Humanist Humorist, or vice versa.
Writer, Golfer, Juggler
Buckeye, Falcon, and Cavs Fan.
About a week later I found a gift richer than Field Day, a cookout, and a concert combined. I learned of the Inmate Creative Writing Contest. Sweet! What do I win? I figured this challenge would be like fighting a UFC match against former Olympic ice skater Johnny Weir.
Alas, the only “prize” was a certificate: “Winner, Bureau of Prisons Writing Contest.” But forget Pulitzers and other self-important awards − my name on this document would serve as an unsurpassed credit. I’d proudly display it right next to my Associate’s Degree diploma from Georgia State University, which shows I may associate with people who have real degrees. (Joke credit to my late friend Brian See.)
The contest included three categories: essay, short story, and poetry. Offenders could submit one entry in each. Flush with writing topics from my past couple of years, I entered all categories. Three Winner’s Certificates would bring triple the validation. God knows I needed it.
I browsed the guidelines for the contest. My work wouldn’t pressure COs or cause tension, nor would it be defamatory, obscene, or injurious to anyone. And I certainly would avoid writing about sex. That’s too easy. I could write about prison-ish topics like bodily functions, drug rehab, and downscale exploits that carried street cred. No way I’d lose.
So I cranked out stellar content over the next week with a knock-off Bic pen purchased at the canteen. The words still flowed like runny gravy from the chow hall despite numerous interruptions from neighbors asking for assistance with writing letters. The stories basically wrote themselves.
My essay entry, My Greatest Achievement, detailed a then-recent episode in the wake of my hernia surgery. The piece came straight from my heart. The short story submission borrowed heavily from a bizarre rehab stay in my teen years and included a prison-like twist certainly worthy of a winner certificate.
A thoughtful meditation on my broken life served as my poetry entry, the weak link of my trifecta. I don’t “get” poetry, as this work surely indicated. To me, iambic pentameter might as well be an obscure Olympic event. No subtle wordplay exists in my poems. I rhyme lines like a seventh-grader. Nevertheless, given my competition, I expected a sweep.
Once finished writing, I located the aforementioned Olive Oyl, the dowdy programs director, and handed her an envelope containing my labors of love.
“Oh . . . great!” she said, beautiful blue eyes blazing. Based on her surprise I must’ve been the camp’s lone contest entry. This seemed odd, and later I wondered if everyone else knew something I didn’t.
“Thanks for dealing with this,” I brown-nosed. “Feel free to critique my work if you’d like!”
She chuckled awkwardly and ambled away. Besides free editing, my friendliness might set me apart for special treatment in the future.
I swaggered through the next couple days, buoyed by a sense of accomplishment and feeling less like a loser. I began thinking about frame styles for my Winner’s Certificates. One lazy afternoon as I lounged on my bunk the intercom blared: “Garrett Phillips, report to the sergeant’s office.”
My heart entered my throat. If you’ve been called to see a school principal, you know the dread of going to a sergeant’s office. In prison this call is often harmless, usually to receive legal mail or a box of books someone sent. Sometimes, however, unwanted bunk switches are revealed, or disciplinary action described. The worst case is notice of death in the family. I trudged across the camp to learn my fate.
Rutherford’s sergeant office featured a walk-up window, occupied by Olive. I exhaled, assuming she intended to congratulate me on my fantastic writing. Behind her, a sergeant sat at one desk and a CO at another, both studying me with eyebrows raised. Olive abruptly shoved my writing contest pages through the window, into my face. She spoke with a southern accent common among stilted witches.
“You cain’t be serious with these, and you should be ashaymed of yerself!” she spat. My jaw dropped.
“There’s profanity in awl of them. And you cain’t write about bowel movements!”
The guys behind her laughed, so I wondered if Olive was joking. I began a reply. “You know, the contest guidelines don’t ban writing about bodily −”
“No one wonts to read about your duuump bein’ a slot machine jackpot!” she huffed.
Far from joking, she’d somehow taken my contest entries personally. She apparently held a black belt in Southern Baptist.
Confused, I asked if the problem lied with the slot machine or the dump. Alas, Olive closed the window on the episode − both literally and figuratively. She slammed it shut. Rattled but undeterred, I buzzed back to my bunk and began the necessary revisions to my masterpieces.
As I changed words like hell to heck and shit to stuff, I heard “Yo, Biff” shouted from around the corner. I waded through dramatic murmurs from my fellow felons to the CO desk by the door. There stood Olive, still red-faced. She’d made a house call instead of calling me on the intercom. Her baby-blues sliced me with a glare. You’d think I sold her dog for parts or something.
“Give me those entries back,” she commanded, through clenched teeth.
I zipped back to my bunk and grabbed the pages, thinking someone had talked sense into her. As I placed my writings into her trembling hand I said: “By the way, the contest guidelines don’t ban profanity, you know.”
“I doubt that’s going to help yew!” she spat and stormed out the door.
I took this to mean my entries would be entered in the contest, despite her disapproval. Or Olive’s co-workers insisted she retrieve them so they could read an entertaining story about some inmate’s creative dump.
I absorbed good-natured shoves and elbows from the assembled barracks crowd. “Whoooo! Damn, Biff! Bitch was pissed!” So much for me staying low-key at this camp.
Word of my dilemma quickly spread and repeating the story felt like holding a dozen separate press conferences. Guys were dying to read it too, but I had already mailed the first drafts back home for safekeeping. Even COs needed to see. I learned most of them considered Olive especially uptight, and enjoyed watching her freak out.
As I sat signing autographs the following day I again heard “Garrett Phillips, report to the sergeant’s office.” Olive again stood at the window, only slightly more composed than last time. She explained that not only were my contest entries rejected, but I would be written up for obscenity and use of profanity.
“Obscenity?” I sputtered. “With all due respect, my essay lacked taste, but it wasn’t obscene at all.”
This sent another surge into Olive, one she had probably prayed to avoid. She grabbed the offending pages and applied her reading glasses. She quoted.
“‘My body − or more specifically, my sphincter − screamed ‘No! This is too tall a mountain to climb!’ Uhh, that’s clearly obscene!”
“Probably not to inmates,” I countered. “And it’s our writing contest, right?”
Olive ignored me and continued quoting aloud, much to the delight of two COs seated behind her, laughing.
“And your short story has a murder in it! How . . . how can you think a stabbing with a sharpened book cover would be okay?!” She yanked her glasses off.
“This is a writing contest for prison, not a garden club.”
This cracked up the peanut gallery, which somehow made Olive redder. To her, no discussion or negotiation was needed. She had a godless sinner right where she wanted him.
She told me to expect a formal write-up and slammed the window closed with authority. No “Good day, heathen,” and no compliments on my paragraph structure or for coining snappy phrases.
The farce continued two days later at my arraignment in the mailroom/disciplinary office. An affable young CO named Hastings had this paperwork duty dumped on him. At least he enjoyed comic relief as he recited and typed up my charges.
The official indictment referred to a “dangerous weapon (hunting knife),” and contained the phrase: “comparing his bowel movement to inanimate objects.” Nonsense. I had compared a human being − or at least Rush Limbaugh − to the result of my bowel movement, not the physical act. A strong semantics defense seemed probable.
Denial of a Winner’s Certificate worried me far more than official punishment. Almost everyone figured I’d draw a suspended sentence, to be struck from my record if I behaved for a few months. I assumed that someone during the appeal process would stop laughing long enough to dismiss the charges.
My persecution progressed at a meeting with the Warden, a portly gentleman equal parts pompous and humorless. His doughy index fingers pecked out my Incident Report on a keyboard while I told my side of the story. I might as well have been addressing a church pew. One that could roll its eyes.
Warden barely paid attention, and clearly found facts and logic unimportant. He had no plans to side with a smart-ass like me over his Programs Director. Warden pronounced me guilty, so I took the next step: an appeal to a Disciplinary Hearing Officer, employed by the same state agency as Olive and Warden.
Two days later I sat in the same room, talking to the same guy only with a different name. I wondered if they attended the same church. Any hope he would stop this debacle quickly vanished. He read aloud: “a turd frozen and fashioned into a hunting knife” through a smirk. His beady eyes narrowed as they drew me into focus.
“I can offer you a suspended sentence for a profanity charge. If you decide to appeal further, I will add charges for insubordination and obscenity.”
I had planned to appeal all the way to the top. Perhaps even alert the media as a last resort. I envisioned my story becoming a cause célèbre among creative minds. The Man not only took my freedom via the War on Drugs but now artist creativity came under the pressure. The tasteless topic or otherwise, this oppression could not stand. Someone had to go to the wall for shit jokes. Otherwise, where would the tyranny end?
Instead, my resolve crumbled in the face of escalating penalties. If my appeals failed I’d go to The Hole, followed by medium security instead of honor grade. And some honor I showed. The Man broke me. Fyodor Dostoevsky spent four years in a Siberian penal camp for publishing anti-government pamphlets, yet I wussed out over this. This shame shall sully the rest of my days, even though my prison ride rolled much smoother for it.
The next day I accepted a suspended sentence for the flimsiest inmate violation imaginable: profanity. Turns out official prison regulations forbid “profanity of any kind,” so its absence in the contest guidelines was irrelevant. At least I obtained the official document that includes numerous quotes from my disqualified works. I display it with pride – my poor man’s Writing Contest Winner’s Certificate.
My last couple of weeks in the program coincided with Ms. Wyatt going on vacation. We all dearly missed her sexiness, but the class received a different gift: Head Counselor Norm Carver as the substitute teacher. Short and stocky, he would be perfectly cast as the crazy older brother of Breaking Bad actor Dean Norris. We’d heard great stories about Carver’s wackiness from his students in the classroom next door. Now we got to live them.
On his first day, a lesson topic was written in large letters on top of the whiteboard: Generational Addiction Patterns. He began with a rhetorical question: “How did you come upon the thought process that put you here (in prison)?” Ignite engines − we have lift-off.
The first generation analyzed were “The Veterans,” born between 1920 and 1945. According to Carver, spouses stayed together no matter what back then, and citizens would’ve been ashamed to accept government assistance had it been available. He also professed Germany invaded Ireland and Japan took the U.S. by surprise in the Pacific since we were busy fighting in Europe at the time − with Italy on our side. The War ended when the U.S. dropped the bomb on Japan’s “largest city.” Not Tokyo, but Hiroshima.
I began taking detailed notes of this flurry of inaccurate non-sequiturs, far afield from rehabilitation talk. Carver noticed, and gave me a wink of approval. He subsequently glanced at me several times following points he seemed particularly proud of.
Next were the Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964). As Carver understood it, this period saw Henry Ford present the Model-T to the masses, women entered the workforce and caused a divorce epidemic, and everyone tried to keep up with the Joneses. Marriage licenses in Vegas included divorce applications on the back, and California was the center of the LSD scourge. Carver explained that families ate dinner together during this era, whether the siblings got along or not.
I intervened at this point, assuming a class discussion was underway. This clearly annoyed Carver, but he humored me.
“I thought LSD didn’t really kick in until the Summer of Love in ‘69?”
“Yes, that’s true as well,” allowed Carver. “Despite what you may think, I’m not all-knowing.”
I assumed he was kidding and chuckled, which peeved him further. No humorist, I’d bet he thinks self-deprecation means pooping one’s pants. I struggled into “listen-only” mode. This lecture was not to be sidetracked. Even the usual interrupters in the class lay low, sensing they’d be steamrolled by Carver should they pipe up.
