Memories of a Retired Hitchhiker

Susie and I are at Kafé Kerouac, a coffee house/bar named for the patron saint of hitchhiking, Jack Kerouac, at the moment.  (Kerouac’s 90th birthday would have been on the 12th of this month, but, unfortunately, he drank himself to death in 1969, aged 47.)  She and I are in the front room, and pages from the first several chapters of Kerouac’s opus, On the Road, adorn the north wall.

The north wall at Kafé Kerouac, decorated with pages from On the Road.

Something that brought the long-moribund subject of hitchhiking to my mind was seeing that one of my Facebook friends was listening to Vanity Fare’s “Hitchin’ a Ride” on Spotify.  I’ve been in an advanced and rapidly progressing state of ennui lately, which is one of the reasons for the paucity of blog entries.  (I deleted two previous entries after only writing a sentence or two, so I’m hoping to get myself back on track by writing in here tonight.)

I should preface what follows by saying that my hitchhiking days are far behind me.  I haven’t done it since the summer of 1989, and I am sure that it’s more dangerous now than when I was a teenager and a young adult.  (It’s never been 100% safe.  When my thumb was my primary mode of transportation, it horrified some of my high school friends.  I still remember one of my classmates looking at me, slack-jawed, and saying, “Paul!  You’re going to get your head blown off!” when I casually mentioned I would be thumbing to Athens–a distance of about 48 miles.)

The first time I hitchhiked, it was not my idea, and I was far from enthusiastic about doing it.  It was in August 1979, and it was a relatively short trip.  I was 16 years ago, and I was traveling to OPIK ’79, a regional Liberal Religious Youth conference.  (OPIK–rhymes with topic–was an acronym for Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky.  In 1979, it took place in Michigan, for reasons too complex to explain here.)  I had been on the bus from Columbus since noon on Saturday, August 18 (the conference began the next day) with a young woman from Columbus named Suzanne, who was also headed to OPIK.  We arrived in Kalamazoo around midnight, and no one at the conference site was answering.  (OPIK ’79 took place at Circle Pines Center in Delton, which was about 25 miles away in Barry County.)  So, since we were marooned at the closed Greyhound station for the night, we sat on our suitcases most of the night, talked, ate date bars, and I read, wrote in my diary, and tried in vain to sleep, using my windbreaker as a blanket and my typewriter case as a pillow.

Morning came, and we splurged on a big breakfast in the Time Table Inn, the bus station’s restaurant, tried Circle Pines Center again, and finally Suzanne heaved a sigh and said, “Well, let’s hitch.”  This was long before the days of Google Earth and GPS systems, so we roamed around a bit before we found M-89 West, the road that led from Kalamazoo to Delton.  Once we found that, a friendly guy in his 20s named Stephen gave us a ride straight to Circle Pines’ parking lot.  I was happy to add a new experience to my résumé–hitchhiking–but my first order of business was to find a cot.  When I found one, I immediately collapsed fully clothed, shoes and all.

This experience emboldened me, and when I got back to Marietta, I talked the ears off anyone who asked me how I spent my summer.  I managed to resist the temptation to embellish the trip beyond the 25 miles from Kalamazoo to Delton, yet the account caused many to further question my sanity.

For the remaining three years I lived in Marietta, I overcompensated for my earlier reluctance to hitchhike. It was analogous to someone overcoming a lifelong fear of water and the next day deciding to swim the English Channel.  (The concept of the golden mean remains totally foreign to me to this day.)  The following summer, I stuck my thumb out on State Route 550, destination Athens.  I had not thought to let my dad know where I was going when I left the house that Saturday morning.

I did not make it to Athens, but the reason for aborting the mission were truly in character.  On the way up 550, I encountered Carpenter’s Books, one of the most unusual bookstores I have encountered.  It was in a man’s garage, and the place was wall to wall, floor to ceiling loaded with books.  Carpenter also raised chickens and sold eggs–quite a juxtaposition.  I spent maybe $2 to $3, and came home with a large box full of paperbacks and hardcovers.  As usual, my choices ran the gamut from Gold Medal originals by writers like Peter Rabe and Richard S. Prather to odd volumes of Harvard Classics and Black’s Readers Service classics (The Works of Tolstoi and The Works of Doyle).

