To give me a better shot at catching a long-distance ride, my father dropped me off at the Pine Valley entrance to Interstate 8, about forty miles east of San Diego. He waited till I’d arranged my equipment along the roadside, then took out his camera. I was outfitted from the Army-surplus store: canvas sombrero, dull knife in a canvas scabbard, thin camouflage jacket, full canvas-covered canteen hooked to my belt, and Vietnam jungle boots. I could have been a soldier except for my hair, which was way past regulation length, and my chronic asthma, which would have prevented any of the armed services from taking me. I had two hundred dollars in traveler’s checks and a hundred in cash. I had a forty-pound backpack and twenty pounds of canned food in a separate bag. For three months I’d been telling everyone I knew that I was off to find my fortune. After the chuckling had subsided, I’d explained that France would be my final destination. In my mind it was a land of freethinkers and artists and underground heroes. I admired the French, wanted to learn their language, and believed that France was where an American went, like Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller, to become a writer.
At eighteen I should’ve been exhilarated at the prospect of escaping the monotony of the San Diego suburbs and the chance at last to test my mettle without having to join the Marines. Instead I felt sick. And here was my father snapping photos as if I were a performing seal at the zoo. God knows what he must’ve thought. Probably that I would call him from a pay phone in a few hours, begging to be rescued. The coy smile on his face irritated me. Didn’t he realize I could starve out there, be murdered, get shanghaied and sold into slavery? Didn’t he have a fatherly obligation to talk me out of this? But he only shook my hand, got in his car, and, waving gaily from the open window, drove away.
It was February, a foolish time of year to travel, but I was going to stick to the southern routes, chiefly Interstates 8 and 10, and pick up work along the way. When the weather warmed, I’d turn north to New York City, where I’d hire on (without pay if necessary) as a deckhand on a European-bound freighter or steamer or something along that line. My storybook plan, viewed in the open air of reality, seemed not only ludicrous but life-threatening. I suddenly needed to take a crap. A car approached, and I stuck out my thumb.
In 1974 there were reports of serial killers prowling the roads of California, and hitchhiking was gaining a reputation as an increasingly hazardous method of transportation. It had always been unreliable, as evinced by the dotty old woman who picked me up in her black Cadillac and insisted on taking me to Needles, a small California desert town well north of my intended course. She also gave me a jar of jalapeño jelly, which, not having the heart to throw it away, I added to my larder. An hour later, having thumbed my second ride, I was sitting on a milk crate in a Volkswagen bug without a passenger seat. The driver, a sweaty, wide-eyed man with a Fu Manchu mustache, wanted to know all about my girlfriend and what I did with her. “Bet you’re pretty good with the ladies,” he said with a leer. “I got a place you can crash, only about twenty miles from here. We can party.” Afraid I was about to be buried in the desert and my body never found, I told him I had gonorrhea, and he abruptly dropped me off in Yuma, Arizona.
As the sun was going down, I shivered beside another freeway entrance, receiving glares from a gaggle of hitchhikers encamped down the way. They looked as if they’d been stranded there since the late 1960s. I shouted fraternally to them, “Where you headed?” Mardee-Grah was their peevish and taciturn reply. It sounded like an imaginary place, perhaps sister city to Shangri-La. Disheartened by their unfriendly tone and not knowing what or where Mardee-Grah was, I made no further attempts at conversation.
Scribbled in pencil on the lamppost near where I stood was the message “No rides. Been here two days. Redneck town.”
When I heard the rattling of trains in the distance, I scampered down the hill and came around the pillar of the interstate overpass, where I saw two fellows standing beside a long train that, by its chuffing and occasional sharp blasts of air, appeared to be leaving soon. They were speaking Spanish to each other. I asked where the train was going. East was their reply. Could I ride it? Go ahead, kid, pick a car.
The boxcars were mostly empty, and many had open doors. With an excitement verging on terror, I picked one labeled Hydra-Cushion, For Fragile Freight. With the bottom of the doorway as high as my chest, the wood-planked floor splintered and worn, and no ladder to grab like in the movies, I had difficulty hauling myself and all my junk aboard.
