Friday, October 24, 2008

The Hobo's Paradox



"Hoboes differentiate themselves as travelers who are homeless and willing to do work, whereas a "tramp" travels but will not work and a "bum" does neither." Source.

My slogan "Eat When You're Hungry, Work When You're Broke" and my overall plan to Sail a little, Work a little, Sail a little [hopefully sailing more than working] has inspired significant research, or daydreaming on the road, which led to the discovery of the Hobo's Paradox! Also, I just read Kerouac's On the Road, am always on the road and strive for Vagabondism.

The Hobo's Paradox: It is absolutely worth any amount of physical labor in order to arrange or finance an extended period of travel or idleness.

Keroauc picked cotton and vegetables in California, was a Merchant Marine and did construction to finance his cross country explorations.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Road Tale #3


This is my third "sketch" from the road. I was inspired to write these three installments yesterday, October 21, 39 years since Jack Kerouac died. See Road Tale #1 here and Road Tale #2 here.

I'd been seeing this girl from 7-11. We never really dated, but 'saw' each other one summer. She worked the graveyard shift, from midnight to 8:00 AM, Sunday to Thursday. At school during the week, I covered the shift on the weekend. To keep her sleep cycle intact, she operated at night all week and began occasionally hanging out with me at the store.

Hanging out together led to long, grand walks in the mornings after I got off work. A quintessential summer romance. When you've been up all night and see the color come back to the world with the sun, everything and everyone is beautiful. We held hands, had greasy breakfasts at a nearby diner, and made out in the grass just over the crest of a great big hill in the park.

It was nice and it was weird. She had a peacock tattoed on her back from above her shoulder blade to her lowest rib. Her mother was a rape counselor at the college. Yet I was never in charge. One night at the Super 8, her Ex, then living in a car, banged on our door, bragged about having a gun, and just wanted to talk to her for a minute. She talked to him, wearing my shirt, and keeping the door open just a crack.

Picture the scene from the parking lot, up on the second floor, leaning against the crappy metal railing of a cheap motel, a guy was talking to a girl in another mans shirt. The girl, confident, but not at ease, was clinging to the doorknob, not willing to let go of her other evening.

I stood, naked as a jaybird, behind the dirty curtains; curtains as thick as the lead apron you get in Xray. She told me she could get rid of him; didn't want me involved. Helplessly, I knew now, there was nothing I could do to help. She and the door were between me and him. I had gotten here by playing along. The only thing I could do was keep playing.

I can't imagine what he was thinking walking the length of the building and down the clanging exterior stairs of the motel. Back to his car, without her. She came slinking back into the room. For those of you, who've had a big fight with your spouse and thought making up was fun, you can't beat Post-Potential-Hostage-Situation.

Our road story came a few weeks later. A little while before the end of my shift one night, she and her sidekick friend came into the store. She was tall and tight; her friend short and curvy. They followed me to the back room while I punched the time clock. They sidled up to me, cooing in each ear. Without committing to anything, they hinted about a surprise that would involve both of them. They wanted to know if I would do whatever they asked. What American Boy would not!? That's when they showed me the handcuffs.

Out in the 7-11 parking lot, in broad daylight, while church people bought their coffee and donuts, they herded me to the friend's car. Voluntarily, I put my arms behind my back, was handcuffed and stuffed into a hatchback.

I tried to count turns and guess where we were headed but my head was swimming with anticipation. Before long, we were on gravel and the car rolled to a stop.

"OK, come on out!" They helped me crawl out of the back of the car. My arms were useless. All kinds of images and possibilities had been running through my sweaty brain. I found myself standing behind a car in the middle of a country road.

"Here?" I sputtered.

Each with one hand on my shoulder and the other on an arm, they winked and said, "here."

I hadn't noticed that the car was still running. The girls giggled, gave me a little shove, ran back to the car and tore off down the road. Disappearing in a cloud of dust, without me. My brain, shaking off its sweat, was spinning like an oak leaf in their dust cloud.

