Friday, December 30, 2011

GOING UPCOUNTRY

Q


Most farangs vacation in Thailand for the beaches food, culture, and temples. I had been to many. In 1997 a friend in exile from the UK off-suggested a visit to the Last Babylon. Pattaya offered love-lost western men a chance to meet a girl of their dream. Past and present are unimportant. Most men are astounded by finding someone who thinks that they are handsome or law. They spend an idyllic vacation on Koh Samet.

The disgust of fat western women on the beach rivaled the envy of these obese cows’ husbands. The Thai-farang couple make love five times a day, mostly to compensate for years of abstinence. Upon his return to Pattaya, she doesn’t mind accompanying the older man to go-gos. His and our blindness is almost comical, since we can't see that she doesn’t trust he out of her sight.

Pattaya has to be paradise and two weeks into the honeymoon his beloved says, “I want see my family. You come with me?”

Her offer seems like an innocent proposition and the old geezer agree to this journey to Ban Mai-mee-tee-nai.

Hearing these plans his bar friends exchange a knowingly glance.

“What’s wrong?” The newby really want to know.

“Nothing.” They smile like he brought a blind donkey “Have a great time.”

“Thanks.” The western man rents a car for several days and leaves Pattaya on a great adventure. Ban Mai-mee-tee-nai is not on the map. He asks his sweetheart for directions. She is about a minute from a semi-coma and points north. “Isaan.”

Isaan.

The mythic plateau of Northeast Thailand which has figured into his friends' countless jokes about the sick buffalo, blind aunt, feeding whole communities of bankrupt Thai farmersdrinking Lao-Khao whiskey till dawn. The farang suddenly realize that he doesn’t know what he's gotten himself into and his tilat isn’t explaining either, because she is scrunched against the door in a state of exhaustion.

Oblivion comes easy after two weeks of making love to a Viagra-crazed farang.

The highway turns into a two lane road. At one point his darling opens an eye and indicates a dirt road. By the time the car hits the first pothole, she has lapsed into another coma.

The electric lines disappear and dry fields stretch to a hazy horizon. Buffalo laze in a torpor. No cars. No people. Crossing a bridge over a muddy creek and his girlfriend opens her eyes.

“We here.”

“Ban Mai-mee-tee-nai?”

“My home.” She beeps the horn, as he pulls into a forested complex surrounded by bone-dry rice fields. Rain drops on the Isaan Plateau with a miser's wish for less.

A horde of Thais surges from several wooden houses. The old farang haven’t seen any place this ramshackle outside of a National Geographic magazine, but everyone smiles a greeting. He smiles back. Kids pull on your leg. An older man greets the farang with a bow. He wais back as directed by his girlfriend. Everyone laughs. He smiles. Food appears out of nowhere. Everyone sits down and eats on the ground. The old codger thinks this isn’t too bad, until his legs cramp up and everyone laughs at his uncomfortability.

His girlfriend’s ‘brother’ gets a chair dating back three centuries. Sweat pours from his skin. They offered beer with ice. He's never drank it like that before. Now it’s perfect. The heat is stultifying. More food is eaten. Some of it he doesn't recognize. He tastes a little. Your mouth is on fire. He drinks more beer. Soon it’s gone.

“Need more beer.” His girlfriend holds out her hand.

He reaches into your pocket. The girlfriend grabs 2000 baht and jumps on a dilapidated motorcycle with the 'cousin'. “Be back soon.”

The remaining crones clear the food and he's left to drink Lao-Khao whiskey with the male family members. They insist on his drinking, even though he's passed triple the legal limit for DWI an hour ago. His girlfriend hasn’t shown up and the farang peaks his ears for the sound of the motorcycle, only to hear the buzz of the early evening’s mozzies.

Several hours later he wakes on the floor of a house with three men aromatized by lao whiskey. He has no idea where he is. His wallet is still in his pants. Thais are very honest. Female voices babble under the floor. Nothing they say makes any sense. The farang climbs over the pile of sleeping men and descends a vertiginous set of stairs to the ground.

Over head stars blaze in their billions. A fire burns in the yard. Some of it is plastic. His girlfriend is sitting with a gaggle of women. She smiles at him. He smiles back, wishing a doctor could shoot him with an injection to get rid of his throbbing hangover.

Footsteps sound behind him. The men are carrying plastic bags of Lao-Khao whiskey. He protests against being offered a glass. His girlfriend frowns. The Lao-Khao goes right to his stomach and the farnag rushed into the bushes to heave like a girl scout drunk from sherry. Everyone laughs and that’s the last he remembers before waking to the sound of roosters cowing. It’s dark. He'll, it’s night.

His girlfriend is asleep and so is everyone else.

The farang tries to go back to sleep but his feet have been chewed by flocks of mozzies hungry for a taste of new blood. Soon dogs are barking and the sky is getting light. Before the dawn a loudspeaker crackles to life. For the next hour a man rants on in Thai. No one stirs from their slumber and the farang wish that he was back in his hotel room.

Air-con. Cable TV. Swimming pool. Mobile phone service. Western food. Chairs. Beds. Beaches. Go-go bars.

Of course his girlfriend doesn’t respond to any hint about a return to Pattaya other than to say that tonight is a big party, which ends up a repeat of the first night only with more family members. Everyone is having a good time and why shouldn’t they? No one has put a hand into their pocket since his arrival and he mentally calculates that he could have flown to Bali for the price of the last two days ie bar fine, car rental, and expenses.

And his girlfriend hasn’t as much as kissed him, as she has reverted to a village girl. Food, friends, family, everyone having a good time. And she knows how to play a man, farang or Thai, because at the night’s end, she comes up to him and says, “Everyone like you. Me, I love you, because you not make face.”

“Make face?”

“Yes, make face same dog, because you spend too much money.” She sneaks a kiss and everyone laughs. He too and he decides to stick it another day.

On the fourth day he wakes up and pack the car. Everyone waves good-bye, except for the three family members joining them for the voyage south.

Back in Pattaya he drops off the relatives without a word of thanks. He delivers the car three hours late for a half-day penalty. The farang is glad to be back in civilization, but his girlfriend cries, “I miss my family.”

They make love for the first time in four days and she cries throughout. He feels like he's having sex with a war widow and almost stop, except those years of abstinence have create a monster and he completes your mission, after which he leaves her in the hotel room watching TV to meet his friends.

The farang is happy to be missing them and later that night the gang at his favorite bar ask, “How was it?”

“It was great.”

And they nodded in unison because they’ve said the same thing too. We all do to save face. When in Thailand.

YELLOW TEETH by Peter Nolan Smith

I have been arrested several times in my life. Age 12 for vandalizing an abandoned missile base overlooking Boston Harbor Age 21 for driving over a bed of flowers at a girl's college in Newton. Age 25 for running an after-hour club in Manhattan. Age 31 in Paris for grafitting the British Embassy wall. The gendarmes thought my words were an IRA tirade, instead of drunken verses to my girlfriend working across the street at the Azzedine Alaia salon opposite the embassy on Rue St. Honore.

None of these crimes deserved jail time. My violent streak never came to the attention of the police. My drug deals were strictly small-time. I avoided contact with the Mafia. They were as dangerous as the Hell's Angels, Hamburg pimps, Colombian cocaine dealers, and conniving transvestites. My mother had warned me about these people. "If you see trouble coming, walk the other way." I was near-sighted, so trouble found me long before I noticed its approach. Luckily my Uncle Carmine told his wayward nephews the Golden Rule. "Only break one law at a time." His advice stood us well and I avoided any serious complications with the law for twenty-two years, however no one's lucky streak can challenged the odds forever and in January 2008 I returned to Central Pattaya after a pleasant seafood lunch with my steady girlfriend in Jomtien. It was a good life. I was living alone in the most wicked town on the planet. My website selling counterfeit Ferrari and assorted F1 merchandise was # 1 in the Google search engines. The weather was cool and I had shipped a big order of McLaren driver suits to Germany. Another week of good sales and I would be out of debt, then I could get my yellow teeth whitened to a brilliant white. I entered my estate off Soi Bongkot and parked my motorscooter before my rented house. Another month and the mango tree would bear fruit. Everyone in the neighborhood waited the harvest with lip-smacking anticipation. A mini-van stopped behind me. At first I thought it was my brother-in-law coming for a beer and I wondered why he brought so many friends.

Why? Because it wasn't Pi-Wot but the Bangkok police to arrest me for copyright infringement. The oldest officer in a black suit presented a search warrant. The other cops were undercover in jeans, tee-shirts, and sneakers. I was wearing sandals. Running was not an option. I opened the gate, then the doors to my office.

They politely took off their shoes and entered my office. Twenty F1 shirts lay in plastic bags on the floor. They seized the merchandise and the ranking officer asked, “Where’s the rest of it?”

“That’s it.” Business has been off this year. A computer geek sat at my computer. He wanted the codes to my site. Refusal was out of the question. Cooperation was rewarded with leniency, but tonight looked like i would be spending the evening in a monkey house. They were never comfortable. “Can I go outside?” I wasn't needed for the dismantling of f1 shopping. The long-haired geek knew his business and his fingers swept over my keyboard like a tsunami.

The commander nodded and two cops accompanied into the garden and I hyperventilated, as a series of prospective scenarios played in my head. Most of them were finished in jail. One of the younger cops told me to calm down, “Jai yen. Jai yen.” "That's easy for you to say." I had seen MIDNIGHT EXPRESS more than once. He wasn’t being arrested in a foreign country.

“No big problem. Maybe 2000 baht.” He explained the fine would be about $60. “We take you Bangkok. You pay bail and then go home. Mai pen lai."  American detective from Quantico Ltd. was supervising the operation. His company had been looking for me a long time. Rusty was a Yale graduate. HIs online persona had emailed that his mother wouldn't allow his use of her credit card and I had accepted a western union wire to my real name. I had mailed him merchandise, but had written phony addresses on the envelopes, thinking that might protected me. At least it was a comfort that my ex-wife hadn't sold me out to the tam-luau. How they had tracked me back to Soi Sawan was unimportant, but Rusty also said it wasn't such a big deal. "Not the first time. Next time you go to jail."

"Message well taken." I had been trying to quit for ages. "I don't want to go to jail.

Jail in Thailand is a bare floor with thirty-plus other misfortunates.

