over.” It turns out that the afternoon before, while I was in the Houston Greyhound station transferring buses between New Orleans and Austin, I had noticed that all the 25¢-for-twenty-five-minutes television units–essentially the visual vending machines of the day--were occupied. Unbeknownst to me at the time, all those folks eyes and attentions were trained on the screen as Nixon was in the throes of giving his resignation and farewell address to the nation. All the while, I waited for my connection completely oblivious to this historic event. God bless America.
Putting up at the Duke's I wandered around Austin for the rest of the day, but as welcome as I was coming to feel there, I decided to vamoose west before night fell. So, I boarded an evening bus scheduled for a midday arrival in Albuquerque. The ride broke the dawn and a surficial sleep somewhere on the New Mexican edge of the horizon-bending Llano Estacado; a vast, parched, thinly-crusted tract laying flat across mostly west-central Texas like a tortilla rolled out onto and baked into the land. As was becoming a standard emotion, I was relieved to pour my person and possessions down the steps of the bus upon reaching my destination. While in the Duke City, for a couple of nights and for next to nothing, with school being between summer and fall sessions, I got myself a dorm room at the University of New Mexico–something I was unsuccessful in achieving a day before at UTA.
I spent most of the time hanging out on campus talking to the few other wayfaring souls staying at the dorm and around the student union or kicking around Central Avenue adjacent to the south end of the campus, just to see what sights there were to see. This street has since been newly renamed Old Route 66, as it was part of that world-renown, once-great US highway. In retrospect, the stretch of Central Avenue I chose to investigate cut through a seedier part of this elder of New World city statesmen; an inner-cityscape spiced with the incensory smell of chiles roasting, seasoned with the essence of the test of time, and infused with meddled grit of slow but steady social change. Lined with pawn shops, biker bars, cheap motels, discount furniture marts, and for-lease-or-let storefronts, most towns have similar unflattering sections and most locals of means know enough to avoid them whenever possible. However, with my streetwise naivete, I cannot recall the place having threatened me in the least.
What I do recall is talking to this Indian guy who appeared to me to be quite a bit older than me and seemed also to be quite a bit older and had experienced quite a bit more than he should have for his years. For some folks, it’s easy to live a hard life; for some others, living hard is about as easy as it gets. Not knowing the man, I can’t say which kind of life he had lived to that point, but it was easy to see it was hard. And, although my ear wasn’t tuned to detecting it at the time, the accent of this New Mexican Native American–consider how many historical and ethnic pairings and paradoxes there are in that label--was probably as predictable coming from his mouth as my New York Jewish-American inflections were emanating from mine. “Who knew, hermano?”
What I don’t remember, though, is how we got to talking or most of what exactly it was we got to talking about. One thing I can recollect, as we ambled down one side of Central Avenue, is my warning to him of some broken glass he was about to step on with his bare feet. This triggered a self-assured chuckle that squeezed out from his diaphragm with the help of a tug from a shrug of his shoulders as the green and brown shards were pressed and ground between the blackened bottoms of his feet and the grayish-white of the sidewalk concrete. In the process he confidently announced to this tenderfoot strolling along with him that the calluses he wore in lieu of shoe leather were thick and rawhide-tough and that a little busted-glass--jagged artifact witnesses and testaments to some unknown soul’s liquid repast remaining from some evening near past--was of absolutely no danger to the exposed soles of his feet and was, thus, of less than of little concern to the likes of him. Now, the concept of walking unshod through the streets of any city was about as alien a thing to this eastern city boy as a gringo like me must have been being a little more than a mile east of being west of the Rio Grande. So, I proceeded to counter the swagger in the step and the mock in the tenor of the voice of my Indian friend with the contention that his “sole” defenses would be of little benefit where I came from if he were to step in a warm, freshly lain, malodorous and moldable mound of what we back home affectionately called "Bronx luck." Upon pondering this scenario for a moment, one side of his mouth curled to a smile and he had no choice but to concede the point. We both grinned at the prospect of such a predicament as we continued on down the street and changed the subject.
Somewhere along the way we parted company with a square look in the eyes and a firm good-luck-to-you handshake. And just as we had managed to drift across each other’s path, we just as easily meandered out of each other’s life.
