STATUS UPDATE: Making it to Orlando, Hitch-Hiking Etiquette, and "Big Urn"
So before I begin with where I left you wonderful folks off, let me leave you with a few things to consider.
Firstly, I am WAY behind. All Y'all in cyberspace might not know this, but I am currently in Milwaukee, and will be leaving this Thursday FEB 4th for Austin Texas. I have allot to do to get ready for departure, but I am going to do everything humanly possible to write the last 2-3 STATUS UPDATES within the next day or so. These late accounts will fill you all in with the parts of the journey that haven't yet been accounted for here on the site. Basically, that will entail everything that has happened between the end of THIS update, and my departure on Thursday.
You should know that although my last few STATUS UPDATES have been increasingly detailed, they are not from my in-process novel,"THE LAST GREAT american NOVEL." Unless the heading on the blog declares it to be an "EXCERPT," it is blog writing, and different than what you will read in the novel. Think of them as detailed accounts, as opposed to part of the novel.
(I apologize how cramped these paragraphs are! for some reason, you cannot indent paragraphs on blogs... so much for attention to form!)
So, as I left our story off, me and Brian had finally been picked up after spending most of our day walking along the Interstate, trying our best to flag down a car to hitch-hike down to Tampa or Ft. Meyers.
We made our way far enough down I-94, out of Daytona Beach, and finally to the split off from I-94 S (MIAMI), to I-4 W (ORLANDO); and upon reaching the much needed checkpoint- were finally picked up by a giant black truck being driven by a massive, mis-colored, syllable-slewing contractor from Jacksonville Florida.
He murmured with a deep rasp, and said something that sounded like "hop in," and I did just that. I could barely distinguish what he said his name was, and judging by the look on Brian's face, he hadn't done any better at decoding the big mans response. Still, I politely shook his hand, told him my name, and made note of his overwhelming grip. I thought he had said something along the lines of Earn or Bearn or something- but in situations like this, hitch-hiking etiquette would entail that you completely avoid someones name unless your damn sure you know what it actually is. For my personal mind filing reference, I decided I would call him "Big Urn," but that's just between you and me.
Big Urn was a man that could only be reasonably described as huge. Now when I say huge, I mean muscular, and in all extensions of the word, very big- if I had meant that he was fat, I probably wouldn't have said huge, I would have beat around the bushes and used some far-fetched term that would make you conclude he was fat; I guess I'm just a bastard like that.
Urn's neck was almost completely engulfed in an overwhelming tangle of neck and shoulder muscles; so much, that his upper arms practically connected to his ear lobes in fact. Gracing the surface of these root like muscles, were creases that resembled the deep, thick, criss-crossing pattern of an oak trees bark- I had never seen anything like it. A lifetime on roofs with the merciless southern sun, had given this man a tan so deep, that he could feasibly be imagined to appear as a black man with a tint of orange to his skin. The sun had also tinted his semi-curly brown hair so much, that it had now taken on a cosmetically blond tone.
He was wearing typical contractor's clothes, that had been worn to a typical state of blue-collar abuse. To be precise, boot-cut classic denim jeans, and a battered gray sleeveless tee shirt displaying black print of some sort that had faded with ages to the condition of a Nixon bumper-sticker.
After me and Brian worked out the vernacular differences between ourselves and Big Urn, we determined that he was indeed up for taking us as far as he was going, which was Orlando. It organically worked out that I would take the back seat during this ride for a few reasons that were never debated road-side between me and Brian. First off, I had managed the whole “Bill” operation which included me finding the ride-share a few days earlier on Craigslist, and organizing the whole shebang. I'll be the first to also note that this included me staying awake in the dark plush pine forests outside fayetteville, when I could have really gone for a nice nap there. I drove Bill's vehicle and conversed with him (when he wasn't sleeping) all the way to Daytona Beach FL, while Brian got a solid two nights of rest between the forest, and our ride down the E coast. This meant that there was no discussion, Brian would be the designated entertainer for Big Urn.