"You won't." Rusty had arrested scores of counterfeiters. "You seem like a smart person. Why are you doing this?" I hated snitches. "Why did you do this?" Rusty was in his thirties. HIs Thai was impeccable. "So I could stay in Thailand." The other employment opportunities were either a low-paying teaching job or running a bar. "We all do what we have to do."

The old lady on the street came up to me. I paid her to clean my house. She had received perfume for Christmas. The police had questioned her about me several times and she had never said a word. I also hated people who didn't snitch. "I tell police you good man." Thai police studied the ways of the Gestapo. Thailand had a long fascist tradition. The only up for informers were the police. "Thanks." Her testimony was the best a woman in her position could do for a farang. "These police not same Pattaya. Honest. Not worry." "Sure." I always worried when people tell me not to worry, but the police never cuffed me or confiscated my telephone. The older officer asked if i had any drugs in the house. I told him the truth. "Ganga no problem. Get rid of it." He sent me into the house and I flushed the two joints down the toilet. When I came out, he asked, "You want beer?" "Yeah." It couldn't hurt and I reached into my pocket. "Mai, mai." He waved his hand in the air and leaned forward. "I talk with everyone and they say you good man. I will take care of you. I not like other farang." He was speaking about Rusty and his employers. The old lady had said that they were honest, but this arrest was unlike any that I had seen on Sophon Cable or read in the Bangkok Post. After two hours of checking my computer and packing the merchandise, they transported me to Bangkok in an air-conditioned mini-van.

Halfway to the Sathon Police Station they stopped for food and bought a bag filled with McDonald’s Happy Meal. This was not my last meal and I realized how fortunate I was to have been arrested by Federal police.

A Thai friend in Bangkok met me at the police station. His face said COP same as mine. Khim worked as a chauffeur. He explained the process and said, "Small problem. You get bail. Go home."

Strangely everyone was very polite to me. My holding cell was an office with AC and a TV with my choice of DVDs. I didn’t feel like watching anything as I was reading Peter Hopkirk's THE GREAT GAME.

Later TV crews showed up for a show. The commanding officer for copyright infringement pointed to a pile of two-thousand shirt. “This farang was caught with 4 million baht and 2000 shirts." “No, khun tam pit." I whispered under my breath. He had made a mistake and I pointed to a single bag down the corridor. "Those are these.”

“These?” Someone had properly not briefed him.

"Yes, 20 shirts. Nothing more."

He waved to the TV crew to shut off the camera. End of interview.

The arresting officers laughed at their boss.

I sat in an AC office watching TV. Movie of my choice. INSIDE MAN. I was fingerprinted and filled out an arrest form. When the cops announced bail of 50k. I said I didn't have it.

"40k?"

"Mai mee kap." Speaking polite Thai helps in situations like this.

"30?" There was no way they were dropping to 20 or 25.

30 it was. A little less than $1000.

Khim and I said, "Yet mah." or motherfucker.

We were short the bail. I had 15 k in the bank and Khim had 500. Nu couldn't sell a motorcycle until tomorrow. The monkey house loomed as a probability instead of a possibility. No beds, no blankets, cheap rice twice a day, and lots of mosquitoes. The antithesis of the worst Bangkok in Bangkok.

I made one phone one call. The Old Roue lived in on Soi Nana. I knew him from New York. I asked for 20K. He had 15K. Khim drove over to Soi 4 and picked it up. Without the Old Roue I would have been in the monkey house for who knows how long. I called him to say thanks every few days and also let him know I'm still broke. ."No problem man, you get it when you get it."

The whole process from raid to release took seven hours with a two-hour trip to Bangkok thrown into the program. The Fed cops had me sign an affidavit confirming no one had asked for a sin bon or bribe.

After the money was paid they cut me loose. Khim spent 200 baht on 5 bottles of Khang. I drank 3 of them myself. I went to sllep happy that I didn't spend any time in the 'monkey house'. No chairs, no fans, and lots of mosquitoes as a prelude to the Bangkok Hilton, the Koong Toey jail.

I appeared on national TV that night. Channel 5. The Army station.  The police had said, “Not worry. Not many people watch Channel 5.”

Everyone on my soi saw the newscast.

Several Thai friends said I looked handsome. They couldn’t care less that I was arrested. It’s something that happens.

Everyone was astounded by this revelation of how much money I had. "You have 4 million baht."

My old lady who cleaned my house knew the truth. I was broke and wished I had the 4 million baht. I could get a job at the local school teaching English and make about $300/month. 10,000 baht. 300/baht a day is a big comedown from 3000 baht a day.

This story is far from over, since the cops said it would be at least 6-10 weeks until I go to court.

Another day in paradise has gotten a little less paradisaical, but it's always better to be free.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tsunami 2004 plus 7

Seven years ago on Boxing Day a tour boat dropped me the southern end of Koh Samet and I kayaked to a distant island. The idyllic isle was deserted, except for a single family. The father was a sailor and this post required his protecting the untouched forests from loggers. The family was there for the New Year holiday, since the island's water supply was limited. He offered to fill my canteen and I wai-ed him a happy New Year. The Gulf of Siam was unexpected rough on my return passage and I paddled through a sloppy chop. The sea was blue and the was bluer. The wind was at my back, but getting to shore took longer than I had imagined. My arms were noodled by the exertion and I returned to my hotel thirsty from my efforts. Ordering a beer was impossible, because everyone in the bar was watching a horrific movie about a big wave crashing into Thailand, then I recognized the location. Koh Phi Phi. These were no special effects. Even grimmer VDOs were aired from Indonesia, Phuket, and Sri Lanka. We later learned the death totals numbered in the hundreds of thousands, including the grandson of the Thai King. Nations mourned this disaster. For days afterwards friends emailed about my welfare. “I’m fine.” Few possessed a good sense of geography. Koh Samet is on the Gulf of Siam and at the time of the great waves I was peacefully floating on a plastic plank, thinking what a wonderful world we live in. And it was and will be. This year I stood still for a moment of silence to remember the day when the Earth rang like a bell. Here’s the equation for the force of a wave. P=pgh where P = the overlying pressure in Newtons per metre square, ρ = the density of the seawater= 1.1 x 103 kg/m3, g = the acceleration due to gravity= 9.8 m/s2 and h = the height of the water column in metres. Hence for a water column of 5,000 m depth the overlying pressure is equal to 5.7 Million tonnes per metre square. In other words ‘run for your life’.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Man Who Never Shat

Western travelers regarded the Chosin Peninsula as a 'Hermit Kingdom' well into the 19th Century. Japan pried open the doors of its old rival with more deadier cannons and guns. Korea regained its freedom at the defeat of the Rising Sun. The victors; Russia, China, and the USA Cold War created two separate states. Capitalism versus Communism. A bloody war failed to resolve the political differences. South Korea benefitted from the largesse of the West and its modern industrial base rewarded its citizens with wealth. North Korea shut its doors. One man spoke for all. The Supreme Leader's support of the anti-capitalist struggle veered off course into activities considered criminal by its southern neighbor's intelligence agencies. GW Bush condemned North Korea to the 'Axis of Evil'. The First Supreme Leader died with his nation safe from change. His son assumed his ascendancy after his father's demise. Kim Jong-il scored a 38 under par on the first game on Pyongyang's first golf course. He aced eleven holes-in-one. His ceaseless search for a long life ended last week and North Korea mourns the passing of the Man Who Never Shat. This claim had to be true. His government said so and governments never lie. His nation mourns. His soul is gone. I hope in his heaven that there is a toilet. The Man Who Never Shat must need one.

JAI YEN MAI by Peter Nolan Smith

Several years ago on Boxing Day my daughter was playing on our soi in Pattaya. A pick-up roared down the street like the driver had murdered his wife and was bell-bent for the border. From my perspective the bumper came too close to my little precious daughter. I jumped on my scooter and chased the speeding pick-up down the street.

At the corner I slapped his door with my open palm. A clumsy move and I swerved off my bike to avoid entering the car mayhem of Soi Bongkot. The bike dropped to the ground and I struggled to right the Yamaha. My neighbor, appeared to have such a small head through the windshield, got out of the car in a football hooligan fury. The small noggin was attached to a King Kong body tattooed with Chelsea slogan. I spotted 'Strive for victory shun defeat!' a nanosecond before his first punch.

Lefts and rights gashed my eyebrow and cheek. Grappling his arms, I realized, “Shit this guy is strong and knows what he’s doing.”

Finally he was out of breath and asked, “Had enough?”

“Yeah, but you’re still a cunt for nearly hitting my daughter.”

We left it like that.

My daughter's mother regarded at my black eyes and bruised face. “What you want to do?”

“Nothing right now.” Taking a baseball bat to his windshield or slashing his tires would escalate the conflict to the point where someone would get hospitalized since Pattaya is packed with lager louts and hooligans avoiding travel in Europe now that Spain has an extradition treaty with the UK. Fascists to a man.

“Good. Better to have jai-yen.” She kissed my cheek and gave me a beer. Fights led to blood and blood led to death.

My Thai friends from the Buffalo Bar said we have to get him.

Gae-kaen or revenge.

“But not today.” They advised with a grim smile. “Wait, we get him later.”

Their list of suggestions were dominated by a beating or vandalizing his truck.
“We do. You not worry. You not call the police?”

“No.” Calling the police meant paying sin-bon or bribes without any guarantee of satisfaction.

“Good.” The Thais liked keeping the police in the dark. “Lam-Luat no know. Good.”

My farang friends asked, “What happened to you?”

I explained the situation, but changed the story to say that my assailant was an 80 year-old man.

“Really?”

“Some of these geezers are wiry and fast.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Nothing as long as he drives slower in the neighborhood.”

Doing nothing felt funny. George W Bush wouldn’t do nothing, but the Pentagon wasn’t in my back pocket. Nothing seemed wrong, especially when the skinhead lout drove by my house every day with a pit bull in the back. At least he was going slower.

I spent a week doing push-ups. It was a waste of time.

I was no longer a fighter, but I am vicious and spotted a cluster of red ants in my mango tree. Normally I would have sprayed the swarming tentacles with a pesticide since mot-daeng are wicked biters. This time I went into the kitchen and brought out a pot of honey.

“Winnie the Pooh.” My daughter called out as I coated the leaves with the sweet sticky honey.