After some test runs to Athens, I made my first “big” trip in May of 1981, a month before I graduated from high school.  I was en route to Washington, D.C. for the biggest protest since the Vietnam era, protesting the military presence in El Salvador and the military buildup overall.  I took the bus as far as Cambridge, Ohio, and then set out on I-70.  I was dressed in jeans, a work shirt, and hiking boots, and I carried a small backpack–only enough room for a change of clothes, my diary, and a book or two.

I was buoyed by my success.  I made it to D.C. in three rides.  The longest was a driver who picked me up around Quaker City and took me as far as Hagerstown.  A second ride (by a contractor who was at Catholic U. the same time my dad was) got me to Gaithersburg, and a third ride dropped me off on M St. in Georgetown.  I had turned 18 earlier that week, which meant I was finally legal to drink beer.  And I marked the event in style.  I had my first legal beer at Clyde’s of Georgetown, which was the prototype for the gathering place in St. Elmo’s Fire.  Its lunchtime menu inspired Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight.”  (Since I had just read William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, I had searched in vain to find The Tombs, the bar where whiskey priest Damien Karras cries into his suds to a fellow priest about his lack of faith.)  I remember the polyglot conversations at the tables around me, and the pay phones in the rest room.  I spent the remainder of the night wandering around Washington, and buying The Washington Post as soon as it rolled off the presses.

Getting home was no fun.  I had a ride to the infamous Breezewood, Pa. from Silver Spring.  Breezewood is the “Town of Motels” just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, eloquently described by Business Week in 1991 as “a polyp on the nation’s interstate highway system.”  I was stuck there for hours, so much so that if Breezewood is the first thing I see when I die, I will know beyond a doubt where I’ve gone.

I won’t list every journey I made by thumb, but the memorable one came in the spring of 1982, when my LRY friend John (whom I met at the aforementioned OPIK ’79) came to visit me in Marietta.  Going to all of Marietta’s points of interest does not take long, even with a trip across the river to the Fenton Art Glass plant in Williamstown.  Bored, John and I were doing the “What do you wanna do?”  “I dunno–what do you wanna do?” thing, when I said, in jest, “Let’s hitch to D.C.”  The next several hours consisted my burning up the phone lines to find friends of friends (multiplied ad infinitum in the D.C. area where we could sleep.  The calls started at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Washington office, and became quite hydra-headed.)  Both of us owned Paul Dimaggio’s The Hitchhiker’s Field Manual, and we had both read our copies to tatters, since it had become a weird kind of Bible for both of us.  During the journey, whenever we argued over where to stand on the road, Dimaggio’s word was law.

Our name for the trip was the “Nobody Said It Was Easy” tour.  Nobody said hitchhiking was easy, this is true, but the song “Nobody Said It Was Easy (Lookin’ for the Lights)”, by the Louisiana band Le Roux, seemed to be on the radio or tape deck of every car picking us up.  In Bethesda, we hopped a Metro bus that put us in Dupont Circle.  John and I were both tired and cross from the long journey and inadequate nutrition, and John was skeptical of my claims that we had made it.  I was vindicated when the escalator in the Dupont Circle Metro station brought us to street level.  I nudged John.  “What?” he said testily.  Without a word, I pointed at the lighted dome of the Capitol.

My final hitchhike was from Cincinnati to Columbus in 1989, illegally, since I used Interstate 71 the entire way.  Not a memorable trip.  In my journal, I wrote about it in two sentences, and devoted pages more to the subsequent visit with Adam Bradley.
Advertisements

An All-Too-Short Breather From Moonlighting

I can tell that the end of the academic quarter looms at Columbus State Community College when I begin logging 12-hour workdays–my usual “day job” at the Industrial Commission, and the 2½ hours I work afterwards at the Discovery Exchange.  I wasn’t expecting to be back at the bookstore until Christmas, but I emailed my supervisor there to find out when he wanted me to start, and he asked me if I could start the first week of December.  My finances–or the lack thereof–made that an easy decision, quite a no-brainer.

So, starting Monday evening, I have been working at the bookstore, arriving home just before 9, and by then I’m usually so exhausted that I tumble into bed right away… and still don’t feel all that refreshed when the alarm goes off at 6:30 in the morning.

