When you’re hitch-hiking cross country
you usually wind up taking circuitous routes,
getting stranded in places you never knew existed,
and meeting people who are surprised that you exist.
We were once detained as suspected chain gang escapees,
which is where this story will eventually arrive.
You may be trying to go north,
but find yourself heading east or west,
and happy to get a ride,
to get off the side of a long and often creepy road.
When hitching you see the roads differently.
You notice the gum wrappers, cracks, puddles,
weeds and insects on the shoulders.
You get to know them well, sometimes being there for many hours.
A bend in the highway that cars disappear around in seconds,
is a mystery to you.
Maybe there’s a town up there,
or an old gas station where you might get water, or a lucky ride,
or more endless miles of nothing,
Hitch-hiking to a place a thousand miles from where you start
can easily cover almost double the AAA route,
moving laterally as often as forward.
And you can plan on a number of extra days
in the burning sun or cold rain.
This isn’t all bad.
Looking back on it It’s an adventure.
At the time it seemed like punishment.
Bob Egan and I were trying to get back to Buffalo from Florida,
and got dropped off at nightfall in a tiny southern town
by a bakery truck driver going in for the night.
The two-lane county road traffic amounted to a vehicle an hour,
it was dark and getting chilly,
we hadn’t eaten, and were practically broke.
We were in Ashford, Alabama,
at the intersection of US84 (now called Old US 84),
and the road going northward was the narrow County Road 55.
There was a streetlight on the corner, so we stood under it,
trying to look wholesome and non-threatening.
Kids from the town came around to watch us stand there.
We were the biggest thing going on in town.
They were just a few feet from us,
but we couldn’t understand a single word they said.
We were from another planet.
After an hour or maybe three,
a dump truck rumbled toward us from the wrong direction.
Shovels were hanging on its sides and clanging.
It stopped and large elderly man in a plaid shirt got out.
He was the sheriff or maybe the constable.
The big man was friendly, but said he had to take us in
because we fitted the description of two chain gang escapees…
two young Yankee fellas, one dark-haired and one blond.
We tried to tell him how innocent and nice we were,
but the report said that they were smooth talkers,
and not to believe anything they said.
We climbed up into the truck cab
and he drove us about two blocks to the police station,
where we sat and were given coffee and a sandwich,
while the sheriff made some phone calls.
The police station was on Main,
which in my memory was an unpaved dirt street.
After a while he said “We don’t have a regular jail here,
but we’ve got a place for you to stay until court in the morning.”
Then he drove us to a big wooden house of indeterminate color,
and introduced us to a matronly lady…
the proprietor of this rooming house.
She was as friendly as he was,
but we were surely headed for life on the chain gang,
and that took a little edge off the fun.
We did get some needed sleep and some breakfast in the morning.
The rugged old cop picked us up
and said we had been cleared of all suspicions.
He drove us to the county line.
Like an idiot I said “Good luck catching those guys.”
He waved out the truck window and headed back to town.
It only took a few decades for me to figure out what really happened.
He knew we would be stuck all night on that corner.
He could see that we were tired and probably hungry,
and he made the phone call to the boarding house lady
to put us up for the night.
There were no escaped convicts.
Just two young strangers who needed some help.
I have a warm spot in my heart for Ashford, Alabama,
and those good people.
© 2009, 2018.
Then lightning struck the steeple and it rang the chapel bell
That’s been rusted into silence many years.
Then the thunder rolled away and the organ starts to play,
And we heard a voice that filled our hearts with fear.
Then the voice called through the night so loud and clear,
“Is there anything at all you’d like to hear?
Though my bones are old and moldy I just love to pick them oldies.
Is there anything at all you’d like to hear?”
So we dug up some requests for him to try.
We shouted, “How ’bout ‘Speckled Bird’ or ‘Jambalay’?”
He said “Maybe I’ll ad lib a chorus on my ribs.”
Then the voice sang all the songs that made us cry.
Well, the three of us, we sang the whole night long.
