A dawn of rain, drizzle, snow, and ice pellets greeted Boston on the first day of 1975. The weather on the second day of January was equally miserable, but by late morning the temperature had risen into the 40s and I walked from my Beacon Hill apartment to Chinatown.
The Mass Pike onramp was the good place to start a trip across America. The highway went in every direction, except east into the Atlantic.
Dropping my bag on a patch of dry pavement, I tucked my newly shorn hair under a watch cap and stuck out my thumb.
The silent majority was in their seventh year of ruling America. They hated the counter-culture, so getting rides was easier without long hair reminding the squares of LSD and anti-war demonstrations. In their mind we had been supporting revolution and the Viet Cong.
A hippie in a VW van stopped within two minutes.
Cary was headed to Ohio.
“I’m going to California.”
"Sort of." I had saved almost a thousand dollars over the autumn.
"How you crossing the country?"
I thought I-90 to I-80." The Interstates provided almost a straight line from Boston to San Francisco.
“My girlfriend told me Cleveland was freezing this morning and a blizzard was on the way.”
“That’s not good news.” Hitchhiking through snowstorms was not an option and I took out a map of the USA to plotted out a southern route to LA .
“Guess I’ll head south on I-95.”
"Sounds like a smart move."
"More like the only move."
The hippie dropped me at Sturbridge and I caught a long ride to Washington DC.
Earle was a sailor returning to duty in Newport VA. We listened to soul music and discussed race.
"I'm from Roxbury. People in Boston are just as racist as the crackers down South."
I agreed, since I was employed as a substitute teacher at South Boston High School.
My hometown was on the verge of a race war and that school was the flashpoint for battles between black and white teens. I needed out, because I was a race traitor and hell had a special place for my kind in South Boston and even worse for people like Earle.
South of DC Earle said, "I'm turning east."
The radio had warned of deep snow in Tennessee.
"I'm heading south to Florida." I-10 from Jacksonville was the warmest course across America.
"You're right about that, but better I leave you here. Them peckerwoods don't like white and blacks together."
"I understand. They don't like it in Boston."
My next lift went as far as Richmond.
Virginia was the Deep South, but rides came easy on the interstate. Truckers wanted company on the long stretches of highway and salesmen needed someone to keep them awake between cities.
I hid my Boston accent with a broad drawl.
The Civil War was not forgotten south of the Potomac.
Twenty-two hours after leaving Boston I crossed from Georgia into Florida.
The palm trees swayed in the balmy breeze, as I drank a complimentary orange juice at the Welcome Center. I stuck my leather jacket in the canvas bag. A tee-shirt and jeans was a welcome change from heavy winter clothing. After finishing my OJ I stood on the highway with my thumb in the air.
A Chevy SS stopped on the shoulder. The big V8 throbbed with power. I jumped in the passenger side.
“Name’s JJ. Where you going?” The longhaired redneck was wearing a Lynard Skynard shirt. The residue of reefer smoke mingled with fuel fumes. JJ was my kind of people.
“What for?” He stomped on the gas.
“To see a girl.” I adjusted my glasses on my nose.
“Long way to see a girl.” JJ gripped the wheel with a stranglehold.
“I know.” Over three thousand miles from coast to coast and even more with my detour from winter.
Diana was studying film at UC Santa Barbara. We had spent our Christmas holiday together. The blonde athlete was the kind of girl who slept around with men and women, but six days and nights in my cold-water apartment on Beacon Hill had calmed the wanderlust in her heart. When I had called to tell about my coming out west, Diana had said it was a good career move for a writer.
“LA’s west, not south.” JJ pointed to the right.
“There’s ice storms and snow in Iowa. The passes through the Rockies are snow-packed, plus I’m a little too white for LA.”
“You’re never too white.” JJ was a die-hard cracker.
“Yeah, I need color before I hit Hollywood.”
“If you mean sun, then the Sunshine State is the right place to pick up a tan.” He stuck in the Allman Brothers in his 8-track.
“Newcomers are easy to spot in Southern California.” They had no color.
“You lay out for five days in Miami Beach and you’ll be browner than George Hamilton and he’s the blackest white man I ever seen.” JJ wasn’t saying anything bad about the star of WHERE THE BOYS ARE, the ultimate Florida beach movie.
“I don’t know if I want to go that far.” The Hollywood playboy was darker than a leather coach.
“LA is like Miami. Only undertakers don’t have a tan.” The hippie cracker turned up the MIDNIGHT RIDER on the stereo.
“I have no intention of becoming a zombie in California.” Prescription sunglasses, a haircut, a convertible car, and a movie studio job would complete my metamorphosis from substitute teacher to screenwriter. Fame and fortune were within my grasp. “I’m going to write movies.”
