Monday, July 02, 2012

Out In The Be-Bop Night- Scenes From The Search For The Blue-Pink Great American West Night-Sweet, Moonless Ohio Dreams-1969

The scene below stands (or falls) as a moment in support of that eternal search mentioned in the headline.

Scene Four: Sweet, Moonless Ohio Dreams In The Search For The Blue-Pink Great American West Night

The 1960s asphalt-driven, white-lined, hitchhike road, the quest for the blue-pink great American West night, the eternal midnight creep of over-weight trucks with their company-seeking, benny-high, overwrought teamster drivers, and the steam-driven, onion-filled meatloaf-milk-heavy mashed potatoes-and limpid carrots daily special diner truck stop are all meshed together. You could say that there was no hitchhike road, and no blue-pink dreams, if the old-fashioned caboose (sometimes literally) diner was not part of the mix that glued things together out on that lonely highway.

No, I do not speak of the then creeping family-friendly one-size-fits-all but still steamed meats-milky starches-sogged vegetable franchise interstate restaurants that now dot the roads from here to ‘Frisco but back road, back hitchhike road if you were smart, back old time route one, or sixty-six or twenty road where you had a chance for pushing distance and for feeling America in the raw. Hey, I have a million diner stories, diners with and without truck stops, diners famous and obscure, diners of every shape and composition to tell about. Or rather I have about three basic diner stories with a million steamed meat loaf-mashed taters-carrots (okay, maybe string beans, steamed, for a change-up)-bread pudding for dessert variations. I want to tell you one, one involving a young woman, and involving the great American night that drives these scenes. The other variations can wait their turns for some other time.

Car-less, and with no hope for any car any time soon, but with enough pent-up energy and anger to build a skyscraper single-handedly, I set out on the early May open roads, thumb in good working order, bedroll on one shoulder, life’s worldly goods in a knapsack on the other. It was that simple in those days. Today, sadly, it would take my rental of a major U-Haul truck, for starters. As always in those days as well, and some of you may know the spot if you have ever been in Boston (or, better, Cambridge) there was (and is) an old abandoned railroad yard that was turned into a truck depot near the entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike where most of the truckers, the big diesel-fuelled ones, the doubled-wheeled, eight and sixteen-wheeled ones, picked up or unloaded their goods for further transport. That was the place to check first if you were heading west on the off chance that some mad man trucker was looking for company on that white-lined, hard-scrabble road, and did not mind bedraggled, bearded, long-haired, hippie boy company, at that. As luck would have it I caught a guy who was heading out to Chicago with a load of widgets (or whatever, even these guys didn’t know, or want to know, what was on the manifest half the time, especially if they were running “heavy”).

And why, by the way, although it is not germane to the story, was I heading out on that old California road? Why all that pent-up energy and skyscraper-building anger. Well, the cover story was so that I could get my head straight but you know the real reason, and this is for your eyes only, I had just broken up, for the umpteenth time, with a woman who drove me to distraction, sometimes pleasantly but on that occasion fitfully, who I could not, and did not, so I thought, want to get out of my system, but had to put myself a little distance away from. You know that story, boys and girls, in your own lives so I do not have to spend much time on the details here. Besides, if you really want to read that kind of story the romance novel section of any library or the DVD film section, for that matter, can tell the story with more heart-throbbing panache that you could find here.

Now there were a million and one reasons that long-haul drivers back then would take hitchhikers on board, even hippies who represented most of what they hated about what was happening in, and to, their America in those days (in the days before the trucking companies, and the insurance companies, squashed that traveler pick-up idea and left the truckers to their own solitary devises). Some reasons maybe were perverse but usually it was just for sheer, human companionship, another voice, or more usually someone to vent to at seventy or seventy-five miles an hour, especially at night when those straight white lines started to get raggedy looking.

