Just watching the film “Down and out in Beverly Hills” has special resonance for me because the last time I saw it was in the Westwood, CA movie theater outside LA, taking a break, as I had hitchhiked from Shepherdstown and was passing through, sleeping usually some where— on the ground.
The late, much beloved Larry Dreschler drove me to the exit on 81 in Winchester and off I went with a big army duffel bag. I had a bag of acacia tree seeds thinking I was going to be like the man in the story “The man who planted hope and grew happiness;” and I also envisioned getting part time work at the Los Angeles Olympics. Of course none of that even came close to happening, but they served to get me started.
I did things in reverse. I grew my corporate chops for a dozen years working in and outside New York City working for ADT security systems at their corporate headquarters in the World Trade Center, Management Safeguards, Inc. at 2 Park Avenue (yes supervising undercover investigations that led to prison sentences), starting a greeting card company with my hugely talented roommate at 119 Waverly Place in the Village – that after three years was in thirty stores — as a successful reporter for the Rockland Journal News where I wrote an article that got William E. Vines, the supervisor of Clarkstown, NY indicted for a crooked land deal with the town’s biggest developer; and the more accidental crazed and blissful time we worked – more my roommate Arnie Clapman creating a children’s book on fighting Mr. Tooth Decay in a project with the champ, Muhammad Ali who I met in memorable circumstances at the Four Seasons in DC. there was more but that’s enough. and most of the course work for an MBA at Fordham.
But astrology mentions the “Saturn return” a time when a person feels an undeniable urge to get on with it – to commit to what life was given to them to pursue. Look into life biographies: that period about 29-32 is like a fire alarm saying JUST DO IT. That plus meditating with Sri Chinmoy and reading Rudolf Steiner and six months living at the largest Waldorf community in the country – opened all the stops for change.
If life bores you, risk it.
So I remember sticking my thumb out after Larry left at the top of a downslope on-ramp onto 81 thinking “I’m going to California.” It was February. By evening I thanked a guy who sold sunglasses who dropped me off in Durham NC – reading in a McDonalds till about eleven and, picking a moment no one would see, i moved outside into a dark corner in a wooded area, opened my bag and went to sleep. the pattern henceforth
Slow through South Carolina finally to Atlanta where I walked with my bag over my shoulder to a homeless shelter that I had called before my trip where I hoped to contribute. I washed dishes but in about two days I moved on, took the mass transit subway to the last point on the line – the westernmost stop, got out. It fell to the twenties that night. I learned you needed to burrow all the way under the covers and in the bag and to start trying to sleep at about 8 PM.
I got to Montgomery, Alabama the next day on route 10, was dropped off at a shopping center, a big plant nursery up on a hill. It was closed and dark. I slipped into a bushy area alongside the building and fell asleep. The next morning, feeling glorious — and me exultant – I was singing full throated with my soul the song called wildfire “”she went riding wild fire wildfire … wild, wild wildfire – while i was doing my morning pee with no hands. “What the hell?!” I turned around and it was an older man (the owner)
Fortunately my next ride passed through Louisiana — because I had heard stories that Louisiana was bad and usually – like Richmond, Virginia and Waco Texas hurt hitchhikers. (I met two guys later in San Luis Obispo as they emerged from a wooded area “yeh in Waco they shot our dog.” I got in the tool back-portion of a big, pick-up truck with three guys in the cab and driver’s part. The tall, lanky driver had big cowboy hat. They didn’t talk but for – “Houston” – just pointed to the back with the tools. I climbed in and lay down. They stopped along a highway at one point without saying a word. They all congregated close around the back tire, away from the road. It was not flat. But they began peeing there. So i tried to blend in.
On the outskirts of Houston – always looked for an exit with a shopping center or mall – ate at a Pizza Hut and was struck how the same songs played in the same pizza hut all across the country. That year it was Lionel Richie. Then to San Antonio; cold again, slept in an unlocked car suggested by a security man. Then, early the next morning, a Sunday – I started hitching and a quiet man gave me a ride. I saw a suspicious thing: this lean, longish black curly hair guy with a mustache in a tuxedo, no bag, hitching with an angular awkward posture — you could only think he was getting outta town – FAST.
As my ride neared Fort Stockton I saw him again hitching along the road and we passed him.
I felt a cold coming from a day of my forehead facing a light rain and cold breeze. Made me wonder about him.
Some wee hour I forced myself out of my bag and marched into the town with it to the nearest convenience store and a police car outside. I told him about this guy I didn’t know who might be in trouble with the cold and light clothes. Of course, he didn’t even bother to answer. Of course.
The next day I felt sick. I took a bus – wisely across New Mexico and Arizona to Los Angeles.
In the front seat in the bus with my bag and all that west Texas sierra like a movie all around me front and to the side in the big windows – It felt like a crippled person sitting but moving .
