Born to Run (2016)





In the days before Christmas, Tinker and I prepared to cross the country one more time, via his old Ford station wagon. It would be the same routine, seventy-two hours, three thousand miles, no sleep, straight through. On our way south, we decided to stop in our old stomping grounds of Richmond, Virginia. We ended up in a strip club, where Tinker bonded with a belly dancer. He decided to spend the night with his new pal and I stayed with an old Southern girlfriend. When we met at the station wagon the next morning, there was the belly dancer, her bags packed. She’d decided she’d had enough of the new South and threw her lot in with us to head for the new West. She was a nice gal and a pleasure to have along for the ride. She had some friends on the coast and talked about opening a belly-dancing studio in Northern California, just the sort of area where that kind of thing might take off. The trip was pretty uneventful except for some vicious snowstorms we ran into crossing the western mountains. I still didn’t have my license, but as usual, those were the details. We hit areas of the highway where eighteen-wheelers were parked, engines running, drivers asleep in their cabs, backed up for miles, unable in the ice and snow to make it up the steep mountain grades.

One night the road vanished before our eyes; there was so much snow it was impossible to tell the location of the highway’s shoulder. We had chains on our tires but we still did plenty of ice-skating over some very treacherous terrain. Our belly-dancing gal pal was getting pretty nervous, so we pulled to a stop. Tinker and I got out on a high mountain pass where there were no other cars visible. There was just a city of snow falling from the sky and gathering around us. It was quiet, dead desert quiet. A truly heavy snowfall can be unnerving. Back east we usually experience the freedom that comes with a good snowstorm. No work, no school, the world shutting its big mouth for a while, the dirty streets covered over in virgin white, like all the missteps you’ve taken have been erased by nature. You can’t run; you can only sit. You open your door on a trackless world, your old path, your history, momentarily covered over by a landscape of forgiveness, a place where something new might happen. It’s an illusion but it can stimulate the regenerative parts of your spirit to make good on God and nature’s suggestion. A lot of snow, however—I mean a whole lot—is a different thing. That feeling of freeness turns to confinement. The sheer physical weight of the snow becomes existential and the dread of a dark, covered world sets in. I’ve felt it twice. Once in Idaho, where it snowed circus clowns for seventy-two hours, all power and light gone, eternal night and judgment day upon us. The other was that highway evening on the pass. There was too much quiet, too much weight, too few boundaries and no dimension. The world had been planed down into a snow-blind table you could easily slide off the edges of. It had been simplified into the passable and impassable. The early ocean mapmakers had it right: the world was flat and a wrong move too far to the left or right could bring you to the brink of the abyss, and beyond there be monsters.

We hopped back in the coffin of our car and Tink inched us along the highway, the misanthrope in him elated by the prospect of world’s end, until we hit some lower elevations, returned to the land of the living and safer roads. The rest of the trip was truck stops, roadhouses, tales of the erotic life from our passenger and the usual endless highway. We hit the California border and Tinker dropped me off in San Mateo at my folks’ front door. My parents met me in their pajamas; I headed inside, threw down my bag and crashed on the couch for twenty-four hours of solid sleep.

I planned on a new life in a new place far away from my lover’s blues. I had saved maybe three hundred bucks. That was my “get started” money. The first thing I needed to do was find a paying job playing somewhere. I quickly found out, once again, that while there were places I could play my acoustic music for free—open-mike nights, etc.—none of them would pay. I was a complete unknown again. I’d left my rep as bar band king on the East Coast and was simply another wannabe with a guitar and a pocketful of songs. No luck there, so I set my sights on joining an established club band who needed a singer and guitarist who could rock the house. With that in mind, I went clubbing. One night in San Francisco, I came upon a very good funk and soul band that had the crowd hopping. During a break I struck up a conversation with one of the players, who mentioned they were looking for a guitarist to replace their guy who was leaving. It looked like a perfect fit. Their music was a little jazzier than my style but I figured I could cover it, so we exchanged numbers and set a date for me to come out and jam. One weekday night I pulled up to a warehouse in southern San Fran, walked in, met the guys and plugged in. We played for about forty minutes. Their music pushed me but I thought it had gone well. They took a break, convened in another room; the fellow I had spoken to in the club came out and I was sent jobless on my way. I hadn’t felt so completely rejected since my last San Francisco trip. I was starting to get an attitude about the place.

I spent the next three weeks searching high and low for a paying job playing music. Finally, I thought I should just put a band together, audition somewhere, set a club on fire and let nature take its course. I was walking through the Hillsdale mall and I stopped in a one-hour photo shop to develop a few pictures I had taken on the trip. I got talking to a kid who looked in his early twenties behind the counter and he mentioned he played bass. He had a small group looking for a guitarist and asked if I’d like to come out and play with them over the weekend. They were down in San Jose, which was a bit of a drive, but hell, by now I was desperate and running low on cash.

