Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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— for Kofi and Susan
After I gave up my seat to the woman whose car had broken down (she was going back to St. Louis with her friend, and they wanted to sit together), I decided to sit next to Cathy. I’d been watching her with mild admiration since I’d boarded at the Greyhound station in Louisville, Kentucky, three hours earlier. She was in her early thirties, one of those dynamically positive types you don’t often meet, especially on the bus: genuinely smiling, listening, thoughtfully remarking to people as they passed down the aisle, remembering names, asking all the right questions, expressing just the right amount of sympathy. And though I am reluctant to open up to strangers — afraid of being regarded as weak or foolish, or, worse yet, being taken advantage of — I was grateful to Cathy. I think all of us on the bus were, even the driver. “I just want to say that I really appreciate your attitude,” the driver said to her at one of the stops, wringing Cathy’s hand.
In late May of 1992 I was thirty-six and once again headed west. Normally I slept for the majority of a long bus trip, but if the person sitting next to me wanted to talk, I would get to know him or her and later make careful notes about the conversation, in case it might provide material for a story or a novel. Cathy had a smooth, broad forehead; clear, wide-set eyes; and black hair piled high, like a country-and-western singer from the 1950s. She’d boarded in Maryland a day and a half earlier, and already some of the passengers treated her like an old friend. Every few minutes she reached into her large purse to retrieve a book, a snack, a hairbrush, a cigarette, or a small notebook in which to jot down a place name, a phrase she liked, or a movie recommendation.
In the hundreds of thousands of miles I’d logged on buses, I had never seen a group of ragged, disparate, and disconnected passengers so galvanized and uplifted by a single individual. Now that Cathy was seated next to me, it was my turn to bathe in her warmth.
“Where are you headed?” she asked me.
“Waterloo, Iowa,” I replied.
“Waterloo,” she said, as if I’d just coined the word. “Do you live there?”
“No, I’ve actually never seen it before.”
She crooked an index finger under her bottom lip. “Then how did you decide to go there?”
“I picked it off a map,” I admitted. “I liked the sound of it.”
“Do you know anyone there?”
An empty cattle truck passed, shuddering in the wind.
“Not a soul.”
“What if it doesn’t work out?”
“Then I’ll go on to the next place.”
The baby in the back, who’d been crying off and on for the last three hours, squalled for a while before relenting to the urgent hushing of its mother.
“Do you travel often?” Cathy asked.
“About every year.”
“Where were you last?”
I told her I had lived in Vermont for a year and a half. Before that it was Vegas for seven months. And I had just spent six days in Louisville, drawn there by Churchill Downs, the storied racetrack. I described to her my week at the San Antonio Motel, with its red steel doors, red vinyl curtains, orbiting hookers with parasols, and free porno on the television. I told her about the random person who’d walked into my room while I was asleep at four in the morning.
“What did you do?” she asked, having forgotten temporarily her role as Guardian Angel of the Westbound Greyhound, Final Destination Los Angeles, California.
“I told them to get out,” I said. “And first thing in the morning I left town.”
“I would’ve left town, too,” she said, reaching into her purse and retrieving a cellophane-wrapped mint with a red spiral design. As she unwrapped the candy, I noticed a slight tremor in her hands. I had heard her say to one of her previous admirers that she had no children, and when her listener had said, “It’s not too late,” Cathy had replied, “Oh, yes it is.”
“What about you?” I asked. “Where are you headed?”
“Kansas City to see my sister and her kids. First time I’ve taken a bus in a while. Not sure if I’ll do it again.”
“The general consensus,” I said.
“But you take the bus a lot.”
She laughed. “What do you do anyway?”
This question always gave me trouble. The honest answer was Everything in my power to become a writer, but it sounded pretentious, and at this point I had nothing to show for my efforts. So I gave the usual reply: “I cook.”
“Oh, you’re a chef.”
“No, just a cook.”
“A good cook, I’ll bet.”
“Not a bad cook,” I said.
We chatted about food and books and places we’d lived (“You’ve lived everywhere,” she said at one point) until the driver announced over the intercom that we’d soon be arriving in St. Louis, where I would switch buses.