Next up for analysis was my wheelhouse, Generation X (1965–1980). Carver explained this was when couples began cohabitating without bothering to marry. “But, if these sinners lived together long enough a common law marriage could result,” he explained.
As usual, the relevance of this fact went unexplained. It did, however, lead to another touchy subject: mixed relationships. Carver lamented that whites will be a minority by 2050, as mixed-race individuals will exceed fifty percent of the US population. “Mixed marriages will take over, but you won’t tell any difference anyway,” the instructor said, shaking his head.
Carver claimed Generation X’s science scores in the US rank twentieth in the world. This, of course, explained why a former inmate pupil of his sustained injuries in a crystal meth-cooking explosion.
“I told him to drop his drawers, right there in class, ‘cuz I didn’t believe him,” Carver said. “He did, and the son-of-a-bitch had scars you wouldn’t believe. And one of his calves was completely gone.”
Following the meth lab explosion, the guy’s dog − a regular modern-day Lassie − alerted distant neighbors, saving his master’s life. I dearly wished to point out that the concussive blast drew attention just fine, but I laid low.
“I used to work in illegal manufacturing myself, although it was a lot less risky,” Carver admitted. “When I was a kid I moved bottles of the family hooch from the still to the log pile, using an old flour sack.” The class learned this was a better option for the small lad since a heavier “toe sack” could’ve caused a stumble, breaking the bottles.
Equally relevant to generational addiction patterns were − you guessed it − female reproduction issues. Carver noted with alarm that “girls these days can menstruate as early as age nine,” and he knew of a twelve-year-old who “already has nice titties and a pretty butt.”
The counselor drew an hourglass figure on the whiteboard for clarification, complete with nipples on the boobies (mercifully, no pubes or vagina). He claimed the daughter of an acquaintance required abortion to avoid giving birth, otherwise “her hips would split her apart.” His point being − I have no fucking idea.
Most of the class seemed oblivious to the absurdity of the lesson and took it at face value, which made not laughing even harder. A guy next to me somehow appeared bored, and knocked out workbook exercises instead of listening. Then again, he may have been silently protesting an earlier Carver reference to “colored-only water fountains” in the fifties, apropos of nothing.
I alternated between exchanging baffled glances with buddies who knew better, taking notes, and feeling like I’d entered a David Lynch movie. I noticed my reflection in the whiteboard and questioned reality. As if I’d smoked weed minutes earlier and THC had kicked in hard.
My dissociation faded just in time to comprehend Carver’s take on Generation Y (1981–2000). He cited the Columbine shootings as “the event that changed the world forever, along with 9/11, because we all remember where we were when that went down.”
Carver professed 9/11 was triggered by a ninety-three cent box cutter converted into a bomb. “And even worse, terrorists are even more creative these days. They have bombs surgically implanted in their bodies!”
The class learned that the United States lacks Australia’s security because there they mandate a second customs line if you admit to carrying antipsychotic medication, as Carver once did. Additionally, the U.S. has never won a war below the 38th parallel, “even though we had laser-guided bombs that could hit a three-foot square from one hundred miles” in Vietnam.
I had to grab my wrist to keep my hand from going up on that one.
According to Carver, America’s breakdown means “China is going to wipe us out and there’s nothing we can do about it.” He lowered his head for a few beats before continuing.
“We are literally running out of gas, and solar panels won’t help because they’re manufactured in China, for godsakes!” Now he appeared ready to cry.
“We had a great run, but empires fall about every three-hundred years, so we’re forty years overdue.”
As if things could turn darker, for no apparent reason Carver claimed to own “a long rap sheet,” but admitted he’d never done time.
A bold classmate piped up upon hearing this: “So you sayin’ you was a snitch?”
Carver took a step back. The temper I suspected was just below his surface erupted.
“Define snitching”, he yelled, reddening. “Is it snitching if you tell them you didn’t do something?”
“Depends if you beat the heat by naming names or not,” came the cool reply.
Snickering arose, along with veiled calls of “Sniiitch!” and “Narc!”
“You weren’t there, I was!” Carver sputtered. “And I can promise you as clear as I’m standing here that I never ratted anyone out.”
“Then you was the pole-eece even back then.”
Carver closed in on his questioner, spittle flying. “If I was a rat, why would I help inmates now?”
“Maybe you feel guilty enough.”
Had a judge been present, a gavel would’ve been abused. Order needed restoring amid whoops and laughter. A rat was on the ropes.
Carver turned his back and slowly returned to the front of the room. He shakily gestured toward the whiteboard and the end of the generational timeline he’d written. He tried to steer back to the point of the lecture, such as it was, and abruptly checked his watch. Luckily for him, the class had entered overtime.
“We’ll pick this up tomorrow,” he said, through a clenched jaw.
Carver moved to the corner opposite the door as the class rushed out into a day full of joyously re-hashing the instructor’s disgrace.
My remaining lessons with Carver retained a similarly aimless but entertaining vein. For fun, a few classmates and I asked questions that sent him off on tangents. We made bets on this game, with bonuses paid if he ranted about China. Carver’s Generational Addiction Patterns lesson never returned or was clarified. Perhaps his accidental mission as a counselor was mystical — to provide unintentional comedy for beleaguered prisoners like me.
While I rip on Carver, he did save me from living without air conditioning in August for a couple of weeks. My term in the rehab class was ending, so a transfer back to Southern loomed. To buy more time I praised Carver’s wisdom and begged for a couple more weeks to learn at his feet.
He seemed surprised at this request but smiled widely. “You know, it’s not often someone appreciates what I’m accomplishing here. Especially an inmate.”
I attended his class over two more weeks, but none nearly as entertaining as that first one. Cool air in the barracks on those hot summer nights helped me get over it, though. Favorable trade-offs such as this are rare inside penitentiary gates.
I faced a long drive back to my Atlanta home after three weeks doing stand-up comedy — and partying heavily every night — in Colorado Springs and Albuquerque in 2005. To save money on the way back I stayed with a friend in Oklahoma one night, but still had twelve hours of driving to go after stupidly golfing with him all day. No amount of coffee could stave off my exhaustion.
I did, however, possess a couple hits of LSD to serve as extra-strength NoDoz. Not only could an acid trip keep me awake, I could put it to professional use. I could save any “profound” psychedelic ramblings on my voice recorder. Perhaps I’d figure out the meaning of life − or at least a good comedy bit − for future use.
I decided to drop the acid and drive through the night.
I don’t recommend driving on LSD, but I do so just fine. Driving is like walking to me. I did it professionally for over a decade, as a courier in Atlanta. I’d also tripped more than one hundred times over thirty years, so I know my limitations under the influence. Contrary to popular belief acid hallucinations don’t involve, say, a unicorn suddenly materializing in the road. Objects may morph oddly when stared at, but not enough to disrupt driving on a freeway that involves no oncoming traffic.
A couple hours into the drive I ingested enough LSD for stimulation, but not so much to completely distort reality. To me, it was like a really amusing five cups of coffee. Soon, my psychedelic reverie made a mundane ride vivid and exciting.
I cruised through Arkansas, a colorful sunset over the farmlands of the Mississippi Delta in the rearview. The Talking Heads or Blind Melon on the stereo transported me further. I marveled at the heap of metal that carried me, careening along at seventy-five miles an hour while in air-conditioned comfort. The tech gadgets and their charger wires next to me: camera, phone, mini-disc recorder, iPod, fascinated me. Traffic was light, and so was I.
All was good until I came upon a dizzying amount of freeway construction, like a sinister video game come to life. Shifting lanes and uneven pavement. Bright orange barrels and concrete barricades inches away. Bullying tractor-trailers. Senior motorists panicking while going forty miles per hour. My recorded running commentary during this interval was hardly philosophical or profound; I was cussing like a tattoo artist. “What the fuuuuuck!!!”
Thankfully, I soon surrendered to the flow and enjoyed myself again. The video game became fun. I efficiently navigated the construction zone, speaking play-by-play of my driving maneuvers into a microphone. . .
“A typical driver would be flipping out, but I’m possibly the best driver in the world. I am completely unfazed,” I boasted. A bit later I exclaimed: “Whoa, blue lights! . . . Just kidding, they’re in front of me.”
About thirty seconds later different blue lights appeared, directly behind me. Words failed me as practical thoughts intruded. The next noticeable sounds besides traffic noise were roadside rumble strips moaning as I pulled over. The recorder kept rolling.
I remained cool, like Dock Ellis throwing an acid-fueled no-hitter. I scrambled to dig my license out of my golf shorts in the back seat and prepared to casually present it to the cop. “I got this,” I said to myself. The weed sitting on the passenger seat said otherwise.
Yes, amid the aforementioned mass of wires and gadgets next to me sat less than a gram of shitty marijuana, in plastic from a cigarette pack. A fan in New Mexico gave it to me during a drunken evening, but I’d forgotten. Had it been of decent quality I would’ve stashed it appropriately. The weed sat in purgatory: not good enough to hide well, but not bad enough to throw away. Either way, in 2005 Tennessee it was illegal.
My license and proof of insurance were in hand as a cop approached on either side. At the last second, I spotted the herb on the seat and threw a towel in its general area, luckily not covering the rolling recorder in the process. I presented my ID to a strapping young cop built like a linebacker . . .
Lead Cop (LC): “Sir, we’ve stopped you for speeding in a construction zone.”
“Where are you coming from, sir?”
“You’re in Memphis,” he replied, seeming to chuckle.
“I mean, Albuquerque . . . I’m a stand-up comic.”
“A comic? Do you have a CD or anything?”
“No, but here’s one of a lady I worked with this week.”
I handed him a CD case. The cover photo featured comic Jessie Campbell shooting pool with a cigarette in her mouth. A great character witness. With a smile, the officer asked me to step to the rear of my car.
Meanwhile, the Second Cop (SC) grabbed the poorly-concealed weed through the passenger window and handed it to the one asking the questions. They returned to their vehicle to run my plates and strategize. I succumbed to psychedelic thoughts such as the nature of freeways, too amused to worry much. The cops reemerged ten minutes later. Or fifty. Acid trips warp time.
LC dangled the paltry package of pot in front of me. “Now, I’m not going to arrest you for this, but you need to tell me right now if you have anything else in this car.”
“I got nothing to hide, search it if you want,” I said. It was true: Since I’d eaten my acid I didn’t even possess an empty beer can of shady cargo.
“No guns, drugs, anything like that?” asked SC, suspiciously.
“No officer, go ahead and check.”
I must’ve looked like I harbored more drugs, and possibly a lot. My twelve-year-old Lexus GS 300 had blacked-out windows and out-of-state tags. I presented my license with a shaky hand and didn’t seem to know what city I was in. Sketchy as hell.
They escorted me to the back of a K-9 equipped 4-by-4 SUV. Clad in a golf shirt, sandals, and funky light blue swim trunks — hardly dressed for a treacherous Memphis jail should I go there. As they placed me in the vehicle I asked the cops if they wanted my keys, but neither heard me. The following exchange was recorded for posterity as they commenced searching my car.
LC: “Did you get his keys?”
“Uh, no. Don’t have the keys.”
“Get the keys from that motherfucker.”