I was standing in the middle of the road, who knew what road, in handcuffs. On each side of the gravel lane, as far as I could see in each direction, a thin line of oaks and scrub bordered fields of corn. There wasn't a sound but the birds and the bugs. I tried to imagine how I would explain the handcuffs when Farmer Joe came upon me. Just thinging about it, a whole new personal dimension of lonesome and awkward.

The girls came back. They claimed they only went around the block; a country mile on four sides, but they were gone a long time. I hadn't started walking, neither direction made any more sense than the other. I heard the car first and turned, watching it get closer and the dust behind it get bigger. They laughed and carried on for the longest time.

The handcuffs came off and I got into the car, the actual passenger compartment. The three of us laughed now and we headed back to town. I missed the cuffs and their original possibilities. She made it up to me later; just her.

Road Tale #2

Again, for Jack:

Like in National Lampoon's Vacation, we were all sleeping. Perhaps not the driver. It was a university motor pool station wagon filled with expensive equipment and cheap student luggage. We slept the uncomfortable sleep of travel. Sitting, slouching, heads lolled back stiffly, feet jambed under the seat in a desparate attempt to straighten the knees. Snoring. "Shit!" Our slumber was broken. Awakening to the sound of a silent car rolling to a stop on the gritty interstate shoulder, we didn't know where we were nor what was happening. We were northwest of the Twin Cities on our way to St. Cloud under the stars in the semi-tundra of Minnesota - out of gas. Somehow we got back on the road or maybe I just went back to sleep.

At Michigan State University, I worked in the Shock and Vibration Laboratory at the School of Packaging. I broke things for a living. One fall, we got to go on a field trip. Two or three of us students, the Grad Student we worked for and the Professor she worked for, did a research project for a large trucking company.

We wired up a trailer with accelorometers to measure the 'g' force of impacts and vibrations. Accelorometers were affixed to the frame of a semi trailer, and to the floor, and to three layers of the chest freezers loaded in the trailer. A big long pigtail of wire brought the data up to the passenger seat of the tractor.

I sat in the tractor, with a big tray in my lap filled with tape recorders. Most of them recorded the measurements from the trailer. One of them also recorded my voice. I narrated the route so that the data could be correlated with what happened to the trailer.

Two days straight.

"We are approaching a curve to the left."

"We are approaching a stop sign."

"We are approaching a double set of railroad track."

Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga.

As we went around corners, I also had to pay out some slack for the pigtail to reach around. And then ease it back aboard, making sure that wires weren't pulled out of connectors or got tangled with the trailer.

The Trucking Company had an older couple who retreived wrecked trailers. They were recruited to haul the research team around. Actually, the husband drove me around. The wife sat in a lawn chair back at the terminal entertaining her dog and our boss.

I couldn't talk to the driver much, being busy narrating, but I remember riding around in his old Cab-Over. There was dog hair everywhere and one of the cupholders on the "doghouse" engine cover was filled with dog food. Now that I've driven "slip seat" the last few months, in a different grab bag tractor nearly every week, I have a new appreciation for how neat and tidy that dog was.

Road Tale #1


I got in from the road last night. It was 39 years, yesterday, since Jack Kerouac died in St. Petersburg, FL. I always forget it was St. Pete. I recently read On The Road, the Original Scroll put out last year on the 50th Anniversary of the book's publication. Everbody reads On The Road in their teens, but I read Dharma Bums. It was in a used book store in East Lansing. I hadn't found On The Road and hadn't read it yet. Last night I was too tired, but in Jack's honor I have 'sketched' three tales variously related to the road. Here is the first:

He was a bit small in stature with big glasses. A nice enough kid, but a little nerdy. More like me than I cared to pretend. No protruding drooly lower lip but prone to pushing his glasses up with a quick gesture of his hand; an index finger over his forehead like he was about to make an important point.

I was working as a cashier and handling the Dairy Order. He was a bagger. We worked at a small grocery store 10 miles south of campus and happened to have lunch at the same time. "I'm running to McDonald's. You want to go?"