“Hydra-Cushion” turned out to be more like riding a slithering Hydra than a cushion. Each time the train changed speed, which was about every ten minutes, I was pitched from one end of the boxcar to the other. The door wouldn’t close, and the in-rushing air was freezing, so I tried to build a shelter of wooden pallets, which fell on my head. Then I attempted to light a fire with pallet planks and paper, but it quickly got out of hand, the smoke filling the car and pouring out the door. I kicked the burning wood out as fast as I could, sending sparks spiraling a hundred feet into the darkness. I was sure the engineer would see and stop the train and throw me off. Finally I hunkered sullenly into a corner, opened a can of ravioli, and ate it cold.
The weak February sun set early and rose late, so most of the time, as I careened in various attitudes across the floor, it seemed to be dark out. Eventually I learned to sit with heels under buttocks, tensed like a spring, my back flat to the front or back wall. Periodically the engine would stop in the middle of nowhere, huffing and hissing, and the fireman would stroll the length of the train. He scolded me once for being a no-good hippie freeloader and told me the story of another no-good hippie freeloader who’d fallen from a car, lost his leg, and sued the railroad company. I began to hop off during these stops, sometimes dashing for the nearest trees with my roll of toilet paper.
In my thousand miles of riding the rails (changing cars twice with no improvement in ride quality) I never encountered a cheery nomad with a bindle, nor saw a hobo encampment, nor heard a lonesome harmonica, nor ate bread baked in a coffee can, nor sang communally around a campfire. The freight-hoppers I met were generally hard, laconic, solitary men. Once, I was joined by a pair of loud cretins who boasted that they had just escaped from prison. I feared for my life and shared my food and cigarettes with them to prove I was friendly. Later (in New Mexico?) a man in his forties dressed in a frayed black suit and white tennis shoes clambered into my car. He claimed to be a preacher living his “last tier of existence” on earth. (“What a relief!” he cried with joy.) He said as a child he’d been diagnosed an idiot but as an adult had been assigned an IQ score of 170. The Ford Foundation had awarded him a generous grant, which he’d refused with glee. Most of the subjects he brought up — Wittgenstein was one, I recall — were over my head, but he taught me about the trains, including how the railroad detectives would be appearing as we reached the big cities, and that they could arrest you. When we stopped at a sprawling train yard, he advised, I was to jump off, wait for the “gumshoe” to pass, then reboard. He said he was going to Mardee-Grah, which I now discerned was some sort of event that took place in New Orleans, where I had never been. He laughed out loud when I asked about the chance of finding work there.
Standing at the open door, gripping its frame, and staring out at the tree-silhouetted countryside racing by, the train rocking and swaying under me, the bracing wind on my face, I felt giddy to be partaking in what I assumed was a long-gone way of life. I rarely knew where I was and lost track of the days, sleeping shallowly when I slept at all. In San Antonio, Texas, the first city of any size where my train stopped, I followed the preacher’s advice, grabbed all my gear, and left the car.
Upon returning to the massive yard, with its dozens of trains and tracks and milling figures of indeterminable intent, I became disoriented and was unable to find my train. So I boarded another, hoping it was going my way, whatever that was. Huddled in a dark corner, I was caught in the beam of a detective’s flashlight. He said if he caught me on that train again, I was going to jail.
I asked which way to the interstate.
He pointed, and up a hill I went, across a bridge, and down into the flat expanse of an immense, dilapidated ghetto. It was eleven or so at night, and people gathered in knots under streetlamps watched me with disbelief. A few laughed and waved. I must have been a sight, this thin, dirty, bearded white boy marching like a cartoon soldier in sheer silent panic through that poor, desperate part of town. They likely figured I was insane. Outside of one man asking me for a dime, which felt like a fair-enough toll, I was permitted to pass undetained.
At two o’clock in the morning, perched upon the interstate shoulder once again, I stuck out my thumb and immediately attracted a police car. Two more pulled up behind the first. The officer issued me a citation, gave me a stern lecture, and told me that hitchhiking was illegal in San Antonio and that people like me were not welcome there. After the cops were gone and my heart had stopped pounding, I tore up the ticket and pretended to head back to the train yard, but I was not going to cross those slums again just to get thrown in jail by a railroad detective. So I rolled out my sleeping bag on the grass and crawled in for a few winks. The same policeman promptly pulled over and cited me again, this time for sleeping beside the interstate.
