13 – Other Worlds

Chp 13 Fun house barkerIn a painter’s work van I found myself with seven teenagers spiriting toward a rare celebration. They were headed for the Atlantic, and I anticipated that by nightfall I’d be applauding myself for crossing the continent.

Two of them sat up front, and in back where cans of paint and tarps typically were stored three boys and two girls occupied the floor. “We juz grajiated from high school,” one of the guys said, smiling and slapping up a high-five.

“Y’all did?” I asked with exaggerated surprise, pointing my finger around the group.

“We been waitin’ and waitin’,” one of the girls said. “Waitin’ awl yeer,.” She lifted her arms skyward as if praising the Lord in church revival. “‘Dis is ou graduashun present!”

Simply verbalizing their longing injected an electric pulse through the group. Their voices reached out full of laughter and reactions, blossoming in all directions.

“Whatchu doin’ here?” the driver shouted back.

“Jus travelin’, and I don’ even know where.”

The guy next to me said, “I let you know thiz som special day.”

My cadence slowed to a drawl. “’cause you goin’ ta’the coast?”

“Nah, ‘cause we partyin’ wid a white boy!”

High-fives ricocheted throughout the van and I looked around as if trying to find the white boy.

With the coast about a hundred miles away, our group galloped toward the beach. Nothing could stop us. One of the guys pulled out a joint and it didn’t take long until we chummed around as old friends; when the van took corners we’d roll across the floor, piling on each other, laughing. While accelerating from a green light, one of the guys in back let his momentum rock him toward the rear of the van, placing him close enough to plant a kiss on the girl next to him. This wasn’t a peck, but a nice smooch on the lips. As the driver took his foot off the gas to shift gears, the lapse of acceleration pulled the boy forward again. Their lips separated. She gasped and raised an open palm as if getting ready to give him a slap, but with the hint of a smile, let her hand drop, although not before a half-hearted strike on his thigh.

He rolled back laughing. “Gotcha!”

She shared a wondering glance with the other girls.

“You got some style!” I shouted with a cheerleader’s voice.

After a while we left the main road and pulled onto a narrow path hollowed through thick palm fronds. About half a mile later the path opened to a grassy field. Traversing the field we drove on little more than a clay trail. A white cabin with a rusted tin roof sat planted at the center of the clearing. I noticed there were no power lines, no fences, no cars, just a thick green field and a home that looked as though it had housed generations of the same family. The driver honked and a teenage girl sprinted out. We now made four couples, not from a romantic standpoint, just nicely balanced.

They spoke excitedly of buying new shoes, eating hamburgers, swimming in the waves. As they spoke I had to listen with all my effort to understand their deep accents. But the ebony of their voices jumped with anticipation and excitement. When the topic turned to life after school they mentioned jobs of cooking, cleaning.

“We gotz a chicken factory, ‘bout ten mile out.”

“Hell, boy, you only work thair if yo daddy’s their,” said one of the girls. She then starred at the guy who mentioned the factory. “An he ain’t!”

I couldn’t help but compare this conversation with those I held with my friends, white kids in the Pacific Northwest. Our opportunities seemed too disparate for us all to come from the same nation. We all sat in the van, but our worlds existed far apart.

We drove past rows of shacks. One, with window frames hanging into the openings where the glass should be, formed the backdrop for a 400-pound women sitting on a sawed-off tree stump in the front yard, resting her feet on a freshly cracked case of Budweiser. Later, I learned the Peace Corps sends recruits to clinics in this area to prepare for assignments in the third world.

Once we reached St. Augustine beach, and after hearty goodbyes, my friends headed north to their destination and I continued south—still my direction for no particular reason. Walking along the glistening white sidewalks struck me as a cultural whipsaw from the rusty van. I attempted to blend in. Most of the people wore bright beach clothes; walking with friends, playing volleyball, or just sunbathing. Maybe I could be a person carrying picnic supplies to the beach…. Wearing overalls and road boots, with a pack and sleeping bag strapped to my back, I realized how much I blended in. Solitude smacked.

