“It was the summer of ’92, and all I wanted was to be in Seattle. You know, like every other mopey kid with long hair, a flannel shirt and a guitar. But I was 16, with no license and no car. And I lived in Connecticut. It was time to get creative.”
I met Bryce by accident at one of those grad school functions everybody goes to just for the free food. He was your stereotypical late-in-lifer; one of those smart but hopelessly anarchic types that screwed around for two decades, accidentally aged past forty, and finally decided he needed a real career after all. The old grunge tattoos were a dead giveaway, as well as the black crewneck over jeans. He found me more tolerable than the milquetoasts sipping virgin martinis; I felt the same way. Besides, I needed a good subject for my biography class.
Two weeks later, we met up in the part of town where going to Waffle House is a non-ironic activity, and an open window counts as a cigarette patio. I hit the tape recorder, and he launched into his own story.
“So I grew up in New Haven. Dad taught Greek at Yale. A real quiet little mouse of a man, God bless him. Mom taught painting, when she was around. She came and went pretty erratically. They covered it up by saying she was overseas or on trips, at first. But by 13 I knew she had been in and out of the nuthouse. We were non-functional as a family. Dad was always either in the library or off lecturing somewhere, and Mom was unstable even in the best of times. I had two brothers, but they were both about a decade older and never came round. They lived out on the West Coast.” He paused to take a drag on his Newport, then looked me dead in the eye. “Look, I’m not trying to make this into a pity party. I just want you to have the background.”
“It’s fine. I understand.”
“All right. So, when I got to be about 13, I started to really act out. By 14 I was selling weed and getting kicked out of shows and bars in New Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport, you name it. When I was 15 started selling coke to all the trust fund babies running around campus. Meanwhile I was in this never-ending chain of bands, sometimes 4 or 5 at a time. We’d fight, break up, form new groups. They were all made up of the same 30 or so people. Punk, grunge, metal, whatever, we played it all. I still have a suitcase full of shitty tapes at home if you want a listen.” We both laughed at that one. The waitress politely gave us a coffee refill.
“Anyway, in September of ’91, Nevermind came out. That was my galvanizing moment. Radio stations played it on loop for weeks. I’d heard Bleach before off a tape of a tape of a tape that somebody gave me, but it didn’t sink in then. After Nevermind, I knew I wanted to be in Seattle. It was the place to be if you cared about music, and that was the only thing I cared about at that point. I hated everything about New Haven at that point, hated Yale, hated my life, my family. In short, I had just turned 16.” Another laugh.
“But you decided to do something about it.”
“Yup. So I decided to split. This was around the middle of June, ’92.” Time to light another cig. We paused until he got it puffing again.
“I took my acoustic, since I figured I could make a few bucks busking whenever I needed to. Besides the guitar, I only had about $50, a map, and a bunch of peanut butter I stole from the Yale cafeteria. I wrote a note to Dad telling him to not freak out. I think he was relieved, to be honest. He loved me, but I was ruining his life at that point. He would have kicked me out if he could have worked up the courage, I know it.”
“So how did you get moving?”
“I was already an experienced hitchhiker at that point. It’s how I got around Connecticut, that and hopping trains. In the early 90’s, you could still do that. People would stop if you sold it well enough. Especially old people. If you were young and waifish and kind of forlorn looking, those old grannies and grandpas would pull over in their New Yorkers and Grand Marquis and give you a lift. Even if it was getting dark, and they were alone. They didn’t have the same fear that people do now.”
“That’s weird. I don’t know anybody that would ever pick up a hitcher.”
“It’s all because of movies and other bullshit. Lots of people did it. Most of ‘em were like me, just kids. We just wanted to get from point A to point B. None of us were angels, but we weren’t robbers either. They knew that. What you gotta remember is that these were the people that grew up in the 30’s and 40’s. You know, when there were a lot of young people just wandering around, because they had no job, no family, nowhere to go but the next place down the road. A lot of the people I bummed rides from probably hitched themselves, at one point or another. It’s a damn shame, you know. I think we lost something when hitching stopped being a thing. Everybody says I’m nuts, but I still pick people up from time to time. Although I hardly ever see any.” Time for another smoke.
“Anyway, the point is, I thought I could get anywhere. I was almost right. I took off one night, and within three days I was in Buffalo. I thought, holy shit, this is going to be cake. But then I stalled out, and it took me a week to get to Cleveland. It was rough, and I met some real shady characters.”
“Truck stop hookers, crackheads, the usual. It was the pimps you had to watch out for. They wouldn’t think twice about cutting you if you looked at them funny.”
“Yeah. I got in a few fights, including one where I got cut on the arm pretty bad. That was the scariest part of the trip. I was outside Chicago, by Joliet, and this guy came up and slashed me with a busted Cobra bottle while I was busking outside a 7-11. I was bleeding all over the place. I wound up giving an eighth of an ounce of weed that a friendly hobo had shared with me to a truck stop employee so they would drop me at the hospital. I got stitched up and then I ran away, but I lost my fake ID in the process.”