“Does being a writer get you chicks? Because movie stars sure as hell get girls.” JJ shifted into a higher gear. We were rolling at 100.
“Maybe I will to.”
“I don’t know any writers getting girls. Most of them are fags like that Truman Capote.”
“Do you read?”
“Only Playboys and then I looked at the pictures.”
Me too.” Bebe Buell had been a satanic goddess as the cover-girl for the November issue and I had scanned every inch of the centerfold more than a hundred times.
“Where you thinking of hitting the beach?”
“I’ve already been to Fort Lauderdale. I had stayed across from the Elbow Room during Easter Break in 1971.”
“George Hamilton had hung out there in WHERE THE BOYS ARE."
“Yeah, we thought that we would meet Yvette Mimieux.”
“Fat chance of a movie star hanging around that dump.”
“You got that right. My friends and I drank beer the entire week. None of us got a tan or kissed a blonde.”
“You should check out Miami Beach. Good town. Cheap hotels. Try the Sea Breeze.” Speed ate up the road paced by Dicky Betts’ blistering guitar on IN MEMORY OF ELIZABETH REED.
There wasn’t much to see from the highway at night. Florida was mostly swamp.
Around midnight he turned off the highway and stopped on an empty road.
“Goin’ see my baby too. You have a good trip.” The muscle car was aimed into the swamps.
“You too.” I got out of the car and the Chevy SS thundered away from the highway.
This exit was about 100 miles short of Miami. I didn’t like hitchhiking in the dark. After midnight drunk crackers got mean.
A golf course lay across the highway. I walked over to the row of scrubs at the 17th green. I had cash in my pocket. Thieves preyed on hitchhikers. I crouched behind the bushes. No one could see me from the road. I almost felt safe and lay down with my bag as a pillow. The Milky Way burst with more stars this far south and I counted a hundred galaxies before falling asleep.
At dawn a spray of sprinklers spurting from hidden hoses woke me.
Slightly soaked I scurried to the rough.
A red sun rose over the grassy fairways.
A Cuban diner was opened near the highway. Cars and trucks pulled in and out of the parking lot. I walked over to eat breakfast with farm workers heading to the sugar plantations in the Everglades. After eggs, beans, rice, and coffee I stuck out my thumb on Dixie Highway.
A Cuban farmer stopped in his pick-up truck.
“I’m going to Little Havana to see my sister.”
“Would you mind stopping in Miami Beach?” I offered him $5.
“No problem. It's only a little out of my way.”
Two hours later Raoul dropped me in front of the Sea Breeze on Collins Avenue.
The temperature was in the low 80s. The sidewalks were empty and I could count the sunbathers dotting the wide beach on two hands.
Decrepit beach hotels lined Collins Avenue. The Sea Breeze looked better than the rest.
The rooms were $15/night, $90/week and $250/month. There was no pool.
The breezy art-deco lobby embraced a decade of neglect. The open windows were glazed by sea salt and the 60s furniture was aged from overuse. The management was relying on the flaking pastel blue and chalky white paint job to carry the hotel into the 1980s. The Sea Breeze was no Holiday Inn.
“I want a room,” I told the lank-haired teenager behind the desk.
“Day, month, or week. We don’t rent by the year,” he spoke slowly like he had to remember every word before he spoke it.
“How much by the week.”
"$100 in advance."
Dozens of keys hung on the wall. I chiseled him down to $65 for a week. Vacancy was at an all-time high. Miami Beach had lost its luster for the American tourist. They wanted the Caribbean and not the Gulf Stream.
“A room with a beach view.”
“That’s ten dollars extra.”
“Five.” I played hardball with the clerk.
"Okay, but guests are five dollars extra, if they stay the night."
“You got it.”
The desk clerk was the youngest man in the lobby.
I surveyed the Sea Breeze's clientele in the lobby. The white-haired men and women sat in groups of two or three. An elderly man wearing sunglasses plinked out STORMY WEATHER on the piano. The seventy year-old had a light touch with the ivories.
I hummed Etta James’ version on the stuttering elevator up to the 5th floor. Room 514 faced the ocean. The blue-white color scheme matched the view of sea and sky. I tested the AC. The old machine wheezed like a TB ward.
I shut it off and slid open the balcony's glass door. The gulf breeze filled the room. The TV was a Zenith black and white. Three channels were available. One was in Spanish. The signal came from Havana.
After a tepid shower I descended on the creaking elevator to the lobby. It was too early for a drink, so I ordered a beer from the raw-boned desk clerk. He said his name was Nick. He looked like a young baseball player from the 50s.
"You have any cold beer?"
Busch is the beer of Florida."
"I'll have one, if it's cold.