This guy, this big-chested, brawny, beef-eating teamster guy, Denver Slim by name (really, I heard other truckers call him that at truck stops when they gave each other the nod, although, as described, he was neither slim nor, as he told me, from Denver), was no different except the reason, at least the reason that he gave me, was that I reminded him of his goddam son (I am being polite here) whom he loved/hated. Loved, because that is what a father was expected to feel toward kin, son kin especially and hated because he was showing signs or rebellion (read: becoming a hippie). I, needless to say, was a little queasy and sat close to the door handle for a while until I realized that it was more about love than hate. Old Denver Slim just didn’t get what was happening to his world, especially the part, the huge part, that he had no control over.

Hey, I had countless hitchhike rides in all kinds of vehicles, from the Denver Slim big wheels to Volkswagen bugs (look that up) but the common thread was that there were some interesting (if disturbing and hopeless) stories out there. Let me fill you in on Denver Slim’s story both because it helps explain what is coming up in my own quest and the hard, hard fact that there was a malaise, a palpable malaise, in the land and his story was prima facie evidence for that notion. Denver Slim had gone, like a million other members of my parent’s generation, through his childhood in the Great Depression (Chicago) and did his military in the throes of World War II (Corporal, U.S. Army, European Theater, and proud of it). After the war he started driving trucks, finally landing unionized teamster jobs as an over-the-road long haul driver based in Chicago. As was not unusual then, and maybe not now either, he married a local woman he knew from the old neighborhood, had several children, moved out of Chicago proper to a suburban plot house (“little boxes,” from the description he gave) and bought into the mortgaged, green-grassed lawn, weekly mowed (when he was not on the road), television-watching, neighbor-averting (except for the kids when young) routine that was a blueprint for America 1950s life in the lower-middle classes.

Here is where Slim’s story gets tricky though, and interesting. Of course being on the road, being mortgaged up to the neck on the road, he was never home enough to make the word family stick. He, as he admitted, when talking about his son Jamie, the rebellious son (read: becoming a hippie son), didn’t really know the kids (the other three were daughters whom he , as he said, wouldn’t have known anyway past the age of ten or so the way things work in girl world). But here is the kicker, the kicker for me back then although I get it better now, much better. The wife, Ruth, the ever-loving wife, had along the way taken a boyfriend and, off and on, lived with that boyfriend. Slim went crazy at first about it but somehow got through it and accepted that situation. Oh, you thought that was the kicker. No, that was just the prelude to the kicker. Here it is. Denver Slim, old proud soldier-warrior, old mortgaged to the neck teamster, old work and slave on the road for the kids that he doesn’t know had a girlfriend, and had said girlfriend way before his wife took her lover. A beautiful family values story out of the age of Ozzie and Harriet, right?

But this is the real kicker for your harried hippie listener, old salt of the earth Denver Slim in relating his life story got a little bit lovesick for his honey (no, not the wife, the girlfriend, come on now, listen up) who lived in Steubenville, Ohio. And that, my friends, was where we were heading as we made tracks to Youngstown on Interstate 70 and so instead of getting a ride through to Chicago (a place where I knew how to catch a ride west, no problem, almost like out of Boston) I was to be left off, and good luck, at the diner truck stop just off Route 7 outside of Steubenville, Ohio. Right near the Ohio River, at the eastern end that I was not familiar with. Christ, I never even heard of the place before, never mind trying to get a ride out of there, getting out of there at night as it looked like was going to happen by the time we got to the stop. Well, such is the road, the hitchhike road, and I hope old Slim had a good time with his honey, maybe, maybe I hope he did that is.

Slim must have had it bad, love bug-bitten bad, because he no sooner left me off at the diner than he then barrel-assed (nice term, right?) that big rig back, that big sixteen wheeler, onto the lovesick -night road and to his own dream sleep. So there I was doing graduate-level diner study by my lonesome. Look, I was no stranger, by this time in my wanderings, to the diners, trucks stops, cafes, and hash houses of this continent. From the look of this one (and one judged these things by the number of big rigs idling nearby) it was something of a Buckeye institution, maybe not like the football team or various legendary football coaches but busy (see, I know a little about Ohio, although not much outside the bigger cities and campus towns).