Another aspect of "hitch-hiking etiquette," is that you are expected to hold decent conversation with the person that picks you up; or if you feel the situation out, and this person just doesn't want to talk, you should have enough sense to shut your damn trap. Basically, you have to follow a short bit of advice that my grandma gave me before she passed away. She left me with allot of little tidbits, but this was the most important one, the one that I had always remembered- "You gotta' know how to be." This is particularly useful advice for someone living on the road.
I was thankful to not have the job of sitting shot-gun for a few reasons, one being that I wasn't feeling particularly talkative, or in the best of moods after our hike to I-4; but another being simple compatibility. It takes a certain sense of good judgement in character to put strangers together appropriately, particularly when hitch-hiking. People judge people based on face value if that's all they have to work with, that's just how it goes. Between me and my silly foo man chu and long hair, and Brian with his clean cut americana style, we had a look that could go very left or very right, and forgive me for assuming, but Urn just looked like someone who would converse easier with Brian and auto, then me and art. All and all, It was a nice advantage in our travels that we could both appeal to a different certain discriminatory sense of stereotypes. Sometimes disadvantages can be used to a persons advantage; "when life gives you lemons," right?
Along this journey, I had tried my best to refrain from making such judgements personally, but then again, I have also worn a cowboy hat this whole time to prevent people from assuming I'm a "damn hippy," which is a pretty good indicator of how I judge the south. It suddenly becomes apparent to me upon contemplation, that these matters work both ways.
So I hopped into the cramped back seat after throwing my enormous bag into the bed of Urn's enormous truck. As large as the damn truck was, my legs were still folded up like paperclips, and as the ace bandages I had wrapped tightly around my knees began to constrict my already throbbing legs, I knew this could get uncomfortable fast. Clearly the truck had been laid out in a fashion where Brian and Urn, if they felt inclined, could probably stretch their legs as far forward as the tips of their toes desired; while the back, was clearly the bitch seat complete with me, who had been eager to be the bitch.
The truck thrusted forward with urgency once urn laid the weight of his giant plaster-spattered boot to the pedal, and Brian heaved the door shut after watching the grass and gravel of the interstate shoulder drift slowly out of reach. I watched in awe as the scattered trees and foliage that lined the interstate, began to whip by our vehicle mockingly as we gained speed. In the thirty seconds time it took me to consider this observation, I realized with a bittersweet sense of appreciation, that we had already driven at least thirty minutes of walking. I tried my best to look at this more positively, but I couldn't help but feel like a starving man watching a fat family eat a second meal at old country buffet. The realization that this trip could indeed make me more cynical, was nudging the cusp of my perceptions, and to take my mind off of this negative response to a much appreciated ride, I began to focus on the larger picture.
Here I was, cruising toward Orlando Florida with my life on my back, and my mind on the road. Surely this was something very near the "American Dream" I had set out in search of. I lowered my taut shoulder muscles, and I let the tension in my neck fade away as I watched Florida's magnificent afternoon sun, shine a warm orange glow upon the trimmed forest line that relentlessly whirred by my window.
Brian and Urn were discussing some damn thing that I could only half understand (Brian's half), and I could tell from Brian's responses that he was only replying to the key words that he was sure he had heard from Urn; all and all, a pretty damn good strategy. I've found with these hitch-hiking situations that faking the enthusiasm to your responses is rather easy; I'm not sure if this is because the person doesn't know you, because they don't care, or because they enjoy engaging in the formality of dialogue- but no matter what it is, it makes it very easy to get along with people that you might very well have despised in your day to day life. That's not to say there aren't allot of connections that actually take place, its just to infer that even if they don't take place naturally- connections can be forged, and the fall-back "never-met-before" conversation template, is as old as dialogue itself.
Some part of my brain had been listening to their conversation the whole time it turned out, so when there was a brief pause in Brian and Urn's initial 'where you from, what you doing in Florida, where you headed?' conversation, I decided to be a good sport, and hop in to contribute to the talk.
"So, what do you do?"
I asked cordially before adding,
"I'm assuming your a contractor of some sorts right?"
Big Urn extended his neck and straightened his arms while replying casually,
he paused before continuing,
"ahhm headin' non'downta O'lando; do'n n' estimatefer..."
Urn paused here to take a short breath, and then continuing vibrating his southern cajun rasp that was entirely foreign to northern boys like me and Brian.