After retrieving the keys from this motherfucker, I was left alone to absorb a strange new world. I noticed how hard I was tripping, three hours after ingesting a relatively small dose of five-year-old LSD. Although I fully recognized reality, the visuals were delightfully vivid, enhanced by flashing blue lights in the dusk. Just behind me loomed a cage containing a sizable dog. I turned and offered a little puppy talk and received two ear-splitting barks and a vicious snarl for my trouble. But for the thin bars of the doggie cage, my aorta would’ve been torn out. Tough crowd.
I don’t advocate animal abuse, but I admit I heckled the canine cop in return for it being a dick. “Bet you wish you could bite me, don’t you, pig?” After all, what was he going to do, arrest me?
The human cops dismantled my car interior and rummaged through my belongings as I amused myself. They looked under my trunk liner and behind door panels. “They are literally airing my dirty laundry!” I said to the K9 unit. He responded with another snarl.
I didn’t take the dog as a bad omen, however. LC had sent off good vibes, so I felt at peace. He didn’t appear to know I was tripping, and I was confident my wits would keep me in the clear.
The pair of police trudged back to me and their vehicle twenty minutes later. Or an hour.
They muttered to each other for a minute, then LC asked: “OK Mr. Phillips, are you a famous comic?”
“No, but after this story, I might be!” I admitted. I then described my recording mission and how they pulled me over moments after I declared how great a driver I was. They found this amusing.
“Where did you get this pot?” LC asked.
“A girl I met in Albuquerque gave it to me. I was probably going to throw it anyway because it sucks.”
“Yeah, this looks like Mexican pressed weed,” LC professed. ”I guess you call it dank?”
I quickly corrected him: “No sir, that’s schwag; the good stuff is dank.” I realized I shared industry lingo with the enemy and blurted: “Shit, I just spilled pot smoker inside info.”
“Yeah, I think you did. Show me the handshake too.”
We all laughed. Clearly, no arrest was coming, so I turned really talkative. I told the cops how my schwag source was a hot chick in Albuquerque that got me high in her car after a show. I expected to hook-up with her, but some random guy warned me that she fucked every army guy in town. And she turned me down anyway.
Following more small talk (LC) Officer Brady Valentine, West Tennessee Judicial Violent Crime & Drug Task Force Special Agent released me from my temporary cell on wheels. We moved in front of the vehicle, and he waved my weed as he spoke.
“Now I’m going to dump this out right here. Just do me a favor and tell your friends not all cops are dicks.”
He produced his card and added: “And give us a call next time you have a show in town.”
“Oh, wow!” I blurted. “Thank you, officer, and have a great night!”
“You’re welcome. And slow it down.”
His final remark reminded me of why I was pulled over in the first place, seemingly a day earlier. I didn’t even get a speeding ticket. Life was good.
The danger now dodged, a practical matter emerged: I had to piss worse than ever. It’s typical to forget to urinate while on a psychedelic trip anyway, and my dramatic run-in made this even easier. Each slight bump in the road poked my groin like an ice pick.
I never did return to Memphis to do stand-up and hang out with the benevolent Officer Valentine. My recording of his pull-over, however, opened the door to an on-air position on a top Atlanta morning radio show, The Regular Guys.
Valentine moved on to other ventures too. Specifically, he got prison time for participating in a steroid distribution ring, which probably operated when he was designated as Tennessee Narcotics Officer of the Year in 2007. I hope his replacement on the police force isn’t a dick.
Writing from a Rancho Palos Verdes, CA library. The view of Long Beach from this computer terminal is breathtaking. An excellent spot to summarize the events of the past twelve days.
Moving from Richmond, VA to Los Angeles began in earnest Saturday morning, August 3rd. I took to the road solo in a ten-foot Uhaul truck carrying my worldly belonging, my car rollng on tow dolly behind, and my new bromance partner Scooter McFarland in the trunk.
I forged through the Appalachian Mountains in good time on a lovely summer day. Twists and hills in the mountains of West Virginia got on my nerves now and then, but the thirteen-hour Leg One of my journeys ended at a St. Louis Marriott with minimum pain and hassle. Shout out to Priceline for the hook-up: $70 total for the four-star stopover.
Three hours into the next day’s drive I stopped at a suburban Kansas City Costco for cheap gasoline. (For the record, my fuel cost for the whole trip came to $633.) I hit the snack bar for the $1.50 hot dog and watched passersby while dining. I was quickly reminded of how overweight Middle America is. (Or should I say Middling America?)
Kansas came next, which gets a bad rap for mind-numbing boredom on a drive through it. At least over the eastern half. I enjoyed the lush, rolling hills and keen vistas. Buildings on the Kansas University campus in the distance reminded me of a landscape painting of Tuscany during the renaissance — an abbey way off in the distance, with a Walmart truck passing in the foreground.
Before I reached the pancake-flat western part of the state, I stopped at a remote freeway exit to ride my scooter around just for the hell of it. He’s my new best friend: a collapsible Xiaomi M365 Pro electric scooter that tops out at 26 mph, featuring a range upwards of 30 miles. This occasion marked the first of many that I parked, popped my personal transportation out of the trunk, and took off. Best. Invention. Ever.
Scooter McFarland and I tooled around a deserted gas station, and I took pics of giant wind turbines that littered the area. In lust with my recent purchase, I decided to take a pic of Scooter. I placed him where lush, endless farmland provided the background. The result looked photo-shopped. An idea was born, although not obviously to me at the time. (Instagram: @scooter_mcfarland.)
We steamed to Denver to stay with an old college buddy for a few days. After entering Colorado the skies turned dark. I hardly wished to fight through thunderstorms to end two grueling days wrangling 10,000 pounds down the road. But I’m a former professional driver — arguably the World’s Best Driver — so I could handle it. But rain never fell. I learned that dark skies in arid Colorado don’t necessarily mean rain is imminent. Not enough humidity in the air. Scooter and I arrived at my buddy’s place easily. I found a perfect place to park my rig two doors down from his place, no reverse gear required. Backing up with a towed car hitched up is not easy.
Seeing my friend, John Hannekamp, was a joy. We enjoy a great rapport and share a love of language and talking trash. We stayed up later than he needed to, mostly laughing while listening to rap music. By the time I awoke the next morning, he had left for work. I checked my phone to find a text from “Brentwood Evan,” the guy whose room I would be renting once I reached LA. Over the course of a few weeks, we’d spoken on the phone a couple times and texted often to confirm our deal was still on. Now the deal was off.
The details of his text are unimportant. In fact, I cared so little I didn’t return his open-ended text to ask what happened. The guy flaked, and my disgust overcame my manners. My Denver plans to meet up with various friends and check out to the area over the next few days died. I needed to get to LA sooner in order to find a new place. Rarely one to mope about misfortunes, I looked over at Scooter, sitting in the corner recharging his batteries. “Looks like we need to squeeze it all in today, buddy.”
Loathe to disconnect my car from the tow dolly, the whole rig lumbered to another Costco. Both vehicles received a fill-up of the last reasonably-priced petrol we’d see, at $2.34 a gallon. After that, I entered the store and settled into a sectional couch sample placed along the main entrance path in. A perfect spot to scramble to find a new residence in LA, mostly by scouring ads on Craigslist. In other words: back on the horse that threw me.
I delighted in watching passersby as I took care of my business. This parade of people lent a wonderful glimpse into the local population. As if I were strolling around town, except the people came to me. Wow, that guy looks stressed, many of them probably thought upon seeing me. In fact, I showed annoyance more than anything. I trusted my end result would be fine. I also enjoyed checking out the MILFS shopping on a Monday midday. I should add that Colorado people keep in shape a lot more than Kansas people.
After posting a couple of ads to the LA Craigslist and answering numerous others I continued my day like a normal person. I drove near a park that came highly recommended on a “Shit to do in Denver” list. James A. Bible Park in Hampden, to be precise. Scooter had the time of his young life on nearly deserted smooth bike trails. He relished his first real chance to open the throttle and scare the shit out of me, the rookie rider.
We soon found ourselves venturing beyond this area. I made a deposit in my bank, grabbed Chick-Fil-A, and plotted my next move. Soon we zipped through upscale neighborhoods, up and down hills, and ended up in Cherry Hills Village. Any true golf fan knows what this means: the legendary (and private) Cherry Hills Country Club stood nearby for a possible illicit tour. With me, however, “possible” meant inevitable. A time to invoke my white privilege had arrived.
I dress like a golfer anyway. I know my way around Country Clubs. I realize boldness and arrogance pays off in times like these. Scooter and I zipped right by the guard shack, giving the slug on duty the nod and wave of someone doing nothing wrong. I parked next to an entrance other than the main one. Finally, I didn’t have to worry about someone kidnapping Scooter. When in doubt I fold him up and take him inside with me.
I guessed right about the door I chose. Opening it revealed a wide hallway to the golf pro shop that served as a shrine to the many illustrious tournaments Cherry Hills has hosted over its long history. Memorabilia, exclusive photos, and lots of hardware graced numerous trophy cases.
Lost in the moment and reverie, I forgot to remove my floppy safari hat. That’s transgression number one. For rule bust number two, I snapped several pics. All the while my shirt was un-tucked, which completed my threesome of rule-breaking.
From there I wandered out back to marvel at the lush green, classic golf layout with a stunning Rocky Mountain backdrop. At times I felt like Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, using the ball washer while watching golfing MILFS putt out. I took more pics — somehow none of Scooter — and deeply breathed fresh air and the scent of old money with a smile on my face.
After sitting along a wall for a few minutes, a young pro shop employee approached.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but this is a private club,” he explained, cordially.
“Oh that’s okay, I’m a private person.”
He didn’t laugh. “I have to ask you to leave. Also, use of cell phones on the grounds is prohibited.”
I’d had my fill of my pilgrimage by that point anyway. “Oh, no problem,” I said. “I’ve paid my respects to this place long enough.” No conflict or cops necessary. I relished my white privilege again. “No cell phones sure is old school,” I added, as we approached Scooter.
“Yes, it is. No hats indoors or un-tucked shirts, either. Anyway, have a nice evening!!”
That’s what I call service.
After taking a spin through a couple outrageously affluent neighborhoods, Scooter and I headed back to the truck, which sat at least three miles away. A different route back placed us along a congested main artery devoid of bike lanes. We avoided this ASAP, zig-zagging through middle-class neighborhoods instead. Here I learned about the battery life of Scooter.
An hour seems to elapse before five bars turn to four on the battery indicator. Two bars to one goes much faster. One bar to dead happens in seemingly two minutes. At least rain didn’t loom and a Lyft driver waited three minutes away.
My buddy John and I enjoyed a nice meal in the suburbs for my last night in town. No good leads for a LA room to rent emerged, so I reluctantly moved on to take care of business. Doing Denver properly gets a rain check.
Denver to Vegas Leg
A twelve-hour journey to Las Vegas came next. Or so I assumed. I emerged from thick mid-morning Denver traffic, heading into the mountains, only to be waylaid by signs for Red Rocks Park, home to the legendary music venue. A stop there wasn’t in the plan, but turning onto the exit happened intuitively. Or I heard Scooter yelling “Stop here, idiot!” from my car trunk. So began Scooter’s career as a model.
Scooter chuckled at steep inclines as we tooled around the grounds. Pedestrians could be heard to moan as we blew by, but at least we provided them with a breeze.
We enjoyed amazing vistas and backgrounds for pics, but I couldn’t fully relax given an eleven-hour drive ahead of me. Our truck hit the road under an hour after arriving.
