(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)
“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan but also believe.” Anatole France
In 1976, when I was twenty-six and working as a landscaper in southern Oregon, my big dream was go to New York and meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, and also say hello to the magazine editors at Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, and Gallery who had bought my short stories; and to rub shoulders, I hoped, with others of my kind. For those of you unfamiliar with Gallery, it was a low rent offshoot of Penthouse with lots of raunchy photos of naked women and quasi-pornographic letters-to-the-editor and the occasional marvelous short story by Todd Walton. I was somewhat embarrassed to have my stories therein, but thrilled to be paid for my writing.
Standing in the way of my dream was lack of cash. When I worked as a landscaper, I made six dollars an hour, which was good pay for physical labor in those days, but the work was sporadic and I often made just enough to cover my rent and groceries. Then one day my boss called to say he’d landed a contract to landscape both sides of a freeway overpass in Medford and would need me fulltime for two months, and since it was a state job he was required to pay me ten dollars an hour. So I moved out of my room in Ashland and into a bunkhouse adjacent to my boss’s house in Medford where I could live for free and only have to pay for food. I figured to clear over three thousand dollars and be able to fly to the Big Apple instead of hitchhiking. Little did I know the job would last three months and not only finance my trip to New York, but also keep me solvent for the next two years.
“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” Martin Luther King
I remember two things most vividly about those three summer months of landscaping that gargantuan freeway overpass—the remarkable increase in my physical strength, and the heartbreaking young prostitute who worked the northbound on-ramp from early afternoon and into the night.
I dug over eighteen-hundred-feet of deep ditch by hand, and I climbed up and down steep inclines carrying heavy loads for hours on end, six days a week. I went from being a trim 165 pounds to a heavily muscled 180, and by the end of that job I could pick up a ninety-pound sack of cement as if it was a modest bag of groceries. I slept the sleep of the dead from eight every evening until my boss roused me at six every morning, except on Sundays when I would sleep into the afternoon.
And every day that beautiful young woman with long auburn hair would come walking up the hill from the Motel Six—strong and graceful—dressed as the college girl she was pretending to be, with sensible shoes and long stockings and a knee-length skirt, a well-ironed blouse, and a sweater to match her skirt, her hair in a ponytail. She carried a notebook and what looked like a textbook to complete her disguise, and she did not hold out her thumb to simulate hitchhiking, but simply stood there waiting—and she rarely waited more than half-an-hour before a car or pickup truck would stop beside her, the driver—almost always a single man—would roll down his passenger window, and the young woman would come closer to talk business. And sometimes the young woman would get in the car and drive with her client down onto the freeway and have him take the next exit and circle back to the Motel Six, and sometimes the client would drive away without her and she would walk down the hill to meet him at the motel, and sometimes the man was dissatisfied with the price or whatever limitations she imposed, and he would drive away and she would resume her waiting.
We were intrigued by her, my fellow workers and I, and when we’d take breaks for snacks or lunch, if she was waiting there, we would offer her a cookie or a drink of water or a handful of nuts (no pun intended), and sometimes she would graciously accept, and sometimes she would politely decline. And one time our boss brought us cheeseburgers and fries and shakes from the nearby MacDonald’s, and when we told our girl we had more than we could eat, she sauntered across the road and ate a quick lunch with us.
“You guys are great,” she said, revealing a slight lisp and a sweet southern accent. “I like having you nearby. Makes me feel safe.”
To which I wanted to reply, “How can you ever feel safe having sex with strangers, so many strangers, so many men you know nothing about?” But I was speechless standing close to her, marveling at her beauty and bravery, so I said nothing and spent those moments memorizing her face and figure so I might never forget her.
“What things are the poem?” D.R. Wagner
About a month into the freeway job, Dorothy Pittman called to say my editor at Seventeen wanted to commission a Christmas story for which she would pay me five hundred dollars. She needed a three-thousand-word story as soon as possible, and I almost declined because I was so tired every day from my physical labors I didn’t see how I could muster the strength to write anything good. But I didn’t want to burn that little publishing bridge, so I accepted the commission and hoped for the best.
Now one thing about ditch digging, especially the digging of very long ditches, is that the mind is largely free while the body works, and so I used that laboring time to tell myself Christmas stories until one of the stories took hold; and then I told the story over and over to myself through the hours and days of digging, refining the tale with every telling until I had each descriptive passage and every line of dialogue just as I wanted them, the story memorized. And on a Sunday afternoon I typed the whole thing up, shipped the manuscript to New York the next day, and thought no more about it.
“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
I decided to visit family and friends in and around San Francisco before flying off to New York in mid-September. Weary of hitchhiking, and feeling flush, I took the Greyhound bus, which in those days was an inexpensive and relatively comfortable way to travel, with stations and stops in thousands of towns and cities where today the buses no longer go.
My companion for eight hours of the ten-hour journey was a roly-poly guy in desperate need of a bath. He was forty-something with a baby face and curly brown hair and crooked brown teeth. He wore shiny brown polyester slacks, a faded T-shirt featuring green parrots, and red high-top tennis shoes. After we introduced ourselves and I learned he would be getting off in Sacramento, he launched into a discourse on the origin of humans on earth, his voice gruff, his narrative punctuated by bouts of coughing and chuckling.
