Tuesday, August 19, 2008

More Miles than Money

Yesterday was the 14th anniversary of my arrival in California. Once upon a time a good 13 years ago I was working on a very different essay that has since disappeared into the depths of a computer stored slumber. But it hit me this passage from it might be a fitting way to remember what it was like, moving from State College, PA to Santa Barbara, CA:

There's nothing quite as close as the cab of a Ryder truck for five-and-a-half-days. Fill that cab with two people, a boombox and about fifty tapes (few of which would get listened to), chips and chip dust, maps and books, Snapple bottles rolling about the floor. A cat carrier, too, complete with a disgruntled, confused feline. This space, empty, is only 10 by 5 by 3.

As it turns out instead of my then significant other, filling this space with me was Travis, a relatively odd choice for such a trip, given what Travis and I always did best together was drink. And I don't mean sloppy sloshed and falling down evenings, although we did that, too. (One night ended with Travis and another guy rolling on the sidewalk, pried apart by more bouncers than I knew the bar had, after the guy said Travis worked at MacDonald's and Travis tried to put his cigarette out in the guy's eye.) Drinking was an all-around aesthetic experience for us: We coveted cobalt blue cocktail shakers and beautiful bartenders who knew how to use them, we lamented the loss of all bitters except Angostura's, we cradled cocktail glasses as lovingly if less frequently as we did breasts, we aspired to be as happily, woozily, wisely tight as Nick Charles in The Thin Man.

Driving across country, it turns out, is a lot like spending time in a bar. There's a premium on being witty; there's a need for talk. There's that more and more quality--things just roll. Things only stop for bathroom breaks. The more you do it, the giddier you get, especially when you pass Bourbon Cemetery, or the eighth billboard with a smiling Tony Orlando giving you that "hey, bud" finger point endemic to show biz hackdom, a clear sign Branson, Missouri is as frightening a place as you might imagine (note Missouri natives can pronounce their state's name to sound like misery). Travis and I even designated an extra special silly time as Happy Hour, and it was odd how often the road complied. We found that Christian rap radio station in Indiana--"J.C. is in the h-h-h-house"-- from five to six. We made it to Santa Barbara, the town Baudrillard refers to as home of cocktail culture, my new home, just before six, and at last had drinks in our hands, as if the gods, at least Bacchus, smiled on us.

It didn't have to turn out that way. To be honest, I was dreading the move, worried about twenty feet of truck and my car behind that, the great grades of the Rockies, the stretches of desert the AAA Triptik warned were barren of services, the days and days. I fret by nature; I come from a family that doesn't say, "Have a good time," when you head out of the house, instead they intone, "Just be careful." I have an uncanny ability to imagine every possible and impossible disaster of any task awaiting me--I am anticipatory to a fault. A rental truck (who had this rig before? how did they treat it? what's the karma of this mother?), bigger than anything I had ever driven, a trip longer than any I had ever driven. Oh, and that cat, too, Simone (named not after de Beauvoir, but Simone Simon, star of the original Cat People), cranky and peculiar and apt to be as prissily haughty as her name.

To be yet more honest, I didn't know what to make of traveling with Travis, either. I knew he would be entertaining--one of his many interests is performance art, which for Travis isn't as much an occupation as a character defect. But entertaining might not be the charm one always needs, ten hours into a day of highway. Could he be responsible, too?

It simply came down to not knowing him very well.

In a way before the trip we had been lost along that nebulous acquaintance-friend continuum, and our connection seemed as much an acted one as a real one. Perhaps the performance artist in Travis brought out the latent actor, no, ham, in me. Even today some part of me longs to be a stand-up comic; instead I'm a teacher, which isn't much different except students realize they get better grades if they laugh at my jokes and I can't curse quite as much, especially at the hecklers. Travis and I clearly made a good team, even physically--I'm taller, sharper angled, short shorn, he's shorter, his round face accented by round glasses, his hair a spirally mass of blond fusilli held back in a pony tail.

The point is, you never know. Every bit of stomach lining I ate away in anticipation I wish I had back, for the trip didn't just go smoothly, it sailed. Travis was a joy--fun, a fearless driver, always up. By the end of the trip, you could have called us lovers.

And no, I don't mean that. I mean what another friend just wrote me in a letter, "We, George, are in it for the long run. And if this makes us lovers, I'm grateful." Sure lovers love each other, but I've come to realize that more than anything lovers earn that name when they learn to love something outside of both of them together. More than anything, that's what Travis and I did. We learned to love our country from a truck. We learned to love the locals in an El Reno, Oklahoma bar, hangout of Booger Red, at 22 the youngest two-term city councilman in the country. (That's just the beginning of Booger's tale, which included the world's largest onion burger, which don't cook right, so don't eat it, and Booger's "quart" watch--he got it in a trade for a quart of Milwaukee's Best at his job at a liquor store in, uh, "colored town.") We learned to love the Grand Canyon, so stunning it redeems itself from postcard cliché, particularly with a thunderstorm rattling down just one of its many arms. We learned to love Simone, whose will seemed beaten out of her an hour into each day, and who went with us, cat carrier and all, to the very rim of the Grand Canyon (we learned the word cat in many languages that evening). We learned to love each other, as we took turns with our stories I know at least I parceled out, so my past could keep unfolding in a way as complex as a map you could never refold, and why would you want to.



Blogger Mike said...

Nice stuff, George.

Were you teaching at Penn State before heading to SB?

3:55 AM  
Blogger Rickey Henderson said...

Awesome look back--you should compile this sort of thing into a book/memoir, you've definitely got a knack for storytelling.

5:53 AM  
Blogger Smitty said...

you should compile this sort of thing into a book/memoir

I would read the living shit out of a book like that from you.

6:25 AM  
Blogger Deb said...

I can't add anything more than what the others have said, except write that book... NOW! lol

7:02 AM  
Blogger Trekking Left said...

Hmmm, didn't Travis Armstrong arrive here 14 years ago?

10:19 AM  
Blogger George said...

Mike, yep, I taught at State Penn from 88-94. Some great people but as a school in the middle of nowhere it's not so hot (unless you're in a frat).

Thanks for the kind words RH, S, and D. Alas, those few paragraphs are about as "exciting" as my life gets--not really memoir-worthy.

TL, all I have to say is, Batman is Bush, Batman is Bush....

11:10 AM  
Blogger Smitty said...

those few paragraphs are about as "exciting" as my life gets

Whatever, George. You just made a trip across the fucking desert in a moving truck sound like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Marty said...

Sweet stuff, George. And it's not the so-called life that makes it worth reading, it's your language, your take, your weave (and your bob).

Coincidentally, my dad's high school nickname was Booger Red, and I named my "Seven C's" barbecue sauce in his honor in the early 80's.

Oh, and I'm totally jealous of Travis.

2:40 PM  
Blogger George said...

Hey, I love you too, Marty. There's plenty of me to go around.

3:00 PM  

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