Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Niagara Follies

In the summer of 1971 Jack Kerouac’s vision of a “rucksack revolution” came true as thousands of young Dharma Bums hit the road hitchhiking around America, and I was one of them

I was in some sort of emotional bankruptcy having blown my chances at a college education, my future with the alternative education project that was foolish enough to hire me in the first place, and my relationship with my girlfriend. I had an invitation from my friend Ping Chong to visit him at Goddard in Vermont where he’d be collaborating with Meredith Monk, but that wasn’t until August sometime. I had time to kill, and that was the whole point – killing time.

And it was a perfect time to hit the road. The middle-class was sprouting hippies, flower –power had gotten enough publicity to be seen as more benign than scary, public opinion had completely turned against the Vietnam War, and people were willing to pick us up out of both curiosity and care. Some people wanted to know what made us tick, others thought they could enter the adventure by offering a ride, and a few others felt parental and wanted to keep us safe for the stretch of road they were driving. It’s not that there weren’t whackos out there, but somehow the US, and for sure Canada seemed safer back then, and hitchhikers develop an ability to read an offer before getting into a car. Anyone with any sense knew that if a driver looked at all shifty you could say no to the ride. One ride not taken was from a fella who offered to get me wherever I wanted to go if he could just give me a blow job. “Uh, no, thanks, think I’ll just catch the next ride.” At least he made his intentions clear.

In early July, after a series of high adventures that got me from Chicago, to Louisville, (see item 4 in “Treacherous Angels,” and then up to Erie, PA, I had a hankering to head out for Niagara Falls, NY, and then into Canada. Somehow I got my mom to drive me from Erie to Niagara Falls. I can’t imagine what I said to get her to agree, nor can I imagine the pain and worry I put her through, but kids aren’t famous for caring about their parents, and I wasn’t going to be stopped anyway. It might have given her some comfort to know that I at least got to Niagara Falls safely, but I’m sure it was cold comfort. I could kick myself now, but then – the road beckoned.

No surprises in Niagara Falls. I’d visited with the family on other occasions, and I didn’t really know what I was doing there this time. It was a jumping off place (no pun intended,) but I was totally aimless and didn’t know what or where I was jumping to - motion was going to be the story of the whole summer.

As Niagara wasn’t offering much except falling water I decided to head out to Toronto which was only 70 miles away, and a big city. I figured about three hours hitchhiking time which would get me into Toronto with enough daylight to figure out where I’d sleep that night. I got back on the road and hit the jackpot with my first ride. A kindred soul by the name of Paul picked me up and offered a ride to Toronto, and a place to spend the night. His only plan for the day was to pick up his buddies, and a case of beer, and drink the afternoon away. I thought that was a pretty good plan, and we set out to execute it.

His friends were waiting, the beer was just down the street, and we spent the rest of the day drinking and driving. Paul seemed to be good at it, and into my fifth or sixth beer I couldn’t have cared less.

We all managed to catch a buzz, picked up another case, and drove to the communal house Paul called home.

We got to work on the second case of beer, and Paul’s housemates, another guy and two gals, joined us. Somebody put on some rock and roll, the party moved into a higher gear, I started putting the moves on one of the girls, and we ended up in her bedroom – more of a storage room/cubby, but perfectly adequate for what we had in mind. Before we got too far along the door banged open - it was the other girl. “What are you doing with my sister!?” It was a rhetorical question. “Leave her alone! She’s too young for you!” I had no idea they were sisters, and not the foggiest how old she was, but our private party came to an end with younger sister in tears, and me back in the kitchen smoking some pot. I was too loaded to stand, so I took a chair in the middle of the kitchen figuring no harm was done and we’d party on. Older sister came out and went into a rant. She plopped herself onto my lap and started in with, “You want to get laid? Why don’t you try someone your own age? Maybe you’d like to spend some time with me?” She was filled to the brim with anger and alcohol. I was filled with alcohol and embarrassment, and gave her a push off my lap. It was a little too much of a push. She ended up sprawled on the kitchen floor. The party turned very quickly, but thank god these were all peace lovers. Instead of murdering me, which is what I thought was going to happen, Paul stepped in and ushered me to the front room where he grabbed my backpack and led me out the door with, “We just can’t have violence here.” He was oddly apologetic, but I was banished to late night Toronto with no idea where I was, and barely able to walk a straight line.

I shouldered my pack, picked a direction, and before long found myself in a lovely European sort of park. But something was strange. It was late, yet all the park benches were occupied by single men. Heads were turning in my direction. Oh... I had literally stumbled upon a Toronto hotspot and it wasn’t to my taste. Another time, maybe, but this time I felt like I was in a candy store and I was the candy. Again, god-bless the Canadians for their good manners. None of the gentlemen came on too strongly, and I navigated my way down the path and out of the park without incident. To this day, though, I can't figure out why those lonely guys didn't just hook-up with each other instead of sitting around waiting for some Bambi like me to come through.

I don’t know how long I was on the street, and still had no idea where I was, but I came to another park that was blessedly empty, and decided to cash it in for the night.