"Can't drink it any other way." Nick handed me a frosty can. "I'll put it on your tab."
I walked out of the lobby.
The late morning light bounced harshly off the tiled patio.
The old geezer at the scarred piano was one-fingering a familiar tune. It took me a little time to identify the plunking arrangement as Art Tatum’s TIGER RAG.
A steady mumble of choice expletives fumbled off the piano player’s lips and the other residents steered clear of the sun-warped piano.
I returned inside the lobby to call Diana from the hotel lobby’s pay phone.
There was no answer from the other side of America.
I told myself that she was at class and went out to the veranda. My flip-flops whisked over the cracked floor. I sat on a distressed rattan chair and drank my beer sheltered from the sun by a ratty umbrella. Only yesterday my fingers had been numbed by the cold.
I dozed off to the pianist’s rambling monologue of the blues, bread lines, and riding the rails, punctuated by patches of praise for the smell of the sea in Texas, Florida, and a place called Tulum. Coughs punctuated his rant often enough to create a rhythm.
A half-hour later the sun shifted beyond the tree and fell on my feet. I slipped out of the chair and I ordered another beer and bought cheap sunglasses from Nick.
“Who’s the music man?”
“Old Bill’s been here since before God invented dust. He’s meaner than a snake with a wire up its as, so do yourself a favor and give the old bastard a miss.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
I shuffled back to the patio with the morning Miami Herald.
Hippies waiting for Zeppelin tickets had rioted in Boston Garden inflicting over $30,000 in damages. I had seen Zep at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival and thought about asking the vile-tempered pianist to play DAZED AND CONFUSED, except the gaunt septuagenarian’s was lost in toying with a tuning fork and small wrenches.
His muttering rant was horrific.
No race was exempt from his scorn. No religion was beneath his contempt. He called the male guests ‘bums’ and the blue-haired ladies ‘whores’. They ignored his epithets, as he riffed through EVERYTIME WE SAY GOODBYE from John Coltrane’s LP MY FAVORITE THINGS.
His vile banter was getting on my nerves and I strode into the lobby for a third beer.
“You’re right about Old Bill,” I said to Nick without looking over my shoulder. “He’s got a serious dose of assholiness.”
“He wasn’t always like that from what I hear,” the younger desk clerk whispered under his breath. “Ever since his wife died two years ago, he’s been on a roll.”
“Why doesn’t the management kick him out of the hotel?” I didn’t like bullies.
“First he’s blind and second he keeps the piano tuned and lastly the residents like his piano-playing. He even plays requests.”
“Nick, what you and that hippie boy talking about?” Old Bill shouted from the piano.
“How he know I was a hippie?”
“Old Bill got good ears. Right, Bill?” Nick lifted his head, as if the blind man could see the gesture.
“Hippie Boy, this C sound right to you.”
A crooked index finger poked at a key.
I joined him at the piano.
His t-shirt and khaki trousers were stained by food and perspiration. Old Bill was not a man who cared much for his appearance.
“I think so.”
He scratched his buzz-cut, which was more white than gray.
“I’m trying to adjust the interval between tones to correct the interaction between notes. You ever play an instrument, Hippie Boy?”
“I sang a little and played bass in a garage band." Three months of covering Barry and the Remains and several years as a baritone in Our Lady of the Foothills choir were the extent of my musical training.
“You young people don’t know shit about music. Electric guitar solos by longhaired drug addicts. That ain’t fucking music. This is music.”
His spidery fingers crawled hesitantly across the keyboard to interpret a bluesy version of Dave Brubeck's BLUE RONDO. Old Bill stopped after ten bars.
“My wife loved that song.”
The way he said ‘wife’ indicated that she was dead. The residents at the Sea breeze were experts at outliving their mates.
“Hippie boy, you still there?” Old Bill took off his sunglasses. His blank eyes were as blank as cue balls, yet glowed, as if a statue had come to life.
“I knew that, but was asking if you knew you were still there.”
“Yeah, I know that I’m still here.” I stepped closer and asked, “How you know I was a hippie?”
“Everyone your age who stays at the Sea Breeze is a hippie. It’s cheap and close to the beach. Plus everyone your age is either a hippie or queer. You don’t have a lisp, so you ain’t queer, are you?”
“No.” I had danced with a few men at the 1270 Club in Boston. Kissing them meant nothing. “I like Russ Meyer movies and not gladiator films.”
“Ha, are you sure?”
Old Bill couldn’t have ever seen the buxom beauties in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and I asked bluntly, “Why? Are you queer?”
“No, but if I was I’d suck your dick?”
He may have been blind, but I didn’t take shit from anyone.
“I’d like a snappy streak, Hippie Boy. You have any requests?” His hands dropped to the piano.