He kept pickin’ funky organ until dawn…
Till the morning mist was rising on the lawn…
When the sun came up, we knew that he was gone.
Now the first red rays of sun begin to creep,
And the shadows of the graves are long and deep.
We smile and wonder when we’ll hear that voice again…
Then we close the lid and sing ourselves to sleep.
Then we close the lid and sing ourselves to sleep.
* * *
“If I knew you were comin’ I’d have baked a cat.”
© 2009, 2018.
We just had the Autumnal Equinox,
so it must be Fall somewhere,
just not yet here in Florida.
I still celebrate my favorite season.
Autumn is my favorite time of year,
a season of moods.
The first chill after summer has worn out its welcome,
that’s when I feel the holidays coming on.
Not that we do any big celebrating these days,
but it’s the remembering of celebrations past,
and those who were with us during good times.
The empty places at our table.
I write more songs during the remnants of the year,
when emotions are nearer to the surface,
the past is just over our shoulder,
and old voices whisper in our ear.
One winter, when it was minus 35 degrees and windy in Minnesota,
Misty and I stayed in a cement floor cabin on a lake shore.
I heard what sounded like whale sounds.
It was the frozen lake groaning as it expanded.
We had recently had such bad times that we were thankful to be there
with friends close by at Christmas.
We didn’t mind the cold.
We have had a life, so far, full of ultra-highs and ultra-lows…
from homelessness on the street
to the whirlwind of big time show business.
Now It’s quiet.
And we have enough money to last us the rest of our life,
unless we buy something.
Home is wherever Misty is.
© 2009, 2018.
© 2009, 2018.
You kids are a bunch of sissies.
Back in my day we didn’t have hurricanes.
We just had storms called “What the hell was that?!”
Our houses didn’t blow apart.
They were held together by mold, mildew, and asbestos.
And we LOVED it!
We never wore helmets when we rode our bicycles,
and our bikes were seven feet high and made out of lead.
We fell directly on our heads and were damn proud of it!
You young folks have to wear a helmet when you eat peanuts.
We didn’t have rocks.
We had to take the laundry down to the creek
and beat it against our heads.
We couldn’t afford shoes.
In the winter we wrapped our feet in barbed wire for traction.
When I was a kid we ate nothing but gluten.
Fried gluten, baked or boiled gluten.
At breakfast we all said, “Gluten morgen!”
My dad thought we were German.”
We didn’t have sex back then. We had neckin’.
If we did have sex, they’d have told me.
My Aunt Maude could jump three feet straight up,
without bending her knees.
You don’t see talent like that these days.
I just yelled “You kids get off my lawn!”
Then I noticed they were seniors on their own lawn.
They gave me the finger and I thought they were saluting the flag,
so I stood up.
So, listen all you youngsters:
eat a peanut, sniff some mold,
take off your knee pads,
and wear a lead watch.
You’ll LOVE it!
I hope I can get this childproof cap off my Viagra.
© 2009, 2018.
A couple of days ago I was in a dark mood, sitting on a bench at Publix,
waiting for Misty and watching people check out.
A little girl 5 or 6 years old said, “I’m going to sit by you.”
She sat and talked with me for about 5 minutes.
She held a small black purse with two straps,
and she didn’t deal in affectations or childish cuteness,
but looked directly into my eyes and conversed person-to-person.
She said, “Is your mommy here?”
I said “Yes.”
She said, ‘What’s her name?”
I said “Misty.”
She pointed to her mother and told me her name.
She turned and took a closer look and asked “Do you have make-up on?”
I said no and she said, “A beard.”
I said “Yep” and she said, “Why?”
I said, “Style, I guess.”
She accepted that, and pointed at my longish hair.
I said, “I’ve got to cut that hair.”,
and she said “No! Long hair is nice.”,
running her fingers through her blond hair to illustrate.
A lady shopper stopped and told her, “You’re so pretty!”
The little girl just smiled her thanks.
Misty appeared with her shopping cart.