A fascinating drive through the Rockies on I-70 commenced, a trek I’ve always wished to make. I soon understood why people who’ve seen both refer to the Appalachians as mere hills. Massive craggy peaks still with snow on them in August. Mind-blowing slopes and incredible tunnels. Brakes don’t fail me now!
Before moving far into this leg of the drive, however, the old mining town of Idaho Springs invited Scooter and me to dip in for a visit. I found an excellent spot to park the rig and we zipped off into enchantment. Far too much time was blown checking the place out and taking pics in perfect weather. I stopped to eat at a funky gourmet grilled cheese joint. Commercial scooters hadn’t invaded the town yet, so lots of townies saw Scooter and me as a curiosity.
I fielded many questions about him and let a couple people take a spin. The poking around radius Scooter provides allowed me to investigate a back alley, where I photographed some guy’s pet ducks. What a great way to see the world.
I wished to visit with an old friend that happened to be in Vegas that night. More lengthy stops needed to cease. So obviously the skiing mecca of Vail hosted our next hour-long detour. Parking there proved to be a major pain, not helped by me missing a “No Outlet” sign on the road to my first attempt. Thank god a parking lot turnaround loop existed, otherwise I’d probably still be there now.
The Winter resort of Vail still bustles in Summer. Scooter and I relished the vibe but especially dug the sick bike trails all over the place.
Right beside and around a charming mountain stream featuring fly fishermen that didn’t seem to know what they were doing. Man’s residential creations in this town begged to be viewed, so we scooted along and gawked. I stand about six-foot ten when on Scooter — tall enough to see over many privacy walls. The pain of realizing we’ll probably never own such abodes is similar to seeing beautiful your women these days. I need to work on my mindfulness. In any event, no more stops allowed!
The next stop came at what must be the most incredible interstate rest area on earth. I-70 follows a whitewater rapid river canyon, surrounded by cliffs a thousand feet high. Somehow space for a rest area worked.
Deciding to stop was the proverbial no-brainer. Sorry friend in Vegas, I’ll catch you tomorrow. At least this stop only cost me about thirty minutes.
I zipped up and down perfectly-smooth bike paths, watching tourists wearing helmets float past in ten-person rafts. Several of them stared at Scooter and me. I suspected they thought I was having more fun than they and rafting isn’t all that. This was probably my imagination, of course, but if they knew how fun Scooter is to ride they might agree.
Okay, I’m getting to Vegas on this driving segment, for real I told myself. Until Utah. Wow. I’d heard lots about the state’s charm, and it lived up to the hype. The landscape seemed to change constantly, while essentially remaining the same. Had to be there. And I wasn’t even high. Weed would’ve been great for this trip, except for wrangling five tons up and down mountains. No need to lower my IQ and tempt fate regardless of how fun it might have been.
Speaking of up and down mountains, I assumed almost all of them were behind me after. darkness descended. I then lost both the scenery to view and my serenity. Shifting lanes and barricades while dealing with mountains in dead darkness sucks. Even for me, arguably the World’s Best Driver.
By the time I reached the flat approaching Vegas my energy had been sapped. What once had been a 9:00 pm ETA had become more like 1:30 am. I probably should’ve pulled over to nap earlier, but I forged on though what was easily the most trying and annoying part of the trip. Darkness can turn an adventure into a chore. By the time I reached my bed at the Orleans Hotel and Casino (ample truck parking) 2:00 had come and gone. Scooter and I had made it, although the charger for my laptop had not.
Staying midweek in summer in Vegas means room are cheap. Good thing, because having the room for two nights meant I slept late as fuck. A crucial luxury in my case. Returning my tall frame into the not really-adjustable truck seat only hours after leaving it couldn’t happen. Besides, Scooter had never been to Vegas.
Frugal grocery shopping was done the next afternoon, in addition to scouring for LA rooms for rent. No dice on the latter, but Scooter and I whipped over to an Albertson’s to stock up on provisions. The area featured no shortage of homeless people, who looked at my mode of transport with palpable jealousy often mixed with confusion. I may have been scared had I not been on a quick getaway platform.
For dinner, I ate a really shitty Sbarro spaghetti bowl in the food court (I had a 15% off coupon) while confirming a room for rent showing in Pacific Palisades the next evening. My first real movement on finding a place buoyed my mood, so party time had arrived. Time for Scooter and me to hit the Strip!
Biggest Fun Imaginable?
The first business on Scooter’s breakout night took place on the top level of the parking deck. A distant yet commanding view of the Strip provided a splendid backdrop for the night’s first pic. Scooter may have been nervous, but this was not evident when he balanced precariously on the top of a retaining wall. This made for the best, clear view and removed ancillary distractions from the frame. Next stop: try to top this fantastic photo with something from the Strip.
I loaded up my recently-purchased 24 oz. insulated drink bottle with Diet Coke and Evan Williams, applied Scooter’s tote bag, and boarded a free shuttle bus to The Strip. Despite his pleas, Scooter was forced to ride in the cargo hold. Favorable temperatures prevailed this evening since clouds kept the sun from baking the pavement all day. (Normally Vegas can have a low temperature of ninety during summer.) We hit the sidewalk on a fine night and started shooting — and catching an inexpensive, mean buzz.
I feared scooters would be banned from the sidewalks because rental ones are banned from the city entirely. These conditions favored Scooter, especially because police or security never questioned us. I took special care not to be a menace to the moderate number of mid-week pedestrians. More than a few weary walkers, (Vegas requires a ton of that), could be heard saying “God I could use one of those right now” as Scooter whipped past.
In dire need of a restroom, I walked Scooter into the shopping mall adjacent to the Bellagio. After I took care of business I walked out and posed my ride under a giant chandelier, with the casino beyond.
No one confronted us, much to our surprise. We strolled outside to catch the fountain show, took a pic with “showgirls,” and hit Ceasars Palace next.
I took pics of Scooter (IG: @scooter_mcfarland) in front of sculptures, fountains, and gaming machines. He posed in front of luxury shops. I even talked a security guard into posing with him. I didn’t dare ride indoors, but I probably should’ve just to see if we’d be stopped. The guest is king in Vegas, even when they’re not even a guest. Again, this is probably my white privilege in play, even though Scooter is dark-skinned.
Against all odds, so to speak, I didn’t gamble while in Vegas. I meant to but forgot until I’d checked out and the truck was packed and ready. I didn’t feel like taking Scooter back a quarter mile to the casino from the truck parking lot. He’d done so a number of times over the two days, practically repaying his cost based on that alone. He also made the long trip from the elevators to my room go a lot faster. Maids seemed amused as we whipped by, my head tilted to avoid hitting light fixtures.
Anyway, not gambling made sense for me in this case. Finding a place in LA could take a while, so every dollar might count. I couldn’t afford to lose. Needless to say, an hour down the road I stopped at the last casino on I-15 in Nevada to gamble.
What if my lucky day was upon me and I didn’t even know it? My first room rental option had fallen through, so the universe owed me. My $20 lasted under ten minutes at a blackjack table, extending a losing streak that has now covered three states. I chuckled and moved on.
This leg of the trip needed to be finished quickly so I could reach a viewing appointment for a room in the Palisades at a reasonable hour. Luckily the scenery and scooting options sucked. Scooter was sleeping one off, too. Not a peep from him in the trunk.
Reaching LA and Near Disaster
My Google navigation lady took me on three separate detours before I even got into the thick of LA traffic. God love her. She served heroically on my solo journey, so I promised her access to whatever the fuck personal information of mine she wanted. I have nothing to hide as far she knows.
Traffic thickened on “the” 101 near downtown. Stop and go. One time the traffic stopped, but I kept going, moving over one lane. I missed hitting a Mini Cooper with the truck’s front end by maybe two inches. Alas, I failed to swing the tow dolly wide enough to miss the little fucker with a bar that protected one of the dolly wheels. I heard a BUMP. I pulled over into the first open area available a couple minutes later, a tire on the dolly smoking like Snoop Dogg. No sign of my victim.
The protective bar had bent to where it continually rubbed against the tire. I dug my tool box out of the truck but couldn’t solve the problem.I sweated my ass off in the process, even though the temp didn’t top 80. Humidity sticks around in LA even though it’s technically in a desert. Don’t ask me to explain it. Working up a sweat was not optimal before going to meet a potential landlord. The trip had drained my energy, too.
A CDOT helper guy showed up soon after I’d given up on repairing the dolly. The Mini Cooper I hit limped in behind him, with a dude driving. So much for meeting a hot chick to date. Turns out a huge chunk of the guy’s tire was gouged out, which flattened it right away. Other scratches and scrapes were caused too. By the World’s Best Driver. What are the odds?
The 30-something Guatemalan guy driving the mini took the accident well. He never even raised his voice or told me to fuck myself. We chatted as we waited for the cops, and he described a daily commute of thirty miles each direction. No wonder transcendental meditation is so popular in LA. And no wonder the guy didn’t lose his shit over our incident: his anger had been beaten into submission long ago.
We exchanged info and waited. His tow truck showed up before the cops. As he boarded the tow truck to join his car, a California Highway Patrol car showed up. That’s right: real, live CHiPs! And of course, both of them looked like actors on a TV show. Strapping young fellows. Since no injuries took place and info was exchanged, they required nothing further. Just an eventful hour delay before my appointment, ultimately. I assumed traffic had died down a little in the meantime. Ahahahahahahaha!!!!
Eventually, I hit the legendary Pacific Coast Highway, past Santa Monica beaches and twisted and wound my way on tight surface streets in the Palisades. The trip ended going straight up a hill. Way, way up. So far, in fact, that only one cell service provider reaches that high. And the temperature usually matches that of Downtown LA instead of the towns near the beach that enjoy a cool breeze most of the time. In SoCal, six miles away can mean a ten-degree temperature difference.
This destination looked much closer to the “action” of LA on a map. Turns out the enormity of the city can’t register until you drive in it. Exhausted, however, I really wanted to move into this place at that moment. Save me the massive hassle and put this pain-in-the-ass in the past. Surely a guardian angel had been assigned to my case. I took a deep breath and climbed stairs bordered by lush vegetation under a clear blue sky to make nice with a retired couple.
A handsome older woman met me at the door, and so did an annoying, yapping miniature poodle. In the background, an elderly man struggled to get to his feet to greet me. His name was Norm. The woman’s name escapes me, but it was Russian-ish. She welcomed me warmly. Norm could’ve face-planted and not surprised me. The bedroom in question also welcomed me warmly. Too much so, actually.
“We have central A/C, but I don’t like to run it much,” the lady explained.
“What are you, nuts? I gotta go,” I shouted.
Just kidding, I didn’t say that. I wanted to make this work, despite the house’s thermostat reading seventy-six at the time My urge to unload the truck and move in briefly overcame my dire need for a comfortable temp. The three of us sat on the couch and chatted a bit as I turned on the charm despite my fatigue.
The dog that initially seemed to like me wouldn’t come near. The couple explained they were renting a room out for the first time. I learned their son, who arranged the meeting, didn’t realize the room was to remain furnished. In other words, this side trip immediately became a two-hour waste of time and gas.
I thanked the couple for their time and headed to the U-haul facility where my truck was due three days later. I rolled my car off the tow dolly and parked the truck out of the way, assuming leaving it there while trying to find a place was kosher (it wasn’t). By now 9:00 pm had come and gone. I sat in my car plotting my next move. I decided to blow money on a hotel because the idea of a hostel didn’t come to me yet. Despair began creeping in.