It was all night. I was on the verge of throwing up the whole way and just breathed meditatively and made it. The bus was stopped once and border patrol came down the aisle looking at people then took out a guy. In Phoenix in the morning it was dry, very sunny and getting hot – I found a YMCA, took a room and slept like fifteen hours. For a while on the other side of the wall – I heard what could only have been two men having rough sex, begging for mercy and cursing – I thought over and over what I was supposed to do. I slept.
In the bus station in Los Angeles at night – an eerie place full of night people with their stories – a young mexican man offered to draw me and I said sure and paid him. It was pretty good. I didn’t look sick. i don’t look that good (see attachment)
The next day after sleeping somewhere secluded I had breakfast in a diner on a main drag in LA. I had just jaywalked across a big highway and a police officer came roaring into the restaurant — “I wasn’t going to ticket you, but you just went and did it !”- I begged and pleaded and he relented but I learned in NYC everyone jaywalks – not in LA. I got to Westwood where there is a UCLA campus where with my herring bone sport coat I became invisible.
I saw “Down and Out in Beverly Hills – at the Westwood movie theater that day. Nick Nolte dumpster dove. Never.
I waited till after dark biding time in a coffee shop — hurried with my duffel back past a very fancy community with a Spanish style church near the main entrance with BUSHES. Churches tend to forgive. I popped into the bushes quickly, snaked in, pulled out the bag went to sleep; until the next morning, the warm low sun on my head and a little dog sniffing my head with a leash extending back to its owner. Time to go.
There’s a lot more story because I found work in San Luis Obispo at a plant nursery where I worked for about a month – (they always asked for my address for paperwork) I deeply secreted in bushes along a highway. One day my foot swelled up. Figured a spider or something must have crawled into my shoe. on weekends I’d shower in the gym and pass for a student at California Poly-Tech there – eating in the cafeteria reading for hours in the library.
The afternoon I arrived, it was a magical place – the Middle Kingdom, the small green-grassed volcanoes that encircled it. Because they drank up all that sunlight – when night came – glowed a pearly white.
I’ll close with sleeping out near a Mcdonald’s half way to San Luis Obispo. Another guy named Greg Woodfin, apparently of similar temperament, had ridden his bike across the country and was eating preparing to sleep out. We talked – at first I didn’t want to sleep out near him but no choice; and we both looked up and saw two shooting stars.
PART 2 Conclusion
In San Luis Obispo, I had maybe seventy-five dollars. I didn’t have a friend for a thousand miles; no cell phones then. I called the agricultural extension office and got hired the next day at SLO-Growers, a plant nursery about a mile outside of town. The first few days the boss said over and over “if you don’t work faster, I’m gonna have to let you go.” So I got faster, planting, replanting and lifting up those flimsy plastic trays sagging balanced on one palm loaded with smaller trays of plants to relocate. Young Steve was the fastest with the hands of a short order cook and his girl friend did bachelor parties. I walked back and filled up at an all you can eat salad bar/restaurant. I got Kona coffee each day. One Friday evening the restaurant had an event where a man ate fire and a woman covered the floor with broken glass and lay on it.
I joined a busload of people opposing a nuclear power plant at Morro Bay one day. I read on my days off discovering Emily Dickinson and Buckminster Fuller. I remember lying in the green grass of the library’s, looking at the blades at eye-level thinking of Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill: “fire as green as grass.” I walked by a live music place that said Trapezoid was playing there that night. I loved their music and today Ralph Gordon, the bass player, is a good friend living in Kabletown. But I didn’t go – too much to explain.
Saw Footloose at the theater.
One low-ranking guy was always cussing at me. I said nothing. One day he said to everyone his engine caught on fire at a gas station and I heard him say I did it.
Heading north you never talk about finishing a job because that means you have money. San Francisco for me was cold fog – only where I was sleeping in a wooded spot on the Berkeley campus, then looking from my sleeping bag into a huge-headed flashlight. Everywhere 1984 billboards had the new Macintosh — I didn’t then know that was a watershed. One guy gave me a ride, knew everything about bike gears to as far as a landscape near Cloverdale. The next day I woke up in beautiful rural morning, a verdant hill looking down on 101. A nice young couple gave me a ride. He said to me in the back: “Do you believe Jesus is your Lord and savior. “Yup,” eating the sandwich and soda. “Do you know what it says in the book of ? “No.” It says: and he recites something. His wife, looking out her window said: “That is in NOT in _.” Looking at her he said: “Say a prayer dear.” Then again.
The redwoods. A camper who drove worried that I might get brain damage balancing my full duffel bag on my head and my scalp did look and feel a bit necrotic.