It may some lingering NaNoWriMo mindset.  Even though I no longer have to type at breakneck speed to produce writing of questionable–if not outright nonexistent–literary merit, I still feel like I’ve expended an enormous amount of energy during the day, and just the proximity and practicality of sleep is enough of a suggestion that I tumble into bed at an early hour, often times before Susie.  (Even when I do stay up late, it is difficult to pinpoint when exactly she falls asleep.  She often dozes off reading or writing in her journal, so there’s light coming from under her bedroom door regardless of how late the hour.  If I’m passing her room at 2:30 a.m. en route to the bathroom, I’ll see the light, and long ago I came to realize that she’s sound asleep and has no problem sleeping in a brightly lit room.)

Susie and I are at Kafé Kerouac right now, just north of the Ohio State campus.  This is a good post-NaNoWriMo location, and a good place to host a write-in next year.  Kerouac wrote the version of On the Road that catapulted him to literary fame (and fortune–most of which he drank) in a style that NaNoWriMo writers would make famous over 35 years later.  After many false starts, Kerouac wrote On the Road in about three weeks, fueled by amphetamines and black coffee, writing on a long scroll of Teletype paper and getting up from the typewriter only for trips to the bathroom.  I am 48 years old now, so I have outlived Kerouac by a year, but I doubt that I would ever have had the spontaneity or the stamina to try such a project in such a radical way.  Several years ago, Viking published Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954, and the work notebooks show that the writing of On the Road may have been spontaneous, but the text and the story was quite premeditated.

The famous scroll manuscript of On the Road.

This is the calm before the storm at the bookstore.  I have spent most of my workdays (-evenings?) re-shelving returns as students return them.  There are usually about five of us working on the second floor at night, and as one quarter winds down and the new one has yet to begin, there is not much customer traffic.  Sometimes I have to combat boredom, but shelving is a task that I genuinely enjoy.  During the lull in activity, when there aren’t even any books that need to be put back, I remind myself about how much I’ll relish moments like that once the onslaught starts again after Christmas.

One of my favorite isolated lines in Stephen King’s The Stand describes one of the heroes, Larry Underwood, tending to his mother when she becomes ill with the flu that eventually kills her and 99.4% of the human race.  Before anyone realizes just how deadly this is, he helps settle her in bed, moves the TV to her bedroom, buys her some paperback books at the corner store, and fixes her a small meal.  “After that,” says the narrative, “there wasn’t anything to do except get on each other’s nerves.”  To a much lesser degree, that’s kind of what we’re like on the second floor when there are no customers and no books to shelve.

The cashiers and customer service people downstairs place returns on a library cart, and when one is full enough, that’s when someone from the second floor (lately, me, but not exclusively) will come down and get it, exchanging it with an empty.  Because a loaded cart weighs so much, we take it up in the bookstore’s freight elevator.

One of my coworkers is a young woman from the Republic of Guinea in West Africa, who is taking pre-med classes at Columbus State.  She was a little scared when I told her the books had to go up in the freight elevator.  (I had seen her wheeling the cart toward the passenger elevator.)  Having worked at the Cincinnati post office, I have no fear of freight elevators.  The one at the Discovery Exchange could accommodate a small Toyota, but it has a mesh gate that raises and lowers, and the heavy steel external doors smash together with a sound that can make you jump.  As she and I waited for it, I’m sure my casual references to the “Elevator of Death” didn’t put her at ease.  (I suppose I should never let her see the L.A. Law episode featuring the death of Rosalind Shays.)

When I was 15 and living in Marietta, I helped a friend of mine deliver newspapers in the business district.  He had several customers in the Dime Bank Building at Second and Putnam Sts., across from the Washington County Courthouse.  The Dime Bank Building had an old, antiquated hand-operated elevator, complete with an old, antiquated elevator operator.  You got in, he would slide the accordioned gate shut, flip the lever (I always thought it looked like a ship’s engine order telegraph), and up you would go, watching the floors go by as you rose.