“What about IN-DA-GADDA-DA-VIDA?” I doubted if the bitter old coot had heard of Iron Butterfly.
Old Bill nodded his head and played the heavy metal classic’s strident opening as a peace offering.
“Surprised you, huh, Hippie Boy.” Old Bill's self-satisfied grin was a tribute to no dental care. “I listen to everything on the radio. My wife Mary used to say it was my TV.”
“I like the radio too.” As a young boy in Maine I had listened to radio drama at night, when my ears painted moving pictures on the interior of a ten year-old’s eyelids. “All kinds of music too. I liked your rendering of BLUE RONDA.”
“Hippie Boy is a music lover. You from Boston, Hippie Boy?”
“That’s right.” My r-less accent was a dead giveaway.
“You be careful with that tropical sun. It burns northern white boys like pigs at a barbecue.”
“Thanks for the advice.” I left him for a swim in the ocean. The water was ten degrees warmer than the beach at Harwichport in the dead of summer. I bobbed on the waves for a good hour and then returned to the hotel. The sun had had its way with my skin and I crashed in my bed before the sunset.
The next two days passed with my following routine.
Breakfast, beach, lunch, beach, dinner, sleep.
The majority of the Sea Breeze clientele appeared to be harmless seniors with a short term on life. Nick nicknamed the Sea Breeze ‘the Stairway to Heaven’. After the third day people nodded hello with reservation. I was Old Bill’s friend and they maintained a distance.
My calls to LA went unanswered, while my scorched skin deepened to a golden brown. I sent two postcards to Diana and paid for another week at the Sea Breeze. Old Bill and I spoke often, as he worked on the piano. It was never in perfect pitch to his ear.
"My favorite turning fork is an A. It has a 444 frequency in hertz. Orchestra like that pitch." He stuck the piano with the tuning fork. It seemed ready to hum forever.
More he talked and I listened to him.
His hometown was Baltimore. He had been blind since birth. His mother had taught him how to play piano. His father had died young in a dock accident. He was an only child. The state had sent him to schools for the blind. His entire childhood had been filled with the abuse from bullies.
“The punches came from nowhere.”
His spindly nose wavered like a crooked road. Unseen fists had broken the beak more than once and scars laced his face.
“I was no Helen Keller, so I fought the bullies. They would laugh until I hit them. Made them think that I really wasn’t blind, but the blows were easier to take than the whispers. I heard them say everything. They thought they were funny. I hated them, but music saved my soul.”
“I got beat up in 7th Grade.”
“Then you know what I’m talking about. You fight back?”
“They were three of them. Fighting only made them meaner."
“Tough odds.” Old Bill shrugged with one shoulder. “I hate bullies. That’s why I hate most of the old coots here. Most of them are crackers who loved to lynch niggers and right-wing thugs looking to jail commies.”
“You seem to have a way with people.” The residents of the Sea Breeze were neither racists nor fascists, but his dead eyes saw things his way. “You have any friends?”
“If I wanted a friend, I’d buy a dog. My music is my best friend. I was lucky to have learned piano tuning in his teens. My travels around the country were financed by sick pianos. Bad weather and heavy hands take their toll on the keys. New Yorkers treat their pianos with respectful neglect, while Texans beat the shit out of theirs. I made a good living out of finding the perfect fifth. Miami Beach is good for fucking up pianos. The sun, sea, and humidity play havoc with pianos. And all those rich motherfuckers thinks their spoiled brat is going to be the next Glenn Gould. Not one of them silver-spoon brats can play a lick.”
Old Bill and I drank a beer and argued about greatest pianist. He favored Thelonius Monk, while I preferred McCoy Tyner's chordal phasing with John Coltrane over the Phillie pianist. Both were in our top five.
“You wanna know something, Hippie Boy.” Old Bill never asked my name.
“Maybe there’s hope for you after all. My wife loved McCoy.” He drained the beer and returned to the piano to play a rudimentary GIANT STEPS. Old Bill was good, but he'd never be great in this lifetime.
That evening I wrote a long letter to Diana about Miami Beach, Old Bill, and the sun ending it with ‘see you soon’. I figured I would leave in another week, because winter was losing its grip on Dixie.
Every afternoon Old Bill and I went to Wolfie Cohen’s Deli. He hated the hotel food. We could have taken the bus, but he preferred to walk with his slender walking cane tapping out the way. The counter staff greeted him with warmth. He never tortured them with his bad attitude.
“I don’t want them spitting in my food.”
One day he pointed out a tidy woman at a window table in the famed deli on 172nd Street. Her two friends and she were eating jello.
“That’s Mrs. Meyer Lansky. She comes here everyday with those two old broads.”