My time in Las Vegas, the vilest place I’ve ever lived, had thrust me into my Geographical Salvation Period, which had supplanted my Diligent Typing Period, which was itself an improvement over my Terrible Imitation of Southern Gothics Period and its predecessor, my Static Drunken Daydreaming Period. Geographical Salvation is the belief, especially common among Americans, that finding the right place to live — someplace with a beautiful view, or nearby beaches, or casinos, or wonderful weather, or, in my case, an idyll straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting or pastoral boyhood story by Mark Twain — will solve the majority of your problems. I was not yet mature enough to realize that finding the right person might have been a better solution. Someone like Cathy, for example. Though how many Cathys were there in the world? Three? Anyway, I was too keen on myself and my goal of wealth and fame to put my fragile trust in anyone else.
All big-city bus depots are magnets for beggars, hustlers, hookers, and thieves, and St. Louis, one of the oldest and busiest in the country, was no exception. As the bus swung around to park, the driver had to lay on her horn to scatter a group of huddled hooligans. Preparing to debark, Cathy opened her bag. I expected her to take out a pack of cigarettes or to jot down the name of a book I had mentioned, but instead she withdrew a bottle of Motrin, 800 mg, shook out two pills, and swallowed them dry.
“I’m on disability,” she explained, noting my expression (1600 mg of Motrin is a whopping dose). “An accident in the service,” she added.
Then out came the bottle of Prozac: two more dry swallows — and, I said to myself, a glimpse into the secret of a sterling attitude. Then again, how many millions on mood-altering meds could scrounge up so much as a paltry hello, much less unify thirty-five grubby and downtrodden strangers on a bus? I walked with Cathy into the squalid, hectic terminal, shared a cigarette out front with her, and sincerely wished her the best of luck in her travels.
“It’s been a pleasure to know you,” she said, and she seemed to mean it.
On the bus to Waterloo two hours later my seatmate did not acknowledge me. She was a woman in her late teens or early twenties, wearing burnt-orange lipstick. She was reading Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, so I was grateful to be ignored.
It had taken me years to learn how to sleep sitting up, an indispensable trick of the long-haul bus traveler, and with the help of motion-sickness pills I could sleep just about anywhere for the better part of days at a time, though always to the detriment of nights down the way. Once, living in employee housing at the enormous Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, where I worked as a line cook, I slept for two snowy days in a row. Unable to sleep for the next two nights, I roamed Lake Avenue with a bottle of whiskey in the pocket of my long woolen jacket and watched the cars slide in a graceful, silent winter ballet off the icy road and into the ditch.
The sight of Waterloo through the scratched bus windows shattered all my wholesome preconceptions of Iowa. The Waterloo depot looked a lot like the St. Louis depot. Already feeling the hookers, hooligans, and hustlers heading my way, I got down and bought a five-dollar ticket to Independence, a town we’d passed through a few miles back.
The motel and the people in Independence were pleasant, but the town itself was too small for me to find a job. Bankroll shrinking, I decided to make a stand in Cedar Falls, Iowa, which turned out to be too big and, like Waterloo, not very Iowan in my mind. I rented a room for a week at the Black Hawk Hotel. It was too late to go out looking for work the first day, so I bought a pair of Heinekens and two roast-beef sandwiches with horseradish and red onions, caught up on my notes, watched a basketball game, and reflected on Cathy. To be the subjects of fulfilling stories, Saints and Altruists should have rocky starts. I envisioned for Cathy a rough childhood, an alcoholic mother, and a tyrannical military-man grandfather. Her family moved frequently, and she had trouble making friends. Escaping into the service, though, had been a mistake. Women were not allowed in combat at the time, but they could not always avoid it. Perhaps she had served in the Persian Gulf and suffered some horrific trauma that unraveled her mind: killing someone, or being badly wounded, or witnessing the slaughter of innocents. Prozac and Motrin and who knows what else had been necessary to quell the nightmares and quiet the memories. But then, as so often happens in stories of Altruists and Saints, the Great Darkness cracked open unexpectedly to reveal the lighted path of Transformation.