I made an all-too-quick trip to Cincinnati the first weekend of November, while Susie was at a church Coming of Age retreat in the Hocking Hills.  One of the people I took to lunch was George Wagner, who managed the apartment building where I lived.  George worked part-time as a clerk at Ohio Book Store on Main Street, and he had a healthy fear/respect for its freight elevator.  He emphatically stated he was not afraid of the elevator.  “I burn incense to it.  I pray to it.  I recite the 23rd Psalm before I get aboard it.  But no, I am not afraid of it!” he told me many times when I lived in Cincinnati.

Washington Beckons

Now I’m watching the clock waiting for 11:30 to get here, so I can be en route to the One Nation Working Together march tomorrow in Washington, D.C.  My original plan was for Susie to come with me, but another road trip, especially one this long, was too much, coming on the heels of the trip to North Olmsted last week.  Additionally, Susie is the stereotypical “Are we there yet?” kid when it comes to travelling.  If she was getting impatient for the two-hour journey to Cleveland to end, the seven-plus hours to Washington would be excruciating for her.  She told Steph on Monday that she really didn’t want to go.

I made a few phone calls, trying to fill the seat.  We have a donor who provided the bus free of charge (I’m not sure who), so I was working the phones and the email trying to find someone to go with me.  Steve was tempted, but he declined; big work week, so he was looking forward to spending the weekend staring at the ceiling.

But, I will not be travelling alone.  Amelia, Steve’s 20-year-old daughter, is coming with me.  I think it’s her first time in Washington.  The only road trip I’ve ever taken with her has been to Mineral, but I’ve been with her and her dad locally for several events, such as the Isaiah 58 rally at the State House and the Ramadan trip to the mosque.  I’m sure she’s enthusiastic about the trip.

During some idle time at the computer, I went on Google Maps and calculated how much I will have traveled between Friday night and Sunday morning, when Amelia and I return to Columbus.  The total will be 1372 miles.  There was the trip to and from North Olmsted last week, and last night Pat and I went to the Winchester Tavern in Lakewood to see Allan Holdsworth in concert–the third time I’ve seen him.  (What amazed me about that little junket was how comparatively early we were headed back to Columbus.  The concert began at 9 p.m., and there was no opening band.  The show was over by 10:30.  Pat and I stopped to get gas and pick up some burgers before we left Cleveland.  I think my clock radio said 1:15 when I came back to my bedroom/study.)

Before I promise an illustrated blog entry upon my return, I need to conduct an experiment here.  Sunday night, after coming home from North Olmsted, I tried to load some additional pictures from the Con.  Blogger.com was not cooperating, and I understand from other bloggers they were experiencing the same thing.  (The problem is not in your set!)  So, I am going to try and load a picture below:

 Susie and her friend Harriet back up their friend
Florida (at microphone) during the talent show at North
Olmsted last Saturday night.  They were insurance against
stage fright or chickening out.

Houston, all systems are go and all lights are green!  This is the picture I tried to post Sunday without any success.  Now I know that the malfunction with Blogger.com and loading pictures has been repaired, so I’m taking the Kodak EasyShare with me to document the march.
My fellow bibliophile and collector of arcane knowledge Robert Nedelkoff is meeting us for lunch at 1:45 at Tonic at Quigley’s Pharmacy, a restaurant and bar located on G St., NW in Foggy Bottom.  It’s always good to see him; this will be our third in-person meeting, and I believe I will meet his wife Rene this time.  I have never heard of this eating establishment.  The building hasn’t been a pharmacy for years, but the name is too normal for a Washington, D.C. pharmacy.  Two chains (since defunct) in Washington had names that always brought a chuckle to me.  One was Drug Fair, which was absorbed by Walgreen last year.  (Drug Fair could also have been the name for Lafayette Park after dark.)  The other was Peoples Drug, which always made me think it was a huge methadone clinic.
Right now, I just glanced at my watch.  It’s 11:08 p.m., and Steve and Amelia will be coming around to pick me up soon.  I’m packing light–camera, diary, the latest New Yorker, and a copy of On the Road (my equivalent of carrying a St. Christopher’s medal, I suppose).  Just like the New Jersey trip, I will handwrite the blog in a pocket date book (scrambling around my desk to find one), and then post backdated entries in here, assuming Blogger.com’s ability to load pictures doesn’t crash while I’m gone.