Assessing myself, I viewed a young man trying to expand his awareness of people, and hoped my freefall approach would ultimately build a long-term structure. Suddenly I didn’t feel obscure and pointless, but that I was on a mission with strong purpose. But finding a world where I acted as a spectator, disconnected from all others, I just as quickly felt lost, and that my life amounted to little more than a lousy joke.

Was I a coward running away, or a bold explorer seeking knowledge? Not even knowing the answer to that, I deflated.

I needed a shower, more than a little, and found one in a public bathroom. Standing under the cool flow, I closed my eyes and imagined myself rising up through waterfalls of the Cascade Mountains back home. Once my eyes opened, the vista consisted of an iron pipe jutting from a concrete wall.

Like a crab molting, I emerged from the shower flexible and new. Sitting on a wooden bench I pawed through my thin wardrobe: denim overalls; cutoff jeans; a green flannel shirt; two T-shirts, one imprinted with the album cover from the Eagle’s “Hotel California” and the other with Led Zepplin’s “Zoso,”; indestructible glacier goggle sunglasses; one pair each of wool socks, cotton socks and boxers; some toiletries; a wool watchman’s cap; my worn brown suede jacket/pillow; flip flops and boots. I lacked for fashion, but not for style.

After drying, I slipped on my cutoffs and the Eagle’s T-shirt—dirty clothes, but better than going naked. I headed over to a bank of sinks to shave and bent over one of the aluminum basins. Without any shaving cream I kept myself bent over spending extra time to splash up water and soften my stubble. I straightened up and looked into the polished stainless steel that acted as a mirror, stared for several seconds—and dropped my razor.

Where’s my reflection?

His looks hadn’t changed: bushy blond hair, about nineteen years-old, stubble, teeth were straight enough, and the lingering hint of a sunburn covered his face. Looking into his eyes became awkward. I didn’t know him.

I turned away, focusing on the row of toilet stalls, then and looked back to the mirror. What’s happening…? As I froze into blank bewilderment, he watched me.

Mirrors don’t lie. But I felt no comfort of familiarity, no connection with that person staring back. Fear rose with confusion. Who is he? I don’t even know his name.

Who am I, and where did I go?

Avoiding the mirror, I decided to pass on shaving. As I walked back to the wooden bench where my pack lay, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was drifting into some psychotic rabbit hole. I didn’t want to look at anything, what if more of the world had changed. What if my hands started becoming red crabs? What snapped? I looked around to make sure I was still in a public bathroom, that my surroundings hadn’t morphed into something different; maybe a carnival house of mirrors—a pipe organ pumping as a black-eyed barker shouts me in.

While sitting on the bench I conducted a quick examination. By this point I’d been gone a little under three weeks and taken around a hundred rides, probably more. With each person who picked me up I became a chameleon, adapting to reflect their personalities. If someone acted formal, I acted formal; if funny, then I became funny; if desperate, then I showed my desperation; morose, confident, hyper, spaced out, intellectual… I didn’t even sound like myself since I took on a southern accent. Across all these people, and spending only an hour or two with each, I adopted one hundred rapid-fire personalities. Mimicking the drivers put them at ease, and made each ride more comfortable for everyone. But by myself, I didn’t recognize which person, if any, were me. The chameleon ate my identity.

Heavy disorientation and panic lasted a few eternal minutes. Getting away from the mirror helped. I remained at the beach for several hours, sitting in the sand. While I sat, thinking, the only explanation that made sense was that seeing no reflection of myself in all the others I’d come across left no validation that I impacted the world. I didn’t exist.

After later research, I found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that psychiatrists call this an episode of Dissociative Fugue, and explain it as: “The loss of one’s identity, or the formation of a new identity, can occur with sudden, unexpected, purposeful travel away from home. Symptoms can last from hours to months.”

As an attempt to regain my bearings I thought writing in my journal would help connect with whoever I was. Bull crap; I exchanged three dollars with an ice cream vendor for quarters and walked to a phone booth, where I gave Mark, my bass-playing-best-friend-since-sixth-grade, a call. As each of the dozen quarters clanked into the machine I started to feel like paying was going to last longer than the call.