The waiter delivered bacon and fried eggs to our table. They were a special every hour of the day.
“Meyer Lansky the mob mastermind? He had added the 00 to the roulette wheel to increase the edge for the house."
“That’s the one.” Old Bill’s fork picked apart the eggs. His eating habits were a sight that sored eyes.
“She doesn’t look too well-off.” The tiny woman could have been a tenant at the Sea Breeze.
“Lansky supposedly left no money when he died.” Old Bill stuck a dripping yolk in his mouth and swallowed without chewing. “Her son from her first marriage was shotgunned to death outside his restaurant in Bay Harbor. An old debt being paid. So much for Lansky’s luck. The murdering bastard. I tuned his piano once. Tried to chisel me on the bill.”
He waved to the old woman on the way out.
She waved back like they were old friends.
Old Bill had lots of stories and he loved telling them at the Deuce Bar, which was close to the Sea Breeze.
“This place smells like New York to me. Sour beer, whiskey sweat, cheap perfume, and cigarettes. Back in the 50s I used to go up to Harlem and tune whorehouse pianos. Now that was nice.” He inhaled the air, as if to pick out a faint trace of that memory on the breeze. "Lilacs and a woman's glow after a trick."
A saccharine version of MISTY played on the jukebox.
"Jackie Gleason. People loved his music. He composed and arranged the theme for his TV show even though he couldn't read music."
"I watched THE HONEYMOONERS with my parents." His interpretation of a luckless Brooklyn bus driver was hilarious.
“He was more than funny. You know he did his show down here?”
“THE JACKIE GLEASON SHOW.”
“It was broadcast live direct from Miami Beach. A lot of people worked on that show here. It was a big operation. I wish that I was one of them, but Jackie only worked with union guys, although one time I had drinks with him. The big man was really into UFOs. He thought they were going to kidnap him into Space. Fat chance of them fitting the Great One in a flying saucer."
“I loved him in the movie SOLDIER IN THE RAIN.” Jackie Gleason had played a conniving sergeant opposite Steve McQueen. "The ending made me cry."
“You were never in the military, Hippie boy, were you?” The words were almost an accusation.
“No.” Vietnam was a war fought by the working class and I tensed up in preparation for an attack.
“Chill out, Hippie Boy. I wasn’t in the army either, but I did get drafted. The damned draft board thought I was faking my blindness. After a check-up they wrote up that not only did I have perfect 0/0 vision, but I had flat feet too. Never knew that. Good thing I got a long nose. I can smell everything around me like a bloodhound tracking a runaway slave.”
Old Bill raised his head and howled off-key. He was no singer.
I ordered us another round.
The Deuce Bar served cheap Canadian whiskey to Old Bill and I drank Busch Beer. The rough and ready bar had a warped pool table and Old Bill’s favorite antic was to challenge a newcomer to a game using his cane as a cue stick. All he had to do was sink one ball. The rube would accept the challenge and then Old Bill would accuse them of cheating. He thought it was a good laugh.
That night I called Diana from a hotel phone booth. I hung up without anyone answering on the other side of America.
"What's wrong?" asked Bill.
"You don't sound like nothing. More like a woman problem."
"A good guess."
"Better that than getting old. Everyone in the Sea Breeze is happy to wake up in the morning. They think you're good luck."
"Because no one has died since you came here. Hey, I have a joke for you."
"I can imagine."
"There's these two old guys living in Miami Beach.
Izzy and Moishe sit on the terrace of the Sea Breeze Hotel and Izzy says, “You know Moishe, we’ve had a good life, but I’ve been wondering about what’s next?”
“What’s next is we die. One of us first and then the other second.”
“What about Hell?”
"There's no hell or heaven." Moishe was an atheist.
“But what if there really is a heaven and hell?”
“This I don't know, but I tell you what, if one of us dies and there is a heaven or hell, he should come back to say if there is a heaven or hell. Is it a deal?”
“For you, anything.”
The two were old friends and neither man thinks anything about the oath until Moishe dies two weeks later.
"At least he went in his sleep.” Izzy tells the children who are transporting the body back up north, because one gets buried in Florida. A week goes by, then another. A month and then more."
"This joke feels as long as a month."
"Patience." Old Bill raised his hand. "A year to the day of Moishe's passing, the curtains of Izzy’s windows billow inward without a breeze. The temperature was in the 80s, but the room is freezing. Moishe can see his breath and asks, “Izzy, is that you?” “Of course it’s me, who else were you expecting?” The voice sounds like it’s coming from across the universe. “Only you, so tell me, are you in heaven or hell?” Moishe is eager to hear the answer, since then he can tell Izzy that he was wrong about heaven and hell. “Neither.” “Neither?” Moishe hadn’t expected this response. “So what do you do all the time?” “I eat, I fuck, I eat, I fuck, I eat, I fuck, and then I go to sleep.” “Well, aren’t you in heaven?”