Cracks in the Block

Thursday night, I regaled my Facebook friends with an ongoing account of my successful attempt to try and overcome both the hypersomnia and the writing block that has caused me some distress of late.  In May, I began a short story, and shortly after reaching the 1000-word mark, I said to myself, “I’ll pick it up again tomorrow,” and didn’t.  One of the characters in Bugsy Malone, Jr., a play I saw way too many times when Susie acted in it, sang a song that laments, “Tomorrow never comes!”  Annoying as the song was, it had the ring of truth when it comes to writing and me.

So, Thursday, I resolved that tomorrow had come.  There was no burning bush, no real epiphany.  I was at work, typing a stack of ex parte orders, and just as I released them to the hearing officer, I said, “I’m going to finish this story tonight, damn it!”  After work, I came home and cooked an elegant meal for Steph and Susie (Kraft macaroni and cheese, with Pop-Tarts for dessert), and then put my laptop into my over-the-shoulder bag and headed to Kafé Kerouac on North High Street (here is their link).  I made a brief stop at the OSU Library, but there is no Wi-Fi access for non-OSU staff or students, so I went north.

One of the few things I remember from my basic chemistry class at Marietta High School was the principle of potential versus kinetic energy.  A boulder at the top of a big hill has potential energy, but once you start rolling it down the hill, it has kinetic energy.  I had potential energy as I slogged through the process of logging on, “ping”-ing off Kafé Kerouac’s Wi-Fi, and making cursory checks of my email and my Facebook account.

Finally, I bit the bullet and signed onto Microsoft Office.  I had to sit down and scroll through what I had already written, and take some notes.  I had forgotten characters’ names, the name of the small city where I set the story, etc.  Finally, when I established continuity, I paged through the notes I had taken for the scenes yet to be written, cracked open a Diet Coke, and began to write.

The first few lines and paragraphs were sheer hell to write.  But once I got past them, and began to establish some momentum, I found myself eager to keep going.  In many ways, writing a short story is much more difficult than a novel.  A short story has a definite ceiling for word count–9000 words is generally the maximum, then you cross over into novella.  A novel, however, has no limit.  The writer can keep adding more and more, and the pages just keep stacking up.

I was a little bothered by how much I had to backtrack to maintain continuity for a work that would eventually top out at 5704 words.  Especially when I am such a stickler for continuity in television programs, other works of fiction, etc.  (My antennae go up when I watch an early M*A*S*H episode when Hawkeye Pierce concludes a letter to his father by sending greetings to “Mom and Sis,” whereas it’s established for most of the series that Hawkeye is an only child, and his father has been a widower since Hawkeye was 10.  Likewise, as much as I love Stephen King’s massive novel It, I can go straight to where Richie, one of the “Losers’ Club” who fights Pennywise, attends Methodist Youth Fellowship faithfully every week, but several hundred pages later, he says he’s Catholic.  Another Loser, Beverly Marsh, lives with her stepfather, but later on King mentions she inherited her artistic ability and hair color from him.)

Whenever I hit a thousand-work mark, I notified people via Twitter (and, by extension, Facebook).  I had to resist the urge to rest from it, and risk losing all the headway I had gained.  I left Kafé Kerouac a little after 12, so I could catch the last northbound High Street bus.  Susie was long since asleep, and Steph was in front of her laptop, communing with her retinue in Second Life–where she spends virtually every waking hour of late.  I knew the alarm would ring at 6:45, so I could be out on Indianola at 7:30 to catch the bus, but I knew that if I quit now, it would be another long stretch before I typed a word.  I took the laptop upstairs and plugged it back in, and finally, just before 4 a.m., I typed that beautiful indication:

– 30 –
at the bottom, and sat back with a sigh.  (- 30 – is a printers’ equivalent of THE END.  At one time, the end of an article or manuscript was represented by “XXX”.  XXX is the Roman numeral for 30, so that’s how it changed.)
I know the story is not ready to go out yet.  I need to go through and edit it, and resist the urge to fall madly in love with my own prose, as I am wont to do.  (I mentioned on Twitter and Facebook that it was time for the blue pencil, and maybe a scythe.)
There wasn’t total spontaneous prose, like Kerouac advocated when he wrote On the Road and many of his later books.  I was quick to backspace and edit whenever I thought I needed to.
The original manuscipt of On the Road, typed in three
weeks on a scroll of Teletype paper, fueled by massive
doses of amphetamines, black coffee, and pea soup.
The story takes place after the funeral of a beloved high school teacher, and my hero (close to my age, 47) and his wife meet up with my protagonist’s semi-romantic interest at the gravesite.  (“Semi-romantic is not meant to be facetious–romantic, not romantic is quite fluid in junior and senior high school.)  There is no rekindled romance, no Same Time Next Year arrangement.  The essence of the story is some legend tripping the major characters do as a result of this reunion.  (Look that phrase up yourself, Caped Crusaders.)
I went to bed at 4:15 Friday morning, and slept until 7, barely made it to work on time.  I was so wiped out that I left work at 3 p.m. and came home and went straight to sleep.  I’m off work Monday (cost-savings day), but I’ll be going down to Mineral with Jacques.

My Writing and Plotting Style: The CONRAD’S CASTLE Method

There were some signs my writing block may be ending.  During my 3 p.m. break, I hurriedly jotted several short story and poem ideas in my breast-pocket notebook, worried I’d forget them if I didn’t put them on paper right away.  Such bursts of inspiration have led me to write, sometimes they’re of very short duration.

I’ve always described my writing style, whether with fiction or poetry, as Conrad’s Castleish in approach and execution.  Not many people get the allusion.

Above is the cover of the book.  I’d best not scan and paste any more of it, ’cause I don’t want to run afoul of copyright issues and laws.

This remains my favorite children’s story, and it was ever since before kindergarten, when I got the book for my birthday.  Conrad is a kid who tosses a big stone in the air.  It remains hovering in mid-air (I spent many futile afternoons trying to copy this trick, in vain), so he gets a ladder, and begins building a castle, presumably pulling other stones out of hammerspace.  As he works, his friends try to distract him and lure him away, the best temptations being, “Hurry, we’re going to watch Harry eat some mud!” and “Do you want to see a dead mouse?”  The castle is finished, hovering in mid-air in all its glory, flags flying and entrances barricaded.  A bird says, “Hey, that’s impossible!  You can’t do that!”, whereupon the castle collapses.  Conrad stands on the rubble, brandishing his fist in a “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” gesture, and says, “I can, too!”  He builds another castle, ignoring similar distractions and lures from his friends, and has a much better castle to show for it in the end.

How does this relate to writing?  I’ve taken several writing classes, and teachers have wanted outlines and plot descriptions.  They encourage linear writing, starting at Chapter I and going on until THE END.  Even Jack Kerouac, typing On the Road on a 40-foot roll of Teletype paper, managed to start at the beginning of the narrative and go on until the end, fueled by Benzedrine and gallons of black coffee.

Usually, an idea, a phrase, or even a single line will pop into my head, and if I’m fortunate enough to get out my notebook and ballpoint and write it down, I’ll look at it and then try to think of something to put around it. “That single line is great,” I’d tell myself, “now get 20-odd more to put around it, and you’ll have a poem.”  Likewise, a vignette will pop into my head, often (but not always) based on a past experience or an anecdote someone has told me.  The vignette isn’t substantial enough to be free-standing as a short story, so it hovers in the literary netherworld until I find a plot and supporting characters to put around it.

That’s the Conrad’s Castle analogy.  Our young hero doesn’t build his castle from the ground up (it never touches the ground, in fact), but he throws a stone into the middle of the air and works from there.  I’ve often wondered if Shecter was honoring that great Unitarian sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”


This type of plotting and writing is problematic when you (like I) still prefer pen and ink, or a manual typewriter, to word processing.  Using this method, when I composed exclusively on a typewriter, meant many crossed-out passages, paragraphs written in margins, pages numbered “72½”, etc.  (When I was a typesetter, copy like that would drive me absolutely bonkers.)  When I do actually sit down and get to work, the laptop is a blessing, not just because it’s much quieter (I am not gentle with typewriters; I have been told I treat them the way Pete Townshend treats stage guitars), but because I can move things around and insert entirely new ideas and scenarios and have the finished product still look decent.


So, I doubt any writing teacher will endorse this method, at least not in class.  But it seems to be the only way I ever get anything done.


There may yet be hope, since I was sitting at break at 3 p.m. and some ideas came to mind.


We’ll see.