Monday, February 19, 2007

11.) The Hitchhiking Years: Stranded in the Streets

Seattle is one of my favorite cities - I really think it's amazing - so it's awkward for me to have to say this, but I really got in one of my worst jams there back in 1972 when I was hitchhiking around America. I had come across from Spokane that day, and I was trying to make it to another one of my tribe - another friend from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

This guy was in my class and all the siblings in my family thought he was a comic genius. Incidentally, people often expect me to be funny in person because I'm a professional comedy writer, but everywhere I've been for any length of time, I've met people who are a lot funnier. I've mentioned to them, "Look, you should try standup comedy. I know about this stuff. You are a natural." I even told that to a woman cashier at the grocery store after we had talked several times, and she said her mother always tells her the same thing. I said, "Your mother is right."

Of course, back in 1972, I didn't know I'd go into the biz, but I did know this guy Tom was hilarious. He would sit in the stands at basketball games and shout out weird sayings in a robot-like drone: "The ref is a cyclops" or "Go to college." Maybe you had to be there, but I'm laughing writing this right now. So my plan was to drop by his prep school, which as I remember was the one where Paul Allen of Microsoft went...Lakeside, maybe? I don't know and it's not important.

It took me all day to hitch across the state of Washington, so I was sort of trapped between camping out in an easy place and making it to my friend's school. That's how I remember it anyway, and the end result was that I was walking in a pretty densely packed neighborhood in Seattle and it was dark. I had miles to go and I was running out of energy and time.

See, you can't just be walking around late at night with a pack on, or you become a problem. It's obvious you're not heading home - who are you and what the hell are you up to? So there was that aspect.

It was hard to figure because I've camped out in the middle of cities and under freeway bridges where I literally tied myself in place. I could always find a place to camp, but not that night. I was screwed.

This actually ended up in a song. I once wrote this tune called, "Streets of America" and the first verse was, "If you've ever been out walking in the streets of America, did you notice an atmosphere, a particular hum? It's the sum of everything that you see, the taverns and the factories, it's children on the sidewalk playing, hey, baby it's the sound of the whole economy, yeah, that great big economy." It had a world beat groove to it, and it would have been great, if the band had worked out.

Anyway, I wrote a second version called "Stranded in the Streets" with lines like, "Though you've got no place to go, and you're out there walking in the snow." Now, it wasn't snowing in Seattle but I did have that horrid feeling of having nowhere to go. Plus, I had the backpack and I was getting really tired. I'm not saying I felt homeless but there wasn't even a phone booth around, if I wanted to break my transportation rule and call a cab. I was stuck, man, and it was time to get creative.

I was walking by these big old wooden Victorian homes and they were like 15 feet apart. I mean, they were packed in pretty good. They were so tight that there wasn't even grass growing between these two - just a concrete little strip with a fence in between the yards. You know how some window wells stick out a foot or so? Well, I took a deep breath and just sort of snuck into this yard, and ducked down below a window on the concrete slab. I was so close that I could hear people in the house talking - not what they were saying - but just general sounds. It was that crazy. Yes, it would have been unfair to them if they had found me, and I could have been shot, but I was desperate for a place to crash. Sometimes you get stranded in the streets and you have to do something.

You know, I get a bad attitude about the homeless, just like you probably do. I'd prefer it if they weren't there. I get sort of mad at them for existing - it's shallow of me, but I can't help it. However, I sometimes think that we're all just one major earthquake or other calamity, from being out there ourselves, and if we are, I bet most of us are going to see the plight of the homeless in a new light. It sucks to be stranded in the streets. It is such a downer and it is so tiring.

I made it through the night there undisturbed, and got away before anyone woke up. Now, early morning? That is the time when wearing a backpack is okay. You're up and you're moving and everyone knows you have all day to get somewhere else.

So I hitched through Seattle to this prep school, and I remember one comedic moment from that. A car pulled over on this city road that sloped down, and I had to jog quite a ways to get to it. I showed up at the door, all huffing and puffing from carrying the pack, and they said, "Where are you going?" I said the name of the school and they said, "It's right there. You're already here." I looked and there it was. So that was funny.

I suppose I could make a semi-profound point about the juxtaposition between the homeless, and the rich kids at this prep school, but the problems of the night before were long gone. As far as I was concerned, I was free and these poor bastards were in prison. The best I can do for you is to say that being stranded in the streets really sucks, but prep school really sucks, too. It was time to drop in and have a few laughs with my old friend Tom.


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