My wife took one look and said, “Gae-kaen.”

I nodded my head and waited for the ants to gather their clan.

Red ants swarmed over the leaves to get at the honey. Within an hour the branch bent under their weight. By dark they numbered in the thousands, thanks to my attentive resupply of honey. My daughter's mother was watching a Thai soap opera. She only had eyes for the TV. I drove around the block. The pick-up truck was parked on the street.

I returned to the mango tree and coaxed the red ants into a paper bag. It actually felt heavy and then I dressed in black. Camouflage for the night. I crossed through the backyards of several abandoned house to the adjacent street. No dogs barked out a warning. The skinhead’s truck was sheltered under a tree. I snuck up to the driver’s door. A dollop of honey on the door handle. Another under the door. I checked the street and uplifted the bag . A little too fast, because more ants fell on me than the door.

Thousands of them sought my flesh.

Hundreds of them found it.

I threw down the bag and ran into the darkness. They bite me everywhere.

My daughter's mother spotted the welts. “Gae-kaen.”

Revenge was always best served cold.

Especially with red ants on hand.

Fuck-Up At DusselDorf

The days of December went into double-digits without my purchasing a ticket to Thailand. I was sitting with Vonelli in his Charleroi mansion sifting through the online travel sites. The Floridian suggested Air Berlin out of Dusseldorf. It was a four-hour train ride from Luxembourg, where I had been serving as 'unofficial writer in residence' to a foreign embassy. Thirty minutes later I booked a flight on December 20 and upon my return to the residence overlooking the Petrousse I informed Madame ambassador that my absence would last into the New Year. "Bon Voyage." Madame Ambassador was stuck at her post. Diplomats at her level are expected to be present at their postings twenty-four hours a day seven days a week 365 days a year. "Get some sun for me." I departed from Luxembourg a day early to visit Koln's medieval cathedral and the Ludwig Museum. My hotel was close to the train station and I walked over to the soot-stained monument to a mythic messiah, which is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe. The spacious interior impressed the gawking tourists. I stretched out my arms to test the mysticism radar. Not a beep lit up my 4D screen, then again I was no longer a Christian. Winter was more winter in Koln than Luxembourg. I drank Glohwein at the Christmas Fair. The girl serving my mulled wine was the prettiest girl in the city and her beauty was enhanced by the glogg. I staggered back to my cheap, but cheerful hotel and crashed on the single bed to the sound of an argument between a married couple in the next room. Nothing says love better than a fight in a cheap hotel. The next day I toured the Ludwig Museum for two hours. Its extensive collection was too much to absorb and such a short time and I exited the museum with my eyes burned my images of Yves Klein Otto Mueller, and Alexander Rodchenko. I had thirty minutes to kill before my train and I spent twenty of them at the gloog bar. The girl's name was Helga. The twenty-year old came from Bremen. Her favorite music was punk. If only I had been thirty years younger with three more hours to kill, but I had a train to catch. I ran to the station and caught the 12:40 to Dusseldorf. An hour later I stepped onto the platform of the Aeroport Station. A hanging monorail brought passengers to the terminal. I presented my ticket at the check-in. "This is one-way." The blonde Air Berlin attendant held up my ticket with consternation. "Is that a problem?" "Air Berlin won't accept the responsibility of your getting refused entry to Thailand." She was following procedure. "It's never a problem at the other end." The passport control at Cobra Swamp was overwhelmed by the deluge of tourists spewed off 747 and Airbus." "Let me check on it." She picked up the phone. A minute later she handed back my ticket and pointed across the terminal. "Talk to them. They will find you a ticket." Buying a last-minute ticket at the airport was daunting, but the counterwoman found a cheap flight back to Dusseldorf on January 16. $500 one-way. "Make it so." I love quoting Captain Picard of the Starship Enterprise. It almost makes flying an adventure.

SEA CRUISE by Peter Nolan Smith

While I had moved away from Boston 1971, every Christmas of my adult life had been spent with my family on the South Shore. This streak of thirty-three years was broken in 1985. An art dealer invited a female French singer and me to his cottage on the Isle of Wight for the holiday.

I phoned my mother to break the news. It was December 23.

“Oh, really.” The hurt was audible over the trans-Atlantic static. “This will be the first one you’re not home.”

“I know, but I will be flying to Boston on the 26th.” Our club in Paris was closed until after the New Year. My bosses had given me a good bonus. We were more friends than co-workers.

“Where are you going for Christmas?” My mother was worried about her second son. I had been in Europe for the past three years. The rest of my brothers and sisters lived within ten miles of our parents.

“The Isle of Wight.”

“Didn’t Queen Victoria have a palace there?” My mother was extraordinarily well read. She loved to read books and I had inherited that love. My father liked to travel. I was his son too.

“Yes, and I’m staying at a cottage on the grounds of the former royal residence.”

“Osbourne House.” My mother had a bear trap of a memory for details.

“Yes.” Victoria lived in Osbourne House with Prince Albert and she ruled the vast British empire from there. The Italian palazzo was visible from the windows of the cottage.

“Sounds very grand.” My mother had loved visiting the grand houses of Newport, Rhode Island and mansions along the Hudson River. She breathed the history with her senses.

“Supposedly when her husband died, the Empress went into mourning at a pavilion on the beach.”

“That’s what I heard too.” I refrained from mentioning that the affairs of state had languished without her participation in the day-to-day governing and Her Majesty’s ministers approached the Scottish gillie, John Brown, to bring Her Majesty out of her grief.

My mother was a devout Catholic. She had no knowledge about the rumors of the Queen’s affair with a common huntsman. Sex was for procreation. She had six children. Queen Victoria had nine.

“After her death it became a convalescent home for navy officers. They still walk around the grounds.”

“That is so fabulous.”

“I suppose it is.”

“I love you and we’ll spent our Christmas together a day later. They will be plenty of left-overs.” She was succeeding in seeding guilt into my heart.

“I’ll see you on the 26th.” I fought off the urge to get on a plane from Charles De Gaulle Aeroport to Logan. Maine, Boston, and the South Shore my roots. None of them had been my home for a long time.

I hung up the phone and called the singer.

We had been having an affair for the past month. Neither of us pretended that we were serious about our time together. She and I were free spirits. Our paths met and joined in many cities. Paris was just one of them.

“I’m ready to go.”

“No more mama and papa.” The petite brunette had a vicious streak tempered by an adoration for danger. She had been the first punk in France. Her record had been # 1 in 1984. We liked each other for our independence, although I had bought her a bottle of Chanel # 5 for a Christmas present.

“Not for Christmas, but I have a flight leaving Heathrow on the 26th.”

“And how do I get back to France?” It was a good question.

“Vonelli will take you back.” It was my only option.

“And he is a gentleman like you who abandon helpless women in a foreign country filled with beef eaters.” She had never met the bearded Floridian.

“Much more of a gentleman than me.” The singer and I had met at an after-hours club in Lower Manhattan. Her friends were starting a fight in the decorated loft. I was security. Stopping them was a matter of a single punch and bum-rushing them out of the club. Lizzie liked telling her friends about that incident. She really was a punk.

“We will see.” The singer could take care of herself. She had lived in the Lower East Side in 1975. It was a neighborhood on fire.

“Meet me at the station.” The train left from Gare St. Lazare at 4:45pm. The station was across the Seine from my apartment on Ile St. Louis.

I showed up at the train terminal a good half hour before departure. The holiday queues at the ticket booths were breaking down into mobs. I spotted Vonelli at a news kiosk. He was looked smitten by prosperity in his tan cashmere coat and his beard had been trimmed to a respectable length.

“Where is she?” Vonelli was waiting with the tickets. The art dealer was excited to meet the singer. He liked beautiful women.

“Women are always late.” I usually planned on any female companion to be at least thirty minutes behind schedule. “But not my friend.”

The singer was running through the crowds of homeward-bound travelers to Normandy. A cigarette hung from her mouth. Her unruly hair was wrapped under a scarf. A heavy coat hid her petite body. Doc Martens shielded her feet from the cold. Early winter had been unnecessarily harsh in Paris.

She lifted her head to acknowledge seeing us. A shroud of tangled hair fell onto her face. Her gloved hand pushed away the matted strands and the singer kissed me on the lips and then pecked Vonelli on both cheeks. Other passengers stared at her. She was famous.

“Let’s get on the train before I have to sign an autograph.” The singer dropped her cigarette on the ground. Her left boot extinguished the embers of the discarded butt. She had studied ballet in Lyons and that the gracefulness of that training showed with the most insignificant gestures. every

“I saw you sing on TV.” Vonelli offered to carry her bag. It was twice the size of mine and the singer liked to travel with thick books of philosophy. The art dealer grunted , as he hauled the heavily laden bag over his shoulder.

“French pop stars never sing on TV. We lip-synch the words. It’s good for our voices.” The Paris-born singer handed her bag to Vonelli and lit a cigarette. She was a heavy smoker and her naked skin smelled of tobacco. The Gitanes were hell on her throat and she made no effort to stop. “But I am on holiday and we are taking a big boat. So no more talking about music.”

The three of us boarded the train and took our seats. Vonelli had commandeered a 1st Class compartment. The singer was very pleased with his arrangement and I noticed the warmth in her smile. The same glow had greeted me the first time that she had seen me in Paris. I thought about whether I should be jealous, then decided that Vonelli and the singer made a good couple.

The train pulled out of Gare St. Lazare on time. The journey to the coast lasted a little over two hours. The ferry left later in the evening. That crossing lasted eight hours. We would reach Southampton slightly after dawn.

“Here’s to Noel.” Vonelli poured champagne into three glasses. The man came prepared for the journey. We ate foie gras on crispy baguettes and he amused us with humorous tales of sales at the Hotel Drouot auction house.

“They have their own Mafia. The cols rouge in the black uniforms with red trim come from the same region of the Alps and nothing gets shipped or stored at the Drouot without their okay. This morning one of them said that he couldn’t transport a painting to London, because it was in violation of Christian holiday traditions. 200 francs converted him to atheism.”

Vonelli fawned on the singer and she adored his gentlemanly manners.

“You know how I met your friend?” She pointed at me.

“I stopped her friends from having a fight at an after-hour club.” I hated people bringing up my past as a bouncer. In Paris I was called a physionomiste for my talent to recognize faces and decipher who was who as well as determine if the person was a welcome addition to the melange of personalities within the club. It was not a skill taught in schools.