As I went inside through the glass-plated double doors I could practically inhale the steam from the vegetables, the dank, faded glory of the taters, and the inevitable onion smell than can only mean meat loaf. Hey, this is what passes for home-cooking on the road. And be glad of it, friend. As a single I would not be so uncool as to take a booth, although at that time of day there were some empties, but rather hopped right up on that old stool at the Formica-top red counter replete with individual paper mat and dinner setting, spoons, folks, knives, various condiments and plastic-entombed menu that every self-respecting diner has for those caught by their lonesome. Their sincere, if futile, attempt at home-away from homey-ness. It was not like this was a date-taking place (or at least I hope nobody thinks along those lines, but you never know, maybe people celebrate their anniversaries in the place) but it is okay out here abandoned in the neon-lighted wilderness of a back road truck stop.

Okay, at long last here is the part that you have been waiting for, the girl in the story part. Well, wait a minute, let me hold forth on waitresses because that is important to the girl part (and it was almost always waitresses in those days, or in a pinch, the owner/short order cook) who served them off the arm. In college towns and big cities, waitresses were (and are) just doing that job to mark time while going to college or some other thing but in the hash houses, the roadside diners, the hole-in-the-wall faded restaurants of this continent it was (is) almost universally true that in this type of establishment this was an upwardly-mobile career move (or, maybe, just a lateral move). You have all seen and heard about the typical career waitress- surly, short-tempered, steam-pressed uniform, steamed by the proximity to the food trays that is, hardly has time to take your order because that party of six in the booths is waiting on dessert (and her big tip for this evening, she hopes, although if she thought about it the hard facts should have told her that old lonesome single male trucker was the best tipper). There is a smidgen of truth in those old hoary stories about waitresses but there is also some very hard-pressed, ill-fated bad luck thrown in as well. They all had stories to tell, at least the ones who didn’t scurry away like rats from “hippies.”

Okay, okay I can now tell you about angelic Angelica. That name, the smell of that name, the swirl around the tongue speaking that name, the touch of that name, still evokes strong memories even after all this time. But enough of nostalgia. Let’s get down to cases. First of all she was young, very young for a truck stop diner waitress so at first I thought that she was a career waitress-in-training or that there was a college nearby that I might not have heard of. I will describe her virtues in a second but let me tell you right off that the minute I sat down, and although there were several others at the counter who had come in before me, she came right over to my stool and asked if I wanted coffee. Well, kind of sleepy that I was at the time, I said yes and she went right off, got it, and came right back. And then, while the others at the counter were cooling their heels, she took my order, and as she moved away to put that order in (No, I do not remember what it was but, probably, since I was counting pennies, a burger and fries, meat loaf and other such high-end cuisine was saved for serious hungers) she slightly turned to give me another look and a sly smile.

In those days I was susceptible, very susceptible, to that winsome sly smile that some women know exactly how to throw (hell, I am still a sucker for that one, and don’t tell me you aren’t, or couldn’t be, too, male or female, it works both ways on this one). That sly smile and her, well, looks. Forget that endless physical description stuff about soft auburn hair, full ruby-red lips, bright, fresh, naïve blue eyes, nicely-shaped hips and well-formed legs. Very good legs. Okay, forget all that. I will describe her looks in “on the road” terms because when you were on the road and trying to get across the country the rules, the rules of the road, were a little different. Your take on life and your usually transient relationships with passing strangers, male or female, got a little twisted. Not necessarily in a bad way, but twisted.

