Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you
When I was 19, I worked with an aging, former middle-weight boxer named Glover unloading boxcars in a lumber yard. I made $14 a day. Nights I drank and danced at Luv-a-Go-Go or Ben’s Tavern, sometimes all night. I also owned a souped-up, 1964 GTO, racing all comers down Cherry Bottom Road.
I paid $50 a month rent to live at home, where the total mortgage was $100. My parents were divorced and my father remarried. I lived with him and my stepmother, Anne, in a three-bedroom house along with my sister, two brothers, two stepsisters, and a stepbrother. We had one bathroom. My father was angry and drank beer from the time he came home until he went to bed.
I felt alone. Four high schools in four years: Florida, Spain, and since returning to America, two schools in Columbus, Ohio. The tree of my family had lost its leaves. It was only September, but a winter was coming into my life. The chill of fear and neglect moved through our house like frostbite. It was a house of no tomorrows, still and blinding as a crippling snow. I lived in the song, “Mr. Tambourine Man”:
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming
Leaving Columbus, Ohio, to go to California was not a difficult decision. Working in a lumber yard wasn’t something I wanted. The trouble was I didn’t know what I wanted until the day a notice appeared on the bulletin board in the office:
Sutherland Lumber in Anaheim, CA
has an opening for a salesman/loader.
Experience reading house plans
and figuring supplies. Pay rate TBD
That I was single with no children or a mortgage was the argument I used to convince Lloyd Buchannan, the manager who posted the notice, that he should send me. He was a tough old man. His face was worn and lined, and his voice crackled with a deep southern drawl, “You’re one of the best loaders we have. I hate to lose you, but it’s a good idea. When can you leave?”
“Tomorrow, ” I said.
“How about this Friday. That will give us time to make arrangements with Leon Szchocke, the manager of the Anaheim yard. It will also give you time to tell your folks, so they can be prepared.”
“They won’t care, ” I said.
It was Monday. I went home that afternoon and told everyone I was going to California.
“When?” asked my father and Anne.
“You need to pay your rent for next month, since tomorrow is the first of the month, ” my father scowled.
“I won’t be here next month, ” I said and walked out. I got in my car and drove to Reynoldsburg to tell my mother I was leaving.
My mother lived on a well-manicured street in a wealthy section of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, with her new husband, a dentist named Leonard. I told her I was leaving for California in four days, visited for a while, and then drove back to my dad’s house. I visited my mom once more the Friday I left Ohio. It was a brief goodbye. She cried. She watched me drive away bound for the west coast. All I owned was in the trunk of my car: clothes, a dozen books, a few albums – Beatles, Beach Boys, and The Velvet Underground.
I was leaving the cold life in which I had been raised, a winter that followed me from childhood and was coming for me once again.
When I reached the Ohio border and crossed into Indiana, the world seemed to open before me as if I could see all the way to Los Angeles. I was grinning and my heart was beating to the sound of the windshield wipers as they parted the pouring rain over and over. The rain soon ended, and by nightfall that unforgettable Friday, I saw the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, as I crossed the Mississippi River. I spent the night alone in a Howard Johnson in downtown St. Louis, feeling like a baby boy just learning to walk. Not caring where, just walking and walking and walking, holding on to no one.
A Sea of Green
I had seen mountains before, but the Ozarks reminded me of the rolling waves of the Atlantic when we sailed to Spain, except these waves were green. They would carry me on my way into something wonderful but only imagined. My car radio blared as I navigated the Ozark mountain roads. It was the time of “Good Vibrations, ” “California Dreamin’, ” “Mustang Sally, ” “Drive My Car, ” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” As I drove through Joplin, Missouri, I thought of Janis.
Behind me, the Ozarks rose like a formidable wall between me and the winter I had lived. Before me, Route 66 extended through the open plains of Oklahoma. The sky opened. The air opened. Far ahead of me the September heat danced over the tarmac. The radio blared out the windows into unimaginable distance, and I sang into the uncharted sky:
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it
Not much exceeds my abundant imagination, but I’ve had two experiences my imagination could not contain. First, the Sequoias, which were in my very near future. Second, a stop of a lifetime on the way there.
After the two-headed snake farms, a meteor crater, and the Petrified Forest, I took a detour. The road was open for miles; it was Arizona. At Flagstaff, I headed north on Route 180 past Valle. Before my eyes, as if by some sacred magic, the earth changed from two dimensions into the seemingly infinite depth of the Grand Canyon. I had to pull off. In this desert landscape my eyes filled with water at the majesty before me. Nothing in my life had prepared me for something so magnificent and mysterious.