I asked which way to the bus depot.
Several miles later, the heavy pack digging into my bony shoulders and a trail of ripped-up citations behind me, I thought this mystifying Mardee-Grah sounded like the place for me. It would be warm along the Gulf Coast, and surely there would be plentiful employment in a city that big.
The bus fare one way was twenty-five dollars, and the experience was an imperial vacation compared to being bounced around in a boxcar named after a multiheaded Greek serpent — except for when I got robbed at gunpoint in Houston by a spindly man who’d lured me out of the depot with the invitation to smoke a joint, then backed me into a doorway. For the third time on that trip I thought I was dead. But after I had given him all my cash — he refused the traveler’s checks — he removed his gun from my ribs, said, “Nice doing business with you,” and walked away.
A day later, exhausted and filthy, I arrived in the Crescent City. The sun looked as if it had burst and stained the clouds red, and the streets smelled of boiled shrimp and backed-up toilets. The Superdome, going up in the distance, brought to mind an enormous spaceship. Nerves ringing, vital juices flowing, and all trivial concerns obliterated, I no longer felt afraid, though I probably should have. The fear had distilled itself into an imperative to survive, a rush like strong narcotics but more invigorating and lasting and real.
The New Orleans depot was a mile and a half from Jackson Square, which, I’d gathered from all the chatter on the bus, was the center of this Mardee-Grah I was seeking. Having ridden freight with criminals and itinerant preachers, marched boldly through crumbling urban ghettos, and outwitted perverts and policemen alike, I was convinced I’d completed some sort of rite of passage and emerged seasoned and unique. So I was astounded to see many other scruffy, indigent wayfarers dressed in castoff camouflage gear, slogging along under heavy backpacks, just like me.
I discovered Wayward Mansion (as I dubbed it) on my fourth day of wandering the city, after I’d frittered away the last of my traveler’s checks on a five-dollar-a-night, shared-bath hotel, a bottle of fortified wine, a package of Kent cigarettes, and a fried-oyster po’ boy. The converted French Quarter mansion served as an information center for Mardi Gras travelers, a boardinghouse for single women, and the site of a daily food handout featuring soup with too many carrots. Out front was a bulletin kiosk upon which rental, employment, and service notices were posted. Now officially broke and without a place to stay, I began in earnest to look for a job.
Wayward Mansion also made available a purportedly secure room (the old parlor, it appeared) where one could tag and stow a backpack. There were hundreds of packs there, and it was a relief to be rid of mine, which still contained my sleeping bag and clothes and maps and a few remaining cans of food (including the as-yet-unopened jar of jalapeño jelly). I tagged it, threw it atop the pile, and went to find work. When I returned that evening, still jobless, my pack was gone — whether stolen or taken by mistake, I’ll never know. So, entirely free of money and belongings, I spent my fourth night in New Orleans shivering — from both cold and dread — in the bushes in front of the Louisiana Supreme Court Building.
I’ve forgotten if Wayward Mansion was blue or green.
For the next few weeks I roamed the streets with no job prospects and nowhere to call home. I spent half of every day in one or another of the city’s many parks. Except for Jackson Square — the only place in all the French Quarter where the dispossessed were not harassed, or at least not until it closed every evening at sundown — I didn’t bother to learn the names of any of them. There was the one with a statue of Lafayette, and the one right next to the graveyard, and the park by the waterfront, where, it was rumored, wanderers like me were being knifed at night in their blankets or bags. The murders were not investigated, I was told, because the victims were inconsequential. Determined not to get stabbed in my sleep, I worked a day for Manpower — the only outfit that would hire a grimy teenager without an address — to earn enough for a bed in the Baptist Mission, whose nightly droves of mangy matriculants were stacked like freight into double bunks on gritty, smelly sheets. When I couldn’t find work, I walked the streets all night until the sun rose.