Old Bill waited a second and then dropped the punchline.
“No, I’m a rabbit in Texas.”
I got a good laugh and forgot about Diana for about a minute.
"Don't worry about that girl. She'll be there. She's going to school and they don't end till the Spring."
Nearing dawn we rode the elevator up to our floors and I fell asleep thinking about rabbits. There were probably a lot of them in Texas.
That weekend we watched the Super Bowl at the Deuce Bar. Both of us bet on Pittsburgh. The Steelers covered the spread by 13. We celebrated our win with a long night of drinking rum and cokes. The bartender threw us out at dawn after an obscene toast to the MVP Franco Harris.
Walking back to the Sea Breeze he turned his head to the northern sky. A white contrail pummeled through the clear morning sky.
"That's a rocket was lifting from Cape Kennedy going where no one man has been before.” Old Bill chuckled and grabbed my arm, as he stumbled off the curb. “Damn, drunk doesn’t combo good with blind. Better watch where I’m going.”
Old Bill’s geographic memory prevented most accidents, but one afternoon he entered the hotel with blood streaming from a cut on his head.
“I went out for a job in Coconut Grove. The bastard customer left me on the wrong side of the road and I walked into a damned coconut tree. I felt like Helen Keeler after her parents moved the furniture. Lucky a coconut didn’t fall on my head.”
He wiped away the blood with his tee-shirt to wipe away the blood.
“You know all pianists spread their notes over three or four octaves. McCoy Tyner was trying to stretch the sound. It’s all a question of string scaling.”
“Sorry, Old Bill, that’s Greek to me.”
“To most people too. I feel like the last of my kind, but that means I always have a job. You know the song HOUSTON.”
“Going back to Houston.” I sang the line from Dean Martin’s hit.
"You can't sing for shit either, but that's the tune. I got an old girlfriend east of there. A town called Bumfuck, Texas. She wants me to come tune her piano. She’ll pay gas and food. You want to drive me there?”
“A Delta 88,” he said it with pride.
“You have a car?” My father drove the same vehicle. It weighed a ton.
“I bet no one asks Stevie Wonder if he has a car, Hippie Boy. You fuckin’ saying I’m not normal?”
These were the harshest words Old Bill had ever aimed in my direction and I said, "Why you have to be so mean all the time?"
"Me mean? I the world is mean and I been taught that every day of my life. And you know who's been good to me. My wife Mary and her people. That's all, so if I want to be mean than I got good reason."
I tried to apologize, but he pushed me away.
“If you don’t want to drive to Houston with me, just say so.”
“No, I’ll drive you there.” Diana's skin was smooth as the morning breeze off the Gulf Stream and Houston was almost halfway to the coast.
“Don’t bullshit me, Hippie boy.” We had arrived at the Sea Breeze.
“No bullshit.” I had Diana’s address. She would be surprised to see me. The look on her face would tell whether the surprise was good or bad.
“Then pack your bag. We’re going now.”
“Now?” It was almost midday.
“Check-out's at noon and I want to be in East Bumfuck tomorrow night.” Old Bill hurried into the lobby headed for the stairs.
“I’ll see you down here in ten minutes.”
I showed up in five minutes and dialed Diana from the telephone booth. She answered after two rings, sounding like she had been expecting someone else.
“Where are you?”
I told her about the Sea Breeze and Old Bill. She laughed and said, “Sounds like it’d make a good film. I’ll see you in a few days.”
I handed in my key. Nick said that he was sorry to see me go.
"Everyone else too. You know no one's died since you came."
"Old Bill told me the same thing."
"Where you going?”
“I’m driving Old Bill to Houston.”
“Whatever you do, don’t let him drive.” The clerk bit his lower lip. “That old man is dangerous. To himself is no problem, but don’t let him kill you.”
“Stop talking about me like I’m not here. I’m blind, not deaf.” Old Bill entered the lobby with a leather satchel in his hand, wearing a black suit shiny with age and a rumpled white shirt. The dust had been wiped off his shoes.
“You look good.”
“Of course I look good. A man should make a good impression on the road. Nick, I’ll be gone a week and I'll see you suckers when I see you."
No one in the lobby wished him ‘good luck’. They were happy to see his back, if only for seven days.
Old Bill’s car was in the rear parking lot and I pulled the cover off the big Detroit boat. The Delta 88 steel was painted a somber gray. He walked over to the passenger side and opened the door.
“Mary used to drive me in this car. She liked driving fast.”
“I don’t drive that fast. I hate speeding tickets.”