“So the smartest advisor to these highly civilized aliens on a planet way over there says to the emperor, ‘Sire, all these barbarians do is kill and kill, no matter what we do, your lordship, and so I ask you to let me transport them to the planet of the dinosaurs where they will be eaten.’ But then the dinosaurs got zapped by a meteor and humans bred like gerbils and…here we are.”
“Could those aliens who brought humans here,” I inquired, “travel faster than the speed of light?”
“Of course,” he said, nodding emphatically. “Through molecular reconfiguring. The military sees their ships all the time with infrared fiber optics, but they don’t want regular people to know about the aliens because the government is a front for the secret warrior clan that has ruled the world since before the Pharaohs and are at war with the aliens.” He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. “As a matter-of-fact, the aliens gave me mathematical proof of molecular reconfiguration in my dream. The equation is X over Real Time minus the Weight to Mass ratio per pound of Nega-Gravity doubling in Reversed Space in which slow is fast and vice-versa.”
“I went to a psychic once,” he said, interrupting me, “and she said the main obstacle to my happiness is my mind and the gateway to freedom is to tell the world my dreams.” He closed his eyes and sighed heavily. “I haven’t slept in a couple weeks because they follow me everywhere since I got back from Vietnam because they know I know about their secret operations, so I’m gonna take a little nap and talk more later. Okay?”
To my great relief, he slept the rest of the way to Sacramento, waking when the bus driver announced, “This is Sac-ra-mento. We’ll be stopping here for fifteen minutes before continuing to San Francisco.”
“Do you remember the four things I told you?” asked my odiferous companion as he got his battered suitcase down from the overhead rack.
“Tell me again,” I said, smiling up at him.
“Acceptance, forgiveness, love and logic,” he said, frowning gravely. “These must be taught through all the media to ignite a revolution of thought to repel the forces of darkness.”
“Amen,” I said. “Safe travels.”
“Won’t help,” he said grimly. “I’m destined to meet the warlocks. Any day now.”
“What does it mean to pre-board? Do you get on before you get on?” George Carlin
My United Airlines flight to Newark, New Jersey was scheduled to lift off from San Francisco at midnight, but a few minutes before takeoff we were herded off the jet and told we would have to wait for another jet to arrive from Los Angeles because our first jet was experiencing mechanical difficulties. Thus we did not take off until three in the morning, and shortly thereafter my seven-mile-high snooze was interrupted by the announcement that “we will be landing in Chicago at O’Hare Airport in fifteen minutes where this flight will terminate.”
“Excuse me,” I said, trying not to panic as I hailed a stewardess. “I thought this flight was going to Newark, New Jersey. That’s what my ticket says and I’ve got a friend waiting for me there.”
“Sorry,” she said with a pleasant shrug, “they’ll fix you up with a new flight once we’re on the ground.”
O’Hare Airport is as big as a medium-sized city with myriad terminals located miles apart from each other, or so it was in 1976. When I was informed by the harried person at the United Airlines counter that if I wanted to continue to Newark I could do so on an American Airlines jet leaving in twelve hours or I could do what most of my fellow travelers were doing and change my flight to some other New York or East Coast destination. But since I was bound for New Jersey to stay with my friends Dan and Janka, and not being a savvy air traveler, I took the ticket he gave me and set out on the long trek across O’Hare with the intention of bivouacking at the appropriate American Airlines boarding gate until summoned to board.
Then a funny thing happened, and by funny I mean odd and perplexing. As I entered the vast American Airlines Terminal, I looked up at one of the many television monitors announcing flight arrivals and departures, and I noticed one of the departure announcements was blinking to indicate that flight would be departing in just a few minutes. And the number of the blinking flight was the number of the flight I had been told would be leaving in twelve hours—destination Newark, New Jersey.
So I ran as fast as I could for a good half-mile, thankful to be in such superlative condition from three months of grueling physical labor under the hot Oregon sun, and I arrived with my briefcase and knapsack at the appropriate boarding gate just as a dapper fellow in an American Airlines uniform was about to close the double doors to the ramp leading down to the soon-to-depart 747. He took my ticket, pulled off the appropriate pages, and sent me down the ramp to a smiling stewardess who ushered me into the virtually empty jumbo jet, empty save for me, four other passengers, the pilot and co-pilot, two stewards and five stewardesses.
Now that was a fun flight. Once we had attained cruising altitude above a vast sea of snowy white clouds, a stewardess invited the five passengers to move up to the First Class section—my one and only experience of such airborne luxury. We dined lavishly, were taken into the cockpit to say hello to the pilot and co-pilot, and I enjoyed a rousing game of Hearts with three of the stewardesses. Everyone was curious as to why I alone of the hundreds of United Airlines passengers had made it onto that jumbo jet that had been called up expressly to take us (and our hundreds of pieces of luggage) on the second leg of our journey to New Jersey.
And I said, “Just lucky I guess,” though in truth I felt angels were actively taking care of me.