“You stopped them and then threw me down the stairs.”

“I didn’t throw you down the stairs.” I couldn’t remember the particulars of that night.

“Yes, you did, but I forgave you.”

Vonelli shook his head. “Bad boy, but that’s why we like you.”

I sulked in my seat for several minutes. The singer cuddled up to me and admonished me in baby language. Vonelli thought that she was very funny and I had to admit the girl had a biting wit. My anger dissipated with another glass of champagne. Snow drifted against the windows. The darkened landscape was covered with white. It was beginning to look like Christmas.

Vonelli was a seasoned traveler.

At le Havre he steered us out of the station. The city had been heavily damaged during the Battle of Normandy and the devastated neighborhoods had been reconstructed in an appalling dull modernist style.

“Le Havre is the most dreary city in France. Think grey and grim. Concrete and more concrete and no building in the city has more concrete than the Eglise of St. Joseph.” Vonelli’s French was better than mine and he joked about how the church’s Belgian architect was awarded a medal from his government for his masterful uglification of Le Havre. “But even this city has some charm.”

We are dinner at a fantastic fish restaurant. Several diners asked for autographs. The singer was in a better mood than Gare St. Lazare. She even posed for photos with her fans. Vonelli and the singer engaged in a conversation about Sartre. They ignored my comment about his collaborating with the Nazis. I was becoming the third wheel.

It was a short walk to the ferry.

We boarded the ship. Our cabins were comfortable. So far neither the singer nor I had put our hands in our pockets. The three of us rendezvoused at the stern railing and watched the ferry slip from the harbor.

“Fuck you, France.” The singer gave her native land the finger.

“It’s better than America.”

“But not New York.” The singer had been introduced to the scene at CBGBs by a legendary singer of a punk band. Forkhead showed her his world. In 1975 the East village was the only place to be in the world for people like us. I got there one year later.

“New York is special.” The veterans at Max’s considered me a late-comer. My pinball play won friends at CBGBs, but no one ever called me ‘Tommy’. I was just me.

“Why don’t you two wash up and I’ll meet at the bar.” Vonelli returned to his suite. It was a double.

I stood with both hands on the railing. The singer leaned into me. The ship’s wake glowed with froth and the stars shimmered with increasing numbers, as we left the light of land. The icy night wind gust a salty mist off the Channel. The ferry’s prow was cutting through increasingly larger waves. The singer gripped the railing with both hands and leaned over to kiss me. It felt like the last one. I put my arm around her and we walked back inside.

“Your friend is very generous.” The singer shucked her heavy clothing in the cabin and entered the shower room. It was too small for two people, but she left the door open. The ferry was pitching from bow to stern in heavy seas. Tonight’s crossing was promising to be a rough one.

“I guess he had a good year at the Drouot.” I had the feeling that his extravagance was aimed at impressing the frail-boned brunette.

“He seems like a nice man.” Her voice was sappy with dreams.

“He is a good friend.” The singer and I had been on a train to nowhere with our affair. It had just pulled into the station and I was getting off. The singer had a new destination and I asked, “Do you like him?”

“He’s cute.” She lathed her body with soap. It was a show with one purpose.

“Really?” No one had called me cute since I was a kid.

“Almost like a Santa Claus in training.” The singer was my age, but looked much younger in the dim lighting of our cabin.

“It must be the beard.” His efforts were succeeding judging from the sing-song tone in her voice.

I reminded myself that she was in my cabin this evening and not his. I took off my clothes and staggered into shower. The ship her in the shower. It was big enough for two people.

Thirty minutes later we went to Vonelli’s cabin. We drank a bottle of wine holding onto the table to stay in the chairs. They had been screwed into the deck for just such weather. This was the Channel. The Spanish Armada had been destroyed by this stretch of water and I was beginning to understand why.

“I suggest that we skip dinner in this weather. Always better for the stomach.”

The singer and I concurred with his suggestion. The uneven motions of up-down-sideways-back was testing my constitution. I put down my glass without finishing the wine. This was going to be a long night.

Vonelli suggested that we visit the midship casino. I hadn’t gambled since losing big time at Reno in 1974, but we sat at the blackjack table together. Two other players greeted us with green faces. The crossing was not agreeing with their stomachs. The dealer wasn’t much better and our first five hands were winners. The slick-haired pit boss replaced her and succeeded in cooling the table.

Vonelli and the singer were more interested in each other than the cards in their hands. Their inattention gave the pit boss an edge and the odds of the house weighed against the six people at the table. The balance shifted a minute later, as the power of the sea overcame the inescapable grind of blackjack.

Casinos are constantly on the watch for card-counters, but my mind was calculating the time between troughs. The ship rode down one wave for four seconds and struggled up another for the same length of time. The spray covered the windows with foam, almost as if the ferry was a half-submerged submarine. The pit boss was struggling to deal out the cards and keep his balance.

The rhythm of the waves stretched into a extra long descent to the bottom of a nautical chasm and the deck shuddered, as the ferry’s engines fought to climb the steepening slope of a ship-crushing wave. Everyone’s eyes went wide and the bow cleared the crest and the ferry dropped into the next trough in a free fall. I grabbed my stack of chips before floating out of my seat. The head grazed the ceiling and then I fell right back into my chair. Vonelli and the singer were also lucky, but the pit boss landed on the table.

“I think it’s time to call it a night.” The pit boss was visibly shaken by his flight. The rest of us nodded assent to his suggestion. “Go to your cabin and we’ll cash you out in the morning.”

He shouted to close the casino and ordered the passengers to their cabins.

“Sorry about this.” Vonelli helped the singer to the door. He had wanted everything to be perfect. We separated to enter our rooms. For a second the singer seemed ready to go with him and if this had been a voyage from Southampton to New York instead of Le Havre to Southampton, then tomorrow night she would have made the move.

“See you two in the morning.”

The singer stripped off her clothing and slipped into bed.

“You like Vonelli?” I asked lying next to her. I hadn’t bothered to take off my clothes. If the ship sank, I wanted to be ready to abandon ship.

“Yes.” This question only needed a one syllable answer.

“I mean more than like.”

“Yes.” At least the singer was honest.

“Then I wish you luck.” Vonelli was a complicated man, then again men are much more simple than women.

“You do?” Her surprise was tempered by relief. No one liked a nasty ending.

“It’s obvious that you two like each other in a way that we would never come close to.”

“It is?”

“I think so. Remember I’m a professional physionomiste.” I could see everyone’s future but mine. I caressed her shoulder without daring to touch a more intimate stretch of flesh. This was it. “I’m happy for you. For you both.”

The ferry shuddered with a wave slapping the port-side.

“You think this ship will survive.” She was frightened by the ocean.

“Ships make this trip all the time. They are built for La Manche. Everything will be fine. Go to sleep.”

It was easier sad than done, but after two hours the sea surrendered its fury and the ferry resumed a gentle course to England. The singer kissed me on the cheek and went to sleep. I followed her within seconds. We woke with the announcement that the ferry would soon be docking in Southampton.

“How you sleep?” Vonelli was waiting at the railing. The low coastline lingered under a low grey overcast. We were approaching England.

“Good once the storm ended.” The singer stood between us, although a little closer to Vonelli. She made her choice. I watched the ferry about Southampton at half-speed. The captain had brought his ship to safety. Tonight was Christmas Eve. The day after was Christmas. I would fly home on Boxing Day. My mother would love the Chanel # 5. It was just her style and like all men I loved left-overs.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

No Better Than Yesterday

Nearly four years ago the Thai cyber-crime unit raided my house in Pattaya. The head officer officer arrested me on charges of intellectual property theft. My website offering F1 merchandise had been #1 in the search engines over various multinational car corporations. I knew that ranking would cause me a problem one day and this was it.

The police transported me to Bangkok, where I was processed with politeness. The head officer whispered to me that he had interrogated my neighbors and they had reported that I was a good farang. Their comments saved me from a night in the monkey house. I wished that they had informed me about the investigation, but the Thais know best when to shut their mouths.

The colonel in charge of the operation set my bail at $1000. I paid it on the spot. The next morning I was back in Pattaya. It was obviously time to leave the Last Babylon.

My friends attempted to persuade me from leaving them. My work options were limited to teaching or managing a bar. The first paid 30,000 baht per month and the second required late hours and heavy drinking. I opted for a return to New York after my trial. My pregnant wife wasn't happy about my departure, but I told her that things would be okay. It took a long time for that promise to be true.

My website has been closed for a long time.

Yesterday I decided to see, if any mention of www.f1-shopping.net existed online.

I discovered that the site was up for sale and several urls lower was a testimonial from a satisfied buyer.

"I got a AMG jacket on-line at Formula one F1 Jackets Formula 1 Shirts and caps F1 Merchandise

It was $79 bucks and took about 10 days to get........I am pretty sure it"s not orginal "AMG"..........

Good Luck."

We all need a little of that these days.

Bowery Boxing Day


Boxing Day has been celebrated on the day after Christmas mostly in the UK and host of occupied nations dominated by the British Empire such as Australia, Canada, Ghana, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Kenya, Guyana, Trinidad , Tobago, and Jamaica. For years I thought 'Boxing Day' was traditionally the holiday on which the rich gave the poor their ornate boxes in lieu or a gift, however it was actually the day when the tithes from alms boxes were distributed to the needy of the parish. It sounded like a dumb holiday to most Americans, who considered December 26 as 'left-over' day. From 1952-1985 I had permanent attendance at the table of our split-level ranch house south of Boston. My mother cooked a 20-pound turkey, I mashed seasoned potatoes, and my sisters set the dining room table with yams, creamed onions, turnips, peas, stuffing, and all the fixings for my aunts, uncles, cousins, grandmothers, friends, cousins, sisters, and brothers. Grace was said with bowed heads. Our plates were swept by forks and knives. Conversations were dominated by the retelling of old tales. Gifts from under a brightly decorated tree were exchanged before dessert of apple, pumpkin, and pecan pies. A fire burned in the fireplace. The wood came from Maine. We were one big happy family.

There wasn't much to do once the china had been cleared from the table, the pots were washed, and the silverware packed into a velvet-lined cedar box. My parents lived in the suburbs. A paradise for a teenager and a purgatory for a young adult in his 20s, especially since I was without a car.