"...Fer som' guy at'says'at he'gotta big job fa'me; says'is, whole roof needa'be re-shingled'r som'damm'thang."
Urn folded his arms back in and shot a glance at either me, or the road behind me through his black plastic sport-style terminator glasses.
I had a great lead-in and took it immediately saying,
"Shit, roofin' aint easy man,"
I cursed and spoke casually to match his tone; another aspect of hitchhiking conversational etiquette. I continued,
"I got a buddy myself, used to do that- always tellin' me how hard it was on his back. My uncle has a flooring business that I used to work for in the summers- that shit aint easy none on your back neither, but even HE used to tell me, 'shit son, you think this is tough- go do some roofing, and THEN come back to me and see whatcha' say.'"
Urn acknowledged the man compliment I had given him by tightening his lips and cocking his head while staring the open road ahead of him down- Urn released an ascending groan that seemed to say 'its hard work, but someones gotta do it;' how it actually went though, was,
he let his lips relax before tightening them again to say,
"the shid'ain easy, thats'f sho"
He spoke in what I had later thought to be a poetic sort of cadence (after the initial barrier it had proved to be), and good old Urn managed to somehow seem very sage like at that moment. I saw him shoot another quick glance to his mirror, and I averted my eyes to the endlessly flowing landscape depicted in my nearest window. Brian chimed in with something about some contractor he knew in Minnesota, and feeling satisfied with my contribution to the talk, I retreated back into my own thoughts.
My kneecaps were beginning to throb with the lack of blood I was getting due to my ace bandages, and I was debating on rolling my once-blue blue jeans up past the knees, and re-adjusting my bandages because they were quickly becoming a pain that was hard to ignore. I decided against it for reasons that sound silly even to me, but based on some of the characters I had met in Jacksonville N.C., I may not have been as far off as one would think.
As I had mentioned before, a good rule of thumb for pleasant hitch-hiking, is to try not to assume what someone does think of you, and instead, try to figure out what they do not assume about you. I ran across a fella back in J-ville that was hitch-hiking (Jim Scotch), and after I gave him a lift and asked to take his picture for my collection- he was immediately concerned that I wanted to go home and jack-off to the picture. WHAT?! REALLY??? I could hardly believe it. Suffice it to say, I was assuming that Big Urn didn't think I was a homosexual, and because of this, I didn't want to do anything that might compromise his assumption, or make him think there was something weird going on back here. With some of the odd folks like Jim that I'd met already, I wouldn't put the possibility out of mind that Urn might think this hippy lookin kid he just picked up, was getting nice and comfy, and rollin' up his pants into a nice pair of short shorts. I'm fully aware of how neurotic it all sounds, but trust me, if you ever find yourself in such positions- you will also play it safe. Then again, I do have the ability to over-think things, but even at that- I stand by my assessment.
I turned myself diagonally and placed my military boots in the floor spot of the seat behind Big Urn. This allowed my legs that had been inwardly bent to an un-forgivingly acute angle, to stretch out to a far less extreme clench- immediately I felt the surge of blood flow from my swelling kneecaps, much like a kinked hose that had been released after withholding the continuously building pressure.
Brian was looking out his side window with raised eyebrows proclaiming disbelief, and a daring smirk that taunted our possible fate had we still been walking down this interstate. He looked back at me through his similarly styled 90's sport shades, and gave a short laugh before saying,
"Shit man, just imagine if we had to try and sleep on the side of the interstate with THIS shit..."
I had indeed noted the swampy patches of forest we had been passing for the last fifteen minutes, and they were definitely reminiscent of a major concern I had while traveling through Florida; alligators.
I recalled traveling to MIAMI two years ago, on a road trip with my old girl friend Lisa, and my good friend Heck; and in only our short weekend stay, we had seen two alligators. Those damned things were everywhere in Florida, and my major plan in being able to sleep soundly and explore comfortably throughout this wandering journey, was to stick to the ocean. Sleeping in the random woods of fayetteville, might very well have offered some serious threats- but those threats were easy to ignore, those threats were far less obvious to a persons imaginatively rendered fears; fuckin' ALLIGATORS on the other hand, were a different story. I had seen them on national geographic, I had done reports on them in second grade, and these damn things didn't live in South Africa, they lived in FLORIDA.