On my first night at the Black Hawk, in a century-old room full of ghosts and the scents of a thousand strangers, I dreamt of her. Streetlights like oblong planets blazed icily in the distance as Cathy and I strolled the dusk-veiled streets of a city I couldn’t name. She was older somehow, at least twice her earthly age. We were holding hands.
No job opportunities opened in Cedar Falls for the week I was there, and I knew how to take a hint. Based on my description of the town I was looking for — tranquil, cheap, remote, but big enough to offer employment — the clerk in the lobby of the hotel (which also served as the bus depot) assured me that Decorah, Iowa, population eight thousand, was the place I was looking for. I could afford only one more jump, so Decorah had to be it. Fortunately the clerk was right. Once I made my way through all the plastic franchises out on the highway, it was Geographical Salvation at first sight.
Luck also turned my way in Decorah. On my second day there I secured a basement apartment in an old house for $185 a month. It was on Court Street, though I never saw any evidence of a court. My apartment in Middlebury, Vermont, had also been on a Court Street, and I had no recollection of a court there either. At the bottom of Court Street was a school, and when the children burst onto the playground, their jubilant cries were more gratifying than any sound in nature I can name.
On day three I registered at Job Service (unemployment) and put in applications at four places, three of them restaurants. One advised me to return in two weeks. After I bought groceries and beer, a clock radio at the hardware store (the local AM station oozed schmaltzy ballads from the 1950s and ’60s), and had the utilities turned on, I was down to $181.
That afternoon I opened a beer and stared for a while at the tattered, cottony seed-heads of dandelions floating past the windows. An engine idled outside. The neighbor clomped overhead. I twiddled the radio dial until I found a Twins game, but the signal fizzled in and out. (Minneapolis was 160 miles away.) There was no magic in the beer, just helium bleeding up into my temples and a quickly evaporating fit of sentimentality, like the pitiful love-story sketches that populated my notebook.
The apartment was unfurnished except for a mattress kindly provided by my Lutheran landlord, who explained to me that Decorah sat in the impact crater of an asteroid that had struck the earth hundreds of millions of years ago. One of the extinct giant sea creatures exhumed from its crust — the shrimp-looking Pentecopterus decorahensis — had been named after the town. It was a fact that appealed to me. I’d thought I’d been drawn to this place for its picturesque charm, sublime golden sunlight, and dearth of social pathology, but maybe another, more surreptitious force from 470 million years ago had beckoned.
At Job Service on day four the twitchy and inept receptionist said, as if she were some special emissary of futility, “Oh, it’s you. There’s nothing today.” I thanked her and checked the listings and bulletin boards anyway. Iowa had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, so there was no excuse not to have a job if you wanted one. In about a month corn detasslers — typically teenagers — would be needed in droves. There was also a custodial spot open, but it required being bonded, a form of insurance and an implication of permanence I was not yet prepared to accept. My eyes lingered over the tempting universal help-wanted ad: “Become a truck driver. We train. We hire.” A farm seventeen miles outside of town was offering good wages for “manually planting and harvesting,” but I had no way to get there without a car. Most of the jobs nobody wanted were for tech support. “Team players” were in high demand.
On Heivly Street, a few blocks from my apartment, a retired railroad worker had hauled in and set up an authentic 1940s train-car-style diner from his hometown of Clarksville, New Jersey. The townspeople were excited and couldn’t wait to eat authentic Philly cheesesteaks and malts and listen to “In the Still of the Night” and “Stand by Me” over and over again on the jukebox. The place veritably dripped with nostalgia and seemed perfect for an inveterate short-order cook such as myself. The problem was it wouldn’t be open for at least a month.
Reluctantly I put in an application at Wapsie Produce, a poultry-processing plant. There were no openings, but I learned that the convenience store on Old Stage Road was hiring, so I trudged out there. It was a longer walk than I’d been led to believe (automobile owners have a distorted perception of distance), at least three miles. The available position was on the graveyard shift. The chance of getting robbed or shot was negligible around there, but I couldn’t bring myself to flip gas-pump switches and check the IDs of fuzzy-lipped adolescents for a living — at least, not until I was down to tech support and corn detassling as my only options. I decided to keep looking.