That weekend I borrowed my folks’ car, drove the hour south and followed my directions into a middle-class suburb slightly outside of the city. It was straight-up Ozzie and Harriet land: modest ranch houses, side by side, the standard two-car garages and swatches of green front lawn. I came upon my friend’s house and there they were, my new band. The garage bay was open, and I could see my pal on bass and what looked to be a couple of fourteen-year-olds on drums and guitar. They were set up in classic formation, facing the street, a few small amps surrounding a kid who looked like Dennis the Menace with long hair on drums. They were kids, real kids, little kids, just learning to play. Kids with guitars they probably got for Christmas from Mom and Dad. And here I was.

I hauled my guitar out of the car, set up and put on a show for them all afternoon. I pulled out every trick I knew, and over the afternoon hours, I managed to draw a few folks away from their lawn mowers and barbecue grills. I played like I was at Madison Square Garden. I just needed to. At dusk, I packed up, thanked them for a lovely time and headed north toward home. I felt sad, foolish and happy. I wasn’t going to make it. California wasn’t going to be mine. From fifteen years old on, I’d made my own money. From the time I picked up a guitar, I’d never taken a dime from my parents, and I wasn’t about to start now. They simply didn’t have it—not twenty dollars, not ten dollars to spare. My life would be the couch, a pillow, a blanket in my folks’ living room and spare change. My teen-beat afternoon clarified everything for me. I had to get back to where I was who I was, a son of New Jersey, gunslinger, bar band king, small-town local hero, big fish in a little pond and breadwinner. Right now, the only place my talents could sustain me was my little fiefdom on the East Coast. Suddenly my girl troubles seemed very small and I started to make plans to go home.

Mexico (Montezuma’s Revenge)

During the remainder of my stay my father asked me to accompany him on a trip to Mexico and said he was planning to stop in Long Beach, where the Queen Mary was docked. This was the ocean liner he’d shipped out on for World War II and he wanted to see her one more time. His plan was to go from there down to Tijuana, catch a jai alai game, tourist around a little bit and meet my mom and little sister at Disneyland on the way back. In the spirit of healing old wounds I said yes and off we went. He insisted on bringing the family dog, Smokey, a half sheep dog, half who knows what, who’d just torn the shit out of our Christmas. We’d gone off to midnight mass and on our return, we opened the front door on a scene that looked like Santa’s elves had just finished gangbanging Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in our living room. Tinsel, Christmas balls, water, wrapping paper and ribbon were strewn all over the small apartment. The Christmas tree had been toppled to the floor and every gift had been chewed open. In the middle sat Smokey, panting, waiting to be congratulated.

From the beginning, the joie de vivre in the car wasn’t what one might’ve hoped for. We were doing our best, but we still got under each other’s skin. Our stop at Long Beach flopped. I was a punk, grumbling my way through the whole Queen Mary tour. My dad’s journey on this ship was probably one of the most meaningful of his life and I couldn’t respect it. I’d pay anything now to be able to walk that ship with my father again. I would treasure every step, want to know every detail, hear every word and memory he’d share, but back then I was still too young to put the past away, too young to recognize my dad as a man and to honor his story.

We headed south to Mexico, crossed the border at San Diego and holed up in a motel on the outskirts of Tijuana. We locked the dog in the room and headed into town. We caught some jai alai and cruised the tourist district, where my dad bought a watch from a street vendor, bragging to me about the deal he got until it stopped dead exactly twenty minutes later. I had my picture taken on a jackass that had been painted to look like a zebra, my pops smiling in the cart behind me. We wore sombreros; mine read “Pancho” and his “Cisco.” When we got back to the motel, Smokey had chewed the hell out of the door, leaving scratches and shavings from the knob down; cursing, the old man had to ante up for the damage. Adios, Mexico.

Back to El Norte. We headed to Disneyland, met my mom and sis, spent an afternoon at the “happiest place on Earth” and headed back by way of some cryptic shortcut of my father’s that added three night-filled, spooky hours onto our trip home. Everybody was frazzled.

Shortly after our return, Tinker phoned me up, said he was headed back east, and I told him to count me in. I said good-bye to my folks and little sister, told them I loved them, and then it was seventy-two hours, three thousand miles straight through, ’til we hit Jersey. Through using the same facilities at the apartment, all I left behind for my pops was a case of crabs I picked up somewhere along the way. Good-bye, son, thanks for the memories.