The bagger joined me for lunch. I had a 1973 Cutlass S; baby puke green metal flake with fake louvers on the hood. We went up the road and through the drive through. "I know just the place to enjoy our lunch," I proclaimed. I had seen the local cheerleaders were doing a car wash. On the way back to the store, I whipped into the abandoned parking lot where the cheerleaders were set up under a great big oak tree near the road.

I didn't think about it at the time. If I could remember the kid's name, I might even apologize. While attending college, I had transferred to another store of the same grocery chain nearer to campus. I was a neutral out-of-towner. The bagger was local and likely went to the same school.

As the Cheer Squad Advisor took my $4.00, she said we could sit in the grass while the girls washed the car "or whatever." Seizing on "whatever" I replied "We're good. We just grabbed some lunch." We stayed in the car.

We rolled up the windows and ate watching the most beautiful girls in Mason, Mi wash the hood and the windows. It wasn't quite as good as the scene in Cool Hand Luke, but George Kennedy would have wanted to be there with us. It was wonderful; for me.

The kid kind of shrunk down in the seat when I said "we're good." School had just started and the sun was still warm. Even if I ran the car, it had no air conditioning. With the windows up, and shorts short and tshirts damp, it got a little warm. And there was some heat coming off the bagger's beet red face.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What Can You Do?

I drove through Wisconsin in the inky darkness of midnight.  The little town had an airport next to a Toro Mower Plant and a couple truck terminals.  The air was crisp and the leaves and longer grasses were thickly frosted.

I was supposed to pickup a new-to-us trailer and head on down the road to a load.  The trailers were on a grassy back lot without much light. They were clean and white, like ghosts lit only by a sodium light on a pole half way back to the terminal building. The outlines of former logos made grey splotches on each side and on the nose. 

Another driver pointed out the last trailer with a license plate; I hooked up.  Dispatch gave me a specific trailer number and told me the trailers were marked in small felt marker letters; I unhooked.  Slipping and slogging around on the frosty grass, I found one other plated trailer, but neither had my number.  Dispatch reassigned me to the trailer I had been hooked to; I re-hooked. 

I huffed long silver clouds of exasperation in the chilly air as I cranked the dollies back up.  "What can you do?" I asked my unconvinced self.  Something caught my eye and I looked up.  Up over the dark outlines of trees at the end of the yard.  Stars! 

Out here on the eastern edge of the prairie, in the boondocks, far from any city lights, stars crowded the sky.  Smaller, Dimmer stars and shades of galaxies textured a backdrop for major stars and constellations.  The sky was abuzz and a blaze.  I stood there staring, my head craned back on my neck.  Slowly turning around where I stood, I soaked them all in.  I thanked the stars for coming out and blessed the clouds for staying away. 

I had my answer.  The stars had shouted down "What can you do?"  What you can do is slow down and take a look; find the beauty. 

Cruising on into Minnesota, with a fresh attitude, a serenity, eyes wide open.  The sun broke through behind me, four deer and a majestic buck stood on a ridge over the other side of the highway.  I went by a field full of bison.  Later in the morning, a bald eagle soared over me as I found my exit. 

The most spectacular sight was over the Mississippi River.  To enter Minnesota from Wisconsin on I94, you go down into the river valley at Hudson.  South of the bridge is a wide swath of river surrounded by pine covered hills, fancy houses and marinas.  To the north the river narrows behind a larger marina and rows of boats swinging on moorings. 

In the cool just barely fall morning, the water was warmer than the air.  Opposite of springtime, the shallows along the river bank had cooled compared to the deeper waters holding onto summer's disappearing warmth.  As the cool air came down into the valley, a shallow fog skimmed off the banks.  In the center of the river, a great cloud rose up.

The cool air  swirled down into the valley like running down a drain.  The fog built a cloud in a roving oval.  The thin fog from the banks juts into the air and makes a bigger cloud; an upside down pile.  A column of fog piling up; quietly swirling and expanding into a compote shape.  An apparition, the Grail, in gossemer whisps, calling out to Arthur, but somehow lost on the edge of St. Paul rather than nearer to Camelot.