I sighed sullenly at the reminder, and told Brian defiantly that we would have figured out something no matter what. Although I really did believe that was true, I still wasn't in any rush to prove it.
The 'surprise birthday' type excitement that successfully catching a ride had given us originally, had stayed with Brian, while I on the other hand, was beginning to return to my original thoughts on our hitch-hiking strategy. We had spent a good twelve hours on the interstate in the sweltering heat, trying without luck to catch a ride. I firmly believe this was because of our position in the violent torrent of 6 lane traffic, that was both South and West bound. No one had time to read our signs, if they did, they couldn't safely pull over, and that probably wouldn't matter anyways as this was probably mostly city to suburb riders, and not city to city travelers. As I suspected, once we made our way to I-4 West, and got out of the burbs and short range traffic, we were picked up immediately!
Now, what I had been really worrying about, was happening. We were about to be stuck in the middle of Florida, between the worst possible hiking/sleeping/hitching land there was. We would have to be at least ten miles out of Orlando on I-4, before we could find some decent Tampa bound traffic- no one picks you up in the hustling rush of city traffic, NO ONE. I remembered when we had picked up Rusty and Gale, I remembered the tips he had offered us on hitch hiking, and how he had insisted that we drop them far enough before the city that they could easily catch another ride; and now, against everything we had been told, we were about to be dropped smack in the middle of an enormous city that could take several days to hike through.
On top of that, is the fact that in a city like Orlando, it is very dangerous to walk on the tiny highway shoulders that only offer you a few feet between the rail, and the blur of cars that rush past violently- like mechanically ascending demons. I was concerned about this, because an alternate route through the city could lead us through some very bad neighborhoods, and we had been told some real horror stories about Florida gangs and the violent ways they had been known to treat homeless people and other similarly wandering vagabonds.
I'm not sure about Brian, but I had never forgotten the terrible story that Gail had told us, about how some gangsters in Tampa had gotten them really drunk, and then tried to go after them with a pitch-fork. As the story was told; Gale watched in a petrified stupor while they held the pitch-fork to Rusty's stomach, and upon threatening to hurt her husband- she whipped out her blade and had it to someones throat so fast that they felt the cold of the sharpened steel resting on their throat, before even seeing the metallic flash of her withdrawal. Apparently things turned out in their favor that night, otherwise we wouldn't have picked up those toothless masters of the american road that day. Needless to say, the major advice that they had for us when traveling through Florida, was to watch out for gangs.
I really wanted so badly to forget about stories like these. Some of the few rational portions of my brain, assured me that Gail and Rusty had most definitely made some poor decisions in however they had ended up being convinced into letting a group of gang members get them so drunk; but nonetheless, it was a very troubling story to me- that a group of people could be so cruel as to threaten someone such harm purely for sport, was the epitome of mans potential evils. On a trip like this, getting shot by a gang member for some stupid reason, or being smacked by an inattentive vehicle, or even being mugged by other homeless people or hoodlums- were all distinct possibilities that I was cautious of, but had accepted. I felt that realistically, although these terrible things DO happen in our world, the odds of them happening to me were beyond slim, they were lotto winning slim (except for the 'being mugged' part, theres always a considerable chance of that happening if you aren't careful).
I was beginning to realize that a large portion of my finding "america" so-to-speak, was having to do with me refuting the all-too-popular portrayals of the 'america' invented by the media, and than adopted by the american family. The endless coverage of the latest crisis, outbreak, or murder that make people fear other people so badly; that make it so unheard of for me and Brian to be traveling the country like we are; or that make it so dangerous for us to assume that someone picking us up isn't an axe-murderer- these are attitudes that need to be re-considered, along with any notions that deprive us from the god-given graces to appreciate the company of a stranger, or help a fellow man. I need to see this living portrait of america for myself, and give my own interpretation of these agenda driven portrayals; and that, is exactly what I am doing.
