Bless me father for I have sinned: I am an unreliable narrator.
Last week’s debut column about crisscrossing the United States – a 2008 sojourn with visits to the shack of bluesman John Hurt in Mississippi, a search for the roots of Grapes of Wrath, in Oklahoma, and a Hollywood writers’ strike that lasted a hundred days – began on the wrong foot.
I reported that I jumped in my Toyota pickup after a big bowl of cocido with my family on New Year’s Day in Baltimore and began driving west.
After cross-referencing various journals and work books, gas receipts, and airline statements, it seems that only the cocido part was true.
(I will soon make it up to you with my father’s recipe for the Spanish staple.)
As a kid I never understood how the Beatles could say they weren’t quite sure which American city they were in on any given day back when they owned the AM dial.
I do now.
The past five years – from 2005 when I flew from Paris to L.A. to take an apartment on through the summer of 2009 when I returned to my ancestral home of Crabtown – have been all pick-up-and-go. A backpack, a passport, some cash, a jar of peanut butter, and out the door. Of those years, none was more chaotic than 2008.
That is the way of folklore, not history.
What did happen: a few weeks before Christmas of 2007, I flew to Baltimore from L.A. to organize a rally in support of the Writer’s Guild of America, then went on strike for two months against Hollywood studios and networks.
The turnout at the corner of Pratt and Light streets was strong, with support from pipe fitters to government workers to teachers. I have a photo of my father – a lifelong member of the Seafarers International Union – and my ex-wife, the daughter of a steelworker, walking shoulder-to-shoulder with pickets.
I stayed through the holiday and, with my Toyota pickup back in LA., drove my mother’s not-long-for-this-world 1990 maroon Thunderbird around town. I passed New Year’s Eve at the Denny’s near the Motor Vehicle Administration on Ritchie Highway and in the first week of 2008, winged it back to the Golden State.
What memory cannot produce, computerized burger receipts can. My files show that just after 8 p.m. on Wednesday, January 9th, I bought an angus cheeseburger with bacon and a cup of coffee at a Santa Monica McDonald’s and rolled onto Interstate 10 headed east.
It was a short journey that night, a mere 125 miles to the town of Indio with 22,717 miles on the Toyota – El Caballo Blanco – and not the 47,018 miles reported last week. This is how well-meaning folks as myself wind up getting audited.
That first night I slept in the back of the truck on the parking lot of an ARCO gas station.
On Thursday, January 10th, I drove from Indio to Tucson, Arizona, about 360 miles covered in a most casual way. And every day I napped in the back of the truck for an hour-and-a-half, sometimes more.
Waking early, I stopped at the Chiriaco Summit, a gas station, diner, and one-employee post office with a grotto shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe next door to a museum to General George S. Patton.
The outpost was launched by a man from Alabama named Joe Chiriaco who went to Pasadena in 1927 to see his beloved Crimson Tide play Stanford in the Rose Bowl and never returned to the Heart of Dixie.
I have stopped at Chiriaco so many times on the Interstate-10 jaunt from one end of the country to the other that I recognize the graffiti in the men’s room.
Each time, I say a silent “Hail Mary” to the Blessed Mother and leave something behind – a coin, a trinket, a note with the name of someone who needs help.
On this visit, after running some rosary beads through my fingers, I left a book in the alcove: A Jesuit Off Broadway, by James Martin, S.J. and published in 2007 by Loyola Press.
It was one of dozens of books being thrown away back in Malibu by the family of Martin Sheen. Valerie Sklarevsky, a Baltimorean who has lived in Malibu for 30 years, works as Sheen’s assistant. Valerie gave me several boxes of books from the Sheen family that were headed for recycling bin.
Some I kept, like a leather-bound Bible with Sheen’s name embossed in gold leaf on the cover (just one of countless gifts he regularly receives, outnumbered only by the amount of requests that come in), and others I gave away along the road.
At a rest stop near Quartzsite, Arizona, some 115 miles east of Chiriaco, I fell into small talk with a middle-aged biker who looked like a lot of the aging men I see at Johnny Winter concerts.
Instead of talking about blues or straddling a Harley as the world rushes by, he began espousing the curative role that Jesus has played in his life. And then asked if I wanted to say a prayer with him.
Okay,” I said, remaining silent as we held hands, and he gave praise to his Savior.
It made me uncomfortable – I much prefer silent, solitary prayer, enjoy being Catholic for that reason among others – and reminded me of a month I spent in Bangkok in 1993.
There on vacation and taking advantage of a chance to attend a press conference with the Dalai Lama, I befriended a newly retired high school teacher from San Francisco.
He was going through some difficulties with booze and liked keeping the channel open between himself and whatever it was he believed was keeping him from taking a drink.
While walking around the city together, we’d pass a temple or a sanctuary and he’d say: “Wanna pop in for a prayer?”
As casual as my Polish grandfather dropping by Aggie Silk’s on Hudson street in Canton for a quick belt of the hard stuff and a draft beer chaser.
Intrigued? Check this space each Friday during 2010 for a new installment of Ralphie on the Road. And feel free to leave us some comments too, hon!