Ghostwood Farm


On the road.
August 25, 2016, 12:49 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I am in Louisville, Kentucky this week. Last night the group with whom I work played our semi-annual wiffleball game in a park down by the Ohio River; the same park, incidentally, where people are about to fling their homemade contraptions off a ramp and into that river in an event sponsored by Red Bull. I didn’t drink at all last night, having tied one on pretty well the night before. After the game, I went to my room, got changed, and took a walk, looking for dinner.

I had dinner at the Addis Grill, an Ethiopian restaurant. I had the Vegetarian Ethiopian platter, which included lentils, split peas, green beans, cabbage, and collards, along with, of course, the traditional spongy teff bread. It was delicious but spicier than I anticipated, so afterward, I walked to 4th Street to find some ice cream to put the fire out.

Somehow I found an ice cream place that was open at 9:30pm and I got one scoop of chocolate and one of mocha chip in a waffle cone. It came out of the freezer case a little melty, so I was a complete mess by the time I even got out into the heat and humidity of the Louisville evening.

Just down the street from the ice cream shop, sitting on a little bench with a guitar, was a dreadlocked man with a gorgeous blonde husky. His case was open with a few dollars in it, and the cardboard sign said, “Passing through. Grateful.” I threw a buck in and asked him where he was headed. He had gotten off the bus from Denver that morning, found it too hot and humid for his tastes, so he was taking the midnight Megabus to Chicago. He is originally from just north of Seattle and has been on the road for three years. I scratched his dog (who was immaculate and sweet), wished him luck, and walked off to eat my ice cream.

As I walked, I was thinking that I should have talked with him more. I was thinking that I wish I had brought my acoustic this week instead of my Telecaster. I didn’t want to bother him, but I knew I would regret it if I didn’t go back and talk with him some more. So I sat down, finished my ice cream, and walked back.

“Mind if I sit?” I asked. “I promise I’m not a preacher or a cop or anything.” He was very friendly. I sat for a second before he asked if I had a cigarette that wasn’t broken. He had one, forlornly snapped off at the filter. I told him I don’t smoke, and that I thought smokes had to be hard on his budget. He laughed and heartily agreed. I told him I wished I had my acoustic so we could play, and he said, “Do you want to jam on this one? It might be out of tune a little.”

So I took his guitar and gave it a strum. I tuned it up a little but it wasn’t bad. His high E buzzed quite a bit but it was an easy-playing guitar. It had little messages scratched into the varnish, all about a girl. I presume they were all about the same girl. They seemed to indicate loss.

I started picking out “Perfect Disguise,” since he was from Seattle. We talked about music. He’s a Deadhead but loves Tom Waits.

A security guard approached us and said he got a complaint from a local business. Conner handled it really well, offering to close up his case so we weren’t getting any money, just sitting. I pointedly asked, “You’re on the midnight bus to Chicago, right?” The guard was fine with us staying with the money off display, maybe or maybe not because he knew we would be moving on no later than 11:30 or so.

As we talked, a skinny guy with the California flag on his shirt walked up. He yelled, “YEAH! Play some good music and get these people livened UP!” He was a big-talker, a conversation-monopolizer. He claimed to be trained as a journalist, but he worked for an oil company. I thought he acted like a cop. He lives in Los Angeles and was in Louisville on business. They talked; I played and listened.They talked about Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson. California said that HST was his reason for becoming a journalist, but it was clear that he didn’t really get Thompson. He was one of those people that takes Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as nonfiction. I played “Yesterday is Here” and mentioned that HST was actually from Louisville, which California seemed to know.

As they talked, I saw my colleague from Kentucky across the street. He noticed me and came over. “What did you do, steal this guy’s guitar?”

“JB, I want you to meet my new friend…what’s your name?”

“Conner.”

“Conner, this is JB.” JB and his wife were both incredibly kind and gracious when thrown into what was probably an awkward situation for them, and I am grateful for that. We all chatted about food (JB’s wife can’t eat cheese or ice cream, poor thing), then they excused themselves to go get some dinner.

Conner told a story that had happened earlier in the evening. A drunk woman who identified herself as an FBI agent told him he should come to her room if he needed a place to stay. He said he didn’t think he could sleep with an FBI agent; as a Deadhead, he said, he was afraid he’d get kicked out of the family! I said, if you were a little older, it might mean something to you because you could tell people you slept with Agent Scully. He laughed (I think he might have actually gotten the X-Files reference), and I asked, “How old are you?”

He’s 20. He’s 20 years old and has been on the road for three years. I am literally old enough to be his father. I wondered what had happened, what made him come to the decision to cut loose at 17. I didn’t ask and I should have.

He said he’d been in 27 states, but that he “…only counted the ones I’ve been drunk in.” He got a DUI at 16, one month after he got his license, when he hit a mailbox. He mentioned that he got an ID in Wyoming several months ago and that they had misspelled his name, which had caused him a few problems but prevented his old warrants from coming up.

While they were talking and I was playing, a little boy walked nervously up to me. He was wearing a shirt that said “LITTLE CITIZEN.” He handed me a dollar, which I immediately handed to Conner. I gave the kid a warm, genuine, smile, said, “Thank you, brother. That was very kind!” He smiled back and walked off with his parents.

When California finally left (I think he said his name was Paul), Conner said, “Let’s hear some of that Tom Waits now!” I paused, looked at my watch. It was 10:45. I said,

“I’m going to play one song for you, then I’m going to go. This is a good song for you. It’s by a New York band called Drink Me and it’s called ‘Train to Chicago.'”

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Gas stations / Neon signs / Orange and white blinks an eye and then whispers good night / Drunk on the train to Chicago / I feel all right / Half pint of Dewar’s White Label still half full / The train lurches left, lurches right / Drunk on the Train to Chicago / I feel all right

I left a New York of gas bills and cigarette burns / Of wasted days / Of whisky and As the World Turns

Train driver, hit the gas / Shovel coal, move your ass / We’ve got a schedule to keep / Drunk on the train to Chicago / I fall asleep

And in my dreams, we’re careening drunk / Down the streets of my hometown / The man in the moon is on Benzedrine / Everybody’s spinning ’round

Bells ring and lights flicker / Old girlfriends, good liquor / Hold my hand all through the night / Drunk on the train to Chicago / I feel all right.

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I shook his hand with both of mine. “Have a great time. Chicago is a great town, but it can be violent. Be careful and take care of yourself.”

With that, I handed him the $18 in my wallet and went back to my hotel.

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I traveled a bit in Britain after I finished my undergraduate degree. I was 23 at the time and never considered not going home. I was on a shoestring occasionally, but never like Conner is.  I can’t imagine what that is like. I can’t imagine what would cause a person to take off at 17 and just go. What does your life have to be like as a 17-year-old kid to make that choice?

To my Chicago friends, watch out for Conner. You can’t miss him: baby-faced under a 20-year-old’s scraggly beard, guitar, and an immaculate blonde husky. Give him a hand, if you can, and tell him I said hi. More importantly, let me know he’s okay.

To everyone else, keep being kind. People make decisions that you might not be able to understand,  but their information and interpretation of that information might be different from yours. Every time you help a stranger like this, I consider it a personal favor. Thank you.

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