“My wife never got a speeding ticket.” He stopped speaking, as if he were checking his memory, then said, “C’mon, get in. We don’t got all day. You hippie boys think the world one big Woodstock. Naked girls and LSD.”
“And would that be such a bad thing?”
“It would be for the clothing factories in the South and tobacco growers.”
We left Miami on US 27 and hit Lake Okeechobee at 2. Old Bill didn't like the Interstate. The noise of the semi-trailers hurt hiss ears.
Small towns interrupted the endless swamp.
Clewiston, Venus, Lake Placid, Sebring, Lady Lake.
He gave directions, as if the bumps in the road were Braille. We stopped every four hours for gas and a walk. I drank coffee and ate donuts to save my money.
Back on the road Old Bill fiddled with the radio. Florida radio played mostly country or Latin and black stations were ghettoed on the end of the dial.
“Can’t stand that peckerwood shit and I’ve heard enough spic music in Miami to last me a lifetime in Texas.”
“But you’re okay with soul.”
“My wife loved that darkie R&B.”
Old Bill drank whiskey from a silver flask.
“None for you, you’re driving.”
An hour after sunset we passed through Ocala. The cowboy town looked mean and I kept driving at the speed limit. Florida was a big state at 55.
I got on the Interstate after Lake City.
Old Bill drunkenly bitched about the trucks.
"Not many other options." I wasn't keen on driving through the backroads of the Panhandle. "This is cracker territory."
“I know, but those trucks sound like giant frogs fartin’.” He stuffed wads of wet paper in his ears and fell asleep until we reached Mobile around four in the morning.
“There’s a good crab shack before the bridge.” He lifted his nose to the open window. “The second one. We’ll eat there. My wife liked it.”
Old Bill’s choice was on the money.
The crabs were big and juicy.
He tucked a napkin into his collar and spread a handkerchief on his lap.
“Only got one suit.”
The other late-night diners watched him crack the crabs and stuff the succulent meat in his mouth. Shells and crab were scattered all over his side of the table. I averted my eyes from the horror of his enjoyment. At the end of the meal Old Bill wiped his mouth with the napkin.
“I get anything on my suit?” He stared down with an inquisitive sniff.
“Nothing.” It had been a miracle.
“I’m a lucky man.”
“How so?” I felt good too.
“I got me a full belly of crab.”
"Me too.” A warm wind bleew off the Gulf and the road was open to LA. We got back in the Olds.
“This car belonged to my wife. She drove me everywhere. You might have noticed that I’m not an easy man, but she brought out the best in me. We must have stopped at this crab shack ten or fifteen times. Tonight it was almost like she was there with me. She didn’t speak much and neither did you. That’s why I dressed up for this trip. She hated me looking sloppy. You speak with that girl of yours?"
“Right before I left."
“That’s good. A man alone is not a good thing. Look at me. Old, mean, and alone. No one care a shit for me.”
“But you had Mary.
“Yes, I had her.” Old Bill scratched his nose, as if he were sharpening it to keen his whereabouts.
“And I thought Mary would outlive me. All women are supposed to outlive their man, but not Mary. I put her in the early grave with my craziness.”
Old Bill took out a handkerchief and blew his nose.
“Sorry, any time I get near New Orleans I get a little misty, I met Mary there. I was playing piano in a bar. Never knew its name. Only the smell. One night a perfume caught my nose.Not a whore. A lady. Mary. She liked my playing. We went out and I stopped seeing other women. We had thirty-three years together. And not once did I sniff at another woman. Are you still there, Hippie Boy?”
“Right behind the wheel.” The last coffee was wearing off fast and I suppressed a yawn.
“Don’t pay for an old man to think too much about the past. The old sentiments sneak up on you like the Japs at Pearl Harbor. You’re not feeling tired, are you?”
“Just a little.”
“Soon you’ll be resting one eye and then the other. Good way to find yourself off the road into a tree. Pull off the highway round Bay St. Louis. We’ll sleep by the beach. Nice to wake to the sound of the sea. Unless of course you want me to drive. The road gets mighty straight around here.”
“No, I'll drive.”
Pass Christian was our final stop for the night. We parked by the beach and opened the windows to the gentle night air. A frail moon illuminated the gulf.
Old Bill handed me the flask of whiskey.
“You earned it. Sleep good.” Old Bill dropped his seat into a deep recline and he was snoring several seconds later. I listened to the mosquitoes hunting my blood. I don’t remember falling asleep.
A rap on the car trunk woke us at dawn. A police officer stood next to the Delta 88. His hand was on his holster. The gun was a .45.
“You boys run out of gas.”