On December 26, 1978 I thanked my parents for another superb Christmas and caught the train from Route 128 to Penn Station. My hillbilly girlfriend was down in West Virginia. She wouldn't be back until the weekend. I called Anthony Scibelli as soon as I reached my East 10th Street apartment. The photographer was a native New Yorker. We were both weary from pretending to be good boys and planned to catch Suicide at CBGBs later that night.

Few bands say Christmas is over better than Suicide and we drank beer at my house until a little before midnight. It was a short walk to the Bowery. Most of the trip was on 2nd Avenue to avoid the wind tunnel o 3rd Avenue. The night was cold. Snow flurries trapezed beneath the street lights. Few people were on the sidewalks, until we reached the Palace Hotel on the Bowery. A crowd encircled a man sprawled on the concrete. According to witnesses the 50 year-old derelict had stepped out of the third-floor window of the SRO hotel.

The drop was a short flight to earth, but the man looked like he might survive the fall. The A sheet was wrapped around his naked body. Blood pulsed from where a broken bone protruded from his leg. His chest heaved with rapid breaths and he said with a pained voice, "Damn, where am I? Please tell me that I'm not on the Bowery."

"Where else you think you are, you dumb drunk." A fellow misfortunate immediately answered from the huddle of broken dreamers.

"Not the Bowery, please tell me I'm not going to die on the Bowery."

His tormentor readied to set him straight, but I lifted a warning finger for silence. A distant siren filled the air. Help was on the way. I knelt over the man and tucked the sheet under this wasted frame. He couldn't have weighed more than 130 pounds. I had been a math major in university and calculate his impact with Newton's gravity equation.

"You're not going to die, old man." The mass and speed didn't add up to a fatality.

"Maybe you ain't gonna die, but you look like a used condom." His heckler was relentless and Anthony's kick to the shin put the quiet in him. The bums laughed at the comment. They were a tough crowd. The police from the 9th Precinct showed up a minute before the ambulance. They cleared space for the EMS crew and told me to step back from the busted man.

"If he ain't family, then move on. Same goes for the rest of you."

I surrendered my spot and we walked into CBGBs. Merv the doorman let us enter without paying. We were regulars. Allison bought us a round of beers. Suicide was on stage. Martin Rev standing impassively by the droning keyboards and Alan Vega smacking the microphone into his face between stanzas of CHEREE. 19 other punks were in the audience. Anthony handed me a vial of poppers. My head exploded on the first inhale.

It was Boxing Day, but not on the Bowery.

To see a live performance of Suicide playing CHEREE please go to this URL http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRcHi5Nasn4

This video was filmed Merrill Aldighieri at HURRAH in 1980.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Better Late Than Never

Merry Christmas Comrades I'm even capitalizing the C to maintain the spiritual peace even though the Christians sold the holiday from the distant Druids of Stonehenge.

Meán Geimhridh was celebrated in the Bronze Age. The rituals from over five thousand years ago have been lost for ages, however every December the sun signals the winter solstice at the Newgrange burial tomb. For seventeen minutes the rays of the dawn strike through a hole in the roof to light the interior of the Neolithic monument. Farmers slaughtered their livestock in preparation for a long winter and more importantly wine, beer, mead, and other spirits reached maturity in late-December.

The pagans had very happy Meán Geimhridh.

Julius Caesar adapted his Julian calendar to mark December 25 as the winter solstice and later the Christians adopted this heathen feast for their own religion.

Meán Geimhridh was all about the sun and earth and beer and the eternity of the cosmos.

So milla failte from Thailand, where I'm spending Meán Geimhridh with my loving son Fenway.

I gave him a good Xmas.

He is a good boy.

Sorry if I haven't kept up with my entries, but a young boy is very demanding.

Happy New Year.

The world will not end in 2012 no matter what those Christians say about their fucking armageddon.

THE FIRST FORTY MILES by Peter Nolan Smith

May 24, 1974 was a warm morning in Boston. A pale blue swathed the sky from east to west. It was a good day to start a long trip. My friend AK, a blonde nursing school co-ed, and I traveled by the trolley to Jamaica Plains. We got off at Boynton Street and walked down to number 166. A middle-aged man stepped onto the sidewalk and tapped his watch. It was 9:10. “You’re ten minutes late.” A porcupine buzz-cut topped his erect posture and his chino trousers had been ironed to a razor sharpness. The startling whiteness of his tee-shirt shouted ex-Marine. “Sorry.” It was my standard answer to men of his age and conviction. A blonde woman sat on the porch of the three-story apartment building. Her black dress testified to a lingering period of mourning. I bowed my head in respect for her loss. She bit her lower lip and dropped her gaze to the folded hands on her lap. “I suppose ten is better than twenty. The name’s Jake Moore.” The forty year-old seized my hand. “Please to meet you.” I met his firm grip with strength. “So you’re my driving team.” His steely eyes studied my shoulder-length hair, then regarded AK’s pony tail, and warmed to Pam’s free-flowing blonde locks. “That’s us.” I released his hand and introduced us by name. AK let me do the talking. Jake and I spoke with the same Boston accent. The piano player came from Long Island and Red Sox fans hated New York. “My grandmother lived not far from here on St. Joseph’s Street.” Nana had passed away in 1968. I missed her beef stew on cold nights. “Irish?” “From the West. Nana spoke Gaelic.” My grandmother had sailed over from Galway at the age of 14. “She came off the ship and lose her shoe. Nana said she came to America like Cinderella, but she ended up working as a maid in a Marblehead mansion.” “Better than a potato patch in the Connemara. Mine came over in the Year of the Pig.” Our shared heritage erased some of the gap between our haircuts. “My Nana arrived in the year of the Crow whenever that was.” It had something to do with Chinese Astrology. “Those women liked keeping a secret.” “That they did.” Jake looked over to the driveway. “That’s the car.” I glanced at the off-white station wagon with black and gold California plates. The chrome details were polished to a high sheen and the fake wooden paneling was unblemished by dings. The spacious back could sleep two with the passenger seats folded down and it was going to be ours for the next week, if Jake gave his OK. “Looks like a good ride.” “It’s not just any car.” He walked over to the station wagon with a content glow on his face. “This is 1967 Ford Torino with a 428 FE V8 and a three-speed automatic. I was lucky to get one of the last Cobra-Jet engines.”

“Wasn’t the same engine in Steve McQueen’s ride in BULLITT?” AK interjected to demonstrate his knowledge of cars.

“Ford designed that 390 for a Mustang GT, which had a much lighter chassis than the Torino.” Jake launched into a minute-long monologue about the Torino’s selling points. Most of them dealt with speed. “This baby can do a quarter-mile in 14 seconds.”

“Cool.” I nodded my head with appreciation. “My only car was a 1964 VW bug. Its top speed was 85.”

“85?” Jake scoffed my claim.

“Downhill with a tailwind in the White Mountains.”

"You know telling someone about your speeding isn’t the best way to get them to give you a car.”

“I guess not.”

“I’ll make sure that he keeps it down.” Pam shook her head.

She thought I had a big mouth. She wasn't all that wrong.

“I had hoped for someone more like me to drive the car, but there’s not many of me around Boston these years.” Jake searched our eyes for signs of drug use.

“More than you think.” South Boston still supplied the Marines with warm bodies.

“I suppose you protested against the War.” His statement was more an accusation than a question.

“When I was 17, I tried to enlist in the Marines to get out of my town, but my mother wouldn’t sign the papers.” My mother was a devout Catholic and hated communism, but she had loved me too much to allow my fighting overseas in a deadly war. “She threw them in the trash.”

“And at 18 you were a hippie?” Long hairs were traitors in the eyes of the Silent Majority.

“Something like that.”

An older friend had returned from Viet-Nam in 1968, extolling Muhammad Ali’s creed that no VC had killed anyone in the USA and my hair grew down to my shoulders in less than six months.

“There’s a lot of ‘something like that’ going around.” Sadness tinged his words and Jake held out his hand.

His fingers twitched a request. “Let me see your driver’s licenses.”

AK and Pam gave him their out-of-state driving permits. Mine had been issued for a Boston address. Last autumn I had been arrested after a high-speed chase in a VW from Pam’s college, but that information was only available downtown at the Department of Motor Vehicle on Causeway Street.

“Well, the faces match the photos.” Jake returned the IDs. “We drove out here for a family visit. My wife can’t bear driving through those corn fields again.”

“It is a long ride.” The distance from coast to coast was almost 3000 miles.

“You ever gone cross-country before?”

“I’ve not driven, but I hitchhiked back and forth twice. The first time was in 1972. A Super Bee picked us up in Iowa. The driver drove 100 or better most of the way to Reno. The trip from Boston to San Francisco took me and my friend about fifty hours.”

Pam and AK dismissed this claim with matching smirks.

“Fifty hours sounds fast, but it ends up averaging 60mph.” Jake stepped away from his car.

“We didn’t stop much. The driver was in a hurry to reach LA.” I had nothing to gain from an explanation about steering from the passenger seat whenever Lucky nodded out from his Methedrine jag.

“When I was stationed in Key West I used to hitchhike to Boston. Everyone who picked me up told a different story, almost like they were trying to change their lives, if only for the time I was in their car ride and that’s the beauty of the open road. You become someone different with a new name and a new past. You get out of the car and stand on the road with your thumb out, you go back to who you are. There is no escaping the future of you.”

Jake’s unexpected insight humbled my youthful arrogance, because his words constructed a link between college students, hoboes, tramps, soldiers, beatniks, runaways, and hippies traveling the same paths across America.

“No one believes my story about making the trip in fifty hours.”

“All stories are true, if interesting.” Jake clapped my shoulder and I gave him a smile.

The War in Vietnam was coming to an end and we had lost our hatchets instead of burying them.

“Hitchhiking’s a great way to travel. People have been traveling that way since Jonah rode in the whale. As for driving cross country in fifty hours this time, I’d appreciate if you take it a little easier on my car.”

“Driving fast in America is against the law now.” Congress had established a national speed limit earlier in the year.

“These idiots in government think driving 55 will save gas and free us from the Arabs. There’s no shortage of gas.” Jake’s face turned red with anger. “But you be careful on the road. Nothing the state troopers like better than arresting hippies for driving 60.”