“What can I say? It was exciting, at least. But as luck would have it, I met a sympathetic trucker in the loading dock at a medical supply place not far from the hospital. He agreed to take me all the way to Idaho.”
“Wow, really? Why Idaho?”
“He was going home, he said. I couldn’t believe my luck. We hit the road and started making good time. But things got weird pretty quickly.”
“At first I just thought he was one of those New Age pagan types. He’d carry on and on about old German and Norse mythology, and all kinds of other obscure stuff I’d barely heard of. Which was fine, I tolerated it and I even prayed with him and the whole nine yards. He was a free ride after all. But then he started talking about how I should join his ‘community,’ and how I’d be so happy on the ranch with all his other friends. And then he started to wax poetic about drinking a freshly slain goat’s blood under the light of a new moon.”
“Oh dear Lord.”
“I know. But hey, if I’d been more into black metal at that point, maybe I would have gone with him.” A laugh, but he quickly went back to being serious. “It’s one thing to hitch a short ride around the city, but highway hitching is a different ballgame. There are a lot of crazy types looking for an opportunity. Going with that guy was definitely the dumbest thing I did.”
“Anyway, I could see that I needed to part ways with this guy, sooner rather than later. When we stopped for gas in Boise I took off running. After that, I wandered up Route 55, which runs alongside the national forest. Big mistake. Beautiful country, but I was really marooned at this point. My rides had dried up. I couldn’t even busk for money. Thank God it was summer, so I didn’t freeze to death. I ate a lot of blackberries and other stuff I scrounged from the edge of the national park, but I was still half starving to death.”
“So what happened?”
“It was the middle of August, and I was desperate. I was really regretting this whole thing now. I realized how close I came to disaster with that trucker, and I was afraid he might still be looking for me. Finally one day I got lucky. I was outside some little bait shop not far from Lake Cascade. This old man drives up in a big, green 70’s Pontiac with windows tinted solid black goes in to get some beer. When he gets out, he stops to hear me sing “When Your House is Not a Home”- I’ll remember that song forever. When I stop, he strikes up a conversation. Pretty soon I was pouring my heart out, while he stood there and nodded.”
“There was something about him that was just so magnetic. He was just this stooped, frail little old man with hunched shoulders and white hair, yet he was incredibly charismatic. Like a born leader. I felt completely drained after I finished telling him my story. Then he told me, ‘Boy, get in the car,’ and I’d never been quicker to obey an order in my life. I think I said ‘Yes, sir’ for the first time ever that day.” Another laugh, another cig.
“Soon we were headed South, back down the highway. He cruised along with one hand on the wheel, that huge car just eating up the miles. He started to lecture me, and I listened. I don’t honestly know if he was bullshitting me or not, but he told me that he used to be a real big shot back East. He wouldn’t go into specifics, but said that he made a ton of cash by shacking up with the Mob. Eventually he got pinched and did hard time, and all he could think of was rebuilding when he got out. But then he had a change of heart. He didn’t want to deal with the Mob, the feds, the IRS, and he didn’t want his family to get mixed up in it any more than they already were. So one day he just took off without telling anybody.”
“Pretty crazy stuff.”
“Yeah. In hindsight, he was probably just making it all up. But at the time, I ate it up. When he was done he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Son, you don’t know what loneliness is like. And I don’t want you to find out.’ Chilled me right down to the bone.”
We paused for a moment. Bryce looked out the window, and I thought I saw his eyes get watery. But then it was gone.
“Before I knew it, we were back in downtown Boise, right by the airport. He opened up the glovebox, and it was literally full of money. Just scores of hundred-dollar bills. My eyes boggled. He grabbed three of them and told me to buy a plane ticket home. I got out of the car and he took off. Never saw him again.”
“Just like that.”
“Yeah. Flew home that evening. Can’t say the rest of my life is nearly as interesting.” The sun was setting, and I suggested maybe we should move on to some place that served alcohol. We paid up and headed out towards car.
“Oh, shit! Almost forgot. In Cleveland I swiped one of those cheap 35 mm disposable cameras from a truck stop. Somehow I kept it in one piece till I got home. Pontiac man wouldn’t let us take a picture together, but when he wasn’t looking I snapped one anyway. I’ve always got it on me.”
He pulled out his billfold, and I took a look at a well-worn picture. In the fading light, I couldn’t make out much at first. A small man, looking serious (nervous, maybe?) behind the wheel of his enormous Pontiac, his face partly turned away from the camera. Those deep-set and heavily bagged eyes, that slicked-back hair, those big jowls; there was something uncanny about him. Suddenly, waves of shock ran through me as I thought about a picture of my own. It was one of my late grandfather, posing alongside the Teamsters’ high officials sometime in the 60s… No. Couldn’t be. Bryce gave me a funny look.
“Oh, I’m fine.” But I wasn’t. Gliding out of the parking lot in Bryce’s old Grand Am, I was lost in thought. In the end, I didn’t say anything to Bryce, and I still don’t think he suspects a thing. It’s probably my own overactive imagination, anyway. Like he said, you meet all kinds of crazies on the road.