Thursday, March 08, 2007

16.) The Hitchhiking Years: Baseball, Doughnuts, and the Meaning of Life

There was another card I could play during the Hitchhiking Years. I graduated a semester early from my boarding school in Exeter, New Hampshire, and I had friends and acquaintances scattered throughout the colleges of America whom I had just been in prep school lock-down with the year before. To me I was a wandering free spirit hitchhiking through, but to the school officials I encountered I was looking at their college for possible admission. So that's how I ended up at a school gathering outside a dorm at Stanford in the year 1972. My friend from prep school was actually a good guy named Jim McDanials - if memory serves. You know, we weren't great buddies, but we had lived in the same dorm, and that was enough back then. This would lead to one of the true brushes with the soul of America - among the best from the entire trip.

Incidentally, I thought Stanford was great - the most beautiful campus I had seen. Of course, I was sick of cold weather and the East Coast schools with ivy growing on the brick walls and everywhere else. I had been living in "Catcher in the Rye" and here was a place that seemed hip. I also appreciated the town of Palo Alto for the role it played in the formation of the Grateful Dead and the life of one Jerome Garcia, known to his many friends as Jerry.

After milling around for awhile chatting with teachers, school friend and his roommate decided we'd go see the San Francisco Giants play a baseball game. What more fitting way to experience the country than that? But wait - it gets better.

As someone who had grown up overseas, there was a mythical place called America that existed along with the United States. Don't get me wrong. The real version did not disappoint. I was knocked out by the land out West, and by the greatness of the City by the Bay - frankly, that had exceeded my expectations. But the mythical America was harder to find. It floated over the action like a Jerry Garcia guitar lick, only presenting itself in rare moments.

This night would be one of them. Towards the end of the game a really old player on the team was sent in to pinch hit. It didn't matter that he struck out, the crowd went crazy anyway. This was the night I saw Willie Mays play baseball.

Heading south, out of the Bay area, I was still taking the coastal roads and enjoying the scenery. In fact, I was having so much fun that money was becoming a concern - not major yet - but I had begun to think about budgeting a little, which in those days meant using the American Express card. That was the real card to play.

It was so classic that one of the things my Dad would say about the card was that having one meant you couldn't be arrested for being a vagrant in California. He just said it to make an interesting point, little knowing that his son would end up hitchhiking around America and could have been arrested as a vagrant in California.

Of course, my Dad just wanted us to have a way to buy airline tickets home to Arabia and for emergencies. The card had my name on it but the bills went to him. By the time I reached Monterey, I realized a cash flow problem was taking place and it was all flowing out. I was half a world away from my folks, so using the broadest possible definition, this qualified as an emergency. I began to search for a restaurant that took the card.

The problem was that the card was more for being outside of America. It wasn't widely used - at least not back then - in the United States. I saw a lot of Mastercard, etc.. places but if a restaurant took it, it was often upscale. That's how I ended up walking into this really fancy restaurant right by the harbor in Monterey. It was a classic scene. I asked the Maitre D' if I could put my pack behind the cash register and he looked mortified but said yes. I sat down and began ordering a really expensive lunch with wine. I think it was when I ordered some take-out as well that there was a discussion of the bill. I showed them the card and they were sort of surprised so while I slammed lobster or something like that, the Maitre D' was over on the phone to American Express wondering how this scam was going to play out.

This was the part that was a little different from "The Grapes of Wrath" or "On the Road". Incidentally, my father would always say spend as little as possible on the necessities of life and then go all out on the luxuries. He was quite a guy, and I wasn't taking advantage of him. Ordering lobster and some good wine is exactly what he would have wanted me to do in that situation. I finished, put the pack back on, and walked out past the elite yacht-club-type diners of Monterey.

By the next day I was stuck in Big Sur. Yes, it was beautiful, but it was also warm, and I hadn't eaten for a long time. I distinctly remember going into a little store and getting a box of sugar-covered doughnuts and a half quart of milk. By then I was exhausted and starving and I devoured everything. I remember it because all the sugar practically made me hallucinate. I went back out to this 2-lane road and I had one of those moments that defined the times.

There was another long-hair hitching on the other side of the road, and we were both going nowhere. It was time to get back to the big freeways if I could ever get out of Big Sur. I was willing to go north again to do it, but I just couldn't get a ride anywhere and neither could he. That's when we made an agreement. Every 15 minutes or so we would change sides and hitch in the other direction. Maybe it was the weird rush from eating all the sugar doughnuts, but I thought that was hilarious. I've always felt it represented the Hitchhiking Years perfectly. It didn't really matter where you were going - it only mattered that you kept moving down the road.


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