Humboldt county, where pot growers are so big they sent up their OWN helicopters to check up on helicopters checking up on them. The town with its commons, the glistening sea beyond people lazing about, the food coop with its message boards loaded with news. I slept, read in the university library, moved on –
A young smiling woman with blond hair, pulled over and let me in her VW microbus. It was balmy rain. There was a tall, drenched young man with a beard hitching with no shoes. I suggested we give him a ride. I will always remember how the three of us drove to that high point on the Pacific coastline that is the westernmost point in the United States. We looked out and each threw a quarter out into the wind. Three happy strangers.
I rode with another young woman who invited me to sleep that night in her geodesic type home, me not crossing any line.
One morning I slept on a loading dock of a school with a roof, still raining. I had coffee at the restaurant – that everywhere opens at six; the first guys in the door wear flannel shirts and coffee is in the clay mug brought by the woman in a ponytail with a two-syllable first name. “The usual.”
I decided to turn south taking Interstate 5 and caught a ride from a young native American man. We drove a long way. He was driving everywhere with flyers with a photo of a girl he was related to who had disappeared. He stopped everywhere with a picture window – restaurants, gas stations – asking/telling them to post it, and kept going.
I slept in a field in Tehachapi with a train on one side and the town on the other. A man with a floppy hat long hair and a beard on his jaw-line – a veteran – pulled over. He just got off working on an oil rig. “I have a submachine gun in the back so don’t get stupid.” He was headed up to his cabin in Montana and spend his time panning for gold. He said: “I signed up to fight for my country and all I did was kill poor gook dirt farmers.”
Bakersfield is a tough trucker town with its music. I’d gotten uncareful and tossed my bag over a tall chain link fence and went into an adjacent restaurant for breakfast. I came out and was staring where it once was. funny thing. people’s money is always on the person. I walked to Good Will where all sorts of winter clothes and sweaters were left there from those from up north and I re-dressed myself – with a new bag. I lost some pages of writing but wrote Joanne in Nebraska whom i met briefly some years ago gave her the only copy and she sent me them
Hitch-hikers have nothing in common with Las Vegas. I remember again dropping my bag on another earthen spot which was home till morning and slept. No one would give me a ride at the biggest exit toll booth – they assuming I had lost money or I wanted what they won. Two-three hours. Finally Wade Burns with his wife and a big white camper pulled over and let me in. Wade drove and we saw the Hoover dam. He told me his wife sitting to one side silent behind us had Alzheimer’s. He asked and I did take the wheel and drive the camper, buffeted by winds, me with no license – while Wade sat close to her sharing time. To Albuquerque. I slept on hard ground in view of a highway and on ramp.
Then there was Cody. He pulls over. He got off working in a steel mill in California and was heading back to Ohio — he had a Jack Daniels hat, compact and muscular. Each time we crossed a state line Cody would: in a big radio/rodeo voice go: YAAAA_HOOO!! (radio announcer) we are now entering the fabulous state of Oklahoma, population _ please drive carefully. we love our children”
I always remember that misty morning a caramel mama horse and her baby in a foggy field, the baby kicking high its long lanky back legs.
In St Louis, I still see that arch. I trusted him enough to take a room – two beds – in a motel, Dayton being where he was going — he told me to KEEP on the floor and hide from the owner. I could hear Cody coming down the walk saying: “Well, uh it’s only me using the room sir. but if you really insist you certainly can go look around.” Cody laughed so hard when he saw me jammed under the bed that I was laughing.
Cody let me out at a sad, ugly stretch of an old interstate overpass. No time for a handshake, but he is a good memory. Soon a police car turned on its lights. My rule: I go to the car and say: “What’s legal officer?” He showed me another, legal place. Taking me to a shopping center in Kentucky at dark was a guy, going to AA who said to the road ahead: “My luck. I pick up an intellectual hitch-hiker.” Driving through the night and not really seeing his face, an old country boy from Tennessee told me that Dolly Parton was very shy in high school.
I wanted to go to Mother Earth News headquarters in Hendersonville, NC and finally was there still raining hard. So, I bought a USA Today at a convenience store with a young woman sales clerk; then me standing out front, waiting for it to clear a bit, reading. A police car drove hard up in front of me. I was put-your-hands-on-the-car, raised voice orders, him frisking thoroughly for a weapon. “They called and said there was a robbery.”
He delivered me to a shelter where I DID have a great, warm shower and meals, while it still rained. George – never to forget: neat, short dark hair, oxford shirts, graduated from Yale – was the hitch-hiker’s Michelin: he knew ALL the places for good shelter, food and shower and his rule was to give it freely. He had money-making that included offering to pick up trash on a business’ lawn, helping with rush printing orders – anything to stay honest and on the road. When George learned I was on my way up 81 and back to Shepherdstown: I just remember him saying on the phone: “Front Royal . . . shower . . . pretty good food . . . minimal ear banging.” I got to my mom and dad’s house in The Plains where I slept for twenty hours. They cooked spare ribs first night then steak the next and my body was addled.
Then I was home. Here.
It seemed like ten years.