I looked at my phone to research my options. I checked a text message: “Garrett – I saw your Craigslist ad. I rent a bedroom in my Culver City house on a month-to-month basis. I’m a 67-year old female Ph.D., still working full time. My LinkedIn profile is jeanneblack.”
Perhaps my Guardian Angel had arrived this time. I called her. She rents rooms to “students and starving artists” for only $800 — sixty percent of the market rate — just to do good. I explained about how the Brentwood guy I intended to move in with did me dirty. She seemed duly appalled. We ended up talking for thirty minutes. Jeanne laughed often as she scrolled through my Facebook feed. I commented on how famously we would get along as roommates. Tomorrow we would meet for dinner and iron out the particulars. I’d found a place. In a great area, and only $150 more a month than my room cost in Richmond.
I scored a cheap hotel nearby, which meant $143 after taxes. I didn’t care, I basically had found money compared to what I’d budgeted for housing. The next day I scooted around the lush oasis of Culver City, chatting people up and basking in relief.
I even changed my city of residence on Facebook. That felt great. Then a text from Jeanne arrived around 5:00. “I decided I want to stick with my current model of renting the room to a student. Hope you find a place soon!”
“Well, that’s simply devastating,” I replied. I tried a couple more texts and calling her to plead my case, only to be ignored. If I cried about things like this, I would have then. I wanted my Mommy. Now the real adventure starts.
Here Come the Hostels!
I’m not particularly bright. I left both a small food cooler and my laptop charger at my buddy’s place in Denver. Ironically, I nearly left with my buddy’s charger plug but realized my error. I returned it to the power strip I took it from and ignored my laptop charger in the process, which was right next to it. Perhaps worse, I recently advised my nephew to stay at hostels to save money when traveling. Yet when I needed cheap shelter on the road, I forgot hostels existed until I spent another night in a hotel. Oops.
Eventually, I came to my senses and booked the cheapest hostel in town, down in San Pedro. Before my evening arrival there I operated in a slow panic. I set up shop at a stylish Culver City Starbucks and scoured ads for roommates.
I sat in another picture-perfect day and recall thinking: if you’re going to be fucked, you might as well be fucked in paradise!
Target claimed to sell a “universal” laptop charger. Five adapters were included, but none fit my Lenovo. Great. I checked out a room for rent in Brentwood and smelled a scam right when I arrived. Dumpy place. Hardly any furniture. A song and dance reply when I asked the guy to show his license and his name on a lease. No way.
The “good” news was Uhaul includes a free one- month storage space with a cross country truck rental. I moved my stuff out of the truck myself, with the U-haul guy taking a twenty under the table to help with the big stuff. This took about an hour, so it could’ve been worse. After that, I dipped down to San Pedro and the HI Los Angeles South Bay Hostel. Traffic still sucked at dusk on a Sunday evening.
No stranger to bunk beds and dorms, I settled in comfortably enough. Especially for under $80 for a two-night stay. I explored the foggy area on my scooter, which was a blast. Tons of smooth, lightly-traveled roads took my mind off of my predicament. A commanding overlook of the neighboring Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach lies steps up the road. Combined, they comprise the largest port facility in the world.
I made friends with several fellow hostel dwellers, one of whom found himself in a situation similar to mine.
We compared room-finding notes and lamented the dirtballs that offer free lodging to young women. We didn’t share a drink because it’s prohibited at this hostel, but we enjoyed the evening just the same.
Somehow I slept great and awoke to find truly stunning views of the Pacific, even from the kitchen sink window. After digging through roommate ads yet again I took off on a sensational scooter ride along a coastal highway. Blah, blah, blah. Suffice it to say, this hostel location kicks ass. And since Sunday had arrived, the place cleared out. I upgraded to a private room with a view for a mere $25 extra.
This proved an even better idea than I expected. Living in a scrambled state for eight days had affected me psychologically more than I realized. Dealing with a dorm situation — the fear of theft, staying tidy, and not bothering others — in my state of upheaval taxed me. Blessed introvert recharging time came thanks to my private room.
After too short of a stay, the next day I took off for a West Hollywood hostel that offered only bunk bed dorm sleeping. I had to meet my roommate to be Matt up there. And party my ass off, apparently.
The Banana Bungalow Hostel sounded vaguely gay, especially given its location in a notably gay neighborhood. As far as I knew the place could be a modern-day YMCA. These fears quickly vanished upon my arrival, and after staying there eight nights (or whatever it’s been) I can report more females seem to stay there than males. The place was delightful. Best feature: little lavatories along the hallways in which to blast your morning dump instead of ruining the bathroom/shower for the bunkmates.
West Hollywood Banana Bungalow proved to be my favorite hostel. Not only did they allow alcohol, but they also served it during certain hours, along with tacos or whatever. I met tons of people in its spacious confines, from all over the world. It’s definitely a party place. The indoor common area is so large that Scooter shot through it one evening to mess with people’s heads.
The above video is of Scooter’s return trip from the kitchen. A collision with the pool table was narrowly avoided after the girl appeared in the doorway. The videographer and subsequent Instagram poster was Emma, a blast of a girl from Finland.
Sadly I failed to get a photo with her. In fact, I focused so much on Scooter that I missed out on tons of human pics. Such are the perils of myopia.
A wonderful German girl named Verena shared a room with me, along with four others. She and I became fast friends and enjoyed a big day out to the Farmer’s Market, The Grove, and a trip up through the hills — including Mulholland Drive — to maximize Hollywood sign photos. We ended up checking out the sweeping L.A. views from Runyon Canyon park, too.
“I want to see more palm trees,” Verena declared as night settled on Sunset Boulevard.
I knew a good spot for this, in a Beverly Hills exclave just past The Troubadour. Thank god Verena piped up about wishing to see the trees because a dusk sky provided a perfect backdrop for what at the time was the quintessential LA pic of @scooter_mcfarland.
Verena and I lounged about the room the following afternoon, chatting with a delightful chap from London. Three people entered to claim beds. A nice, chill dude from New Jersey led the way, followed by two young blondes from Denmark, one of whom reminded me of the tennis player Anna Kournikova. But I’m digressing from the big picture of my moving story.
Back to the Point
(8/22/19. Writing from a computer in a Hollywood library because I still lack a charger for my laptop. Notably, this place lacks the comfortable seating found at the Rancho Palos Verdes Library. No homeless people hang out there.)
I am currently seventeen days into my time in LA, and still lacking a place to live. This is no tragedy, however. The search can be amusing. A helpful and hopeful lady named Saundria answered one of my Craigslist ads:
“Hi my name is Saundria Davis and I saw your ass and I was looking for a roommate to share a 2 Bedroom Pl. over on Arlington 21st St. if you was interested and you are not afraid to share with a female strictly for tonic I’m a chemist and an inventor hairstylist pantry also travel for business and the hair or beauty industryVery private clean honest loyal I’m not sure if he would like to live over in about W. 21st St. in Arlington everything will be included in $1000 will be all you need to pay thank youOn time on the first of every month”
In addition to interesting potential roommates, staying in hostels agrees with me. I’ve alternated between two so far and will introduce a third into the mix tomorrow night, in Hermosa Beach. Like, one block from the beach. The funniest (saddest) part of this tour is living in a hostel is actually cheaper than living in a real place in this town, at least in the area I need to be in.
The good news is an excellent stop-gap exists for my living situation. A friend I met via his podcast (The Last Men on Earth) and social media has a room available nine days from now. The downside is his condo is for sale, and I’ll be living there only until it sells. This will be worth it to me because a) he has a key to vast networking opportunities in the entertainment industry, and b) I don’t have much stuff to move. Sure I’ll need to move a third time in short order, but that’s a problem for some other month.
I have yet to dive into finding a job. My living situation is too scrambled to add a major task like that into the mix. This line of bullshit aside, I’m having too much goddamn fun as a tourist in the meantime. Working my ass off and saving money the past two years provides privileges. Besides, I have an important occupation that real work would derail — managing @scooter_mcfarland and his Instagram account.
My current “job” is to explore the city and find excellent places to take photos of Scooter. He’s gone everywhere notable with me, except for the Getty Museum. Even so, Scooter saved me $20 in parking there. I parked in a residential neighborhood nearby and scooted to the site. Alas, the authorities wouldn’t allow both of us up the hill to enjoy approximately five thousand epic photo ops. I can’t imagine a museum in a more striking setting.
This speed bump caught me off-guard. Next time Scooter is prohibited I have a plan, using my stellar talent for deadpan. “I’m sorry, but this is my support scooter. I am prone to anxiety attacks and even seizures if separated from my scooter for too long. Do you wish to be responsible for this?”
California is PC enough for this to fly. Speaking of that, a (devastatingly attractive) lady at an eatery took a pic of my old high school friend and me the other day. After seeing the result I asked her, “Do I look gay in this pic?”
“No, you look great. And implying that looking gay is a bad thing is not cool.”
Sunday, August 25.
I needed to swing by my uncle’s place in Palos Verdes to pick up important mail, so I bopped to a different hostel for the weekend. In doing so I left behind the party and relative comfort of West Hollywood for the beach town of Hermosa. Travel season is winding down, so the Surf City Hostel became an option that wasn’t available over the past three weeks. The place is located smack dab in the middle of the Hermosa Beach’s party central, not even a block from the pier.
$37.00 a night. Needless to say, Scooter was psyched. He also saved the day, again.
The hostel listed parking as a feature, but this is on-street, half a mile away. At least it’s free. A sizable hill stands between the hostel and that area, and when living the hostel life, trips to the car are frequent. No problem. I unloaded my shit at the hostel, drove to park, and easily scooted back and forth as necessary thanks to my new best pal.
The bike paths along the beach go for miles, including up to Manhattan Beach, where many beachfront homes are the size of boutique hotels.
This proved to be the best scootering yet, and that’s saying something. (Done near sunset, of course, because the relentless sun during the day is about to kill me.)
Scootering along Hermosa and Manhattan is perfect. As I slowly floated right beside the beach along wide bike paths that are exquisitely smooth and uncrowded I frequently wondered why I ever lived anywhere else. The beauty of the Pacific on one side, and remarkable architecture and interior decorating on the other. Riding at dusk allows for clear views straight into the bottom floor of many beachfront palaces. Homeowners seem proud to leave windows uncovered and rooms illuminated. Some even keep music on, seemingly for no one but passersby.
Indeed, the majority of the properties appeared occupant-free. The owners apparently so rich they don’t bother to rent them out on Airbnb. One could easily pop onto a luxury patio and pretend to live there, lounging on furniture that may cost more than a decent car. But I would never do such a thing.
Some people were “home,” however, and I stopped to chat with several groups of them. “Hey, do you need a new friend?” always seemed to get a laugh. (Full disclosure: I stole that line from my Dad). Most people proved friendly, and many seemed to enjoy my story. Alas, none of them offered a spare room.
The first “disaster” of the trip — besides the living situation falling through, of course — came in Manhattan Beach. While taking pics of Scooter, I removed his tote bag, placed it down, and zipped off without it. I realized this quickly and retraced my scoots. Gone. In one of the most affluent zip codes in the country, someone decided to pick up a random tote bag and see what booty they scored. This makes sense in Venice Beach, home of many homeless and shady characters, but not this place.
Bye-bye prescription sunglasses and an insulated ThermoFlask. The good news is that I had just replaced a different ThermoFlask that I left sitting in Venice a couple weeks back. Costco forced me to buy a two-pack. I balked at first, but the price kicked ass and I thought the second one will come in handy because I’ll lose the first one soon enough. This is called visualization, of course. That shit can work both ways.