One night it rained. My thin army jacket leaked, and the drainage vents in my dumb jungle boots let in water until my GI socks were sopping. I would have to hang them to dry in the plaza at noon the next day. I lingered in the glowing phantasmagoria of Bourbon Street, with its warm crowds and inaccessible temptations. A passing couple with pale complexions and plump lips sucked from Hurricanes, tall alcoholic concoctions that, in their fluted goblets, looked like oil lamps full of human blood. Tendrils of hot jazz crept from doorways and mingled with succulent seafood scents and the raucous incitements of the strip-club barkers. My eyes scanned the ground for change. A policeman approached, tapping his palm with his baton.
When the rain increased, I fled the Quarter, taking shelter in the doorway of a closed clock shop and addressing a recently acquired fiery itching in my loins that I assumed was due to my irregular bathing. Sharp pangs assailed my empty stomach. Wet socks wadded up in my boots, I watched the electric-green rain frying in the streets and thought about cupcakes and liverwurst and egg yolks and olive loaf and spinach lasagna and chocolate bars with whole almonds and thick ham steaks and an open barbecue pit with a dripping brisket inside. Two women went by, newspapers over their heads and heels clicking, without a glance in my direction. The clocks in the shop showed different times, but the majority agreed that it was somewhere around 11:15. I stomped my feet and furiously raked my testicles. Across the way the indistinct form of a woman undressed behind a lace curtain.
The rain let up around midnight, and I moseyed down to the Royal Street a&p, where I made a cursory inspection of the dumpsters around back. The first was full of rotten vegetables and spoiled meat, but the next one over was deeply quilted in discarded newspapers and looked inviting. I’d seen some of my contemporaries beg for places to stay or go away with strangers or use needles to dull the pain or commit petty crimes to earn a free night in jail, but I’d refused to resort to any of those strategies, despite my discomfort. Nor had I stooped to dwelling in dumpsters. But that night, with the hours before dawn stretched like years before me, an oppressive gloom darkening my outlook, and my future assuming the perpetual curve of a complete zero, I decided to make an exception.
Fermenting trash gives off heat, and a dumpster is like a bed with a lid, as long as no one tosses a barrel of fish heads or a dead dog on top of you and you remain alert for the sound of a truck coming to lift you up and deposit you upside down in its compactor. I looked left and right, then grabbed the edge and vaulted in. Wary of broken glass and the sharp edges of steel cans, I shifted the papers around to build a nest. My shaping of a garbage mattress exposed the neck of a bottle, its seal unbroken. I dug and discovered another, and another, eventually uncovering a cardboard box filled with bottles of wine, all screw-capped and unopened, some with rounded, straw-covered bottoms. Excavating further, I found a wheel of cheese, still tightly wrapped. Finding wine and cheese on a cold night in my little dumpster den made me feel like Mole in The Wind in the Willows, lost in the snowy woods and stumbling upon the cozy underground chamber of the elusive Badger.
There would be no sleep now with the wine. I climbed out of the dumpster, wrapped the bottles in newspaper, and hid them in the hollow of a stack of tires at the end of the alley. One paper-wrapped bottle and the wheel of cheese came with me to the riverfront, where I sat down on a bench and took a swallow of Chianti, a vast improvement over the grape petrol I usually drank. The cheese was orange and strong, and, after scraping off a patch of mold, I broke the wheel in half and took a bite. I went on to eat half a pound of it, even consuming the waxy orange rind. I lifted my bottle to the sky, then sipped, the wine providing a creeping comfort, like slowly slipping into a fur stole. My last cigarette had broken, but I’d twisted the end, turned it around, and fitted it back into the filter. Feeling better by the minute, I now smoked that broken cigarette and gave thanks, though to whom, I didn’t know.
When the gates of Jackson Square opened the next morning, the air was frigid, and the lawn was covered with dew. My fingers still orange from the cheese, I found a sunny spot on a bench and sat groggily watching a young woman gyrate inside a hula hoop. She was drawing a crowd. There would be no labor for me that day, since I had missed the 4:45 AM roll call at Manpower. That meant another night walking the streets, but evening seemed an eternity away. I had cheese in my belly, hot-dog sandwiches with gobs of Miracle Whip at the Baptist Mission at two, carrot soup at Wayward Mansion, and wine waiting in the wings. I had cigarette ends picked from the gutter. The only thing I could ask for was some relief from the infernal itching between my legs.