There were different protocols for different situations when you were hitchhiking. A lone male hitching was usually not a bad proposition, especially if you stayed close to the highways and knew the truck stops, and appeared to be drug free, or at least that you were not in the throes of a terminal drug experience while trying to hitch a ride. This Hunter Thompson Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas drug stuff is good road fiction, but fiction nevertheless, if you were trying to get from point A to point B before your old age set in. The same with goofy Dennis Hooper Easy Rider stuff. Good cinema, bad, real bad road stuff. The main problem then, and probably would be today as well, is single middle-age guys, maybe desperate for a little company, picking you up with the idea of making advances. I don’t know about anybody else, as least I never heard anybody talk much about it then, but a simple "no" usually was enough to stop that(and not infrequently got you dumped in some odd spot between exits to thumb down some flying-by traffic). It’s only later, in the early 1970s when I wasn’t on the road so much that things started to get hairy, and the talk turned to weirdness, serious weirdness, out on the white-lined lanes.

In the late 1960s a pair of males was not a bad combination either. Not so much for getting rides from truckers who usually did not have room for two (or, if so, it was uncomfortable as hell) but for the plethora of Volkswagen vans, converted school buses, campers, and pick-up trucks that were out there on the blue-pink seeking road. There were times on the Pacific Coast Highway out in California that you barely got your thumb out and some vehicle stopped, especially if you looked like you were part of “youth nation.” Two more guys in back, sure thing, no problem. Those were good days to travel the roads, and another time I will tell you about some of those experiences but right now I have to get back to describe Angelica, or her road-worthy attributes anyway.

The optimal road set-up though, the one that got you rides the fastest, usually was to be paired up with a woman, truth be told, preferable a good-looking young woman. Ya, it’s not good form today, it’s certainly not politically correct or socially useful today to work from this premise, but back then the idea was that a guy and girl were safe from the driver’s perspective. And it was almost always guys, truckers or loners, or an occasional man and woman, who picked you up. Not single women drivers, young or old. For my perspective, the hitcher’s perspective, a good-looking woman, with good legs, made the road easier. And other delights, of course.

And it did no harm to have the woman act as an upfront side-of-the-road decoy for that same reason. Maybe not in the desert tumbleweed badlands of Arizona or Nevada where the hot sun, or dust, got you a ride from people who knew that area and knew they had to stop as a matter of your survival, and who knows their own sense of survival as well, but between exits on Interstate 80, let’s say, it helped, hell it helped a lot. Maybe not old Denver Slim, high on benny and moaning and groaning for his honey (the girlfriend not the wife remember) in dark night, white-lined blur but a guy like me would have made those lonesome highway brakes squeal to high heaven, and gladly. Angelica, at first glance, would certainly make the road easier, although this little detour is strictly for descriptive purposes in this part of the story. Put a simpler way, she was fetching.

But all of that is music for the future. Needless to say making any kind of move toward continuing the conversation with Angelica required a certain diligence and patience in the middle of diner traffic. As it turned out the diligence was only partially necessary because she was more than willing to talk to me while taking orders all around us. Her story was that she had been enrolled in some local Podunk (her term) business school (Muncie Business College for Women, or something like that) in her hometown of Muncie, Indiana but now wanted to be a medical technician of some sort (radiologist is what it was, I think). But most of all she wanted to get away from home (be still my heart) and had wound up in Steubenville as some kind of way station between dreams. Yes, I can hear the snickers now about some small-town girl seeing the bright lights of Steubenville and going all a-flutter. Stop it. Stop it right now.

In the dark of that night I was obviously not in any particular rush to leave, and as the dinner crowd thinned out we talked some more, as she filled my coffee cup repeatedly so that I could look like I was a "real" paying customer. To say this gal was innocent in some ways would be an understatement, and on the face of it a Midwest naïve and an East Coast hippie just would not make sense, no sense at all. But so would the fact, the hard fact that I would be in Steubenville, Ohio as part of a search for the great American night. Let’s just call it the times, and leave it at that.

And the times here included a very convenient fact. Angelica, as occurred more often than one would have thought out in those highway stops, as part of her job resided in one of the diner owner's motel cabins that dotted the outside ring of the truck stop. These single units provided cheap lodging for someone new, or transient, in town and were basically provided to the help so the newer help could be readily available on call when the inevitable call came in from the drunken cook, the moving-on dishwasher, or when one of the love-smitten senior career waitresses called in “sick.” Mainly though these cabins were for over-weary transcontinental truckers to grab a little sleep before pushing on. Thus they weren’t, at least these weren’t, your basic family-friendly digs that made you feel that you were in some room at home but rather that you were on that hell-bent, weary road, and this is the best you could do to rest those weary bones.