“Thanks for the warning.” A station wagon provided good camouflage for passage through the Midwest. “We’ll keep it to 55. I’m sure your car gets better mileage at that speed.”

“Why are you driving cross country?” Jake asked Pam.

“The farthest west I’ve ever been is Buffalo to visit my college roommate and I’ve always wanted to see the West.” The blonde in her breast-clinging paisley dress was a vision of Woodstock beauty. Like most girls her age she wasn’t wearing a bra.

“Then you’re in for a treat; the Great Plains, the Rockies, the high deserts, the Sierras, and then California.” Jake had been on the road before and more than once. “And all the people. All different. All Americans.”

“Seeing America.” Pam added to her credibility as the girl next door by saying, “My fiancée is doing his internship at a hospital north of San Francisco, and I’ll be working at the same hospital this summer. Harry and I met in high school.”

“You’re high school sweethearts like my wife and me.” Jake regarded the woman in black. Her eyes remained fixed on her hands. “Somerville High School. Class of 1950.”

“I just graduated from college with a degree in economics.” I volunteered this information to change the subject.

My high school sweetheart had married my friend. Kyla had give Happy two kids. Everyone in my hometown said that they were the ideal family.

“What about a job?” Jake asked, as if had served his stretch in the military without counting days or years.

“I drove taxi to pay for college.” Four to five nights a week had taken their toll on my grades. “I probably spent too many hours behind the wheel. I ended up at the bottom of my class.”

“His diploma read ‘sin laude’.” AK added with a smile. He had told the same joke at my graduation party

My father hadn’t appreciated the Long Islander’s humor, yet my mother had beamed with pride after the graduation ceremony. Her mother had not finished grammar school back in the Connemara.

“You graduated and that’s what’s important.” Jake ignored AK’s dig.

As a fellow Hibernian the ex-soldier admired a lengthy education. Both our grandmothers had probably not finished grammar school under the British.

“Anyone can drive taxi. What about a real job?”

“I’m starting a teaching job at South Boston High School in the fall.” It was actually a substitute teacher position. I had taken no education classes in college, but a friend of my older brother had been elected onto the Boston School Committee and my position had been a reward for working on his campaign.

“I’d rather face a banzai charge than a class filled with teenagers.” Jake shivered in shudders.

“Yeah, when AK’s friend invited us out to Encinitas for the summer, I figured to take one long last beach vacation.” 65 was mandatory retirement age for a teacher. I would be working well into the next century, but this summer was dedicated to sea and sun south of LA. “We appreciate your letting us take your car.”

“It’s a big engine and guzzles gas, so I’m giving you an extra $100 for the trip, but I want you to fill the tank up every time the gas gauge hits half and only use the highest octane from Sunoco.” He held out the keys.

“Yes, sir.” I smiled to Pam and AK. We were minutes away from hitting the road. “We’ll see you in six days.”

“Make it seven. I don’t need you breaking your old record.” Jake and I signed the matching contracts from the drive-away company. “Have a good trip and drive safe.”

“I’ll make sure they take care of your car.” Pam put her bags in the car and positioned herself in the rear. She rolled down the window, ready for the wind in her hair.

“You do that, Pam.” His eyes studied her face for a few seconds, as if she might be someone else. To me she looked like the singer from The Band Named Smith. They had hit the Top Forty with BABY IT’S YOU.

“See you in Lodi.” Pam’s major was nursing and bed manners were her strong point in TLC.

I tossed my canvas bag in the back and sat behind the wheel. AK was my co-pilot. I reversed out of the driveway, then shifted the transmission into Drive. I beeped the horn and headed onto the Jamaica Way headed toward Brighton, where we would pick up the Mass Pike at the Charles River.

“For a second I didn’t think Jake was going to give us the car.” AK unfolded a map of the USA.

“It was never in doubt.” I drove around Jamaica Pond in the slow lane.

“What? With your admission to being a traitor.”

“I was telling him the truth, besides Pam had him wrapped around her little finger.”

“The power of feminine wile.” Pam smiled at me in the rearview mirror.

“Something never to be underestimated.”

“This is a nice car. It even smells new.” Pam came from the suburbs. She liked things clean.

“Jake was in love with his car.” AK had the same feeling for his Firebird.

“It’s a man thing. Sometimes I think my boyfriend loves his car more than me.” Pam checked her reflection in the window and tied a scarf around her head to keep her hair from getting snarled in the wind.

“What kind of car does he drive?” AK asked with the sly interest of a jealous suitor.

“A 1974 Mustang II.” She sounded disappointed of this. “It’s red.”

“Nice.” I didn’t mean it. Ford had dumped a Pinto engine into the classic Mustang to sacrifice power for fuel efficiency. “He drive it cross country?”

“No, he put it on a train and flew to pick it up in San Francisco.”

“Good thinking.” AK rolled his eyes. His Pontiac Firebird was fast, but its low mileage and bald tires were two reasons that we were driving Jake’s Torino.

“I wish we were that smart.” I remembered that I didn’t like Harry and his choice of cars reinforced my disdain.

“Are you making fun of Harry?”

“Not at all. I don’t have a car or a girlfriend to love.”

“Funny.” She didn’t mean it and I cringed at stepping on her toes so early on a long trip.

# 1 rule of reefer was to only break one law at a time.

“Wonder what Jake listened to on the radio.” AK pushed a button and both of us were surprised to hear Wildman Steve cuing up America’s # 1 hit. The Hues Corporation had scored a huge crossover hit with ROCK THE BOAT. AK’s fingers crawled over an imaginary keyboard. For a long-haired white boy from Levittown he had a lot of soul.

Five minutes later I turned off Storrow Drive onto Cambridge Street. The sun flashed off the Charles River.

The clear sky was a good omen for our journey.

A bearded hitchhiker stood at the entrance to the Mass Pike. I veered over to the breakdown lane and braked a hundred feet before the toll booth.

“What are you doing?” Pam asked with alarm. “You don’t know this person. He could be an ax murderer.”

“I’ve hitchhiked everywhere in the States and I never ran into an ax murderer.”

The ragged longhair was waiting by the passenger door. The scent of damp earth seeped through the closed windows. He was older than I thought and I was having second thoughts about him, but karma overruled my apprehension.

“Next week I’ll be hitchhiking down the coast of California. If I don’t pick up hitchhikers now, then I will be stranded in Big Sur for days.”

“I’m not happy about this.” Pam slid over to the driver’s side. “If he starts anything, I expect you to take care of it.”

“I promise I will.” I unlocked the rear door.

“Thanks for stopping. The name is Bill. I’m Mississippi-bound.” He was weathered by the road and a thick Southern accent slithered from his chapped lips.

“We can drop you at Sturbridge. We’re going to California.” I had friends from the South. They were good people.

“Damn, California, always wanted to see the fucking weirdos out there.” He was no hippie. “I’m joining a fucking carnival for the summer. We travel from Biloxi to Texas and up into the wheat fields. I specialize in bumper cars. How people drive them says a lot about them.”

“How so?” AK had to ask.

“Cautious people play it safe. Aggressive people go for fucking head-ons. You look like in-between people.”

His barbed comments were aimed at me. “In-between people get sandwiched by aggressive people. They don’t stand a fucking chance in life.”

Bill had been in the car for less than three minutes and I was already regretting having stopped for him. I slowed down to hear him fill the sullen silence between AK, Pam, and me with a rattling monologue about the life on the road.

“I spent the winter in a fucking logging town. Them damned Yankees don’t give a fuck for crackers like me, but at least I have my fucking front teeth. Last night I was in a bar on the river. They had a live band.” His hands draped over the seat. The knuckles were scuffed with scabs. “The pansy-assed guitarist wouldn’t play FREEBIRD, but played fucking Neil Young. I taught him the chords later. Fucking Yankees.” Pam sighed loudly in disapproval of his favorite adjective and he laughed, “Sorry, Sunshine, if I offend you. I was brought up twenty miles past the fucking wrong side of the tracks."

I turned up the radio for HOLLYWOOD SWINGING by Kool and the Gang.

“Why you listening to this fucking disco shine crap?” Bill barked over my shoulder.

“Fucking disco shine crap?” I glared at him in the rearview mirror. His face was swollen from hard drinking and his nose had been flattened by well-earned lefts and rights.

“Yeah, I hate fucking disco.”

“This isn’t disco.” The song was a big hit at the 1270, where gay boys loved dancing with straight boys and the deejay spun the best dance records in Boston. “Kool and the Gang are a thousand times more hip than that BAND ON THE RUN bullshit by that loser Paul McCarthy.”

“Loser? The Beatles are the fucking best band in the world.” Bill looked like he hadn’t slept much in the last few days and he smelled like a disinterred corpse.

“I’ll handle this.” AK had a much cooler head and I shut my mouth rather than lose my temper. Bill was a human like the rest of us. Maybe he was a little more unlucky than us, but the same flesh and blood.

“What makes you an fucking expert, Jew Boy?”

“Jew Boy?”

“What? You’re not a Jew? I can them as I see fucking them. Sorry, I don’t mean fucking nothing by it.”

“I’m at Berkelee Music School.” AK was also auditioning for a gig as a keyboard player for an all-black R & B band from Roxbury. Jump Street wanted a white guy in the group to deal with Boston’s honkie club owners. I had called him the ‘token whitey’. He didn’t think that was funny, but it evened us for his crack about my ‘sin laude’ status.

“So you go to fucking school for music?”

“Yeah, and the one thing I learned was that there are all kinds of music. HEY JUDE might be the best song for white people, but it’s nothing in comparison to SEX MACHINE by Sly Stone.”

“Or KUNG FU FIGHTING.” I checked the speedometer. The needle was wavering on 75 and I slowed down to the new limit, which felt 15 mph in a Model T. “Or SOUL MAKOSSA. You have to open your ears or else you close your heart.”

“That’s the fucking music they play in fag bars.” The word ‘fag’ carried a long-seeded hatred.

I stomped on the brakes in time to pull over to the breakdown lane. The bridge across the Charles River was another hundred years ahead. Cars whizzed by switching lanes for 128 North or South.

“That’s it.”

Fags were not strangers. The neighbor across the street from my parents was a homosexual. Arthur let us swim in his pool. My youngest brother showed his tendencies by stripping my sisters’ Ken Doll and not Barbie.

“Why you stopping?” Bill leaned forward with menace.

