By C.M. Stassel
8:38 PM PDT, November 3, 2012
The troublesome things that a wayward traveler sees on the road are not there to shake his psyche or even put pits in his stomach, however, they are there to be seen, and, once they are seen, it is the wayward traveler's duty to report what he has witnessed and how it has made him feel.
Recently I drove around the United States with two of my best friends, Winston Churchtree and Frederick "Falling" Rocks. We dubbed the voyage "The American Loop" — drive through the northern half and then swoop down through the South, with more than 8,000 miles of driving in three weeks.
I am not going to take you through the entire event because that would take far too long, and frankly I do not have the energy for it. However, like a broken-down, dirty presidential candidate, I would like to tell you about some of the specific people I met and shed some insight into some of the places I visited. Be warned, in embarking on this trip, we did not seek out the normal, the healthy or the privileged. Our ship, which was a 2009 Honda Fit, was steered in the direction of the strange, the indecent and the misunderstood.
The first place that really shook the hinges off my understanding of the United States was Shippersburg, Penn. Some 20 miles off the I-80 we found ourselves in the dark, unknown world of Pennsylvania. The streets were lined with large, boxy, white houses displaying a single candle in each window. There were no streetlights, and we did not see a soul, but we had a feeling that everyone knew we were there. Our destination was the Lakeview Motel — we did not know much about it, except that it was cheap and we had driven as far as we could for the night.
We finally pulled up to the motel. The broken-down, unlighted sign looked as if the place had been abandoned. There was no office or front desk, only a closed restaurant and an attached bar that appeared to be open. We entered the bar to find, what seemed like, the entire population of Shippersburg. As we walked in all eyes immediately turned to us — we were outsiders, and they could smell it. We were committed, though, so we dealt with the looks and took a seat at the corner of the bar near the exit.
I sat next to a short fellow, with a patchy gray beard, a sweaty cap and Coke-bottle glasses. He would rip shots of whiskey every five minutes or so, and then, with his tiny, thick fingers he would wrestle a Pall Mall cigarette out of his pack sitting on the bar. There were bikers clad in leather, hunters wearing their camouflage and truckers wearing whatever truckers wear. A karaoke machine was set up, and a large woman was belting out some Avril Lavigne.
The man sitting next to me was called Jim, and he finally broke his silence when a man starting singing karaoke.
"Ah, not again!" he yelled.
He told me that the man's singing sounded like two cats making love behind a pile of wood, which surely must not be a pleasant sound. He laughed his hissing, smoke-driven laugh. And like that, the floodgates to Jim's life had been opened.
He said he had not bought beef in eight years because he prefers to hit deer with his truck. He laughed about the time that he cut a deer's throat with his knife instead of shooting it with his gun so he would not wake the neighbors.
Covered in blood, he swore that he, then, went to his son's basketball game at the high school. He spoke of trucking, the military, terrorism, his children and his God-given right to wield a gun — he was packing right there, I'm sure of it.
All of these topics were fine. I could surely understand them and hold a simple conversation with Jim, really just asking the right question so that he would continue talking. However, he then dropped a bomb that no one was expecting. Although, given the eerie feeling of the town and strange characters in the bar, we probably should have expected something like this.
Witness to two murders
As nonchalantly as you can imagine, Jim told me that he was a witness in two murders. It was one incident with two deaths, and he declared, ever so simply, that he was the target. Further, the murders had taken place in the very bar where we sat.
Jim had taken the job of his ex-lover at the bar, and she, disgruntled, grabbed a pistol and went to the bar for revenge. She entered the bar and shot two people dead. Then she turned her sights on Jim. She pointed the gun at his head, and a scuffle broke out. Jim did not speak clearly because, as he was telling me this, he ripped three or four more shots and sucked down at least five Pall Mall cigarettes — but, one way or another, Jim escaped the attack and was still working at the bar.
While Jim was telling me his murderous tale and declaring that, if he saw the woman again, he would put her in the ground without a second thought, the large woman who was singing karaoke had taken a liking to Winston. She was putting it on very heavy. She had revealed, rather quickly, that she left her husband yesterday because he was addicted to crack cocaine and had tried to murder her.
