A vagabond talks about Oliver North, problems in the Navy, and the best place to be alone.
Since first admiring the Penguin Paperbacks end-cap at Malaprop’s in Asheville, I now own two pieces of Jack Kerouac swag. My pleasure in them is a mixture of admitted fan-girl ridiculousness, and affectionate memory for the folks (Benjamin and Rebecca) who gave them to me, tinged with just the faintest suggestion of irony, since Kerouac himself would undoubtedly not approve of his mythos being used to pawn overpriced tote bags and coffee cups.
Whatever. My Kerouac swag reminds me not to take myself too seriously. My life is just a life, a series of preferences and sacrifices and unexpected opportunities, like anybody’s…like Kerouac’s, even.
This is the mythos I’ve bought into, and I’m as much a pushover for it as a fool in love or the owner of a new puppy. Even while not taking it too seriously, it’s still my deepest thrill. And knowing that I’ve only just scratched the surface of it, I’m always on the lookout for veteran members of the gang.
Though when I find them, I’m generally overawed. As I was this afternoon, when I drove past a man sitting over the drainage canal on Auto Park Way.
He was wearing a battered brown fedora and the kind of souvenir promotional T-shirt that hipsters’ dreams are made of. He was reading a paperback, with an occasional swig from the plastic jug of water at his side. Even from a distance, I could see that his face was lined like a vintage driving glove.
The upside to the terrors and mundanities of road life is that getting through them makes me feel like a badass. But one withering glance from this road veteran, indicating that to him I am nothing but a suburban princess, could ruin that feeling completely.
I can doll up with aviator glasses and battered boots, but real roadie types see right through it. I can’t gain entry to their circle by means of brand identity.
It ‘s the same way I felt in Harrisburg, a few weeks ago. Only there, Azikiwe was my escort past the social barrier. The memory of his advice–“I’m looking for real people to talk to about real life in this place.”–slowed me down, pulled me into the left turn lane, executed an illegal U-turn, and parked me in the adjacent lot by the 7-Eleven.
I walked up to where the man sat in the packed dirt of an empty curbside planter, perched just over the drainage canal.
As I got closer, I could see a striped feather in his hat.
Alan has been walking nearly as long as I’ve been alive. He started when he was 21 years old, with stepping off a plane at Lindbergh Field. He walked around the coast–Point Loma, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach–sometimes homeless and sleeping on the sand, sometimes hanging with friends, for about 25 years. Then some friends brought him up to Escondido “to take care of someone.”
After three years, that person passed away. He’s been back on the road since last September.
What do you like about it, I ask him.
He smirks diffidently.
“Living on the road? It’s a pain in the ass.”
He jerks his chin to the side.
“Pardon my French. I’ll tell you–it’s not that great. It’s not what everyone thinks it is.”
In particular, it’s hard in this area…though I don’t know if he means Escondido, or San Diego County in general. And by “hard,” he means the difficulty of trying to stay out of bad company…though I don’t know what he means by that, either.
“I keep to myself. I like to sleep alone. I like to sit by myself. That’s why I sit here.”
We both survey the cars whishing past, coming from the strip malls that lie catty-corner on Valley Parkway, or the used car lots farther up the street. My memory blinks back to the parking lot in Bedford, New Hampshire, where the Shaw’s supermarket was closing down, and I could sit amid the horde of carpet-bagging shoppers and find rest in anonymity.
Sometimes the best places to be alone are in the middle of crowded places, where everyone has their own business to take care of, and no one’s likely to stop to talk to you, because doing so would be obvious and awkward.
This, Alan adds, is his afternoon spot; in the mornings, he sits in front of the Albertson’s across the street, and reads his books.
When I ask what’s the best one he’s read lately, he answers without hesitation–Mission Compromised, by Oliver North. He looks at me skeptically, as if anticipating a fight–“You know about Oliver North?”
The shrug I give appears to satisfy him.
He didn’t really buy the whole thing when it was happening, he says, but he liked the book and its follow-up, The Jericho Sanction. He likes stuff in that vein–conspiracy, sci-fi and thrillers, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, or the one he’s reading now–Tim Green’s The First 48.
He gets the books as gifts from friends, sometimes; occasionally, he’ll help people move and there will be a box of books left over in the U-Haul truck that he can help himself to. He can finish a novel in a day, if it’s good.
His friends up here in Escondido will let him stay the odd night, take a shower and do his laundry. That is, they will if he can get hold of them. They never pick up their phone, he grumbles good-naturedly.
Asking how long he thinks he’ll be on the road he counters with a sentence fragment:
“If I hadn’t screwed up twenty-five years ago…”
He shrugs, jerking his head away the same as he did when he said “ass.”
At this point, there’s not really much he can do, besides walk. He’s not bilingual, which everyone seems to expect these days. He doesn’t know anything about computers.
He tilts his chin at my camera.
“That’s what I was supposed to do. Photography.”
What happened? I ask. How did you screw up?
He ducks his head.
“I told my commanding officer to go fuck himself.”
He tries to mumble the offending word, but he can’t quite hide the grin that accompanies it.
I shake his hand and thank him. He tells me to have a good afternoon. I keep my head ducked down as I walk back to the General, waiting for the flush of accomplishment to hit. It doesn’t; I feel much as if I’ve just met a coworker from another floor within the same office building. It only occurs to me down the road, well after I’ve passed him lifting his hand in farewell, that I didn’t ask how to spell his name.
Alan, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry if I got it wrong. Thanks for letting me intrude on you.