Under the Overpass

Under the Overpass

While hitchhiking in the 80’s I covered 43 states. I was almost always solo, but I was also part of a tribe of travelers who were usually well met as we crossed each-others paths the along the Interstate Highways across the country. Along these roads are thousands of over pass bridges, and the ones closest to Truck Stops and towns were where those of my tribe would shelter from a storm and spend our nights.

After I carefully trudged up the 75% cement grade that ended on a three-foot wide flat ledge that spanned the width of the bridge, there would be a four-foot heavily shaded clearance under most of them, so I would crouch to unload my gear onto the cold cement. Sometimes, if I was lucky, there would be a cardboard mat left by the last traveler or a couple local teenagers using the spot to get high or make-out, but other times I would have to go out on a mission seeking a cardboard box from behind a local business.

Usually, I spent my time alone in those spots, but at times someone else would be up there, or just their gear. If there was another traveler (or sometimes a pair of them), I would smoke what I had with them and offer what I was drinking, or vise-versa. Most times we didn’t have a damn thing. We would camp on opposite ends of the ledge that spanned the width of the bridge.

There was always graffiti to be read along one of the concrete rafters set about ten feet apart spanning the width of the overpass. Names and dates of the last ones to pass through, messages to others about the local police or other dangers up above in the area and messages to each-other about when they were here or when they expected to arrive at a destination to meet up. Poetry, some long and some short, and “underpass essays” were common too. The words could rattle you or soothe you. Often there were canned goods that others chose to leave behind. A little weed or tobacco may be found in a baggie under a rock.

The sleep on concrete, even with cardboard and a blanket or sleeping bag was always rough, but it’s the life we chose.

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Up on The Range

Up on The Range is where we everything
Remember when the County Fair was in Hibbing?
Six of us went, the girls on our laps
T.J. Swan and Schnapps for them, we had Southern Comfort, Jack and Jim.
A little Columbian with some of the worst homegrown for backup
More friends met us there in Bubba Pender’s pick-up
We had mini-donuts and elephant ears and we made bad decisions behind the carnival trailers
Those two broke up and that one threw up and it went bad from there

Up on The Range is where we everything
Grandpas, Dads and Uncles working swings at the mine
We had our first time and did our first crime
Got our first cars and lied our way into that one bar
Some of us graduated, some dropped out, some died

Some grew roots, some of us couldn’t be held down
We moved or stayed, found our tribes and lived our lives

But we all have it in us, with us, in our being

Up on The Range is where we everything4a21c4b82b4e0fc151c33ed9f8eea843

The Last Time I Saw Scarface Billy

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I saw Billy at the Bus Stop on Nicolette and Franklin. I hadn’t seen him in eight years, but Scarface Billy looked 20 years older. He was on crutches dragging a bum leg in a brace. His face had been always been a cross-hatch of scars, but it looked worse. One eye was milky, blind, and that side of his face was drooping. His once jet-black thick hair had more salt than pepper and it struck me that I never knew how old Billy was…55? Maybe, but he looked 65. He didn’t have many teeth left, but the old tramp had fire blazing from his eyes and muscles still rippled in his forearms. He looked like what he was – an old wolf that, if pushed, would just kill you because he was too old to last in a fight.
I was embarrassed for him to see me in the condition that I was in; I had just come from my twice monthly hair-cut, I had a well-cut Brooks Brother’s suit flipped over the shoulder of my white light-weight Perry Ellis shirt. I was wearing pleated pants and expensive shoes. Hell, even my socks were expensive. He saw me.
“Hey, Soldier!? Is that you, man?”
“Hey, Billy. Yeah man, it’s me.”
“You look like a mark. Spare any change, mister?”
“Fuck you, old man.”
We stood there grinning at each other for a long ten seconds and then he said,
“Buy me a drink and give me a tailor-made smoke, ‘Citizen.’ “
We made our way to The Speakeasy – where all of the two-in-the-afternoon drinkers were pros. All of the men had decades old tattoos and some of the women had all of their teeth. It was where guys like us felt at home…when we were with guys like us. I was 29 years old, a kid in that bar, but I had lived ten men’s lives.
Billy asked about my clothes and I told him that I was married, separated, had a son and a different life than I once did. I was an account executive for print advertising for a publication that had a circulation of 100,000. I bullshitted my way into a job that had a company car and two-hour client lunches on the expense account, but I blew into town in a stolen car, had a warrant out for my arrest, and my life was coming apart.

“Who do you think you’re bullshitting, Soldier? Guys like us, we’ll never be Citizens.”