After the morning had grown sufficiently sunny and clear, I sprawled on the grass. The barges sliding down the river creaked and thumped like toys in a giant bathtub. The whispering banana trees lulled me at last into a rubbery slumber, and I dreamt of a perfect couple who owned a friendly dog made out of ice cream that barked at me as I melted. I woke up confused and cold, my left hand tingling, with time still left to kill before the park closed. I watched a woman water her plants on a balcony and daydreamed about the surrender of going home, but I was determined to soldier on. Tomorrow I would work, overtime if I could get it. If I was lucky, maybe I could secure a job on a barge, or catch a freighter out of New Orleans to South America — Paris could wait. I would write and send pictures to all my friends, who would no longer recognize me: bronzed from the sun, muscled from hoisting spars and scaling mizzenmasts, eyes as clear as the sky, a tilted herringbone cap on my head.
But the following day the closest I could get to my maritime fantasy was scraping barnacles from the steel hull of a dry-docked towboat. The day after that, I donned a protective suit and hood and, clinging to a scaffolding, helped sandblast clean the facade of the Whitney National Bank. Each of these stints, after Manpower had taken its cut, paid eight dollars cash for a full shift. After work I caught an hour or two of sleep in the grass of Jackson Square, my damp socks hanging on a bush to dry, the sounds of the card-playing winos and the frolicking children seeping into my dreams, the Mississippi River vessels churning and honking by.
As I grew increasingly grubby and degraded and less welcome among the tourists, I began to spend more time across Canal Street in the warehouse district, where the hotels were cheap and the architecture was not French Colonial; where there were no upscale hookers or jazz clubs; and where the bums, sots, and cuckoos were allowed to converge on Julia and Camp Streets and sit without cops coming along to roust them with their nightsticks.
My favorite place to hang out was the steamy and congenial Hummingbird Grill on St. Charles Avenue, open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, where a cup of coffee with refills was a nickel, a plate of eggs with grits and toast was thirty-five cents, and a sign on the wall read: NO TALKING TO IMAGINARY PEOPLE. The jukebox had songs by Bob Dylan, the Box Tops, and Fats Domino, and I could play the pinball machine for an hour on a single dime if I hadn’t been drinking. Even if I had, I would always be treated like a human being.
To get off the street and clean up and buy some new clothes and find steady work that paid more than eight dollars a day and eventually get out of Louisiana, I would need a place to stay besides a shelter. Daily I combed the kiosk at Wayward Mansion until one morning a notice for a free room appeared. I dashed for a pay phone, hoping to be the first to call. A man answered. He sounded so suspicious when I inquired about the arrangement that I wondered if I had the wrong number, but he admitted to offering free lodging in his basement for “carnival attendees,” and he gave me his address on Esplanade Avenue, about two miles away.
Esplanade was lined with older, narrower mansions, many in decline and overgrown with tropical vegetation, like something from a Flannery O’Connor story. My new place of residence was in a tin-roofed cottage that, except for its French windows and a slender porch running railless down the sides, was little more than a shotgun shack. The man who answered the door was short, with darting eyes, a pencil-thin mustache, and a pronounced gap between his front teeth. I couldn’t quite determine what species of reptile he reminded me of until he led me to my quarters in his dim, sweltering basement, which was home to a dozen or so illuminated glass fish tanks, each containing at least one snake.
The Snakeman explained that his snakes were venomous and therefore illegal, so I should not discuss them or “mess” with any of them. No problem there, I told him, watching one with bright yellow and orange bands slide up the side of its tank. The room would have to stay hot, he said, for the benefit of the snakes. Warm was the way I liked it, I replied. He said I could crash anywhere. Since I didn’t have a blanket or a sleeping bag, I was glad to see an upholstered couch that bore the same color scheme as the banded snake sliding up the glass.