Well, that was about enough for us. We had no intention of waiting around for her husband to walk into that bar, which was surely the only bar in town, and take his drug induced jealously out on us. So we retired to our small room with one bed and paper-thin walls. We did not sleep well that night.
A strangely similar Houston
As you drive across the roads that connect our country, you begin to draw parallels and similarities from the most unlikely of places. Believe it or not, but there is a parallel that was drawn from our experience in Shippersburg. The parallel experience took place in Houston and the antagonist was called Ratchet.
Ratchet was a slim, rat-like human with long greasy hair to his shoulders, swooping, overgrown sideburns and yellow, crooked teeth. When he discovered that we were from California he was ecstatic and insisted he take us to a downtown speakeasy — an afterhours spot that served alcohol illegally until the sun came up.
We walked by the bouncer and entered a strange, rarely seen underground world of Houston. Five pool tables ran along the left side, each cluttered with toothless men and large women. Not surprisingly, Ratchet knew the bartender. It was also not a surprise that Ratchet did not have any money, and his relationship with the bartender was not strong enough to afford us free drinks; and by drinks I mean the small cups of beer they were selling for $5 each. We got our silly, little beers and made our way to one of the tables.
Somewhere in between Frederick playing a sharky looking fellow in pool and the group of Latino men to our right snorting lines of cocaine, Ratchet told us he despised black people and that he has stabbed multiple men in his life.
He became excited and took off his shirt. In his excitement, he took his thumb and showed Winston how he stabbed the man. Ratchet continued to tell us that he had also shot a man in his testicles.
"Did the man die?" we asked.
Ratchet responded with a wink, "I didn't stick around to find out." He followed this by expressing his desire to join us on our road trip back to California — he wanted to surf with us. We obliged him with smiles and nods and then quickly excused ourselves to the car. We swore that we would be right back — Ratchet made us swear. However, we did not return. We got in the car and drove 100 miles to Austin, Texas.
We will never see Ratchet or Jim again, however, they have opened our eyes to an underbelly of murder, drugs and depressing things that are riddled throughout the United States.
N.O. swamp stories
The last place I would like to take you is the Ninth Ward in New Orleans — the Swamp. The Ninth Ward is where Hurricane Katrina hit the hardest. We drove down Rue de St. Claude, over the bridge that separated the Ninth Ward from the rest of New Orleans, and into a scary world of drugs, violence and anger.
Dilapidated houses and buildings decorated the unpaved streets. People sat on the ground, too high to move, too stubborn to change. They were stuck. I can understand how someone can get stuck in the Ninth Ward. There's no happiness there, and everyone is doing anything they can to survive. Girls and boys alike are flung into the harsh streets with no choice but to do anything they can to get by — oftentimes, it's either that or death.
A small girl rode her pink bike up and down the street, and I wondered if she would ever make it out. Her chances did not seem good. I can understand how a place like that breeds anger and violence. If I lived there I would be furious at my situation. No hospital or school or love. The only kind of happiness that occurs is when a strung out man finally gets his hands on the vice that had put him there in the first place.
How does a person living in the Ninth Ward deal with something like diabetes or cancer? The short answer is that they don't; they can't. I thought how alone a sick person must feel in the Ninth Ward — no one should have to feel that hopeless and that alone; however, it happens all too often in this country.
There are many times when I've felt sad or hopeless or asked myself, "Why is this happening to me?" But after seeing what I've seen and meeting the people that I've met I realize that those feelings and that question is unwarranted.
We are lucky to live in a place like Orange County, where there are no Ratchets or Jims or Ninth Wards. The next time you feel sad or upset, just know that there are people out there who have been born into truly hopeless situations.
If you live in Orange County, you are in a situation of hope and opportunity. But do not take my word for it. Go take a drive and find out for yourself. I can give you Ratchet's number if you want.
C.M. STASSEL grew up in and lives in Costa Mesa. He works for Greer's O.C.