The Road, Again, Looking For Meaning and Finding Just a Bit
“You ever feel like life is easier on the road?” I asked him.
“All the time,” he said.
The call came last Monday afternoon.
A press conference. An angle. A trip. The road.
An hour later and the bags are packed and arrangements made. Snow and rainfall in Chicago as I hit the highway. Six hours through the wetness and I’m in Cleveland, where a few protesters linger in a quiet downtown following the announcement that none of the officers involved in the death of Tamir Rice will be charged.
Check in. I’ve done this before.
It’s usually easier to write about someone who has died not at the hands of police. For one thing, there are many more of those types of homicides – about 13,000 a year depending on how many of this country’s 18,000 some odd law enforcement agencies report their statistics to the FBI each year. Secondly, usually by the time I roll into town I’m a bit late. So while everyone is writing about The One Thing that has brought us all there, I’ve been asked to look for something different.
I call them The Forgotten Dead. And there are a lot of them no matter where you go in America: DeAndre Joshua and Jerry Poindexter in Ferguson. Donielle Kelly in Cincinnati. Lennon Lacy in North Carolina. Darren Deon Vann’s victims in Gary, Indiana.
And the list goes on.
These are the people I come into contact with only after they’ve reached the afterlife, and after I’ve reached the end of the road. The time in between home and the places I meet the dead and their families and friends provides plenty of time for introspection.
Maybe I think about death a lot because I’m constantly dealing with it.
In a tame sense, the road is easier than home or at work because you have final destinations and soft deadlines. You need to make it there by roughly a certain time. What happens between here and there doesn’t really matter, but the getting there gives a roamer a sense of purpose; the control of driving grants a sense of freedom.
Check for flat tires, fill up the car with gas, adjust mirrors, clean windshields, buy cigarettes.
“Stop for coffee?“
“Eh, in another hour.”
“I’m gettin’ hungry. You ready to eat?“
“Yeah, but let’s try to find a Waffle House.”
Grab a soda, some chips, beef jerky. All up to you. Check how much farther you have left to go, check what hotels are cheapest, see what bars are nearby. Lay out your toilet kit in a toast dry room and turn up the damn heat because it’s set at 68. Set your bags down. Clean the road off of you in a shower with hard water. Moisturize with worthless hotel lotion.
See if the bar’s still open.
The road teaches you things.
On the East Side of Cleveland I eventually found a few things I was looking for. The first was the right tavern – named after the football team that has never won a championship but is revered between these brown walls.
But there is nothing but old white people in here. We start watching Fast Times At Ridgemont High at three in the afternoon. A woman walks in.
“I found him!”
Dave, the guy next to me, turns around and tells his buddy at the end of the bar, “You’re in trouble now!
“Drag him out by the ear, Betsy!”
Betsy is the long-suffering wife on the East Side of Cleveland who has an old man who spends his afternoons at Brown’s Tavern watching whatever movie is on and slowly drinking his life away. The banter starts coming too fast for me to take it all down.
“How you doin’ Dave?”
“What’d the doc find out there – other’n yer brain dead?”
“Well that’s been the case since day one,” the southpaw replies. His face is ashen either from the afternoon light or from the disease he admits to next. “No, they said we’ll start chemo and radiation in a few weeks.”
“Well, maybe. But the early stages … But who do you believe anyway?”
Gruff denial. Maybe disbelief. This guy goes to work every day. He’s still in his mechanic’s uniform. Who’re you gonna believe, some white-coat doctor?
Sharon the bartender is keeping up just fine in Brown’s, and the cancer-stricken drinker next to me is pulling some moves.
“Sharon I’m lookin’ for someone like you to work hard and support me.”
She doesn’t miss a beat.
“You just keep on lookin’ hunny.”
It’s a joke but she means it. Sharon has lived her life wreathed in cigarette smoke. She has been beaten by a man, and her left eye tells a bit of that story. Her glasses hang from a cheap gold chain with a cross. Dave wants another shot.
“Are you mad at yourself today?” she jokes.