The next day, after selling plasma for eight dollars, I came back with gauze taped over the hole in my arm and a bottle of wine from my dwindling stash — the highlight of my daily existence — in hand. The Snakeman expressed his disapproval. He did not like drinking in his house, he said. I promised this would be the last time. He thought I should bathe and wash my clothes, and I replied that I would be happy to, but since these were my only clothes, washing them would require me to stand undressed while I did. He gave me a robe and told me to do my laundry in the sink and hang it to dry in the kitchen. He didn’t want lice, he said.
Lice? Who did he think he was dealing with? My father was a schoolteacher, and I had a medical checkup once a year, which was probably more often than the Snakeman did.
I took a long, hot bath, my nether regions flaming even underwater, and while my clothes were “drying” (they never made it past damp), I strolled around in the Snakeman’s too-short bathrobe, sipped from my newspaper-wrapped bottle of wine, and studied a large painting on the wall, a distorted nighttime scene with catlike women under sallow streetlights. He also had a chipped blue ceramic angel, tarnished with age, that looked as if it had been lifted from a cathedral.
I tried to have a chat with the Snakeman, but he was not possessed of many social graces. Indeed he was unpleasant. I would not have been surprised to learn that he was the one knifing people in the waterfront park and that he had placed his ad on the kiosk at Wayward Mansion hoping for a female respondent. I flattered myself with the thought that, by answering his ad first, I had inadvertently saved a young woman from death or worse. That night, drunk on Chianti and weak from plasma loss, I tossed on the basement couch, listening to the snakes rustle, and had a vivid dream of running naked down a beach, tripping on a rope of seaweed, falling into the sand, and being stung to death by giant sea worms.
When the Snakeman told me, on the third morning of my stay, that I had to leave because he was going to Baton Rouge, I was relieved. I would rather have walked the streets or slept in a dumpster than have spent another night in his overheated, subterranean reptile cage. And though I was right back where I’d started, my body and my clothes were clean, I had six dollars left from selling plasma, and the Snakeman had shown me how to make red beans and rice, a dish I had come to cherish at Buster’s over on Burgundy Street, where a plate of it with day-old French bread and ice water was only a quarter. I don’t think the Snakeman soaked the beans long enough, though, because even after twenty-four hours of simmering with a salt-pork oil slick floating on the top, his were still hard.
That afternoon I was ambling down Orleans Street, toying with the idea of splurging on a hotel room in the warehouse district, when a man stuck his head out of a doorway and asked if I played pinochle. I admitted that I did, and, after he explained that his group’s usual fourth could not make it, he invited me into an Irish-themed bar with humming refrigerators, many empty tables, and shifting patterns of magic-lantern light on the floor from the sun shining through the stained-glass windows. A bartender was polishing glasses, and I could tell by his steady glare that he would have given me the bum’s rush if I’d walked in alone.
I played badly, neglecting to count trump, bidding incorrectly, and not leading back clubs after my partner had thrown a dry ace on my ace of clubs. But I was better than no fourth at all, and I gathered that these patient, middle-aged men valued their hours together more than they did the outcome of the game. My partner had a speech impediment that made his “d’s” come out as “th’s,” and after the second hand, he asked me, “Thoo you want something to thrink, kith?”
I said I’d love a beer, and along came a beer. I said yes, too, to a crispy Reuben so out of this world that I became convinced the Holy Trinity was buttered rye toast, grilled corned beef, and melted Swiss.
Around midgame the cardplayers asked me about myself, and I told them how I’d left San Diego aiming to reach France via New York City, ridden the freight trains until I’d been kicked off in San Antonio, been robbed at gunpoint in Houston, and finally arrived in New Orleans, where I was presently unemployed and without a place to stay. It was not the first time I’d told my story to strangers, and with each telling it became more refined, sounding less like a series of asinine blunders and more like the willful execution of a bohemian plan, as if I were living on the street on purpose, learning profound lessons about what it was like to be at the bottom of American society, channeling the Beats and Woody Guthrie and Boxcar Willie. I was conscious of the fact that I was telling the story in my favor, though it wasn’t my intention to attract the sympathies of my pinochle companions, only to appeal to their imaginations. After I singlehandedly lost the game for our team, my partner shook my hand, wished me luck, and gave me a five-dollar bill at the door, along with a warning about the knife-wielding maniac in the park.