Besides the unreal location, the hostel sucked. No A/C despite a poorly-ventilated building that heats up significantly over the course of the day. No ice available to help cool off. The rooms are cramped, as is the kitchen and the lounge area. In other words, the exact opposite of both the West Hollywood and the San Pedro hostels. I regretted reserving three nights, and not reading the reviews more thoroughly before I booked. My trusty portable cooling fan, Dyson, came up huge here.
On the plus side, I’ve danced my ass off two nights in a row. The first night an Italian dude from the hostel called Manuel and I hit a great bar, Level 12, and found a wonderful makeshift dance floor. I met a new friend named Erica, and a group of gay guys that exuded the best vibe ever.
The following night was Waterman’s, a bar/eatery on the ground floor of the hostel building. This was even better because the DJ ripped and the beautiful people (that know how to party despite this) outdid even Level 12. I didn’t think this was possible.
Seems a volleyball camp or tournament is in town, so an inordinate number of tall people filled the bar. I’ve never seen the likes of it. Multiple guys topped my 6’6″, and several highly attractive ladies nearly reached my height. Like I’d entered a dream, partially thanks to my roommate from Vienna who got me baked out by the pier. This dream also featured a sick hip-hop based soundtrack. I enjoyed an amazing time, and among the most attractive crowd I can remember being part of. In fact, I’ve been in SoCal long enough now that stunningly gorgeous women nearby has almost become part of the scenery.
Currently, I sit in a Courtyard by Marriott lobby because the libraries around here are closed on Sunday. And the charger for my laptop is still en route from Denver, due to arrive Tuesday. Being a vagabond blogger is not as lovely as it sounds, believe me. A vagabond in general? Fun as fuck!
Tomorrow I will check out of the heat trap full of uncomfortable lounge area seating lounge — Surf City Hostel — and move on. I’ll say hello to my friends in San Pedro for one more night tomorrow, dip over to my uncle’s place to grab my charger, and head down to San Diego for five nights at a hostel that boasts rave reviews. I think the full bill is around $140. I’ve never done San Diego properly, so I can’t wait!
Thursday, August 29
Ended up in San Diego around nine o’clock in the evening on Tuesday, and promptly scooted around an interesting living/retail complex called Liberty Station. I purchased groceries and assessed the lay of the land, promising to visit again before I leave. Five minutes later I pulled up to the best hostel I’ve ever seen — and I’ve seen three other ones.
HI Point Loma hostel has corrected every flaw a lesser hostel might have. The building seems brand new and features ample storage space and elbow room everywhere. The furniture is excellent, and the living room enormous. Not that anyone spends time there, because the outdoor areas are wonderfully appointed and the weather outside is always perfect. The juxtaposition of this place with the dump in Hermosa is jarring.
Two miles up the road — a short, fun scooter trip — lies Ocean Beach. This heavily-hippie village is a delight. New Orleans came to mind, given how many open-air places hosted live music in the middle of the day in the middle of the week.
Bands played in plazas, and part of the main drag of Newport Ave. featured an arts/food festival. On a Wednesday. I suspect the town is celebrating the end of tourist overload season. At least that’s the vibe I felt. The mostly young-ish population seemed to smile all the time.
Scooter relished multiple top-notch photo ops. We tired of the main park scene, so we whipped up a hill to see what appeared to be different ocean scenery. A cliff-top view greeted us, albeit looking through a chain-link fence. I assume to thwart would-be jumpers. From this spot, however, I could see the real action — along a beach that featured large rocks and shoals from which to view the sunset. What would’ve been a ten-minute walk got covered in one.
I folded Scooter and descended a bunch of stairs to set up photo shoots and meet cool, chill people. A more delightful late afternoon could hardly exist. The pics we produced included probably the single best one (of about 150 so far) of the trip.
Then again, I say this pretty much every day. Finding epic backgrounds here in SoCal must be the easiest task in the world.
September 1, 2019
My last three days in SD were even more action-packed than the first one. I enjoyed the zoo past dark with a new good friend I met at the hostel. I scooted at high speeds in a mostly abandoned Balboa Park, after which I scooted five miles back to the hostel. The route led right under the airliner landing path, followed by a bayside park on perfectly-smooth, abandoned walking paths.
The following day I hit Balboa Park solo, first for the SD Museum of Art (3.5/5) and all sorts of scooting around checking out sights from the previous night in daylight. From there I bolted over to Coronado, home to the legendary Hotel del Coronado.
Marilyn Monroe starred in “Some Like it Hot” here. Babe Ruth logged time at this place. It reeked of history and money.
I scooted around but mostly spent time chilling in the comfort of the resort, which costs roughly $600 a night. I even ran into one of my favorite follows on Instagram. Again.
The first time I saw @khakiwennstrom was last Fall as I was leaving a Phish concert in Las Vegas. “Hey, you’re Wennstrom!” was all I managed initially. Like I’d encountered a celebrity or something. I told her as much, too, as I gushed about how much I enjoyed following her. She radiated graciousness and seemed like a delight.
As I sat on a beachfront bench enjoying a cocktail I noticed her again, confirmed by seeing her oft-Instagrammed kid next to her. “Khaki!”
She seemed happy to see me and remembered me from our bizarre Las Vegas encounter. I could barely stop laughing at the coincidence. Then again, Khaki lives in Rancho Santa Fe, which isn’t far from San Diego. She’s also independently wealthy, so her presence at Hotel del Coronado seemed natural. Before she forged on with her evening she promised to follow @scooter_mcfarland on Instagram. That’s all I really cared about. [ed note: she never did.]
* PHOTO DELUGE ALERT *
Text formatting in this program gets tricky when pics are involved. Therefore, before the tale continues I shall drop a few favorites here. . .
The audio on my vids have been a problem, but you get the idea of a Wednesday afternoon party in Ocean Beach.
* END PHOTO DELUGE *
My third day in San Diego was spent doggedly finding photo ops for @scooter_mcfarland. This is redundant, of course, because that’s all I ever really do. Torrey Pines, the legendary golf venue came first and was the scene of my first scooter accident.
I moved Scooter into place in front of a sign, rolling him along a curb at 1 mph. The front-wheel hit a small, deep pothole that sent the back bucking up and scraping the back of my thigh. Amazing this happened while going the slowest Scooter could possibly move. No real harm was done though.
Wandering into the clubhouse to witness their shrine to great golf tournaments past never occurred to me. A pang of regret for not playing a round of golf while there also didn’t descend. Strange because both would’ve been inevitable only five years ago. Perhaps too many other activities needed cramming into this day. Next stop: hang gliders.
Every televised golf tournament from Torrey Pines provides lots of hang gliding pictures. Scooter and I set up shop right where they take off and land. A live band of old guys played standard old bar songs, and people chilled out at picnic tables on a deck watching the action. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but Scooter was not happy. Not only could he not soar with the eagles, but he couldn’t even scoot around to show off. Worse, I had to carry him around because the paths and parking lot surfaces of gravel and soft sand thwarted his movement. How humiliating.
Soon enough, finding a good pic of the Torrey Pines Golf Club became a goal. And a workout. Scooter weighs about thirty-two pounds, and I lugged the son-of-a-bitch along dusty trails and up and down clifftops. Good things he folds up and offers a convenient handle. Most easy photo opportunities were prevented by foot-high brush that burns in two seconds and creates miles-wide infernos that make the news. (Scooter needs a portable base to pose on for times like these.)
Far beyond the “CAUTION: STEEP, UNSTABLE GROUND. NO BEACH ACCESS” signs we ventured in search of the perfect pic. All the way out to where the homeless have pitched tents and leave soiled toilet paper and turds. Finding a flat posing area proved impossible. Scooter needed to stand straight and I needed space to get the pic. What I’m trying to say is we risked our lives in pursuit of art.
* * * * * * * * * *
Our next sojourn involved braving the crowds in La Jolla, the tony seaside enclave. Labor Day weekend was in full swing, and any charm this place may have was lost on me. It’s a taste of L.A. in San Diego, basically. The homes reminded me of Manhattan Beach, only smaller. Rough roads devoid of bike paths left Scooter muttering many curse words.
“I thought this place was affluent?” he commented at one point. “How about spending some goddamn money on paving roads?”
The locals must’ve been horrified by their beach and parks overrun by commoners from inland, possibly there to escape the heat more than celebrate a holiday weekend. The vibe was so harried that Scooter and I didn’t even bother to investigate the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club (and pitch & putt golf course), even after we had penetrated its defenses. The afternoon was growing short, and equally famous yet more fun Pacific Beach beckoned from a mere three miles south.
To avoid seaside dining prices, I stopped at a Wienerschnitzel on the way in. I parked at a Trader Joe’s and scooted the remaining mile or so to the wild and crazy seaside walkway. Regret for not spending a few more bucks to eat at one of the lively beachfront joints hit quickly. Every middle-class bar and eatery jumped at full-tilt. Music, whoops, and hollers filled the air as people partied their asses off. Gypsy vendors offered their wares from green spaces along heavily-trafficked paths. One guy offered “FREE TEA & LOVE” under his canopy. He sat Indian-style, face-to-face with a male customer, in an apparent trance.
Ever the smart ass, Scooter pointed out the only love he requires comes from a 110-volt electrical outlet.
Scooter and I waded our way through the colorful crowds, occasionally able to open the throttle and smoke the pathetic rental scooters, under the shackles of governors. Eventually, Pacific Beach became Mission Bay. We veered East here, drawn towards a roller coaster and park. As if we needed better people watching.
This scene kept Scooter’s attention for about three seconds. The next thing I knew we were whipping along a lightly-trafficked bike path that encircled a giant pond. Seemingly hundreds of picnics were underway. So many that I mistook it for an arts festival or something. Turns out Mission Bay is a Hispanic community, hence the shitload of picnics and music featuring lots of horns filling the air. An inlet full of high-powered personal watercraft made even Scooter feel inadequate. He needed back among pedestrians and bicycles. Sometimes his soft ego gets on my nerves.
Dusk began descending, so I headed back to the hostel. I needed a shower and to get a load of laundry done before heading back out to see Old Town. I also looked forward to hanging out with Heidi, a fun young lady from Phoenix I met at the hostel earlier that day.
I scored a shower room at a high traffic time by sheer luck, a guy emerging just as I approached. Much to the chagrin of a mother-daughter pair from France, who had emerged from their room just as I appeared. Clearly, they’d been waiting. But they stood ten steps away, while I was right at the door. My instinct was to yield to them, but logic took over. I could knock a shower out in six minutes, while they might take thirty.
“Sorry! I’ll only be five minutes,” I promised.
I rushed through the process, happy to have shaved a couple of days earlier so I didn’t need time for that. Eight minutes later I dashed out the door, nearly knocking the women from Francais over. No way they were getting owned by some Johnny Come Lately again. I apologized again for beating them to the punch and headed up to get dressed.
Problem: my room key, underwear, and shorts remained in the shower room. I borrowed a keycard from a roommate, who actually balked before giving hers to me. You sleep across from me. We’ve exchanged pleasantries. Just give me the goddamned keycard, I’m coming right back!
After popping the door and returning the key to the redneck girl from Nebraska, I headed to the room to put on clothes. The exact moment I went to step into my underwear the door opened. What are the odds?! “Whoa! Whoa! Give me a second please!”
