Wednesday 16 Apr 2014

Ralphie on the Road #10: Port Arthur to the Pelican State (With a Nod to Charley & Bartoli’s Bali Green Ghia)

typewriter

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Attended noon Mass in Beaumont (childhood home of Johnny Winter) with Doreen Badeaux of the Apostleship of the Sea, the Catholic mariners’ group operating out of Port Arthur (childhood home of Janis Joplin.)

On my kitchen wall back in Baltimore (a sacred place of broken rosaries and dishes drying on the sink, a spot where I would spend almost no time over a heavily-traveled 2008), I have a framed photograph of Johnny and Janis sharing a microphone at Madison Square Garden in 1969.

St. Anthony Basilica, Beaumont, Texas

Mostly you just see hair: his mane of flaxen-waxen snow, hers as wild as Leonard Cohen remembers it.

Mass was at St. Anthony’s Cathedral Basilica on Jefferson Street downtown on, a 1903 building of dark red brick reminiscent of Our Lady of Pompei on Conkling Street in southeast Baltimore. Records there list the first Roman Catholic baptism in Beaumont on June 6, 1875.

After Mass there was cake and coffee in the parish hall. I had a plate and a cup and quietly slipped out. Behind the wheel, I hit Interstate 10 east for the Pelican State.

In Travels With Charley, which I assigned to my daughter Amelia to read when she was 11 (and which she loathed, only to encounter it again at NYU), Steinbeck reports packing “… tools for emergency, tow lines, a small block and tackle, a trenching tool and crowbar, tools for making and fixing and improvising …”

Along with emergency food and water to last a week, the pragmatic list reminded me of how my father might prepare for a 10,000 mile road trip if Dad had done his traveling by automobile instead of ship.

Steinbeck’s next paragraph better describes my overland approach since inaugurating annual road trips of 1,000 miles or more since taking the kids to Memphis and Mississippi in 1989.

“I took paper, carbon, typewriter, pencils, notebooks,” wrote Steinbeck in the 1962 classic which – along with that year’s controversial Nobel Prize for Literature – revived the author’s career near the end of his life.

Reporters retracing Steinbeck’s route and comparing the text to unpublished material, primarily Bill Steigerwald of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, found large passages of fiction. I was disappointed in what had become of the genius behind The Grapes of Wrath but had no problem believing that he packed “… dictionaries, a compact encyclopedia and a dozen other reference books, heavy ones. I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless.”

I once traveled with portable typewriter (the kind sportswriters used in the 1930s, it bolted flush into a square black suitcase) that I bought on the sidewalk across from the old Seafarers International Union hall on East Baltimore Street and Central Avenue.

I had it tuned-up from time to time at Ken & Ray office machines on North Avenue before white kids not addicted to heroin thought it suave to be on North Avenue, before laptops made filing stories easy and nostalgia ridiculous.


Steinbeck had a French poodle named Charley in a spanking new, 1960, 305 cubic inch V6 GMC truck – which in honor of Cervantes he called Rocinante. It had a camper on the back which apparently he did not stay in as often as the book implies.

I cruised alone in a 2006 Toyota Tacoma pick-up – El Caballo Blanco – with a sleeping bag, a jar of peanut butter and Bolano’s 2666 as a shield against a landscape of lesser narratives. Because my own lesser narratives had not brought me the royalties that Steinbeck enjoyed, I spent nine out of every 10 days sleeping in the truck.

And in 1986 – from the Great Lakes to the Berkeley hills– a bad-boy named Bartoli was accompanied and tormented by his 19-year-old Irish-American girlfriend in a Bali green Karmann Ghia.

He paid $450 for the ’74 hardtop – the fenders built up out of Bondo putty and chicken wire – from “Pete the Mexican” near the Cabrini Green housing projects.

“Pete called weed ‘the effect,’” laughed Bartoli. “He’d say, ‘Have you had any of the effect today, college boy?”

A goulash of sundry effects and the grace of a God of which neither was aware delivered Bartoli and his willing hostage safely to Southern California.