Continuing alone down a ways and then back up Central Avenue--as pathetic as it may seem even to me now--I spied what looked to be a roach here and another there just scattered about the sidewalk. What a cool and happening place, this Albuquerque is, I thought to myself. So I greedily, covertly, and most certainly pitiably, scooped some of them up for a subsequent secluded smoke back in my den of perceived isolation at the dorm. Much to my chagrin and solitary embarrassment, upon lighting one up I discovered that what I actually had in my possession were discarded butts of rolled tobacco left by faceless strangers earlier in the day or the week–perhaps some of the same strangers whose beer bottle remnants had come up earlier that day in my discussion with my Indian acquaintance. Now, although I’m sure some folks back in New York must have rolled their own cigarettes, I certainly had never seen it done in the circles I spun around in and traveled tangentially by. So, until I rekindled one of those half-charred, tarred nuggets back in the friendly confinement of the dormitory, I was sure I was in for a little and long-awaited buzz. Instead, I was resigned to laugh at my own sorry butt and to dump my bits of fools gold into a nearby wastebasket. Talk about being the joke of butts!
When not milling about town or picking psuedo-pot pods from the sidewalk, most of the time I hung out in front of the UNM dorm buildings. In time, I struck up a conversation with a slender, pleasant-looking, brown-haired, blue-eyed girl from West Germany who was also staying at the dorm at the same cut-rate price and for some of the same itinerant reasons as I. We chatted about our experiences traveling the US and about our lives, I suppose--likely more about me than her. In doing so, I must have made some kind of a positive impression on her. Now, I’ve been told I can at times be obtuse in social situations regarding peoples’ emotions, and I know this must be true when it comes to women who may have an interest in me. As a married man, this can be a positive trait, but for most other guys, not so. And, this was apparently the case with this Fraulein I had just met. I assume this because, as I was checking out of the dorm early the next morning with my mind bent on continuing down the road, the girl working the front desk mentioned to me that the German girl had commented to her that she thought I was a nice guy. My response to this must have been something along the lines of that I was getting on my way and heading to the Greyhound station and to please say good bye for me if she saw her. And, with that I swung my knapsack into place and left the relative security of campus to continue my solo trek west.
While waiting for my bus, something caused me to spin my head around, where I happened to notice in the crowd Linda Blair of The Exorcist fame who, from the buzz in the crowd I learned was in Albuquerque filming a movie. Kodak Instamatic in hand, I asked if I could take her picture, to which she graciously complied, as did a fellow actor she was with. I have since come to find out that the film became a very gritty, ahead of its time, made-for-TV movie originally shown on NBC later that year called Born Innocent. It turns out the actor she was with was Mitch Vogel, who one year my junior evidently had years of acting roles to his credit, but who soon after his role in this film, no longer being an innocent, chose as different path in life from an acting one.
Berlin Wall of Lame? With my brief brush with the young and famous behind me, I found my behind sitting aboard the bus minutes before departure. As I did, I noticed the same young lady from West Germany pushing her way through the the same glass double-doors of the loading platform through which Linda Blair had also passed. Peering through the tinted bus window at her, initially I couldn’t believe the coincidence that she would be in the bus station at the same time as I. But, at some point through my obtuseness (or in this case “ob-Teuton-ness”), I figured out that the girl a the dorm desk must have told her of my plans and she came down either to say good bye or, in retrospect I fantasize, to ask if I might reconsider and stay awhile—those dorm room were so sterile and almost prison-cell- and cloister-like in their between-student starkness--and maybe we could have helped relieve each other’s sense of solitary detachment conditions such as those environmental conditions foster. And maybe even mess the place up a little in the process. Or maybe she was wanting to travel along with me? Whatever her motivations or what suggestions or requests might have proffered, have long resided in the domain of my own speculation. For, instead of sprinting off the Greyhound to find out what she may have wanted, I chickened out and simply melted into the fabric and vinyl of the bus seat until, first the girl, and then the Greyhound I was on left the station.
Go, No-Go To this day, my excuse to myself has been that I had already made up mind to take the bus to Sanders, Arizona, where I would then hitchhike and attempt to reach and spend the night in a place listed in the Where to Stay... book called Alpine, Arizona. My road bible told me so. And, I suppose, at the time I took comfort in the restrictions I put on myself within my own apparent freedom to go or to stay. I had places to go, I guess, not people to do.
Whether is was my decision to be a mute spectator of the girl seeking me out, or my deer-in-the-headlights indecision to sit frozen in my seat, my actions netted the same result. It is quite possible that this moment was a temporal crossing of two roads in my life. If so, one of these was the one less traveled. But just which was which, I expect I will never know.
Fun ain’t easy if it ain’t free Too many people have a hold on me. It doesn’t matter which direction, though, I know a woman in New Mexico. ---Worst Comes to Worst, Piano Man, Billy Joel, 1973