This is the first part of a much longer story. Enjoy! -CJS
Everyone hates where they grow up. If you don’t, you end up one of those people who stay, and although neither of us had left Long Island, Ali and I had running in our blood. We felt it there, thinning it like heart medication, preparing us for warmer climates in places not overrun by douchebags. Long Island wasn’t the worst place to grow up, but it certainly wasn’t the best. There was something about the high-tension wires weaving their way across the homogenous two-story developments that made Long Islanders, as a people, high tension. You could see it in their faces, taut from anger at the slow-moving line at the Burger King, grinding their teeth, and using the word faggot like it's the Long Island cheer. It is shouted at sporting events, school functions, and special occasions. Any pedestrian is a potential faggot, walking around, spreading their fag ways like some kind of faggy biped. On a simple bikeride from point A to point B, one can expect to have the word faggot shouted at them five or six times regardless of gender identity or sexual preference, as well as anticipate at least one open cup of soda being hurled at them.
Ali started wearing a helmet on rides to her job at the mall. She said it was for safety, but anyone who has ever had a can of beer thrown at them from a moving car can tell you it will take a chunk of scalp with it. I made the decision to ride only at night, joining the world of morlocks and creeping things that party when the sun goes down. I felt rebellious that way, kidding myself into believing I owned the streets, not that I was afraid of being jumped. In spite of my Ponyboy toughguy façade and the unicorn stickers on Ali’s helmet, deep down, we both knew this was no way to live.
I was lucky to know Ali. I had spent most of my life in a friendless, nocturnal scurry from my parents' house to the 7-11 and back, but now I had someone to share it with. Ali drank syrupy three AM coffee without flinching, cut her own hair, and waitressed at the club where I worked the door. Together we followed neon lights into diners like moths and stayed up all night talking shit about everyone we knew.
We were at a diner and seated in the booth behind us were two guys who looked like they had just gotten out of work at a BMW dealership: ties untied, sleeves rolled up, letting their hair down and cutting loose after a long day of selling luxury sedans. Ali and I were sullen, moody, brightly-colored post-teens, the veritable furniture of late-night dining establishments. Bookended, these two looked out of place for the three in the morning vibe. From the sudden quiet at their booth, we sensed that we had just been noticed and braced ourselves for the inevitable hate crime.
“Are you guys in a band?” the shorter one said, drunk, stoned, or spiritually retarded by a dead-end commission sales job.
“Yes,” Ali said, confidently, as though we had just gotten back from our first European tour.
“That’s cool,” said the other. “What do you play?”
“I play drums. She sings.”
“Yeah, I sing,” I said, bobbing my head like an agreeable parakeet.
“That’s cool, that’s cool,” said Loose Tie. “I’m in a band, too.”
“What’s your band called?” Ali asked.
“Magic Beneath the Earth.”
Coffee flooded the flap of skin that keeps food from falling into your lungs and I started to gag. “That’s a really great band name,” I choked.
“Thanks!” said Loose Tie. “What’s your band called?”
“Spirit in the Sky.” Not even a split second of thought had brought that name to the forefront of my conscious. I had not recently heard Norman Greenbaum on the radio, nor had I been dreaming of the feedback airplane roar of the opening guitar peel. I just had the useless superhero ability to summon the titles of one-hit wonders for a laugh. I was the Aquaman of record nerds.
“Dude!” said the shorter one. “I totally saw you guys play!”
“Yeah, at that fuckin’ place! Last month!”
“Which gig?” I asked. “We play so many, you know?”
“That fuckin’ place. On Route 110. Fuckin’ what’s it called?”
“The Crazy Donkey?” I said. All Long Island bars are either named after somebody’s Irish uncle or an adjective describing an animal. You can’t walk down Main Street of any town without seeing ten different places named Paddy Shaleighleigh’s or the Filthy Frog.
“YEAH! The fuckin’ Crazy Donkey!”
“Yeah, it was that show we played with all those other bands!” I said, wide-eyed at the non-existent recognition.
“Dude! Yeah! You guys fuckin’ rocked!” said the shorter one. “You put on a great fuckin’ show!”
“Thanks,” Ali said, almost blushing. “We try to give it our all, you know.”
“Nah, bro,” said the shorter one. “You guys fuckin’ got something.”
“You know what you gotta do?” said Loose Tie.
“What?” we asked. What could it possibly be that we had to do?
“You guys gotta get a fuckin’ van. Right? So you fuckin’ get a van, and you fuckin’ drive down to Florida. Then you fuckin’ play some shows. What the fuck’s that called?” He turned to the shorter one, expecting him to pick up the slack for the synapses misfiring in his brain.
“Hmmm, what is that called?” I asked, looking around for inspiration. “A tour? Is that called a tour?”
“Yeah! A fuckin’ TOUR! You guys gotta tour.”
“Thanks,” said Ali. “I think we will.”
“You guys gotta get out there and tour,” the shorter one said.