“We were loaded down with five dozen tuna sandwiches, some Blue Thunder speed, a gallon of dago red wine and unfiltered Camels,” remembered Bartoli, a poet who best contemplates the world from the bleachers at Camden Yards. “Most of the sandwiches were gone by Nebraska.”

In the high altitude of Cheyenne, the Ghia sputtered and lost power. It also had no starter. The Cornhusker town of Kozad brought torrential downpours while Bartoli went nose-and-nose with tractor trailers.

“We rolled that fucker down hills to pop the clutch like a German luge,” he said. “From Mishawaka to Winnemucca to Lovelock …”

“Rocinante,” the camper truck Steinbeck drove during “Travels With Charley.”

The soundtrack was a bootleg cassette of the Jerry Garcia Band at Jersey’s Glassboro State College. – “Tangled Up In Blue,” “The Harder They Come,” “Mission in the Rain.”

Bartoli survived the journey and more foolhardy ones that followed until washing up on saner shores. He has since matured enough to take a good look at the copy of Travels with Charley on his Baltimore bookshelf; has survived enough without being able to take credit for it to feel kinship with the author, a man old before his time when he crossed the country with a poodle at age 58.

“Steinbeck was an alkie of the highest degree and Charley is tinged with sadness. I’ve often wondered whether those travels were really binges …”

Here is the poem Bartoli wrote about his binge in the Bali green Ghia.

ENGINES / 1986

I.

Driving 81 North through scrub pines and roadkill
I remember Torquato died of black lung.
Shenandoah’s purple shoulders release us
and I see him walking a cold road
to the mines at dawn.

Anne smokes a Camel in the front seat
of a bali green Karmann Ghia
Chandeliers float across a pool
in the wreckage of Colin’s wedding.
Without turn signals, brakes or insurance
we were blessed with air-cooled German technology.
A sparrow hawk opens the gates of Cumberland
and my blood speeds through the Alleghenies
like deer in the wake of shotgun fire.
My mother believes the Iriquois still live here,
spared by the maw of anthracite Gods,
concealed in mountains.
Pennsylvania is prettier in the rain.

We met at a soiree’ in Lake Forest.
I can only see freeway when I close my eyes.
Ohio’s white bough leaves a trail of skidmarks,
dead gophers, rabbits, hot rubber and glass on asphalt.

We started in on the 60 tuna sandwiches
made from an industrial-size can lifted
from the pantry of her sorority house.
The raceway through Angola and Gary slices
Mom’s polluted apple pie.
Holsteins hide their stillbirths in the grass.
I never eat the gravy at truck stops.

II.

Ghia rips through the haze of Joliet,
Moline, P-freakin-oria and the Mississippi
splits between Blackhawk and Shawnee;
Deputy Foster cites me in Des Moines
for duct tape on the back light
scrambling for Omaha and shuteye
as truckers compete for gash
on channel 19 seeking
some type of adhesive glued like bugs
to the beaver capitol of America.
My dead starter clicks to a hollow ignition,
thick rain outside of Lincoln,
“days like this tailor made for fucking”
said grandma Lorene, but there is something
obscene about making love in a Motel Six.

Slogging through Nebraska red rain
the road thin, the sky as wide as the mouth
of a screaming Indian.

Heifers wait it out all the way to Winnemucca,
auctioneer on the radio spitting “angus, angus.”
Truckers blanket my windshield with water,
edge me onto the shoulder, a gray mushroom cloud
in the rearview instills the need for quickness.

The green luge sputters into Medicine Bow,
then Cheyenne.

III.

Thin air chokes us on the high plains.
Commanches load quivers.
A string of hotels rest on ledges
under a crystalline Laramie sky.
Several thousand feet up, the engine gasps
and falters outside the Sunshine Trailer Park.
We finish off the tuna and watch
highway renovation crews drill their lives
into the shale of Rock Springs Canyon;
teepees set up for hard labor.
I trade blue thunder for tobacco
with a trucker from Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

She tells me she’s leaving for Spain
when the leaves turn again.
The lonely freight of the Union Pacific
moves in the heat with austerity.

Ghia glides into Salt Lake City.
You can taste the salt air for 50 miles
down a sodium drag strip which plays no favorites
with corroded hotels and deserted gas stations.
Ry Cooder ripples from a roadhouse.
A severed cow’s head dissipates on the horizon.
I can’t change her mind.