I became presentable and gave whoever stood outside the door the green light. The mother of the girl who lent me her keycard entered, unamused. “You’re lucky you’re not my daughter,” she said, menacingly.
“Hmm, what do you mean?
“She’d be in trouble right now.”
I assumed she was kidding. “Yeah, sorry about that. There was a shower room issue. Kind of a long story, but I still have clothes in there.”
Nebraska Redneck Mother said nothing. I zipped downstairs to tend to my laundry and explain college football to a woman from England. The feature game of the day, shown on a 55″ screen in the lounge, turned out to be a great one. (As an aside, that these games ending at 9:00 pm instead of midnight is a major benefit to West Coast living.)
As I processed my laundry, the dude working the front desk approached. “Hey, are you in room J?”
“Um, yeah.” Then I interrupted him. “Wait, did that crazy bitch actually complain about that?”
Through laughter, dude replied: “Yes. I just need to tell you to try to be fully-clothed when staying in a mixed dorm.
Sadly, the kind of person it takes to actually complain about an innocent, humorous, incident is who I pegged the lady as when we met. I asked about their current adventure, as nice people do. I made a note to not chat her and her two daughters up again because they proved entirely uninteresting. The type that would get petty, actually. Lo and behold.
While I watched football and ignored Heidi, the girl from Phoenix, she slipped away into her own adventure for the evening. She replied to texts but left Old Town before I even departed for it. Oh well, catch her down the road. Or not. Scooter and I covered the two or so miles there in short order. He’d only recharged for two hours after busting his ass all day but seemed prime for the trip.
Old Town kicked ass. It reminded me of faux Old West town settings found at amusement parks or Gatlinburg, TN, except entirely authentic. The place has existed for hundreds of years. I grabbed a bite at Fiesta de Reyes, a giant restaurant/nightclub where gringos were rare. A happy, colorful crowd danced to a lively band as I devoured a pair of tacos.
After eating, Scooter and I whipped along mostly deserted, smooth concrete certainly full of shoppers during the day. We intended to return the next day for myriad photo ops at countless funky little shops. Alas, this will wait for next time. And given how great San Diego is, many next times are in store.
On the way back to the hostel, Scooter threw in the towel. He’s left it all on the field, as they say. I’m surprised I didn’t feel the same way. I’m fifty-four years old, zipping around doing shit all day, every day, and partying most nights. I guess that’s why I sleep so well. Anyway, I stopped at a convenience store and gave an Uber driver $5 cash to take us the last mile to the hostel. A full day if ever one existed.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
I peeled myself away from San Diego and the wonderful HI Point Lamos hostel after five nights. The place really began to feel like home. Had I not scheduled lunch with the mother of an old friend in Newport Beach I’d probably still be there.
The lunch plan got me out of the hostel at a reasonable morning hour. I’d slept great once again. I stopped by a self car wash before leaving town, because the West leaves a car a special kind of dirty. Palm trees drop shit, and dust accumulates, but rain never rinses it off. In turn, cars don’t end up dirty from rain mess and require a soapy pad to wipe it off. A pressure washer in a car wash works just fine. Takes five minutes, plus microfiber towel drying time.
An old friend of mine is from Newport Beach — Balboa Island, to be specific — and his mom, Penny, still lives there. I met her at a wedding twenty years ago and found her to be a hoot. I descended on her place just before noon, a few minutes after a Ferrari shared the first freeway exit I used in Orange County.
Penny and her longtime beau Dennis met me at her charming, compact home after I pulled off the tightest parallel parking job of all time. (Incidentally, my World’s Best Driver title includes parking skills.) We enjoyed a who are you again and what are you up to forty-minute conversation before embarking on a lovely walk to a ferry, followed by lunch on charming Balboa Penninsula.
I found this trip delightful, despite the huge crowds. Good thing I let Scooter sit this one out, because no open space was available. He probably would’ve begged out anyway, citing how hard I rode him the previous day and night. I resolved to return with Scooter in the future for pics and high quality scooting.
Penny, between well-placed digs on Trump, continually apologized for the crowds and conveyed good-natured disgust with them. She encouraged me to return on a random Tuesday. We marveled at how some people spend the bulk of their day. In this case, waiting in an hour-long line to get a car on the ferry to an island where you’ll drive around for thirty minutes to find a $20 parking place seemed like a good idea to some. That’s the kind of shit being married with kids and a real job gets you.
After bidding farewell to Penny and Dennis I enjoyed the flip side of everyone being at the shore: the 405 freeway was wide open for twenty-five miles back to L.A. I stopped at a Costco to pick up prescription sunglasses, replacing those that I lost. The turnaround time on the order was four days. I filled up the car with gas at $3.09 a gallon. This sounds like a lot, but prices can easily exceed that by well over a dollar in this town. This is the best place to feel great about gas savings. A place less than a mile from that Costco was $3.49.
Another fine feature of California is the booze prices. Costco sells it, as do grocery stores. Costco’s high-quality Grey Goose copy is $13 for a handle. A 1.75 Crown Royal bottle goes for $32, which is half the price charged in Virginia. On the flip side, rents are so high here that it’s best to stay drunk all the time to keep you pleasant.
My latest adventure ended at my new (temporary) residence, half a block from Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. After some twenty-six days, I’ll have a place to hang my hat. I moved in all the shit from my car, lightening its curb weight by seemingly two hundred pounds. My stuff will come out of storage tomorrow.
The place is fantastic and reasonably priced at only $1,200 a month. The building, The Hollywood Riviera, is a West Hollywood historic location — an architectural gem from Edward Fickett.
The pool courtyard looks like a movie set. Sadly, the pool is under extreme renovations, but at least this may scare off potential buyers for a while so I can stay here longer.
Finding a job will soon move to the front burner, but not this week. Summer is really cooking here, and I’m no longer enjoying sea breezes in hostels near the coast. I don’t really want to road trip to Flagstaff and the high desert for relief, but the decision is out of my hands. Ha. I’ve booked a hostel bed for four nights, two days from now. I’ll check out Sedona and the Grand Canyon’s South Rim while I’m there, neither of which I’ve done before. My first round of golf in Arizona will be played, and my first in months.
Good thing I skipped a road trip to Boston in July, for one thing, so I can afford to pull such trips off now. Four nights at the hostel comes to $118, too. My new roommate Matt appears to be on board to join me, so costs will be cut even further. Good times.
September 6, 2019
I’m writing from the small front porch at the Grand Canyon International Hostel.
Lively nightlife scene passersby come within fifteen feet of my reasonably comfortable chair. The crowd on this Friday evening greatly exceeds that of weeknights. I’m enjoying the unique backdrop for a writing session. A shower popped up and produced a full rainbow above the shops across the street to boot.
My new roommate Matt skipped the trip, citing audition (that’s what people in LA call “work”) conflicts. No great loss though, because god knows I’m cool rolling solo. I took to the road from West Hollywood around 10:30 two days ago. You know, at a light traffic hour . . . that wasn’t. The enormity of LA slapped me in the face again. At least the traffic jams were headed the other direction this time.
Seemingly an hour passed before I emerged from LA’s dense sprawl. I caught my first glimpses of Glendale and Pasadena, both of which are full cities themselves. Once I finally turned onto I-40 from I-15, heading into the desert, a mileage sign read: “Wilmington, NC – 2,543.”
In the thick of the Mojave Desert, the temp soared to 119 degrees. Under an hour later the temperature read 69. A little altitude and cloud cover go a long way between LA and Arizona’s high desert.
September 10, 2019
A funny thing happened on the way to a productive writing session. A pretty woman named Epp, from Estonia emerged in the hostel doorway right next to me. Four days later I’m getting around to writing again. That’s how it goes sometimes traveling without much of a plan. More about Epp and our journeys later. Back to the trip from LA to Flagstaff.
Perhaps even crazier than a fifty-degree temperature decrease in under an hour is a two-dollar per gallon drop in the price of gasoline. Approaching the CA /AZ border I decided to stop and feel one hundred and nineteen degrees on my skin. Before doing so I Googled gas prices (what a world!) and spotted a desert mirage: gas for $2.76 if the same area of $4.76 a gallon or higher. I later realized why: a state border split the town of Needles, CA. I stopped to seek out the cheap gas and bop around a dusty desert town.
Before I reached the Arizona price, I passed several other gas stations all of which had customers pumping gas. I noticed a sign on the freeway for a Pilot station selling gas for $2.59, nine miles up the road. I promptly left Needles in the dust. Literally.
You know the temperature is hot as fuck when locals in a place where hot as fuck is normal can be overheard discussing the heat. Such was the case with people inside the Pilot store. I found the heat to be hilarious. Standing in it felt like an oven door had just opened. But it’s a dry heat.
Plus side: the squeegee for cleaning my car windows was highly-pliable. Downside: the first strip of cleaning liquid I rubbed on had half-dried when I moved to squeegee it off fifteen seconds later. Just what I needed: an imperative to move faster in that heat. But I managed. I reached Flagstaff nearly eight hours after leaving LA, stopping at a Dollar Store in the middle of nowhere along the way.
A downside of hostel living is people that snore. Luckily, out of the dozens of “roommates” on my tour only one kept me from sleeping well. Until Flagstaff. This offender was only part of the problem though. The “historic” (old) hostel room offered few electrical outlet options, which meant my trusty Dyson fan/noisemaker couldn’t help much. (Note to future hostel travelers: always bring a six-foot extension cord with a triple plug-in end.)
Historical mattresses placed on wooden platforms created a second hurdle to good sleep. Beds are supposed to rejuvenate the body, not make them throb. A Japanese guy occupying the bottom of the room’s other bunk bed made matters worse.
The hostel provided a box fan, which sane people placed in the window for ventilation and white noise. I turned it on. After I got “comfortable” in the top bunk, Japanese Guy decided to turn it off.
“Hey, what the hell?” I exclaimed.
He pretended he couldn’t speak English. My bunkie didn’t arrive until two hours later to cast the third and deciding fan vote. I didn’t come on vacation for this kind of stress. I let the irrational shit have his way and plugged in Dyson, which blew me from across the room instead.
My bunkmate returned and also begged out of a confrontation with the Japanese Guy who prefers stuffy rooms. I believe the lesson is acting like you can’t speak English when you want to get your way — at least when polite Americans are involved.
I started the next day casually scooting around town for photo ops. The town is picturesque and quaint, but the scootering sucks. Too many bumps and cracks left behind by cold Flagstaff winters, I’m guessing. The bike paths sucked too. I did see this laundry place, though. Its name made me laugh.
Mid-afternoon I departed for Winslow, Arizona — such a fine sight to see — about an hour’s drive away. I needed to pay homage to “Take it Easy,” the quintessential American rock song recorded by Eagles. I also did it for Scooter’s fledgling career as an Instagram influencer — for the photo opportunity. Good thing I didn’t do it for the scooting, because rough roads in Winslow made it suck just like Flagstaff.
On the drive there the terrain changed from green trees to wide-open desert in seemingly three minutes. I passed the observation point for a giant meteor crater along the way, which was in the plan to check out on the way back.
Scooter and I headed straight to the corner, where a real flatbed Ford truck was parked. No girl could be seen inside it, although a hot blond graced a huge mural of it on a nearby wall. A couple life-sized brass statues stood on the sidewalk for photo-taking. Most of the dozen or so people on hand opted for the cheesy one that included a guitar.