The park was flat and open and didn’t offer much in the way of seclusion, but it was dark, and there was a hedgerow that bordered the sidewalk. I scrunched up as close as possible to the hedge, used my pack as a pillow, and for safety’s sake unsheathed my Buck Knife. I fell asleep, or more like passed-out, half sitting up, with the knife grasped in my right hand. It was my first test in sleeping with one eye open. You can’t sleep with one eye open, and even if you could I don’t think you’d see anything. If nothing else, it was a lesson in metaphor.

“Hey!”

Oh, shit. “Huh, what?”

“You want some breakfast?”

That was unexpected, but through my hung-over, half-drunk blur I could see the guy standing over me. He was older, clean, and smiling. Oh, Canada.

“Yeah, I would.”

He extended his hand, “Lemme help you up.”

Considering I was sprawled with a knife in my lap it was a brave offer, but considering the state I was in I didn’t present much of a threat. When I stood up the knife fell onto the ground - so much for armed and dangerous.

“C’mon.”

I sheathed the knife, stashed it in my pack, and followed him out of the park. Wherever we were, it was wake-up time, and the diner about a half block away was doing a good business. We got a table, and the coffee started coming.

“Smoke?”

Pall Malls. Not my brand, but I was out.

“Can I buy you a pack?”

I was a little surprised at the guy’s friendliness but didn’t question it. I was getting used to the random favors of the road. I took him up on the offer, got my own brand of smokes, and enjoyed breakfast. Hung-over as I was I still went the whole route with pancakes, eggs, and ham on the side.

“I’ve got to do something, but then we can pick up some bootleg and have a few. Wanna come along?”

Of course I did, but “Why bootleg?”

“It’s Sunday.”

I was inhabiting a Kris Kristofferson song without even knowing it.

“Here’s the deal. I’m going to go check out this flophouse, and I want you to stand outside and let me know if someone’s coming in.”

Two and two not equaling anything, I said, “OK.”

It was a short walk to the flop, two floors of apartments, or rooms, and my partner left me out front and went in to do his business. About fifteen minutes later he came sprinting out holding a gym bag.

“Not much, let’s go!”

Two and two still beyond my reach, “OK, let’s go.”

We hustled down the street, around the corner, and down a few more blocks.

“This is my place. Come on.”

It was a large, old house, with a wrap around front porch. We walked up the stairs to the second floor, and he unlocked the door to his room. It was clean and comfortable looking, with a large brass bed, a sink, dresser, and easy chair. The window led out to a flat roof, and there was a lot of sunlight filtering in. We sat down on the bed and he handed me the gym bag.

“Have a look.”

I unzipped the bag, and he was right, “Not much,” a t-shirt, a pair of sneakers, and a can of spray-on deodorant. Not exactly what I’d call loot.

“Let’s have a drink. I keep a stash just in case, you know?”

He pulled an unlabeled bottle out of his dresser and handed it to me. There were about four swallows left in it. I looked at it.

“Sherry.”

“Oh, OK.” I took a pull and my sinuses ignited, swallowed and my head caught fire, it was as close to drinking kerosene as I ever hope to get, but I kept it down.

“Whoa!”

“Yeah, it takes a little getting used to,” and he polished it off. “Look, you stay here, grab some sleep, and I’ll get us some more. Got any money?”

I did, but certainly didn’t want to let on how much, “Couple bucks.”

“Gimme a buck and I’ll be right back.”

“OK.” It was my day for “OK’s.”

My partner, whose name I never did get, left and the door locked behind him. As I sat back down on the bed shouting started with a new voice leading off:

“You son-of-a-bitch, where’s my money!”

“Fuck you, asshole!”

Scuffling, a thud, a pause, and the new voice, subdued, “God damn it.” And that was the end of it. I waited, heard nothing, slumped back on the bed, and was out for hours. I don’t know how long, but the light had changed, and was looking like late afternoon. I got up, climbed out the window to the flat roof, and decided there was enough daylight to make an exit.

I felt like I owed my partner something. For what, I don’t know. He’d been kind, even though he’d enlisted me is some petty theft – and I do mean petty. The slate was probably clean, but I didn’t feel like I could get away without leaving something behind. I’d packed a floppy jungle hat that I’d picked up at an army surplus store and that seemed like a good, useful thing to leave so I dug it out and left it on his pillow.

I opened the door as quietly as possible, stepped into the hallway, and there was “new voice,” hanging in his doorway, holding a baseball bat.

“Where’s Jack?”

“Don’t know. I’m leavin’,” and I was out of there - fast.

After a little wandering around I came across a flyer for a rock festival that was going on somewhere near by...

I hit the road…

2 Comments:

Blogger Steve Hayes said...

It's nice to see that someone made it to be a Dharma bum -- was it just for one day?

7:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was one of those who "hit the road", in the Summers of 1970 & 1971 & 1972! Glad some of us are still around. Buddha bless you, fellow "dharma bum"!

3:52 PM  

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