By Jim Coleman
Years ago (must have been in the mid 1980s), I thought I might be able to get away from my problems, my mess of a life, if I went out west. I know, really an original thought. In retrospect, so many things in life seem like clichés. Perhaps there is some truth in clichés and stereotypes. Perhaps that bit of laughter comes from recognition. Anyway, back to the mid 1980s. I bought a beautiful old 1963 Ford Fairlane. Such a beautiful machine. Last of the tail wings, but small and understated. Holley 4 barrel carb and several chromed out Cobra engine accessories. I threw a bunch of my belongings in the back of that Ford and took of west, running away with a smile of my face. And I went slow. Stayed off the interstates. I remember getting looks deep down in the south as I was blasting the just released Public Enemy album Yo, Bum Rush the Show. And speaking of stereotypes, I think most white guys down in that area were driving 4X4 pickups and listening to Molly Hatchet.
There are stories from that road trip, but I won’t linger on that now. Well, perhaps a couple of quick snapshots:
– Florida. Somehow I ended up down there right in the middle of Spring Break. I was traveling on a budget, camping as much as possible. The whole Spring Break thing was just ugly, and I wanted to hide. I got a spot at an overpopulated campground. Went out to eat and got a dozen raw clams. 12 midnight, I woke up, thought I was losing my mind. Everything was different, liquid, uncertain and painful. Then I started vomiting wildly. It was a relief in a way. I wasn’t losing my mind, I just had severe food poisoning. Once I was completely emptied out, I was painfully dehydrated and had no water. I couldn’t drive, I could hardly see. I ended up walking over a mile to a gas station and buying a large container of water, none of which would stay down. When I got up in the morning, I called the hospital, and they advised me to drink lots of Gatorade. So I bought a case of Gatorade, threw everything in the car, and drove nonstop to Atlanta, where I met my friend Ozzie and we immediately started drinking Bloody Marys. In those days, I considered that a cure.
– Bakersfield. Well, about 3 – 4 hours outside of Bakersfield, I picked up a couple of young white thugs. I liked driving alone, really cherished it actually. Still do. My mind can just go, there’s a special freedom to it. But I felt for these guys. Perhaps a typical motorist might be a bit scared of them, but I could tell they were like me. And I certainly have had enough time on the other side, sitting on the side of the road with my thumb out. So I picked them up. They had a quantity of grass on them, which diminished the closer we got to Bakersfield. I was going to just drop them off and keep on going, but they invited me in and were going to give me some leaf to take along with me. So I ended up going with them to their cousin’s house, who I think they were in business with (dealing). But they were waiting, there was no grass. And god, I hated being in that place and I had been there so many damn times before. Waiting for some shit. The whole house was kind of like a lock box, secured against invasion, all the shades drawn, dark as a crypt. At one point the cousin was talking about his past racing motorcycles, and he leaned down and unclasped his leg, leaned it up against the chair. Even after the wreck in which he lost his leg, he still raced. I waited, I drank, I slept, and I left in the AM without any grass.
– Last snapshot. This one is painful in the telling for me, as it reveals a side of myself that is very unflattering, a side that I would rather hide under the rug. While in Tuscon, I looked up Ruth, who was an ex of mine. Our relationship had seemed to be primarily spiritual, though we had our physical moments, no doubt. It seemed that a lot of the time we would be on the same wavelength, that we would have this spiritual understanding of each other without talking. In retrospect, who knows, maybe we just thought that. Since I had last seen her, I felt like I had gone over to the dark side, sliding in to a lifestyle of debauchery and addiction. Some of the tools that had initially helped elevate me spiritually had turned on me and dragged me down in to the gutter. And that was a large part of what this trip was about, running away from that. The problem was, no matter where I went, I was still there. And I wasn’t running towards something, I was running away from something. In fear. Ruth and her roommate and I had dinner, had some drinks, went back and went to sleep. I slept on the couch. I woke early, haunted by the memories that this encounter sparked. Like it made manifest the distance between where I had been and where I was. I felt like shit. I rose from the couch, went in to the bathroom, leaned on the sink. And the sink cracked in to about 5 pieces and fell apart on the floor. Water was running everywhere. I was pissed, ashamed, aching badly for that freedom of the road. I had no money to leave, I had no way to make this better. Ruth and her roommate were still asleep. I slipped out in the pre-dawn silence and headed for the highway. That was the last time I saw Ruth.
Six months after leaving Brooklyn, I arrived in San Francisco. A small group of my misfit friends in NYC were from San Francisco, and had told me about the Hotel Utah, how it was their living room, their home away from home. I pulled off the highway in San Francisco, completely lost, not knowing anyone. Coming off the exit ramp, I looked to my right and saw the Hotel Utah. It was 5 PM on a Friday Evening. I parked the car, went in. Within 30 minutes, I made friends with at least a half dozen like minded misfits, all trying to drink the week away. I woke up Saturday morning in an apartment in the SOMA area. Staggering to the bathroom, I thought I was still completely wasted, as I kept bumping in to the walls in the hall. By day’s end, I realized that the building had shifted and settled so much, the floors were at a severe angle.
I settled in to SOMA for a while, and then moved in to a huge warehouse in downtown Oakland. I inhabited 2 small rooms with no windows. Outside my room was the vast warehouse, around 10,000 square feet. The ceiling was 60’ high. Also living there was a barmaid from the Hotel Utah and her skater boyfriend, Jake. Jake wrote for Thrasher magazine and supposedly had a skateboard move named after him. There was a huge half pipe just off the kitchen area. About 10 or 12 feet above the top of the half pipe was a picture of Jesus, slapped on there by someone who had flown off the pipe that high and still had the nerves to slap up the poster. Right next to us were a bunch of hippie punks who ran a piano repair business. They literally had around 250 pianos in their warehouse. There were several late night parties where dozens of those pianos would be played, stroked, pounded and abused all at the same time.
One day during this time, I was back in San Francisco, walking down a street in SOMA. From behind me, a man came up to me and said, “Excuse me sire, can I be your slave?” I was startled, and thinking I had misheard, asked him what he had said. “Excuse me sir, can I be your slave?” I said, “No, that’s alright”, and walked away, puzzled. A block or two later, I realized I had a handkerchief sticking out of my back left pocket. I forget what color it was, but it was obviously giving a very specific signal to those in the S&M gay community. “Damn it”, I thought, “I just passed up my opportunity for a personal assistant” My life could have become so much easier.