I sat at the South Rim for hours as the sun slowly descended. Shadow and light played against the layers of color on the mile-high walls of that marvelous chasm, brushed, by the hand of eons, in sienna, lavenders, and beryl. A bluish mist settled over the far end of the canyon, and I saw the aqueous blue course of the Colorado River far below me, its chiseling current concealed in distance. Enveloped in this largeness, it was though I could feel the earth turning under me as evening prevailed. Over this scene, the moon now hovered, understated and diminished, like a shimmery pearl in a dark vast ocean.
I couldn’t rest that night. I didn’t want to give in to sleep. I was afraid it all would disappear and turn out to be a dream in the light of the next day when I crossed Needles into California. I was in a small cabin, still near enough that it seemed I could feel the canyon pulsing into the night from the vein deep within its heart, the vein that gave it life.
Everything on this trip was magnificent and strange. All of it was so exotic, I thought. And it was at the time. But two-headed snakes and meteor craters, even the Grand Canyon itself, were nothing compared to what was ahead. It was five o’clock in the morning; Los Angeles, in all its exotic splendor lay only hours ahead.
Los Angeles at night is like looking at a mirror of the desert night sky; it is as if the stars had fallen. I followed Route 10 into the city and crossed the aqueduct called the LA River. I saw Chinatown off to the north and finally an exit that read Sunset Blvd. I exited into a line of traffic flowing one over the other, like strange blood through arteries. It took me 30 minutes to ease down on to the boulevard. I was now in my dreams: Sunset Boulevard. I made a beeline for 77 Sunset Strip, the location of the detectives’ office in the television show by the same name.
When I passed what should have been 77 Sunset Strip, I turned around at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, on the corner of Doheny and Sunset. I stopped at a Union 76 gas station next to a Ships restaurant at Sunset and La Cienega and asked for directions to 77 Sunset. The man looked at me for ten seconds in utter disbelief. When he realized I was serious, he turned away, trying to stifle a hardy laugh.
“What?” I asked.
“77 Sunset is just a TV show. They put that awning up in front of Dino’s.”
Then he laughed harder, tried to stop a few times but couldn’t. Finally, “Dean Martin’s Lodge, Dino’s. Where are you from?”
“Ohio, ” I said.
“You’re going to love it here, ” he chuckled. “Go check out Dino’s. I think there are some pictures of Kookie inside.”
I found Dino’s, but I didn’t go inside. Instead, I made my way to a lounge called The Sea Witch. I went in and ordered a whiskey. As I sipped, I chuckled, too. As I sipped at my second whiskey, I laughed out loud at all the things I had never seen before: A guy with long hair sitting at the end of the bar. Two girls kissing at a table. All around the room, couples dancing, as if in a trance. Above the bar was the figurehead of a mermaid on a piece of a ship’s bow; she seemed almost real, the strands of her hair blown back by some wind I could not feel, the green scales of her tail moist from impossible waters.
From the Sea Witch, I walked up Sunset past Dino’s Lodge. Along the boulevard I saw hotels, restaurants, and strip clubs, among them the large, red neon of The Classic Cat. I walked on and on, past the Whiskey A-Go-Go and then I turned down Doheny, remembering the word from a Beach Boys song, “Surfin’ USA.” Ahead of me was The Troubadour, at the corner of Doheny and Santa Monica Boulevard. As I walked, I thought of where I had come from and how much distance there was between me and the place I was born. I really was alone now. I knew no one. Something new and unknown was beginning, and my previous life, pointless and confusing, was gone.
I turned around to go back to my car, but when I reached it I kept walking. It was a night of perfect warmth. The cars were crawling along the boulevard as they did most nights. Drivers and passengers talked from one car to another, passing bottles of wine or beer and cigarettes (something I would learn about later). As I walked, music poured from the vehicles passing me, poured like the lines of an audible poem. The music from the cars accompanied me as I walked on, wondering what this city held for me. It was late. I had walked far. The train station at the far end of Sunset glowed under its lights. Once again, I turned and changed direction back to my car parked near The Sea Witch.
I had made reservations at The Twilight Motel across from Disneyland. I needed to check in. Exhaustion was settling into my bones, and where better to dream than just across the street from Tomorrowland.
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How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
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—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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