“Why?” The car’s owner had a buzz-cut. Bill had long-hair. Jake was more us than our passenger. I turned around in the bucket seat and revved the big V8. The Torino was still in drive.

“I’ll tell you why. Jack Kerouac wrote in ON THE ROAD that the biggest challenge for a hitchhiker was proving that the driver didn’t make a mistake picking him up and I have to admit I made a mistake with you. Now get out of the car.”

“He really means it.” AK had seen me fight on more than one occasion.

“This isn’t fucking Sturbridge.” He hesitated opening the door.

“Doesn’t matter to me. I don’t like queer bashers.” We hadn’t even reached 128.

“I fucking knew it the second I got in the car.” Bill opened the door and pointed a finger at us.

“Knew what?” I had to ask the obvious.

“That you two were fucking queers.” His accusation had been launched at hundreds of young men who weren’t hurting anyone.

“Even if I was, I wouldn’t fuck you with an elephant’s dick.”

“You fucking fag.” He started for me and Pam shrieked with the shrillness of the music from the bathroom murder scene from Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. I blocked his hands and AK leaped out of the car and grabbed Jim’s jacket.

The pianist mightn’t have been a fighter, but he manhandled the roustabout out of the car like a mahout hooking an elephant and flung our passenger across the breakdown lane. Bill tumbled down the embankment and AK chucked the vagrant’s bag over the slope. A lucky toss hit the rising Jim in the shoulder and our evicted passenger completed his descent down the gully.

“Go.” AK jumped in the front, checking his hands.

My right foot hit the gas and the Torino accelerated from a standing stop. Pam shut the back door and then leaned over the seat to examine AK’s knuckles.

“Nothing’s broken.”

“I’m not much of a fighter.”

“Unlike some people we know.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“Well, I hope you learned your lesson.” She folded her arms across her chest. “He had his hands all over me.”

“Sorry.” I checked the rearview mirror.

Pam’s eyes met mine.

No straight man will understand the everyday terror of being a woman or homosexual and the blonde smiled at me, happy that Bill had hit the dirt hard.

“Let’s pretend it didn’t happen.” She tilted her head to the side. Blonde hair covered one side of her face and the twenty-year old nursing student pushed the strands behind her ears. “No more hitchhikers. This isn’t ON THE ROAD. And one more thing?”

“What?”

“Could we keep the use of ‘fucking’ to a minimum?”

“Your wish is my command.” I gripped the wheel and AK turned up the volume. The radio station WILD was playing James Brown’s PAYBACK PART 2. The Godfather of Soul had a wicked rhythm section.

AK and I exchanged a shrug. She was right about hitchhikers, but then women were right about everything and men were always wrong.

We crossed over the Charles River and I slowed to pick up a ticket at the toll booth. I thanked the attendant and laid a light foot on the gas.

A warm wind gushed through the windows. The traffic on the Interstate was rolling at 60. The Torino had a full tank. The station wagon overtook a procession of slower cars.

Three days from now was my birthday and I was going to be 22.

I stepped on the accelerator.

Once the speedometer hit 100 AK looked at me and I maintained my pressure on the gas. At this speed the other cars on the road were standing still, but none of them were heading to California and it was a long way to the Pacific.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Passing Through Koln

Back in December 1982 a Paris-bound train crossed the Rhine Bridge into Koln. The morning sky was shod with dark dawn sky. Lights rimmed the overflowing river. I sat on the left side of the DB passenger car. The 6-seat compartment was mine. Few people took the night train. It stopped at every station.

Two bags lay at my feet. They held everything that I didn't want to leave for good in Hamburg. That northern city lived on even less light than Koln. The nightclub at which I worked was in a slump. The pimps of the Reeperbahn had driven away our 'good' customers. The owner said that they spent money. He hadn't paid my commission for the last two months.

SS Tommy was the owner's muscle. Two days earlier the blonde bodybuilder presented a bill for 10,000 Deutschmarks about $6000. The itemized bill listed my intimacy with a bikini model in detail. I was thinking free love. Hamburg wasn't that kind of city. I gave SS Tommy the keys to my BMW 2002. I had crashed orange sets car a week ago in a forest north of the city. It wasn't going anywhere without a tow.

The train rode across the bridge and I watched the silhouette of the medieval cathedral loom out of the murk. Thousands of workers and hundreds of skilled artisans had spent over a hundred years erecting the massive monument to Christianity. It had survived the bombing raids of World War II relatively unscratched and served as a beacon to the faithful. I was not one of them, but I respected the beauty of it's grandeur.

The train stopped in the station. I pulled my hat over my face, fearing that SS Tommy had notified his Gestapo compatriots in Cologne about a fleeing American. The doors closed without a rush of Zuhalterei and the train pulled out of the station. Paris was eight hours away. I already had arrived to safety.

The color of the sky was gray.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Paffgen Brewery

Last evening I dined at Paffgen Brauerei, the last family brewery in Cologne. The beer served at this establishment is called "Kölsch" once the most popular beverage in the city. Once a dark beer, the draught's color was changed to resemble a pilsner. It is still served from the keg at Paffgen and I ordered a weinerschnitzel with three beers. The beer came in 2cl glasses and cost only 1.5 Euros. If I had been with a friend, I could have drank about twenty of them. Kolsch is the only beer to order in Cologne and the natives view Dusseldorf's Alt beer as water. I hate eating alone and left as soon as I was finished, but the manager asked where I was from. "New York." I was born in Boston, but lived in New York most of my life and I explained how the two cities share a bitter rivalry. "Same as Dusseldorf and Koln. One thing I want to tell you. Nico from the Velvet Underground was born here. Her family name was Paffgen. Her father was a solider in the War." He lowered his voice. "The father suffered a brain injury and they experimented on him in the camps." "Schiesse." Those were bad times for everyone. "I once saw her here." "Nico?" I had attended a concert of silver-blonde siren at the Mudd Club. The Warhol superstar accompanied her harmonium with a gravelly voice like a sledge dragged through mud. I escaped to the upstairs bar. She should have done a duet with Yoko Ono, the Axis of Drone and Shriek. "She was blonde and tall. A true Paffgen. Are you leaving?" "No." I sat for another two beers. You are never alone as long as you have your memories. PAFFGEN Friesenstraße 64 50670 Köln 0221 135-461

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dunkel Dunkel

The word for darkness in German is 'dunkel'. Darkness is 'dunkelheit' and today dawned very 'dunkel' in the Rhine city of Cologne. The farther north in Europe the shorter the days, as the northern hemisphere approaches the winter solstice. After dunkel comes the grey sky of morning and I will visit the great cathedral of Koln. Somehow this massive structure avoided the destruction visited on Germany during the allied bombing campaigns of WWII. The city was hit 262 times by raids and the population was reduced to 95% at war's end. Few if any of the older buildings survived the catastrophe intact, but the cobblestones remained untouched by the explosions and they are very slippery under foot in the night damp. Bombed into the Stone Age. And rose like an eagle to become Germany's fourth largest city. Not bad, but still very dunkel. Koln is a long way from summer this time of year, but this evening I'll be flying from Dusseldorf to Thailand to see my kids, get some sun, and drink some beer.

Happy Holidays.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

135 IN THE SHADE by Peter Nolan Smith

In late-July of 1975 Andy K and I left California on a cool morning. Our summer vacation had come to an end. We hitchhiked east from Pomona at the end of the Valley. Leaving LA wasn’t easy for long-hairs. The locals were the sons of Okie rednecks, but a young Mormon girl stopped at the Rancho Cucamonga on-ramp and drove her Monza convertible over the pass into the high desert. She was cute and played the new Joni Mitchell 8-track on the stereo. AK and I both wondered why we were leaving California.

She dropped us in Victorville. It was barely 10Am.

We had made good time and thought ourselves lucky until reaching the eastbound ramp. A long row of hippies stood by the arid curbside. 

Hitchhiking on the Interstate was illegal. The State troopers arrested anyone attempting to break the law. The fine was $50. I had almost $40 in my pocket. California cops didn’t bargain with hippies. AK and I took our place in the queue.

There wasn't a speck of shade in sight. Sand, weeds, and a dented guardrail decorated the scenery. Across the interstate was a gas station and a diner.

“What do you think?” AK asked with a canteen in hand.

“I think it doesn’t look good.” I sipped some water. It tasted of Pomona.

“We’ll have to go easy on this.” AK put away the canteen. We only had one.

After an hour a van picked up three hippies and six more joined the ranks of the stranded travelers. I walked down the line speaking to the other hitchhikers. None of them had anything good to say about this onramp. A New Orleans-bound couple were fortieth in the line-up. They had been on the ramp for 20 hours. Both of them were in the throes of cold turkey.

"15 hours?" I checked up the sky. There wasn't a cloud from horizon to horizon. The temperature was in the high 80s. By late afternoon it would be in the 100s.

"Some of it was night." The rail-thin girl wore a wife-brimmed hat, but her skin had been torched a torrid red. A merciless sun bounced off the black asphalt. 

We were six people behind them. AK and I were #47 and 48. I had been a math major my first years at university. One ride per hour meant that we wouldn’t get out of here for another two days.

"You two should split up. No one picks up two guys." Her strung-out old man had hair to his ass. The skinny girlfriend could have passed for his twin. They made a cute lesbian couple for anyone not looking too closely. 

"Except for perverts." His girlfriend was fuming mad, hungry for a fix. She wanted out of this desert  limbo.

"Yeah, I've had a couple of offers from some sick fucks."

"Wanted me to watch." Her face screwed up with disgust. Sex was as distasteful to junkies as it was to nuns.

"Nothing wrong with being queer." I danced with gays at the 1270 Club in Boston. They pawned me off to fag hags. It was a good deal for me. "Especially if it gets us out of here."

I tried to look bisexual. Andy didn't play that game and the cowboys weren't buying my solo act. The sun was fast approaching high noon. The temperature was in the high 80s.

By noon the sun would be melting the asphalt under our feet. A Greyhound bus exited from the Interstate and pulled into the forlorn gas station.

“Bus?” The heat had stolen AK’s tongue.

“Now?”

“Now.” AK and I grabbed our bags and ran across the cloverleaf to the diner. The Greyhound was billowing diesel fumes. Its driver was exiting from the station's diner. $8.50 bought escape for both of us. The two tickets were worth every penny. We sat in the back and stared out the window at the marooned hippies. Three minutes ago we had been them.