One of my favorite ways to kill time on a sunny day was to head over to the bus depot, stare at the destinations and the ticket prices, and wonder where I’d really go if I had any money. And wouldn’t it be nice to be on a bus, warm and out of the rain and dressed in clean clothes and looking out the window and drifting off to sleep and stopping every few hours for a meal or a cigarette and talking to people who didn’t look at me as if I were a worm that had just crawled out of an apple?
Since it was so far from the Quarter, the depot was also a good place to use the restrooms unmolested. Sitting in one of the stalls one afternoon, scratching away without satisfaction, I peeled what I thought was a flake of dried skin from my scrotum — then saw, upon closer examination, that it had legs. When I pried off another just like the first, I realized these vermin were the source of my discomfort. Befuddled as to their origin, I headed for the library to find out more.
I was pretty sure I had “the crabs,” as my more amorously sophisticated friends called them. But since I hadn’t had sex in months, I decided I must have picked up the little buggers from the unwashed sheets at the Baptist Mission.
The public library is often a port in a storm for impoverished idlers, but there were so many shabby, lost, destitute people descending upon the city for Mardi Gras that we were denied entrance to establishments of all types, libraries included. (I would not have been surprised to see want ads for more park slashers to thin our population.) Normally I was content to remain an outcast without protest, but today I had to go and search among the volumes for information about this insolent, leggy fellow who had set up shop in my underwear. I charged into the building with the authority of a man whose very existence depends upon the acquisition of knowledge, and, after poring over several antiquated taxonomic tomes, I found the summary and depiction of my nemesis, more technically known as pubic lice. (The Snakeman had been right! I hoped he’d washed that bathrobe.) I identified not only the culprit but the treatment, a long chemical compound, whose name I carefully copied down.
Without delay I headed for the nearest pharmacy, where I handed to the man in the white coat the slip of paper with the compound I needed, hoping he could mix it on-site and that it wouldn’t be too expensive. The pharmacist wanted to know the particulars of my affliction, and when I told him, he broke out laughing. “This is DDT,” he said. “We don’t use that for lice anymore.” And he came out from behind his counter and led me to an over-the-counter product called A-200 Pyrinate. “It’s basically kerosene,” he explained, “so don’t smoke while applying it.” He laughed again, and I spent the bulk of my remaining funds on the bottle of combustible medicine and sped off to begin applications.
A week or so later, broke but no longer itching, I sat on a park bench, my mind blissfully devoid of thought, the sun hanging in a talcky vapor, a beige wool cap on my head that I’d found in the gutter. The Mardi Gras celebration was long past. I hadn’t hopped a tramp steamer across the Atlantic, but I’d scraped barnacles from a boat. I hadn’t reached France, but I’d made it to the French Quarter. And I hadn’t learned any profound lessons about life at the bottom, as I’d led the pinochle players to believe, but I’d learned the difference between my self-imposed misfortune and the lives of the many insane, diseased, disabled, and aged members of the disheveled army around me, who lived in the parks year after year — namely, that I was able to remove myself from those desperate straits with a simple phone call.
And in a few weeks I would do just that. I’d tell my parents of my wretched failure as a would-be Hemingway, they would wire me money for a bus ticket, and I would return to San Diego thoroughly defeated and tremendously relieved. Then, as soon as I’d had a hot shower and a decent meal and a few nights’ slumber on a clean bed, I would begin planning my next journey. I’d discovered that my friends were infatuated with tales of my expedition, failed or not, and my new and exciting identity as “the traveler” would lead me, in the decades that followed, to seek this reckless vagabond existence on a regular basis, periodically landing in a strange town to start over with no job and little money. I would become practiced at it and would find it to be a good fit with my plan to become a writer, though I wouldn’t make it to France for another forty years.
In the meantime I sat on that bench and admired the pigeons, their simplicity and innocence and the way they crouched and looked sideways at their food, their perfection of form and metallic purple-green necks that turned a pure emerald when it rained, and the soft gray thunder, like being inside a waterfall, when they rose all at once into the sky.