I looked up at the digital clock on Urn's radio, and it said something around 3:00. We were almost to Orlando, in fact, we were only about 15 minutes out by Urn's estimation. Brian continued to chat casually in front, quizzing Urn on his knowledge of the diamond-back and alligator population in Florida- just what I needed to hear. I shuffled my legs restlessly, and tried with little success to re-adjust the bandage through my dirt smeared denims. Aside from how annoying the bandage had been, this was a pretty pleasant ride all and all.
Looking out the side window, I saw that the view from the highway was slowly transforming from its dark enclosure of swamp patches, to congregations of high-end housing, and suburbs. The sky opened up, and the lake we passed reflected the low, magnanimous, afternoon sun in ripples that had a flickering effect when we sped by. I was mesmerized so thoroughly, that I barely even heard Brian and Urn talking about some damned 'fiddle spider' or something, that upon biting you, leaves a venomous batch of eggs under your skin. Apparently the victim has between only ten minutes, and a half hour to get medical attention before the venom completely kills the person; or so said Brian to Urn.
For some reason short of my understanding, Urn found this to be entirely amusing. He tilted his head way back with a slouching grin, while slapping his knee with his calloused, sun-painted hand. Although the gesture itself implied some pretty serious laughter, Urn held back any sort of twinkling chuckle through his greasily pursed grin, and after smacking his knee as if to say, 'well don't that just beat all,' he let out two very short, wry, exclamations of humor that went,
a very likable jab of a laugh in my opinion- one that erupted in short punches from the depths of his belly, and finally found its deep raspy accent between the lung and throat.
With raised eyebrows, Brian looked over at Urn too seeming amused, and I watched with new intrigue as he returned his right hand to the warm, sweaty, 'two-spot' that he had been gripping the whole drive. He returned back to his staring contest with the road, and while looking miles into the distance, he contained his obvious amusement, and spoke through his still-slouching smile with loose jaws, and tight lips saying,
"Hellll, youbu'oys need ought'tabe watchin' yaselves fer' damm dihmun'backs more'n anthang else'r ound ere..."
Urn allowed his lips to continue dancing on his face as he continued,
"... shiiiia-tt, got'damm al-gayders 'er eazzy da'staya way'frm, ya'gist got-two wa'chout f'r da'watta."
I was watching and listening to Big Urn intensely, and while studying his expressions, I had got the gist of what he was saying about being wary of the water, and keeping an even better eye out for diamondback snakes.
"I think I can manage that,"
I said, feeling meeker than I sounded.
Urn proceeded to tell me a short story about how a guy that used to work for him was out in the backwoods of his land drinkin' beers and shooting his pistol, and when he went to relieve himself in the bushes, he nearly pissed on a six-foot diamondback!
"HOLY SHIT!" I exclaimed,
"How you s'posed ta' avoid those bastards?"
I asked in unpolished grammar while trying not to sound very concerned.
I was half curious about that, and half curious about what Urn really thought about us northern city boys- he didn't seem to really think anything about us, except that we needed a ride.
"Wehllll, th'good thang'bout dem' bitches'ss, dey'got dat reeeel loud raddelin'oise dhay'does if'n yer nearby'em."
Urn said with subtle reassurance.
I hadn't realized that diamondbacks were just another name for rattle-snakes. At least NOW, I wouldn't have to foolishly make the mistake of being scared of TWO different kinds of snakes.
Brian must have been having the same concerns I was as we neared our drop off point in the city, because after a moments break in our discussion, he broke in asking Urn coolly,
"So, do you guys have allot of problems, or complaints or whatever, with gangs down here?"
Brian's minnesotan accent was such a cold motherly contrast to the brazenly uttered slang of Big Urn. He replied slowly, opening with,
"Sa'same e's ever'where else, aghh sa'pose,"
Urn spoke as if he was in the middle of stretching, or putting his feet up on something.
For how HUGE he really was, he was equally reserved- a real cowboy driven set of social skills. Big Urn continued on saying,
"Ya gist got'two sta'yowda dem naybah'hoods ya don' ba'longin."
What Urn said was, 'you gotta stay out of the neighborhoods you don't BELONG in,' an almost exact answer that I might suspect from his southern values concerning race. I began to wonder if it was just as wrong for me to assume someone has these values, as it is to have them in the first place; but before I even had time to consider this, Urn casually said a word that always has, and always will- degrade any traits of decency, integrity, or class that I find in a person.