“Good move.” AK sucked down water from the canteen. He saved me half.

“You boys look hot.” An old black woman was peeling an orange.

“We were stuck back there for a few hours.” AK Wiped the sweat off his face.

“Hitchhiking?” She passed half the orange to us.

“Yep.”

“You’da have a lot more luck, if you cut your hair. You like girls and not pretty girls either.” The old black woman laughed with a simple wickedness, because she was telling the truth. “But these peckerwoods out here ain’t too particular about pretty.”

“Thanks.” It had been a long time since I had been called ‘ugly.

AK and I pored our the map, as the bus sped down I-10. The desert was even more desert. The window was warm to the touch, but the bus interior was ACed to Alaska. A few rangy cowboys and the old black woman got off in Barstow. She gave us each an orange. They were sweet and we sucked on the fruit as if we might not taste another for a long time.

The bus pulled out of Barstow. The driver announced that the next stop was Needles. It was a 170 mile ride.

Two and a half hours later the bus pulled into the desert town. I looked at the map. Needles was on the west bank of the Colorado River.

“The Joad family's first stop in THE GRAPES OF WRATH was Needles.” AK loved John Steinbeck. “They drove through the night to avoid the oppressive Arizona heat and they arrived here.” “The California dream.” I looked out the window. Nobody was on the sidewalks. The heat was too much for man or beast. Needles was a funny place to enter paradise and not funny ha-ha.

“The beginning or the end.” AK held his bag in both hands. He didn’t want to get off the bus. AK had the money for a ticket to Boston. His eyes asked me what to do. "You want to go, go." In this heat it was every man for himself. My lack of funds meant that Needles was the last stop for me. "No, I'll stick with you." "Really?" I would have bet my last money on his ditching out on me. "Did you ever doubt I would?" "Not for one second."

The bus braked at the small terminal and the driver announced a thirty-minute break.

We were the last passengers to exit from the bus. I stopped at the bottom of the steps for a second. A wall of heat stuck me and I thought that I had walked into the exhaust of a thousand buses, except our Greyhound was the only one in the sweltering parking lot. The other travelers hurried into the station. AK pushed me off the bus. The sun beat on my skin, as if its rays were ironing my flesh.

Needles was much worse than Victorville. My sandals sunk into the molten asphalt. Across the street a large thermometer displayed the temperature.

135F. 

"That can't be right." AK was gasping for breath. We were from the East Coast. New Englanders wilted whenever the mercury lifted north of 85.

"No one else is outside." I felt like I was breathing off the end of a hair-dryer.

The highway was in the distance. Cars and trucks sped through a shimmering mirage. It was less than a mile away. In this heat that walk was a test of survival. 

"There's a Dairy Queen." AK headed toward the promise of cold ice cream and AC. I followed the New Yorker without question. The heat was so dry that the sweat was seared off our skin. We ran across the parched grass verge. The time was 3pm. High noon lasted long in Needles.

Our entrance into the ice cream parlor was loud. Doors opened easy.

“Shut the damn doors.” The counterman shouted from the cash register. “I’m not cooling the outdoors.”

“Yes, sir,” I answered with respect, as AK shut the glass door. The other customers appreciated the gesture. They were farmers, teenage boys and girls. Hippies were not a common sight in the Mojave, but they directed their attention to spooning sundaes and floats into their mouths. The AC was 68. Everyone looked comfortable.

"Two vanilla ice cream sodas." My mother had given the sweet slurry of cold comfort to me when I had strep throat.

"I want chocolate." Andy stepped up to the counter. "Two too."

After the 3rd ice cream soda our core temperature had dropped to 98.6. 

"Is that thermometer right?" I asked an Okie rancher.

"Sun got to it. Ain't right by 15 degrees. Makes it 120. Hot, but ain't half as hot as July 2, 1967. That was 122. The two degrees don’t sound like much until you been in 122." He spoke with pride. Not many humans can handle that heat. "Felt like the Devil was burning my bones. You boys, headed east?"

He offered a ride to Topock. Some 20 miles from here. The other side of the Colorado. Okie was driving a Ford pick-up. His dog was in the front seat. 

"He don't mind the heat. Don't like strangers though. You gotta sit in the back."

At 3:22 the temperature was hovering at 110.

"We're ready when you're ready."

Needles was the type of town to suck a day from your travels. I had $33 in my pocket. I gave the driver two of them. Gas was 40 cents a gallon. He was grateful for the donation. Twenty minutes later he pulled off the highway. The town was two miles away. We were on the wrong side of the Colorado. The sun was four hours from setting. The only shade was a bullet-holed billboard some 300 feet off the highway.

I stuck out my thumbs. Cars and trucks were coming our way. I pretended to be Jack Kerouac's illegitimate son. He had to have one somewhere.

"Look like you're harmless." AK put on his best smile. The Berkeley School of Music graduate had perfect teeth and excelled at looking harmless. He pushed me to the side and the second car stopped for us.

“We’re out of here.”

The retired couple was heading for Kingman in their Delta 88.

“Nice car.” My father had a gray version.

“Good AC.” AK was settling into the leather seat. “Where you going?”

“Lake Haves. We used to be from Chicago, but the winters got too much for my bones.” “Isn’t Lake Havasu where they put the London Bridge?” I had read about the move in LIFE magazine.

“Yes and no.” The husband was a full head of hair. He drove with both hands on the wheel. “The developer bought the old London Bridge, thinking it was the Tower Bridge.”

“But it wasn’t.” His white-haired wife had a pleasant chuckle.

“Still they reconstructed the London Bridge and people come from all around to see it.”

“Bridge doesn’t really go anywhere.” His wife shook her head.

“No, but it’s better than no bridge.” This sounded like a regular discussion between them. “I wish I hadn’t moved down here. It's cooler up in the high country. Sometimes down here my head feels hot enough to fry an egg on."

The driver might have said the line maybe 100 times. The punch line was funny to us, because we knew it was true.

“It isn’t this hot all the time.” The desert sun had leathered his wife's skin. Her silver-blonde hair was a homage to Dinah Shore. “We have grandchildren. They come and visit sometimes. That's why we picked you up."

"They're hippies too." The old man smiled in the rearview mirror. The two complimented each other. "There's lemonade in the cooler. Drink as much as you want."

There were four glass screw-top bottles. 

"Don't be shy." The driver floored the pedal. The big V8 ate up the road. The old man was in a hurry to get out of the heat. “Drink as much as you want.” "Drink as much as you want."

Andy and I drained one each in thirty seconds.

We were safe from dehydration. We were leaving the frying pan. We both slept in the back seat.

The old couple pulled off the road at Kingman for the night. This town was mentioned in Chuck Berry's ROUTE 66.

“We’re staying here for the night.” The motor lodge offered rooms for $20. 

“We’ll keep on going.”

“I’d pay for a room.” The old man had a kind heart.

“No, thanks, we’ll be fine now we’re out of that furnace.”

We waved good-bye and stood on the remainder of old Route 66.

“I can’t believe two hours ago it was 135 in the shade.” The air at 3000 feet was cool relief and I stuck out my thumb.

“The thermometer was broken.” AK sat on the guard railing.

“It was still as hot as I’ve ever been.”

“You can say that again.”

I didn’t bother to repeat the obvious. The sun was setting in the pines and a semi was throttling its diesel engine on its way through Kingman. Wherever we would be tomorrow morning was a night away.

One Dead Clown


GW Bush was concerned about the potential casualties in the Iraq War and asked Dick Cheney for advice.

"Tell them the truth. 5000 Americans, 1,000,000 Iraqis, but add one clown."

"Why?"

"You'll see."

At the next White House press conference the reporters clamored for details on the casualties and GW Bush says, "We estimate that there will be 5000 American dead, 1,000,000 Iraqis, and one clown."

The reporters jumped to their feet and asked, "Why one dead clown?" GW Bush smiled at Chaney and misquoted HL Mencken under his breath, "Nobody ever went broke misunderestimating the intelligence of the American public." Dick Cheney could only smile, because only a fool laughed at his own joke.

Eight And Out Of Iraq

On September 11, 2001 the United States was assaulted by three hijacked commercial airliners. A fourth jet crashed into a Pennsylvania field. 9/11 shocked the nation and its populace sought revenge. The President, CIA, and FBI laid the blame on supporters of Osama Bin Ladin. The Al-Quada leader was living in Afghanistan and the Pentagon quickly arranged for long-range bombing raids on the Taliban in control of that land-locked country. Northern Forces swept south to Kabul driving the Islamic fundamentalists from power. The operation was a complete success and an increased military presence accompanied by political presence of mind might have been consolidated the victory, except the neo-cons under GW Bush had switched their focus from Afghanistan to Iraq. They wanted regime change to alter the status quo in the MIddle East and the president's men convinced a vengeful nation that Saddam had a hand in 9/11. His Weapons of Mass Destruction were a threat to American interests around the region. The prediction was that an invasion of Iraq could be done on the cheap; $50 billion doors and the troops would be in country for a very short period. The Shock and Awe campaign shook the foundations of the Baathist government and the conquest of Saddam took weeks instead of months. GW Bush landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and declared 'Mission accomplished' on May 1, 2003. He was wrong about weapons of mass destruction and terribly wrong about 'mission accomplished'. Us troops lost over 4000 troops and the Iraqi civilian population suffered from 'friendly fire' and an aggressive suicide campaign by insurgents seeking to oust the occupying foreigners as well as settle old scores based on the religious fractures within the Shiite and Sunni communities. The list of mistakes made by the US leaders only worsened the situation. Looting, torture, summary executions, indiscriminate killing by US mercenaries, IUDs ad nauseum showed the ineptitude of the Defense Secretary and the callousness of the Vice President, yet the President refused to cut and run. He wanted victory. It never came in his term and today the last US troops pulled out of Iraq, except for 157 soldiers protecting the US embassy in Bagdhad. The Second Iraq War is over for the USA, but it certainly was no victory. $1 trillion doesn't buy much when it's spent by fuck-ups like the Bush regime, but it is over and Private First Class Martin Lamb said it best at the Kuwaiti border. "Part of history, you know - we're the last ones out." Just in time for Christmas. One down and one big one to go. Bring the troops home.