On the way home I was crossing the edge of a baseball field when a yellow softball came rolling toward me. I looked up and saw four children suspended in the middle of Our National Pastime. Bats on shoulders, gloves at the end of limp arms, they simply stared at me. Assuming they were waiting for me to return their ball, I picked it up, and they immediately started shouting.
“Don’t touch our ball!” said one.
“What do you think you’re doing?” shouted another.
“Sorry,” I said, “just trying to help.”
The leader of the four was a girl of maybe thirteen, who wore a sadistic sneer like Alex, the head droog in A Clockwork Orange. The other three were boys, the youngest I’m guessing nine or ten. Their eyes glittered with malice, and they were undeterred by the fact that I was bigger than any two of them put together. I wondered why they weren’t in school. Maybe it had already let out for the summer. Or maybe they’d hatched out of the monolithic womb of the asteroid (replete with mysterious cosmic seeds) that had buried itself in the Winneshiek County shale with such force that it had sucked in the primordial seas all around.
“Who are you?” the pack leader demanded belligerently, fists balled at her sides. “You’re not from around here. Where did you come from?”
“What are you doing on our baseball field?”
“This is a public field,” I replied, already aware of the pointlessness of any defense. Still holding their ball hostage, I scanned the area for anyone who might come to my assistance — teacher, policeman, parent — but as always whenever an ugly confrontation materialized, I was on my own.
One of the boys plucked a rock from the soil and threw it at me. I dodged, and they laughed. This started a flurry of rock throwing. So much for Geographical Salvation. A stone struck my leg; another whistled past my ear. I considered retaliating in kind but instead turned and heaved their ball as far as I could. It snapped magnificently from my hand and soared in a high arc clear into the next field.
“Wow!” remarked the original rock-thrower in genuine admiration. At this pause in the action, I made a hasty retreat, but they were quickly on my heels, taunting and throwing more rocks. Thankfully their aim did not match their evil, and they were seemingly tethered to the territory of their field. Or were they at the edge of their space crater? Either way, I managed to distance myself with minimal damage.
In my naive quest for the perfect town, I had convinced myself that sleepy, golden-lit Decorah was it, so I was more rattled than I would have been if this had happened in Vegas, say, or Louisville, or even Cedar Falls. Did I really need one more lesson about looking for paradise? Well, here it was: everywhere you go, there is a serpent in a tree.
I tried to console myself by identifying with the Just Sufferers, Job and the rest, who appear in sacred texts throughout history as proof of Benevolent Providence, but there was nothing Job-like about me. I was neither prosperous, nor virtuous, nor devout. Rather than learn to fashion order or beauty out of chaos, as I imagined Cathy had done, I continued to chase wantonly after chaos in the name of Art, which is what had gotten me into this fix in the first place.
Depressed, I took the rest of the day off from job hunting to work on some story ideas, like the one about the cult-member waitress I’d lived with for a week in LA, but I didn’t really know what to do with the material: Should I handle it realistically, disguising the celebrities involved, or introduce an eight-foot serial killer with a lisp? I took a nap instead and dreamt an aquarium dream with vivid, color-saturated 3-D fish and some dream-logical notion that they could be improved by a straitjacket made out of someone’s shoulder blades. Later in the afternoon my friendly Lutheran landlord came by with a table and chair for me.
On Saturday, with no one to visit and nowhere to go except the library, I slept late. Honestly I would have slept forever if I could have. (What does this say about my state of mind? Well, it’s true.) Sleep was the only chance I had to reunite with childhood friends or watch my old dog run down the beach or frolic in the grass. There was no criticism, no pressure to become famous or get a job, no anger or regret, no need to make a fool out of myself with women, no longing to end my days. In my dreams I didn’t have to watch bits of spit fly from my mouth when I talked, didn’t need food or euphoria-inducing chemicals or anyone’s approval. In sleep it was all softness and passive grandeur and the carnival after everyone has gone home.