“Guess who?’

“Oh man, Wee Bee (his vaguely unflattering nickname for me). I thought you were lost on the moon.” Mark’s voice let loose with jovial relief. “You been raped yet?”

“Not yet…. How ‘bout you?”

“Right—so where are ya?”

“Sunny Florida. Funny, sunny, losing-my-fucking-mind Florida.” I stopped, and realized Mark immediately understood I needed support. Seattle remained only two weeks behind me, but each ride, each chameleon, felt like taking a head shot in the boxing ring. I’d become punch drunk.

“Go on,” he offered.

“I’m cracking up man.” My words scared me. “It’s like a bad acid trip without the acid.”

“You freakin’ out? Sure you’re not on acid now?”

“Yeah, I’m sure, but a weird thing just happened… I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself.”

“Don’t bullshit me man. You’re on acid.”

“I’m not. Alright!” He wasn’t helping as quickly as I had hoped. “I just wanted to check and make sure this isn’t some Twilight Zone where my whole life is gone, or I’m just a figment of someone’s imagination.”

“No Capitan Crazy, you’re not made up. I’m here. You’re there. And we’re talkin’.” He laughed a bit. “You may end up in the loony bin, but I’ll get you out.”

My relief didn’t come from him convincing me this world is real, but from the fact he cared. “I know you’ll get me out. That’s why I called.” I noticed my death grip on the phone handle loosening. “So, what’ve you been up to?”

“You mean besides shootin’ thunder and lightning from my penis?”

“Penis? Who says penis anymore?”

“I do. And just for knowin’, the next time you’re standing in a storm and the rain tastes salty, you’ll know it’s me.”

PLEASE DEPOSIT ANOTHER ONE DOLLAR AND TWENTY-FIVE CENTS FOR THE NEXT THREE MINUTES. This mechanical voice butted-in after the first minute on every long-distance call from a pay phone, warning of the impending automatic disconnect.

“Oh yeah?” He wasn’t going to win the biggest-dick bragging rights. “Well, during that last solar eclipse, that wasn’t the moon blocking the sun. That was my” CLICK.

The call worked better than a prescription, or a shrink; a pure blast of medicine for my psyche. When I once again became myself there was still some daylight left, so I returned to whatever normal meant. Which meant climbing into another anonymous car heading south, and skirtting the coast along Highway A1A.

There were no majestic mountains with earth-encompassing vistas, but A1A lolled within its own beauty and calmness. Breezes from the sea carried spring’s warmth to Southern Florida, and dazzling white sand drew a sharp line along the rich blue that flowed east to the horizon. The beaches ran without end. A quite peace surrounded me.

Evening came and I walked off the road and found a grassy hollow. This little slice of paradise sat surround by palm trees that formed a natural wall. Short grasses, most of them dead and turned to straw, lined the ground in a soft warm mat. Flowers lightly scented the air, reminding me of sophisticated women who know how to wear perfume. The sky still held some light, but I knew I’d reached home for the night. Laying out my sleeping bag I envisioned myself a character on Gilligan’s Island. A number of the trees stood perfectly spaced for supporting a hammock, and I could see myself reclined under a canopy of palms. Maybe I’d scale one of the trees and bring down a coconut for dinner. Ocean wind continued to ambled in, which kept bugs away, and the foliage surrounding me took on richer shades of green as the sun arced further west. My hideaway offered secluded, gorgeous, perfection.

No one knew my location, I could have been anywhere on the continent. Nothing pressed in with due dates, expectations or babble. Freedom from daily clatter cleared my mind and I became even with the world—I let the air breath me. Laying on my back I stared up through the palms, and could only see blue mystery.