Anyone sitting in a bar on the East Side of Cleveland at 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon has plenty to be upset about. But location doesn’t matter; we all got stuff to work out with shrinks like Sharon.
Dave and I become friends. He’s a retired highway maintenance worker. He quietly watches TV as the cancer-stricken mechanic and his friend get into politics. It’s ugly. The soon-to-be chemo patient doesn’t really care about what his tough guy buddy is saying. But the soon-to-be chemo patient doesn’t seem like he has a whole lot of friends.
So when the Harley riding pal next to him says of the Middle East that “we should blow the whole fucking place up and come back in 20 years and get the oil,” the quieter of the two just nods his head.
It’s getting late on a Tuesday, the time of afternoon when a working man starts thinking about the choices he’s made that have led him to have an empty home and a serious health scare, and a job to go to first thing in the morning.
Bombing the fuck out of the Middle East isn’t going to help with any of that.
Not too far from Brown’s and its all-white crowd is East 113th Street. There I find the memorial for a child who was killed last year in a shootout. A woman who had just checked her mail looks through a just-cracked door at me. Despite seeing the pile of stuffed animals, candles and balloons for almost six months now from her front porch, she remains confused on just who the child is who died there.
There were more than a few of them in Cleveland last year.
“I think it might be for the other one on the other side of 113th.”
That’s where Sonya Garth lives.
After an interview with Garth, whose 12-year-old daughter, Davia, died in a domestic gone horribly wrong in 2014, I’m headed toward downtown. The place appears oddly sparkling after spending the afternoon on the East Side of Cleveland.
There is a casino and bars and restaurants. There are no abandoned churches with boards on the windows and no fading memorials for children lost to gun violence. There are no men who just served you your burger and then took a heroin nap on the bench next to you while you ate your cheap meal and caught up with the 6 o’clock news.
There is hope instead of despair. You have a chance to win here.
My friend and I play little and win nothing, and drink a few beers. The next day I head to western Pennsylvania for a story about a head found by a little boy in the woods. The head was embalmed and the body is missing.
After a night there I decide it is time to go to my dad’s childhood home.
Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania is a former mining town that is now struggling to find a new identity. Unfortunately, my distant relatives tell me, like a lot of other Rust Belt cities, Wilkes-Barre hadn’t ever really planned for any scenario in which mining didn’t provide the backbone of the town’s economy.
Now, the city of about 46,000 is slowly rebounding from a financial freefall.
Downtown is a mix of bars where people pretend like they’re balling and abandoned storefronts where the past’s bustling history is gathering dust. It seems a sad place that is lost to time but filled with at least a few people who are trying to make it work – a bistro, a late-night gyro joint, a bar where no cheap beers are available.
The next day my relatives drive me up to Back Mountain where my dad was born and raised. There, on a non-descript street, is the home he grew up in with his four brothers, one sister and two parents. It is the size of a large shoe box.
“I can’t believe you’re there,” he tells me.
It’s time to hit the road again and there are two choices: start heading home – a 10-hour drive – or go to New York, a place I’ve never been. I choose the latter and take off from Wilkes-Barre late on a Friday night.
I’m once again reminded of the lessons the road provides.
Always do at least 80, depending on what the cars around you are doing. Pass on the left and if there’s someone in the left lane going slower than you, give them the length of your patience then pass on the right.
Look incredulously at them as you pass them, then smile. Jam the accelerator down and run up to 100 mph. You know the road; they do not.
At night, watch for extra lights near the white reflective signs in between your lanes and those going the opposite way. Always look for the signs and then look for the lights. Those are police, and at night they are at their most legally lethal.
If a car is riding you and you’re worried it’s a cop, always remember that police squads never have fog lights. This will narrow the pool.
Do not plug in a digital music device. This will only diminish the experience. Listen to classic rock stations on FM radio when they’re available. During the day also listen to AM talk to see what the farmers who till the land you’re flying by hear and believe.
If you bring CDs, keep it simple. You can always pick up more at truck stops for those stretches in between towns with classic rock stations that only have the words of Jesus to listen to.