For a long while, since I spent so much time there, I had thought I should understand sleep better. I read five scientific books about it, but no one could explain why an organism would need to lose consciousness to rest, repair, regenerate cells, or metabolize, or why it would feel tender afterward or produce fabulously developed mental picture shows ten times better than waking life.
Maybe sleep is more about what you need to do while outside of consciousness: perhaps counsel with your maker, travel to another dimension, rehearse for death, or study the hieroglyphs of your soul.
Daylight in the new town in late spring with no job has a special quality about it that heightened my sense of isolation and reminded me that I was down to $160 and doing nothing about it. But I was glad for the clouds and the cool hint of lilac in the air, and I had enough eggs, bread, radishes, cheese, mustard, and turkey baloney to keep me in sandwiches and breakfast for a few days. Once more I perused the local newspaper, which featured a photo of the new Dairy Queen (a pageant winner, not a plastic franchise). A columnist imparted an important life lesson for his readers in the title of his piece “Money, Not Quality, Talks” (page A4). Amen, Mr. Columnist, but listen to the breathtaking cheer of the children when they head for the playground down the street and consider that you might be wrong.
On Sunday I took a long walk, said hello to everyone, nodded and smiled like an idiot until I wore my neck out, all while keeping an eye peeled for Clockwork Alex and her Extraterrestrial Droogs. Pausing at a garage sale, I coveted a fifty-dollar recliner, but that would have to wait. A man holding a shovel and wearing a khaki uniform, complete with safari hat, had completely dug up his front yard. A child of around nine, heedless of me, stood on the curb and delivered a rousing speech before an invisible audience. In the afternoon, seated at my new kitchen table, I listened raptly to Game Three of the NBA finals, Blazers versus Bulls. Now and then a bumblebee drifted down from the ceiling and made its way around the room. Basement apartments are insect zoos. I had earwigs, beetles, wasps, spiders of all varieties. I also made my first acquaintance with house centipedes, some as long as three inches, which raced like shaggy speedboats across the paneling and liked to bask on the cement walls of my shower. Learning that they were venomous, I exterminated them without mercy, until I got close to one particularly large fellow and, shoe poised to pulverize him, noted the intelligent, pleading look on his face, as if he were saying, What do you want to kill me for? I’m on your side. I eat ticks and bedbugs and flies. I’m no threat whatsoever to you unless you’re careless enough to step on me. So I stopped killing them, even though they occasionally skittered over my body as I slept. And though I stomped into oblivion the one bumblebee that stung me (my fault), I left the rest of these majestic, gentle, humble creatures alone. In the ten months I was in that apartment before I blundered off to Mississippi, headed forebodingly into my Humpty Dumpty Period, I would never make an effort to locate their nest.
I liked nights the best. Reading and thinking were easier, time glided along, and I could reel in clear AM signals from hundreds of miles away, including KMOX, which broadcast St. Louis Cardinals games and a call-in show featuring a movie buff with a photographic memory. Instead of TV I sat at the window and watched my neighbors move from room to room and sip their soda pops and stare into their televisions (set on gentle brainwash cycle) and rattle their newspapers. I liked to contemplate their lives with a frown before turning off the lights and heading back to Sleep, a place we all took for granted but did not remotely understand.
Monday came with a mummy-smelling rain, and Tuesday the weather turned toward summer. Though the novelty of the town had already worn off, I felt sure I’d get a job soon. And if I didn’t, it would be good for me. I’d been down to nothing before and had even lived on the street, a situation far more conducive to growth and learning than having things go my way. In fact, the Great Fall was looming up ahead (the cracks were already showing), the worst years of my life, but also the chance to put myself back together again, a complete overhaul. Cathy, I’d like to think, would’ve been proud.
On Wednesday, while passing the Clarksville diner, I saw someone in the window and entered for the first time. A wide-shouldered man in his mid-forties was sitting at one of the booths, poring over a book, a hand in his hair. The dust in the air and loose boards laid at all angles around him made him look like a figure in a medieval woodcut. He looked up, his face weary. “What can I do for you?”