I wondered about purpose, my purpose, everyone’s purpose, the lack of purpose. Haphazard events seemed the rule, and they only became magnified beneath the lens of hitchhiking. Days offered no pattern, rising in a different spot every morning, no plan for nightly shelter, and only random actions filling the gaps between. Where’s the plan? Maybe the plan is to have no plan. Maybe we’re not here for a purpose. Why does life matter? Does life matter after we die? Is there a plan then? Do actions make sense then? Does purpose matter? Why do we thirst for mattering?

I didn’t need to know the answers; but understood my life would be defined based upon what I cared about. So what mattered to me?

My stomach churned. That mattered.

Propping myself up to sit against a palm, I pulled out a meal of bread and cheese. (Fresh coconuts made for a nice fantasy, but they lived high in the trees while my plebian food rested in my lap.) Slicing into the block of cheese, I felt something on my forearm, then something else. A few rain drops found me—not a problem. I snuggled up to the tree trunk figuring the fronds could act as my umbrella. More drops, more snuggling. Within about five minutes fat wet paratroopers battered me. Fresh gusts kicked up to a squall and the thickening rain grew into my first experience with a tropical storm.

I assumed the deluge would pass quickly, they same way a full pitcher empties when tipped over. After all, the sky could only hold so much water. With that assumption, I decided to wait out the torrent. From the ground I rolled up my sponge of a sleeping bag, which, after I lashed it to my pack, hung heavy and wet red. Each bloated drop assaulted the bag’s fabric, covertly disappearing into the weave. My comfy hollow became a pond a couple inches deep, getting deeper. Looking around I noticed high ground in short supply. In fact it seemed the ground decided to sink, succumbing to the weight of the water. I slogged around the thick undergrowth hoping to find anything dry. Don Quixote would have been proud.

Finally, I walked back to the black, soaked, gusting, highway. Peering north offered only dark expanse. I alternated between looking down to protect my eyes from the rain, and casting glances up in hopes of seeing a car. Half an hour passed as I waited for headlights. None came. No big surprise, I couldn’t imagine anyone would want to leave shelter to enter this menace.

To the south, I saw a minute red haze diffused by the billion drops separating me from the glow. Shelter nearby appeared nonexistent, and I realized standing in the gale, wet, waiting for morning, would drain away my body heat. I thought of the prayer the man had said for me on my first day out, asking God’s protection, and felt an inkling the distant lone light signaled a motel.

As I started walking, each of my shriveled fingertips trickled water like leaking faucets. I watched my hands rain onto my boots. The sky became a pounding ocean, as if the world had flipped upside-down.

With each sloshing step I swore I could feel the skin on my toes wrinkling, as if they’d soaked in a bath too long. I kept walking and simply accepted the drenching. Nothing would prevent everything I carried from becoming saturated, expect maybe my journal, sealed in a plastic bag.

After about forty-five minutes of plodding, with my head bent down against the storm, I neared the red glow. I could tell it was an arrow pointing to a motel, but couldn’t make out “vacancy” or “no vacancy”. The ground looked hazy as I neared the light. Each pounding drop shattering into thousands of splashing flecks that became a low smoke, blurring the line between sky and road.

VACANCY! And it looked cheap!!!

Of the two hundred dollars I’d started with I still held about seventy. Opening the office door triggered a dull buzz from a back room where a TV droned. This would be my first night paying for shelter.

“Be there in a second.” The dry voice of an old woman sounded. She crept out to the counter with her head bent toward the floor. Reaching down for a registration card her movements seemed to carry a practiced disinterest. She looked up. Her eyes jolted open.

I stood still, trying not to startle her while I poured over her lobby floor. After a couple moments I could see her attempting to suppress a laugh.

“It’s a rough one out there tonight.”

“Yes. You are correct.” I attempted to not sound annoyed at her firm grasp of the obvious.

“You got a license plate number?”

“Nope. I’m walking.”

She eyeballed me, and I don’t think she wanted to rent me a room. But the thought of turning me out to the storm may have swayed her, or maybe it was the cash I started counting. After paying, I walked across the parking pond to my room. Opening the door I saw a sharply defined cube of air devoid of drops—an atmosphere carved from a different planet, where a dry bed billowed comfort.


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