She smiled and said, “I see you have a friend.”
The little girl said, “Go!” to me,
as if people should go when their parents are waiting.
I said I’d probably stay seated there.
(I was having a bad hip day. An old Disco injury.)
She asked, “Why?”
I told her I liked to watch the people, and she thought that over.
Then her mother came by and they walked away.
She turned and waved and called “”Bye”.
She made me happy!
I won’t forget her.
© 2009, 2018.
It was ten minutes to one AM in Nashville, by the studio clock.
The pickers were tired and ready to pack up and head out.
They were also bored cross-eyed
by the three songs they had just recorded for the new singer.
The material would have been more interesting if it had been terrible,
but it was just amazingly mediocre…
in fact it should be in the Guinness Book of Records under “Mediocre”.
Now the singer was insisting on getting in one more song,
and there was no escape.
The union says they are hired for the full three hours.
They did one quick run-through on the fourth song,
and the vocalist began to sing.
The harmonica player found it hard to play while yawning.
As they were heading into the second bridge the singer got unexpected gas,
and the rather obscene sound was picked up by the microphone,
in living stereo, with reverb,
and it bled through all 24 tracks.
It did wake the musicians up.
They all looked suspiciously at each other,
because there was no dog to blame.
The engineers tried unsuccessfully to get the noise out during the mixdown.
In their frustration and excitement, mistakes were made,
and the first three songs were accidentally erased.
The singer was ready to cry,
because he was quickly running out of money,
and his potential career depended on one single track with a fart in it.
The only course he could take was having a few hundred copies pressed
and sending them to radio stations,
hoping they would not notice that part of the record.
A couple of overworked deejays were busy and did let it slip by.
Calls started to come in.
Listeners were asking to hear it again because they couldn’t believe their ears.
Some of the more vulgar ones thought it was funny,
and others could relate to the recording artist’s embarrassment
and gave him a sympathy vote.
This, of course, is how popular records come to be.
Critics argued about it, some saying that it was artistic integrity,
and others condemning it as a bad influence on their children,
who apparently had never heard such a sound.
In some places the song was banned, which is a sure way to get a hit.
Although the real title was “You’re So Sophisticated”,
the public called it “The Fart Song”,
and that’s how it will go down in music history.
The singer had a few more chart entries until he ran out of funny sounds,
and tried to switch to straight ballads.
Nobody took him seriously.
He’s been depressed ever since,
but thanks to that unfortunate little outburst,
he can sulk while sitting on his yacht.
He’d found the hook.
© 2009, 2018.
Potso lived in the gray shingle house two doors up the street from me.
His real name was Robert Stanley.
I don’t know how he got the nickname “Potso”.
He was Potso when I got there.
He was a couple of years younger than the rest of us kids,
and not very good at sports,
but he tried.
His cheeks were red, and his nose ran a lot,
especially in the winter.
It’s hard to be cool when your nose is running.
I don’t know who tagged him with “Potso”,
but I don’t think any of us meant it in a mean way.
Mr. Pennell, a neighborhood dad, made a rock garden in his backyard,
and decorated it with cement imitation stones.
Each stone was engraved with the name of one of us kids.
“Potso” was there in a place of honor.
I can tell you this: If anybody picked on our “Potso”,
they’d have to deal with us.
As a couple of years went by,
Potso began suggesting that we call him Robert.
I think it was his mother’s idea.
She was a pretty and intelligent lady,
but I didn’t realize that until later.
We tried to remember to call him Robert,
but habits are hard to break.
Robert’s father was everybody’s handyman,
doing simple chores up and down the street.
My parents said he was “shell-shocked”.
He was a sweet, childlike man, who smiled, but never talked much.
He walked with a slightly unsure gait.
The Stanley’s were the object of quiet sympathy.
Sympathy can hurt.
One day we were all shocked to hear that Mr. Stanley had died.
Kids aren’t used to death.
I don’t remember when Robert and his mother moved away.