“Just steam, officer.” Old Bill righted his seat and took off his Ray-Bans. “My young friend here drove all the way from Miami yesterday. He had to get some sleep or else drive into the beautiful scenery.”
“Something wrong with getting a hotel?” The trooper stood by my door.
;“Just trying to save money,” Old Bill spoke like he had been reared in this parish. “We have ID. Have money too. This is my car.”
“What’s a blind man doing with a car?”
“This used to belong to my old lady. She’s dead two years now. This young fellow offered to drive me to Houston.”
“He’s got hair long enough to be a lady. You ain’t queer, are you, boy?”
“Officer, Hippie Boy ain’t no queer and I ain’t no bum. You want to see our registration?”
“No, aj ust get moving. Don’t need your type in our town.
“Have a good day.”
“It’ll be good once you’re gone.”
The officer returned to a souped-up Chevy cruiser and 180ed in the opposite direction.
“I don’t like eating crow, but that’s all the cops serve around these parts.” Old Bill spit out the window. “Let’s do like he said and get moving.”
We crossed the bridge between the old towns of Pass Christian and Port St. Louis. A sandy beach to the left was lined with trees and antebellum mansions lay to the right.
“Avoid New Orleans.” Old Bill ordered at the turning. “Don’t much like the Pearl City anymore. It reminds me too much of Mary.”
We skirted the lake and entered Baton Rouge around 9, where we had donuts and coffee for breakfast.
I called Diana from a gas station.
The phone rang ten times.
The day grew hot, as we drove through Lafayette, Iowa, and Lake Charles. I turned on the AC. Old Bill liked the cold.
With Texas was less than 20 minutes away Old Bill had me pull into a gas station in Beaumont.
The men looked at me funny. Cowboys didn’t like hippies and they thought Old Bill was weird.
He heard their mutterings.
“Damn goat-ropers.” He fumbled for coins from his pocket and gave me a slip of paper. “Dial this number for me.”
The area code was same as the pay phone. The call cost 90 cents. I put in the money. A woman answered on the other end. Old Bill had better luck than me. I handed him the phone.
Old Bill spoke for three minutes and then hung up.
Walking back to the car he said, “Not far now. Maybe ten miles. We get off the highway next exit. I ever show you a picture of my Mary?”
Once inside the Olds he fished out a tattered photo from his wallet. The woman was pretty with jet black skin. Living in the South as a mixed couple must have been hard on both of them.
“That she was.” He put away the photo after a kiss.
When we left the highway, Old Bill sniffed the air and said, “Stop here.”
“Here?” A straight two-laner disappeared to the north through bare fallow fields.
“Yeah, I know the way from here. I want to drive.” He pushed me hard.
“You sure that’s a good idea?” Nick had warned me against just this.
“This is my damn car. If I want to drive it, then I’ll drive it. You don’t think that I know what I’m doing? Get the fuck out of my car, Hippie Boy. I’m not joking.” His fists were tight balls of old bone and flesh. He raised one in anger.
“This is fucked.” I opened my door and started for the passenger side.
“I think you know where you’re going, but can’t see the way.”
“I don’t need to see. I have an ear for the road, so where I’m going, I’m going alone, so I don’t need a seeing-eye hippie."
“Have it your way.” I angrily grabbed my bag. Expecting a good goodbye had been too much to asked from Old Bill.
“Hey, Hippie Boy?”
“What’s your name?”
I told him.
“Hippie Boy suits you better.” Old Bill turned on the radio. Booker T was playing GREEN ONIONS.
“Now that’s some good traveling music.
“You’re right about that, Old Bill.”
“You have a good time with that hippie girl in California.”
"And don't worrying about me getting killed. If that happened the worst thing would be my ending up as a rabbit in Texas and you know what they do all day?"
"Yes, I do."
"See ya, Hippie Boy." Old Bill drove slowly down that long road and the Delta 88 wavered from side to side without falling into the drainage ditch. He was not driving fast, but within several minutes the Delta 88 was a little black dot.
I turned to the highway.
An hour passed with southern slowness.
Finally a semi-trailer stopped for me. The bearded driver was bound for Austin, Texas. The capitol of cowboy rock was home for Commander Cody and Asleep At The Wheel.
“What were you doing out there?” He shifted the big rig into gear.
“A friend dropped me off.” There was no car on the road.
“The middle of nowhere.” He squinted at the flat East Texas landscape.
“He was going to see an old girlfriend and a piano.”
“What about you?”
“I’m going to the West Coast.”
“Anyplace not cold sounds good to me this time of the year.”
The big truck picked up speed and I started humming IN-DA-GADDA-VIDA.
Old Bill’s version was a song I couldn’t get out of my head.
Just like a tuning fork sounding a perfect fifth.
It was a hum destined to last forever.