“You guys got something. You guys are gonna make it,” said Loose Tie, looking down at his watch. “Look, we don’t wanna bother you anymore. But you guys are fuckin’ awesome. You’re gonna make it. You just gotta tour. I’m serious. You ladies have a good night now.” They walked off, stumbling into the rounded glass case that held the museum-quality cheesecake.
Ali and I looked at each other.
Maybe those guys knew something we didn’t. Maybe they were prophets, sensing the white light, white heat streaming from our auras. We decided that day as we frantically transcribed the conversation on a paper placemat that those two drunken salesmen were right. What we had wasn’t a friendship. It was a band.
We left on a Friday.
It was two years of planning, Let’s-Go-Here, No-Let’s-Go-There, all packed up in suitcases borrowed from our parents into my small, fuel-efficient Toyota. Ali just wanted to hit the road and camp. I have an aversion to dirt and shitting outside, so I had saved enough money for Motel 6 to leave a light on for us in every state. First we were going to meet the Las Vegas penpal I had had since I was sixteen, then we were going to stay with some friends in LA. After that, we were going to shoot up the coast to hang out with my favorite writer in San Francisco and get dinner with my favorite band the next day. It was as though all of my Rolling Stone junior-reporting dreams were coming true in one tiny-dancing supernova of teen angst.
“I bought Carhardts today. I was at Sears with my mom and they just spoke to me.” I was sitting on the couch in the living room of Ali's parents. Her house was considerably more orderly than the house I had grown up in, no scratched-off lotto tickets all over the coffee table or the smokey blue overhang of negligent parenting. Somehow, though, the result was almost the same. Ali marched around in her stiff janitor pants and purple hair, doing lunges in the livingroom of her parent’s house, stretching and reaching for a sweat that would chemically unstarch them.
Ali’s plan was to minimize her stuff by wearing overalls every day. This was a noble effort to increase the leg space in the car that I was unable to match. I have a form of paranoid schizophrenia that comes out only when packing. One of my recurring nightmares is that I am the plane to Disneyworld and I look down to see I am not wearing shoes. I have to get off the plane and crawl home through broken glass barefooted and then fight my way back to the Happiest Place on Earth. This fear of being unprepared causes me to pack for the onset of a nuclear holocaust when I am only staying overnight with a friend. If I think there is even a ten-percent chance that I might not sleep in my own bed, I bring canned goods and a power generator.
The list of things I was bringing on our roadtrip included a ten-pound bag of dried cranberries, a CB radio, and outfits for every possible special occasion and weather pattern. The CB radio had come from this lonely, middle-aged packrat who was a regular at my job at the bookstore. In the 80s, Charlie had been a traveling punk rocker, caravaning across the country with a mohawk and a rattail snaking down her back. She seemed like a pretty cool lady when I first met her, but as I got to know her, the trails of garbage in her home and conspiracy theories about her ex-husband’s new life made it clear that she was not too interested in reality. Charlie was excited about my trip and the vicarious joy it was going to provide. She insisted I go to her house to pick up the CB before leaving Long Island in a trail of Craisins and exhaust.
Charlie was waiting on the porch for me, surrounded by fresh bags of trash and obviously riding the high of a manic upswing. Based on the sheer volume of trash at her house, I was pretty sure she was making daily trips to rob the donation bin in the parking lot of the 7-11.
“You made it!” she said. “Okay, now close your eyes!”
When I opened them, Charlie was trying to force my arms into a yellow raincoat. “This is for when you have to change a tire!”
“I’m gonna be in the desert, Charlie.”
“And what are you going to wear when you have to change a tire?”
“If that should happen, I suppose I’ll just wear whatever it is I happen to be wearing when the tire fails.”
“Well, I think it’s a good idea for you to hang onto this. Just in case. You never know with tires.” The raincoat landed next to the skirt with a soft vinyl woosh. “Okay. Close your eyes!”
“Charlie, like, really. Do I have to close my eyes?”
“Close them! Okay, so this is the best part. Hold out your hand.”
I held out my hand, the way one does when they are not sure whether to expect something wet or dead. When I opened them, I was holding a pink elephant bath mitt with a streak of blood on it.
“Every trip needs a mascot!” Charlie said. “You gotta name it!”
“Uh, how about Rusty?”
“That’s a great name!”
“I gotta go, Charlie. We’re gonna get stuck in traffic. Thank you for the stuff. Really.” I threw the elephant in the trashbag and backed up toward the car.
Charlie stood waving from her porch against a backdrop of trash. “Send me postcards!”
When I pulled up to Ali’s, she was already waiting outside. “What the hell took you so long?”
“Charlie wanted us to have a mascot.” I threw the blood-streaked elephant at Ali.
“What the fuck is this?”
“Our mascot. It’s for luck.”
Ali threw it in the backseat. “Let the bloodshed begin.”
Tune in next week for the next exciting chapter!