"Ever'so often, you getta'fewa'dem lil'niggers dat com'round mah naybah'hood..."
Immediately I felt my ears begin to burn with anger, and I clenched my teeth while covering them with a lame smirk.
"...dey jus'go 'roun steelin shid'an brakin'in cars'nwhatnot; takin' radios n'stereos'n dum'shid like'dat."
Urn said proudly,
"we'don get'no much trouble 'round mahh'house- "
A regular old Martha Fuckin' Stuart, I thought to myself bitterly. I imagined Urn politely raising his hand at a PTO meeting, or a neighborhood association, and laughed to myself with gray sarcasm. He's probably the damned arien block captain or something!
"...budlike I's sayin'; you's til'be wa'chinout fo'dem nayhbah'hoods which'n ya'don b'long."
Brian may or may not have sensed my discomfort during all this, but he had been brought up differently than me, and though I had never seen him act with prejudice- suffice it to say that he didn't bat an eye whenever he heard the word; something we had been in very nasty disputes over in fact.
Brian nodded in vague agreement,
"Yeah, there certainly are plenty of neighborhoods you don't want to get stuck in."
Brian's response was only meant as what it was, and if anything, he might have been deliberately remote when answering, so I wouldn't mistake his responding for agreeing. The situation wouldn't have been any kind of problem for Brian, but it was nice that he at least understood that it certainly WAS for me. It occured to me, that it really was a rare and interesting balance we struck as a duo- one being the idealistic, compassionate, and naive counterpart to the opposing cold, hard, fight-for-yourself, realist.
I sat forward rigidly with a blank stare, feeling sad and disappointed. I can be such a little cry baby when issues like this confront me, and I hated that I had to be considered 'naive' because I wanted to expect more out of people. Like any of the other times this had happened around me, I found myself trying to explain Urn's outlook as a profound ignorance that was worthy of my sympathy, not my anger. "You cant teach an old dog new tricks," was a phrase that usually crossed my mind in these circumstances.
Was being "RAISED" to believe such slanderous things about an entire culture or race, reasonable justification? If I had been taught to think in this narrow-minded way, would I be any different then Urn? I would like to think that I would know better than that no matter what the circumstances, but in all actuality, I will never really know.
I tried to put it behind me, and to not allow myself to get wrapped up in hating anyone for as silly of a reason as hating someone else. If people got used to responding like that, we would probably end up making things in this country even worse. I realized during my ride with good old Urn, that I had a long way to go in being tolerant to everyone. Maybe I wasn't intolerant to religion, race, or sexuality; but as silly as it sounds, I realized that day, that I needed to be tolerant of intolerance as well.
As we fluidly sped through the Orlando burbs, and into the commercial district that was on the edge of the enormous city, I very suddenly heard a series of high pitched beeping noises that got increasingly faster and louder- I was abruptly pushed forward by the shift in momentum that took place as Urn lean-toed his boot from the gas pedal, to the brakes. All the beeping and electronic commotion I had first heard was a radar detector going off in indication of a nearby police officer. I leaned slightly forward toward the coffee stained center console, and watched as the speedometer needle quickly fell from nearly 90, to 70 in a matter of seconds. Suddenly we were a part of the converging traffic again, and as we got closer and closer to the city, the lanes began to multiply and congest. The time was coming for us to depart from "Big Urn," and when cars started to jam up, he told us that this was where he was getting off.
Big Urn glanced at a folded piece of paper on his dash, and after confirming from his map-quest instructions, that we were indeed wherever we were supposed to be; he slid the enormous truck into the right lane, made a signal for the exit, and then veered off of the elevated interstate, down the exit ramp, and into the flooded consumer valley resting on the cities outskirts.
We had already made it to Orlando Florida from Daytona Beach in only one day, but now that we were in the city, we would be exposed to an entirely new set of rules for survival. As we got out of Urn's vehicle at the bottom of the off ramp, I knew what our next moves would be- get a beer, and take a look at our map.
UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN...
Joseph R. Reeves