Well, yes we got around to leaving after her shift was over about 11:00 PM and did the ceremonial dancing around that generations, no, generations of generations, have pursued in the “courting ritual” on that initial question of whether, and when, a smitten pair get together for the night. But this time there is no story if they don’t, right?

Well, to spare any more suspense dear Angelica asked me into her digs. Just to talk, okay, and frankly I was so tired from my long day’s journey that just talk seemed about right then. I will describe that talk in a minute but let me describe this cabin homestead as we approached it on our one hundred, or one hundred and fifty, yard walk from the diner. Now that I think about it though I really shouldn’t have to describe it to you because you have all seen them, that is if you have been on the back roads of America a little, especially out on those one-lane country roads where working- class people who don’t have much money go out to the country to get away from the city and this is what they can afford. There are about fifteen or twenty barely whitewashed cabins in a semi-circle, or maybe a few degrees over. If they were not numbered or if you came to them unknowingly on a dark, moonless night like that night I guarantee that you would be hard-pressed to tell your new-found home away from home from any other in that arc.

The telltale old-fashioned, green oil-based painted screened door told you immediately that you were not at the Ritz, or even its fifth cousin. As we entered amid the inevitable light-drawn flies, or moths, or whatever those insects are that you need to swat away to get in the door, or else you have to deal with them inside all night. Like I say these places are built for the moment and so the amenities are on the Spartan side.

As we walked inside, if I were to hazard a guess, and I was a professor in some upscale home interior design school, if someone presented this layout in a portfolio I would sent them, and sent them quickly, to remedial work. Or to a job at Sears& Roebuck. But we were here and here the basic bed, bureau, kitchenette with a small table and a couple of wooden chairs, small sleeper sofa, and tiny shower ¾ bathroom filled the room. The only things personal about this place were Angelica’s alternate uniform that matches the one that she has on hanging to one side, drying out for her next bout with the ham-fisted crowd at the diner, and a small open suitcase that had her clothes neatly packed in it. On the bureau her “making my face” fixings and a few gee gads that everyone throws on the bureau when they want to unload their pockets. Hey, I have placed my head down to sleep on paper-strewn park benches and under paperless bridges and on up to downy-pillowed, vast, roomy, and leafy suburban estates so a highway motel cabin is hardly down at the low end of my sleeping quarters resume. This, my friends, will be just fine for the night.

So we start the "just talk" that Angelica promised. I don’t and, frankly, no one should expect me to, remember most of what we talked about but here is my lingering impression. Turnabout is fair play. I thought that I was going to get an in-depth view of what “square” small-town Midwest girls dreamed of, or what drove them from the Lynds’ Middletown (that’s Muncie, okay, the subject of a famous study in sociology), to the wilds of Ohio. Instead I was the interrogated. It seems that Angelica had been so “brain-washed” (her term) about “hippies” or what the old town folks thought was hippie-dom (basically a variant of their mid-country fears of the “Bolsheviks” under every bed) that she was crazy to “capture” (my term) one. And, as it turned out, in the course of events, I was the one. And on top of that and here is a direct quote from her, “You seemed nice, right from the time you sat down.” (Well, of course, without question, without a doubt, it’s a given, and so on).

But here is the unexpected part, or at least the somewhat unexpected part. Off the top of my head I would not then, in the 1960s, bet my last dollar that a young woman from Muncie (town used here for convenience only) would be coy (nice word, right?) on her first “date.” Coyness here signifying her willingness to gather me to her bed at about 3:00 AM as we both were trying to fight off the sleep that was descending on us. But get this, and I will sign any notarized document necessary in support of this, she asked, yes, asked me into her bed. Well, as I mentioned above, she said I seemed nice, and there you have it. Of course, being “nice” I couldn’t say no. Yes, the gentleman “hippie”, that was me.