I told him I was looking for work.
“What do you do?” he asked.
“Oh,” he said with modest interest. “Where have you cooked?”
I presented my résumé: sixteen restaurants from California to Vegas to the Virgin Islands, including my own Mexican restaurant in Niagara Falls, New York.
“Wow,” he said, like the kid after I’d chucked his Village of the Damned ball over the fence. He invited me to sit. He’d heard of the Broadmoor Hotel (one of only a few five-star hotels in the country at the time I worked there), and wanted to know more about my own restaurant. A kitchen in the back of a bar, I told him, where I made masa, carne asada, machaca, salsas, carnitas, refritos, and corn and flour tortillas from scratch. The place closed after a few months due to lack of interest. Few people in western New York were interested in Mexican food in the early 1980s. Even Taco Bell had tucked its tail between its legs and left town.
“Probably twelve Mexican restaurants there now,” he said, lighting a cigarette.
“Including Taco Bell,” I said.
“Taco Bell doesn’t count.” He looked with offense at his cigarette. “I was going to quit these,” he said, offering me one.
I accepted and confessed that I was going to quit, too. Our smoke mingled with the dust spangling the spindles of sunlight that streamed through the filmy windows. Satisfied that my work history was legit, he regaled me with his plans. Like me, he lived in a dream. Mine was called Art, a whirling nebula of empyrean dust that I believed would somehow miraculously prove I was a worthwhile person. His dream was a return to his youth: the songs on the jukebox, the items on the menu, the antique cash register, the vintage milkshake machine, the soda-fountain glasses — every possible detail was a time-travel replica of the diner he remembered going to as a young man in the early 1960s.
He loved food, he said, loved to cook, and believed in cooking from scratch, but had never actually run a restaurant. I told him it was harder than it looked; that many of the owners I’d worked for had gone out of business, unwilling or unable to devote the monumental time and attention necessary to keep a restaurant running.
He showed me around. The place was truly a wreck, weeks if not months from being operational. (Tack on two more weeks because a drunk driver would plow into the diner days before its scheduled grand opening.) The grease-encased kitchen didn’t appear to have been used in decades. I offered him advice on equipment, cleaning strategies (the best way to clean a flattop grill is to throw a can of ice cubes over it), food storage, knife sharpening, and health-code tips. I told him if he wanted to make affordable steak sandwiches, he’d need an electric commercial slicer. His desire for fresh cinnamon rolls every morning wouldn’t be a problem, since I’d been a baker at a catering place in San Diego. I was not yet able to write a story, but soups, which are kind of like stories if you make them without a recipe, were my specialty.
“Can you start on Friday?” he asked.
We shook hands.
On the way home I bought a six-pack and a frozen pizza and felt good about myself for a change. In my basement apartment that evening, in the city with a sea creature named after it, the love songs poured like syrup out of the radio, the house centipedes did their slithery minuets across the walls, and the neighbors wheeled from room to room like mechanized figurines in a gigantic Swiss cuckoo clock. Across the room, on the wood paneling, a patch of streetlight the color of burning yellow orchids wavered and pulsed like an oracle or an alien sun. It was all a dream, of course, more marvelous than I could ever hope to comprehend.
Poe Ballantine keeps mining the same ground, and continues to unearth nuggets time after time [“Seven Days in a Sea-Creature Town,” November 2019]. I always discover something new in his writing, and always want to say to the younger Poe, “It’s going to be OK. You’ll see.”
I’m disappointed in Poe Ballantine for saying he is glad that a young woman reading a book on Wicca doesn’t talk to him [“Seven Days in a Sea-Creature Town,” November 2019]. If Ballantine was truly put off by this in 1992, I hope he’s grown more knowledgeable and sensitive in the years since. Who knows — he might even find he identifies with this religion that affirms life and embraces nature and mystery. Unfortunately his flippant comment at the expense of a minority religious group suggests otherwise.