A few years later,
I got a Christmas season job jumping on and off a delivery truck
while the driver sat in the warm cab,
smoking cigars and drinking something
from a bottle he carried in a paper bag.
One cold afternoon, we were delivering in a section of town
that was a step or two classier than where I lived.
I went up the porch steps of the two-story brick house,
and rang the upstairs doorbell.
Robert Stanley answered the door.
He looked different.
I think he was on his way out
because he was wearing expensive looking clothes,
with a camel hair fingertip length topcoat.
He still had the rosy cheeks, but his nose wasn’t running.
I was happy to see him, and started a conversation.
His mother came down the stairs behind him
and told him he’d better hurry.
She was polite, but I could feel she wasn’t really glad to see me.
I felt a little slighted, but after I thought it over I realized this:
They had their new life where nobody felt sorry for them.
She didn’t want him to be Potso anymore.
© 2009, 2018.
There was the usual spam and forwarded jokes, which he deleted without reading.
The sixth message subject line read “Final Notice”, and the sender was an acronym, “T.P.T.B.”
He started to dump it as spam, but for some reason he clicked it open.
© 2009, 2018.
The cavernous old railroad station was dimly lit, or seems that way in my memory.
My parents, my sisters, and I headed toward the big doors that led to the platform where the trains chugged and waited.
It was the end of an era. One of us wasn’t coming back… ever.
We had never been your average family. My mother had been an artist and a model.
My father was a flamboyant jack-of-all-trades: A stock broker at times, head of an oil company,
owner of a gambling ship that never sailed, a mortgage broker, an aviator, and author of a course on aeronautics.
He was a party thrower and the life of every one, and made every holiday a festival.
He was rich one year and broke the next. As a young man he was a boxer and a daredevil.
During World War Two he was drafted to be General Manager of the Bell Aircraft plant,
at the same time there were rumors of his involvement with the black market.
I came home from school one afternoon and couldn’t get the front door open.
It was stuck against silver fox furs. The whole house was knee deep in them.
I don’t know where he got them, but I wasn’t too surprised.
We all knew him and were ready for anything.
There was a distinguished couple in the living room, browsing through the pelts,
a New York State Supreme Court justice and his wife.
He was brilliant in an off-beat way, and an adventure as a father.
Then he got sick. His disease had symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s,
and the smart, witty man of the world became like a child.
He couldn’t work. He tried.
My mother submitted a resume for him, and got him a job on his track record as a mechanical engineer.
She dressed him in a suit and tie and took him to the job.
He called a few hours later to be picked up.
He had ordered his crew to put way too much pressure on a ship’s drive shaft they were working on,
and blew it through the factory roof.
The family was broke and had to split up.
My father was to live with his sister in Ohio, “just until things get better”.
The rest of us were to sell all the furniture and belongings, and move in with my mother’s parents in Florida.
Certain memories stick in my mind like clear snapshots and never go away.
One of those is the night at the railroad station when we kissed my father goodbye,
and lied to each other that it was just temporary.
I remember pushing through giant swinging doors that led to the train platform.
The steam from the idling engine puffed out across my knees.
The ceiling was dark and high with sooty light bulbs in it.
And that’s all I remember! The rest is gone.
I do recall seeing him one more time several years later.
I was hitchhiking from Florida or somewhere and I stopped in Miamisburg to see how he was.
He opened the door, and after a minute he recognized me. I didn’t think he would.
He grabbed me in his strong arms and hugged tight.
One moment in time again… like a photo… and everything after is blank.
I don’t have any memory of hearing of his death, or a funeral.
I have a thing about funerals: People tell me I was there, but I have no memories of them.
All in all, he was the tailor made father for me.
We had so many good times, it’s funny that this railroad station picture surfaces so often.
After he died I kept seeing men who looked like him for several years.
A car would be ahead of me in traffic and I’d see the back of the driver’s head. It was him!
I’d hurry to catch up and it was just a stranger. Or was it, I wondered?
Maybe it was my dad for the minute before I caught up.