IV.

Dust in the eyes of Nevada nothingness;
just a test of the emergency detonation system.
I crush the Camels and drink water.
Desolate bells ring in the casino;
resurrected heads of tumbleweed leap out
stunting the roll of the tire.
Nothing lives very long here:
High beams, low beams, tumbleweed.

During a push start in Lovelock,
the sky fills with coyote teeth.
The car reeks of week-old tuna fish.
The moon is a coin in the slot.
Whatever died here was not buried deep enough.

Somewhere south of Truckee,
cadmium lakes and Redwoods usher us
into the West between the rock-faced chests of giants.
Christened under eucalyptus, my skin turned a Maidu color
I killed fish with a spear, sprinted through juniper fields
and fashioned necklaces of abalone.

The beauty of a California jay on the shoulder stuns me
but the Sacramento rush hour is no different
than any other you’ve seen.
Heading toward Golden Gate;
gulls like B-52s comb the water.
& the sun lays a sheet of copper below the fog.

What’s thrown away will come back to haunt
like a stiff joint in the low palm
flicked between the jetties.

Torquato is walking home along the horizon,
his face smeared in ash.
What is lost makes me burn more evenly.

Bartoli was long off the Blue Thunder and dago red in January of 2008 as I pushed toward Baltimore in the first of many ’08 cross-country trips. While I was in Louisiana and he was telling lying, cheating and stealing in Beijing, which he claims as his nature, the truth from which he’s been able to give more than he takes.

“I had traveled the world, had achieved some level of success but was leading a soulless existence,” he said. “I had it all and I had nothing. I was dying.”

Late Sunday night – 01.20.08 after 240 miles from Port Arthur to LaPlace, Louisiana – I pulled into a big-ass shopping mall parking lot. Propped up on pillows in the back of the truck, my mattress a layer-cake of comforters and blankets, my blanket a sleeping bag.

What Bartoli’s Ghia would look like if he still had it.

Snug as a bug, I called a friend back in Crabtown, a good-hearted, mixed-up art teacher whose reckless coast-to-coasts rarely went beyond the Baltimore Beltway. Like my mother, her favorite meal growing up was pork chops and mashed potatoes with shoe peg corn cradled in the mashed. I made it for her once in the basement kitchen of my grandparents’ house on Macon Street and have not seen her since.

After grace, she stared at the battleship gray concrete floor and said no one had ever asked her what her favorite meal was much less make it for her. My parents have been making special meals for me and my brothers – birthdays, Sunday afternoons random weeknights – all of our lives.

It doesn’t seem like such a big deal when you grow up with it. At least until you see your folks getting too old to haul the pots around anymore. She had known none of this and cried at the table.

The phone rang as late January rain whipped inland from Ponchatrain splattered the camper cap in LaPlace, where Kid Ory was born a hundred years before Bartoli’s Ghia adventure.

Pork Chop Girl and I made small talk about life in Crabtown (a Howard County man was being held for assault with a gun and a frying pan) – before I asked, “Have you ever read La Noche Oscura del Alma by St. John of the Cross.”

I was hoping she might lay a few deep cuts from the Best of St. John of the Cross on me.

“No,” she says. “But St. Teresa [Avila, not Lisieux, a companera of the mystic who wrote Dark Night] has wanted me to for ages.”

New Orleans is 30 miles and one good night’s sleep away.

Photos: Macon Street Books

About the author

Rafael Alvarez has lived in Baltimore his entire life except for a brief and cautionary exile in Hollywood. A former City Desk rewrite man for the Baltimore Sun, his best-known works include "The Fountain of Highlandtown" and the on-going "Orlo & Leini" stories, each detailing life in Crabtown, USA. Alvarez also worked as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun prior to starting a career in television. He has worked as a writer and story editor on the Home Box Office drama series The Wire and a writer and producer on the crime dramas Life and The Black Donnellys. He has written several books including a guide to The Wire, a non-fiction guide to the archdiocese in Baltimore, a short-fiction anthology and two collections of his journalism.

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