You know the boy meets girl plot lines of most movies have it all messed up. Either they meet, give each other lecherous stares (hell, not even winsome smiles), and proceed to tear each other clothes off in an act of sexual frenzy then spent the rest of the movie justifying their eternal love by that first edenic act. Or, and this is truer of older films (and prudish modern comic book-based superhero flicks), the “foreplay” lasts so long that by the time that they hit the downy billows you go ho-hum and are more interested in the unfolding plot. Novels follow a lot of the same paths except, mostly the sexual scenes are about a paragraph or so and reflect the wisdom of the parties involved more than raw sexual energy. Romance novels, a category that would seem to be made for sexual exploits, using don’t get around to hitting the pillows until about page 323 and by then all you care about is whether the sheets are pastel or designer prints.

Real life, real life first encounter romances (read: sexual encounters) are more halting and, frankly, timid. Except, of course, those phantom Herculean and nubile sex-crazed teeny-boppers of urban legend that we have heard about. Ya, I have heard about them too. But that’s about it, heard about them. Think about the awkwardness of that first touch reflecting those ancient memories of being kissed back in about sixth grade, or about those gone wrong affairs that have piled up in your life’s memory bank, or that intense moment when both parties look downward in trepidation at what may come ahead. Or, and here is where memory plays no trick, that woman back home, that woman of one thousand frustrations that you needed to get some distance from, and that set you on this blue-pink road, but whose 999 delights have now surfaced and clouded all thinking. I nevertheless plunged recklessly onward.

For those pruriently-inclined readers who now expect a touch by touch, feel by feel, clothes taking-off by clothes taking-off, flesh against flesh description of our precious, sweet, private, very private love-making look elsewhere. Wait a minute. Look elsewhere, unless you have a written book (and/or movie rights) contract in hand. In that case I will be more than happy to fill in the sweaty, steamy, lurid, blood-pressure-rising details. I will make the earth under that old cabin shake, and the rafters too. I will give details that would make the Marquis de Sade blush, blush profusely. If you have no contract then let’s leave it at this; something deep in that moonless Ohio night, that times out of joint, moonless Ohio night, created a passion, or better, a moment of passion that we both could have bet our last dollars on. Something that, it seemed, we had both been waiting all our lives for, although we didn’t use those words. Just a couple of sly, knowing smiles, and then sleep.

Suddenly, we were awakened with a start. A still dark of night start and a hard rapping on the door, that damn, fly-flecked, oil-based painted green door. And a voice, a female voice. “Angelica, one of Penny’s kids is sick you’ll have to take her shift.” Even a night of passion, a moonless Ohio sly-smiled night of passion, cannot fend off the day’s realities, Angelica’s day realities. She says: “Yes, I’ll be there in a little while,” almost automatically. But just as automatically she says to me: “Don’t go out on the highway yet.”

Humble, barely whitewashed cabin or exotic, leafy country estate if a woman jumps out of bed and orders me to stay put who was I to disobey, at least until I see what my next move was. I agreed and turn over. A few hours later she returns and we mess up her bed sheets again, and again. Then, after some Angelica sleep, and some kitchenette supper she says to me, just as boldly as when she invited me to her bed, that she wanted to go “on the road” with me.

My heart was racing for a thousand reasons, one of them included the thought that our little romance would lead to this although I didn't put it that way in my answer. More like: “Ya, I guess I was kinda thinking, maybe, a little about that idea.” A couple of days later, after she had worked some double-shifts and I did my bit doing some off-hand dish- washing for meals and wages we gathered up her stuff off the bureau, place it in that orderly small suitcase, shut that damn, moth-crusted oil-based painted green door and head for the trucks a couple of hundred yards away and our ride out. Our ride out in search of the blue-pink great American West night that I have not told her about, at least not in those exact words, but that that she will find out about in her own good time and in her own way.

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