Listen to the words of Jesus for a while too.
Be thankful when road songs come on the radio. Radar Love, Turn the Page, the Boys Are Back in Town. If you play your own music, play Hendrix, James Brown, Otis Redding, blare AC/DC as loud as your speakers can handle. Zeppelin, Floyd, CCR. The American classics. Johnny Cash. Chuck Berry. Play hillbilly music and Motown. Never play whiny acoustic music. Bob Dylan and Neil Young are the only acceptable complainers.
The last thing you want is a paramedic pulling your battered corpse from your crushed car to a Bright Eyes tune.
If the road is wet, aim for the two dry lanes in each lane. If you must cross them do so only to pass. There is no shame in dying because you were trying to get ahead.
Always be passing, but if someone is going faster than you let them have their way. You know the proper speed but perhaps they know better.
Play your music loud regardless of the road conditions. Hydroplaning is not something you can hear anyway. If you can’t feel it through experience, no amount of silence will save you once the bottom of your vehicle decides it wants to go somewhere else than where you’re putting it.
Listen to Journey if they come on the radio. It will remind you of the time you were stuck behind a train for 45 minutes and you sang along to their greatest hits with a girl you once loved and realized in that bittersweet moment that this was the beginning of the end.
If you haven’t experienced that moment then keep spending time on the road; you haven’t lived enough yet.
My Cousin Ted died on the road, coming home from a job I’m not sure he liked very much. I think about him when the road becomes slick and the interstate signs shine off the asphalt like neon. I wonder about the last things he saw before exhaustion or a slip of the hand forced him off the road. I think I will not be like that but I know that the road brings many things I can’t control.
The road is bigger than you. It is a fickle being that can teach you many things and take it all away in an instant. That is the fearsome beauty of it, the same mixture of terror and exhilaration that has prompted me to take every car I’ve ever driven as far as it can go.
There is a terrifying roar that happens above 100 mph that eventually turns into silence. In that moment you briefly feel in control before realizing you are completely not.
Do this on occasion but do not make a habit of it.
Eat at any place that says it is a family restaurant. Enjoy these roadside relics while they’re around. Eventually they will all be replaced by what we see in every town and city.
As often as possible stop where the truckers do. Let their lives be your guide. Who else to follow than those who forever follow the road?
Buy your girl a shot glass at each new state you enter. By the time you get all 50 she’ll be proud of you. And she’ll be ready to leave you.
You’ll still have the road.
On the way home I did the best I could. But six hours outside of New York, I was struck by hunger. I stopped at a truck stop in Lamar, Pennsylvania. Without planning it I realized I’d stopped there going east. I ate my fried chicken – which was awful – then felt exhaustion taking hold.
I bought a blanket and a pillow and tried to sleep in the back of my car. As the temperature dropped, I turned the key, then, smelling the exhaust, began to wonder if the carbon monoxide would get to me. It didn’t take long searching online for me to realize that there was a decent chance it might kill me, and that even if it didn’t there was no way my mind would let me have peace in that paranoid state.
I checked into a hotel and tried to relax. Three hours later – at 7 eastern – fatigue finally won out. It was good to sleep deeply and not worry about the consequences.
This is the beauty of the road. Unlike some of the people living in many of the places that I go, I’m lucky enough to get out when I need to, and lay my head down when I need to as well.
A friend once told me that life is easier out on the road and now I know why: Being in control of your own destination is to be completely in control of your life. To fully understand the American brand of humanity one must be slightly inhumane. And to live even a portion of your life on the road is exactly that.
We are taught that this way of living is not right, that once humans learned how to farm, that that was the end of the nomadic lifestyle. But never forget that before that development we were all roamers, and now it appears that the innate desire to flee and discover sometimes comes out in spurts.
Gertrude Stein once wrote that to be an American means that one must “conceive a space that is filled with moving.” That space is in my mind, and it often breaks free when I give in to my desire to move about the continent. I’m lucky to be able to do so. For at least a few of us it’s easier to move than to stay still.
“In a bit.”