He called me Soldier because that was my street name when I met him. I was an 18 year-old street punk looking to get schooled in the art of hopping a freight train from Minneapolis to Eugene, Oregon. I rode the rails for the first time with Scarface Billy, Limpin’ Ed, Curly and Jim Forney. There was a girl in that mix too. I brought her along, but she disappeared with Curly when we hit Spookaloo. Billy took me under his wing and taught me how to roll my own cigarettes, make coffee over a fire in a soup can using a tied off clean-sock-pouch. He showed me how to get fifty cents on the dollar for food stamps, how to dive the best fast food dumpsters, and how to drink White Port, Wild Irish Rose and Thunderbird wine. I discovered Mad Dog 20/20 on my own.
Billy and the other guys knew where all the Salvation Armies, Rescue Missions, soup lines and food banks were in every town that we stopped in along the way. It was their way of life and I was being shown the ropes. I hung with Billy for a couple weeks, saw him open up the forearm of a big Ute with a broken Wild Irish Rose bottle. He was a wolf back then and I hadn’t seen him in the 8 years since.
An hour of drinking draft beer and Bacardi shots and I had stripped down to my wife-beater and threw my Perry Ellis shirt in the trash. We got shitty drunk, played shitty pool. Billy hobbled around the table on crutches, banging peoples shins and pissing off the room. It ain’t easy to get kicked out of the Speakeasy, but we did find ourselves out on the sidewalk in the hot sun of the late afternoon.
I got Billy back to the physical rehab place where he was sleeping, which was supposed to be a sober environment. I left him leaning on a buzzer and telling me not to forget that I would never be a Citizen.

 

 

My Mother Was a Writer, But I’ve Never Read Her Work.

The Northwoods of Minnesota, in the ’60s and ’70s, was a blue collar enclave of iron mining communities. The women and children worked hard on the home front while the men (and a very few women) worked swing shifts at the mines. With all of the responsibilities of raising four kids and taking care of my Dad’s needs, Mom wrote.

It’s taken me until very recently to realize that therein lies the roots of my writing. One would think that it is a glaringly obvious statement, but her writing was almost never discussed. Ever present, in various locations around the living room, were copies of Redbook, McCalls,  and Ladies Home Journal and Reader’s Digest. There were novels by Leon Uris, Anais Nin, William Peter Blatty, Victoria Holt or Mario Puzzo. And then there was the Writer’s Digest – The Bible of writers.

Mom wrote short stories and submitted them to each of the women’s magazines, and received her rejection letters quietly. In fact, her entire writing experience was done quietly. No one ever discussed it. It wasn’t taboo, it just never came up. I was barely aware of it, being so self-absorbed as kids are I do remember her tap tap tapping on her typewriter on days that I was home sick from school. I’ve never read her work. I can only assume that the subject matter would have been appealing to women – based on the magazines that she was submitting to.

She was repressed by time, place, societal norms and expectations. As more time passes since her death a few years ago, I’ve come to see her in a much different light and along with that comes a much deeper appreciation and respect.

She was an avid reader and always encouraged me to do the same, and I did. When I showed an interest in photography, she subscribed to two photography magazines for me. She was a good singer, and when any of us showed an interest in music, she supported it. She was always trying to expand her world. After my father passed away, she married an artist who worked in the painting and sculpture mediums.

She was bigger than her surroundings, but I didn’t appreciate it. I do now, and I am proud of her.2015-05-10 14.17.33

 

When the Rest of the World Found Me and I Found the Rest of the World.

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1979
I was a sixteen-year-old boy walking down the short main street of a northern Minnesota iron mining town, looking for friends or trouble to get into. I saw a new bone-white Lincoln Continental parked, facing me, on the street just ahead of me. I took a couple steps closer and saw that inside was a woman in the passenger seat. She was alone and looking directly at me with a slight grin. I stopped then, and if anyone had been around to see me, they would have wondered why I stood frozen on the sidewalk for what seemed like…it seemed like…time stopped.
She was a black woman in a land where one could drive a hundred miles and not see another, but that wasn’t it. It was her breath taking, exotic, sensual beauty. I swear her eyes were made of dark chocolate and gold, and her skin was a copper tone that I had never seen in a movie or magazine. She wore a white felt narrow brimmed Fedora with a feather sticking from the hat band. The longer I stood there, the bigger her smile got, but neither of us was uncomfortable. Just in the moment. I took in the whole image of her in this fine chariot and I knew that my life had been changed.
It was at that moment when the rest of the world found me, and I found the rest of the world.

First Memories

My first memory is of a  big man in a white T-shirt named Babe, telling me to pick my own switch for an ass beating. I remember going out into the humid Alabama night, chickens at my feet, to pull a branch off of a bush. My five-foot-two mom was fighting for me, and Babe’s parents jumped in the middle of it. My next memory was of me and Mom sitting on a bench at the Greyhound Bus station in the early morning darkness. Babe was begging her to stay. We didn’t.

We went to the South Side of Chicago from there that summer and Mom got a job making triggers at a Smith and Wesson gun factory. When she worked, the downstairs neighbor family babysat me. There was a little girl my age with her afro tied to look like Minnie Mouse. Her Father grabbed her by those tufts once while we were playing, picked her up, and flung her against the wall over my head. I was three years old

The picture in this piece is of me on a tricycle that I got for my third birthday. It got stolen the same day.

We moved to Mom’s homeland then, Minnesota, and things got better.