Scooter and I opted for the more low-key, barely less cheesy one of “Glenn Frey” wearing a shirt with “song power” written across the front. Eagles music served as a soundtrack for all of this, from outdoor speakers at a restaurant across the street. One can assume they play Eagles music constantly. I love the band, but turnover at that place must be high simply from employee suicides. The same songs all day, every day.
I needed a haircut. I hit up a local place since I’m low-maintenance about the mane. The guy that cut my hair stayed amused as I ran my mouth about Scooter and my adventure. “You’re the best customer I’ve had all day,” he said. This after he explained that his day had been oddly slow for a Friday — I was only his second customer, at about 3:00 pm.
Hungry, I took the local advice of a lady cutting hair at the chair next to mine. She suggested tacos at a place down the way, which fit me because I’d been craving them for a good while. What a letdown. Overpriced, too. I should’ve just grabbed some food on the fly somewhere else. Anywhere else.
Before I left town I stopped at a pawn shop to buy an eighteen-inch wrench, required to change Scooter’s tires. The place appeared to have been one hundred years old. It came complete with two lazy dawgs lying on the floor and a cat perched and napping on a pillow placed on a display case pedestal. All three pets came to life upon being stroked. I loved them.
I chatted with one of the old coots working there. He encouraged me to check out the La Posada Hotel and Gardens, an old railway depot hotel that had been restored, down by the end of town. “People come from all over the world to see that place,” the guy professed.
“That’ll have to wait until next time,” I replied. “I’m heading to see the meteor crater before I head back to Flagstaff.”
The crater site sits six miles from I-40. Signs hyping the site peppered the roadside on the way in, like a mini Ruby Falls or something. None of them mentioned the 5:00 pm closing time. I drove to the hilltop, tantalizingly close to the rim of the crater, only to be told to turn around. Lovely. The clock read 5:11. Going where the wind blows you usually works while traveling, but not this time. Investigating this attraction was important because a giant hole in the earth has a closing time. What the actual fuck.
Real Tourism . . . and Near Disaster
“What a fine day to go to the Grand Canyon.”
So I said when I awoke in my hostel bedroom, to no one in particular. The weather forecast called for temperatures in the eighties and a ten percent chance of rain. My ninety-minute drive north to visitor entrance involved light traffic and a fantastic American West vibe. Perfectly-smooth roads took me past scenery full of mountains, pine trees, wildflowers, and long-distance views. I cranked up “Eagles – Their Greatest Hits,” which proved to be a superb soundtrack. Perfect songs for a perfect ride.
My money-saving strategy was to park outside the entrance gate and go the rest of the way with Scooter. I parked at a little rest stop and zipped up to the gate so fast the attendants shouted: “HEY, STOP!” They correctly thought my entitled scooter mentality intended to blow right by.
Categorizing Scooter for entrance fee purposes seemed to be a gray area. “Is that thing electric?” asked an affable female attendant.
“Yes, so he’s basically a bicycle. No emissions.”
“Okay. I could charge it as a motorcycle, which is thirty dollars,” she said. “But I’ll go ahead and make it twenty.”
“Great. But for future reference, please use the proper pronoun when referring to Scooter. It’s ‘him,’ not ‘it.'”
She gave me a weird look.
“I mean, he’s right here!” I explained.
Just kidding. Contrary to popular opinion I haven’t lost my mind. I just paid the twenty dollars and thanked her, happy that Scooter saved me fifteen bucks compared to the car fee.
I planned to ride Scooter to the rim and back, and possibly up and down paths. This looked good on paper. The ride in was only four scenic miles. Except for hills. Scooter blew nearly three bars on his power indicator gauge just getting us there. (His range has dropped noticeably since I hacked his governor away.)
Once near the rim, I pushed Scooter. Not to save juice, but to follow the rules and not terrorize the light number of pedestrians on hand. No bicycle, skateboard, or scooter riding permitted on the paved walking paths.
Minutes later Scooter zipped me away from other people on nearly empty paths. I soon found myself alone, with an incredible view. Absorbing it made me laugh at the absurdity of the greatness. Like a Phish concert, or watching Roger Federer playing tennis. Oddly, taking pics seemed almost pointless. There’s no way to accurately depict the magnificence.
Many words have been written and spoken about the Grand Canyon. My favorite description came from my pal Brad: Seeing it is all-consuming. When you look at it no thoughts of anything else occupy your mind. Not the past or the future. The Canyon leaves you no choice but to be in the moment. One could sit there for six hours and still not process all of the details and subtleties. So that’s what I did. Or at least intended to do.
Then raindrops. I didn’t take them seriously at first. One dark cloud hovered, surrounded by bright sky. In the American South, a shower like this would be gone in ten minutes, tops. Instead, the rain came harder and stuck around. I moved Scooter under a solid tree and cursed myself for failing to bring my rain hoodie. Brilliant.
[ed note: the following text was written in a Facebook update several days ago.]
Not following rules can lead to consequences. Failure to bring a jacket to a place where the weather is unfamiliar to you may cause problems. Assuming weather activity will resemble that of a region two thousand miles away, where you’ve lived for thirty-five years, is stupid. Finally, scootering almost exclusively on seaside terrain can lend one a false sense of confidence. Such a convergence of factors.
When I departed from Flagstaff for the Grand Canyon’s South Rim the sun shone brightly, and the chance of rain stood at ten percent. So no need to bring a rain hoodie that weighs about ten ounces. Who needs that kind of burden?
After a blissful hour of checking out the Canyon — a truly breathtaking spectacle — a light rain began to fall. Bright skies surrounded the cloud producing the precipitation, so it seemed innocuous. In the American South, the rain would’ve cleared out in about ten minutes. A Grand Canyon cloud, however, sticks around as long as it feels like it. As if it didn’t care that I’d almost achieved total enlightenment while gazing at the natural wonder.
I set up Scooter under a tree with little worry. Then came a temperature drop and strong wind. My ears began to burn from the cold. I found a spot to break the wind while I waited and cursed my rain hoodie error. Had I brought it the silly rain might’ve enhanced the day instead of disrupted it.
The rain started falling harder about thirty minutes into this. My patience wore thin. Shelter at the visitor center stood a short Scooter ride away, on a path for walking only. But better scootering cannot exist anywhere in the world. The smooth path extended forever, leading to changing, amazing views.
Anyway, I decided to scoot to the shelter. As I whipped by a young couple walking back, I expressed my frustration. “Whatever happened to rain showers blowing over?” They laughed. “I know, right?”
I scooted fast, in slight disgust. I failed to gauge the walking path’s downhill slope grade properly. Scooter picks up speed quickly on descending slopes. Next thing I knew I careened out of the apex of a turn towards a small enclave of benches. At least I had the wits to bail off Scooter and onto the asphalt before I hit the benches or big rocks. Scooter fell flat and slid under a bench, suffering only scrapes.
None of my bones broke, which is all that really matters. My left side sustained scrapes, and my elbow and right thumb ended up bruised. The heels of both hands were the worst of the casualties. The rough asphalt shredded them but good. Bye-bye Sunday golf plans.
The young chap I’d just passed came running to my aid. I popped right up and assured him my injuries were superficial. I scooted the remaining distance to civilization, bleeding all over the white shopping bag attached to Scooter’s hook. People that noticed me probably wondered if a murderer on-the-loose story in the area had eluded them. I hit a restroom to wash, after which the blood really flowed due to the water.
My hatred for hand blowers reached a new level. No paper towels on hand. Toilet paper would stick and exacerbate the problem. Fuck air hand dryers, for more than just the auditory rape.
I dipped into a coffee shop for napkins, but both dispensers sat empty. I alerted an employee who took seemingly five minutes to find the backup stock. I stood there like a demented Allstate insurance ad, holding my hands together with palms up to keep blood from dripping on the floor. A group of people also waiting for napkins assembled. One little kid made a scene about my hands. I kicked him in the ass and he shut up. Just kidding. No one seemed to notice, thank god.
Backup napkins finally arrived as a stopgap measure for bandages. A happy employee led me to a well-stocked first aid kit, in “the back” next to where they repair rental bikes. The nice people let me stand there for fifteen minutes as I cleaned my wounds and applied ointment and bandages. Eight different pleasant people happened by during this time, all with time to chat. Apparently, a slow day of visitors didn’t mean anyone’s hours were cut.
Scooter and I tepidly returned to the path, but the day’s good vibe did not. The pesky rain cloud stuck around and the views became obstructed by clouds. And my hands were shredded, of course. At bandages covered the damage effectively and the hard wind subsided. The temperature recovered.
No way Scooter would make it back to the car given his power level. We hopped on a shuttle bus heading outside the gate, to hotels and an IMAX theatre, and much closer to the car. The rain picked up after I exited the bus, so I decided to check out the movie while it blew over. A power failure had knocked out their computer system, so they waived the ticket charge for about thirty of us. We scattered into a theatre that seated at least three hundred. Good thing the Grand Canyon movie feature was free because it kind of sucked. Much of it wasn’t even in HD.
The rain had stopped once the movie ended, but so did Scooter. Not right away, but halfway up a big ass hill and about a quarter-mile from the car. I pushed to the hill crest and glided the rest of the way. Guess I should’ve topped off Scooter’s juice level the previous night after all. But that’s what a smart person would do.
Enter Epp, so to speak
Fate didn’t allow me to wallow in sorrow over my fresh wounds. The aforementioned Epp took care of that. She and I enjoyed Flagstaff’s “First Friday” art gallery walk, which I didn’t know was taking place. We capped that off with a wonderful dinner at a place near our hostel, aptly called Nomad’s Global Lounge.
The two of us got on famously. Plans were made for her to join me, the Worlds Best Driver, for a trip to Sedona the following day. We both planned to go there anyway.
Epp exudes confidence and wears hardly any makeup. I guess the two go hand-in-hand. The spirit moved me to suggest hanky panky at one point in the evening, but logic intervened. No woman wishes for two heavily-bandaged hands on their skin. And irritating my fresh wounds would be stupid. My exhaustion factored in, too. This is what happens when aging kicks in — practical concerns trump monkey business. I felt like that may be on tap anyway, later. No need to force it.
Thanks to Epp we started the next day relatively early. My way would’ve involved two more hours of sleep. Her way turned out to be perfect. She convinced me to go on a hike. [ed note: Garrett never hikes.]
An amazingly scenic drive landed us at the Four Forks Trailhead, about thirty minutes southwest of Flagstaff. (Get there early, because parking is limited.) The closest I normally come to hiking is looking for my golf ball in the woods. I sweat too much. Here in the dry heat, perspiring is no problem.
Epp and I strolled along a comfortable, well-marked path and encountered other hikers only occasionally. Relatively simple creek crossings were required perhaps a dozen times. Soaring, rocky cliffs and interesting rock formations carved by the water made for captivating scenery. I’d recommend this walk to anyone.
* HIKING PHOTO BREAK *
* END HIKING PHOTO BREAK *
Once back in the car I could hear Scooter in the trunk, complaining. We needed to get to the paved roads of Sedona soon. Once there Epp and I enjoyed a great meal at a half-full restaurant before splitting up. No rift had emerged, just different interests and we don’t mind rolling solo. (Epp was doing a weeks-long tour of the US by herself.)
Scooter and I took to the nearby hills of Sedona for grade A scooting on a fresh charge. Steep hills proved to be no problem. “PRIVATE ROAD. HOMEOWNERS AND GUESTS ONLY” signs were gleefully ignored. Prime photo ops abounded. What a place. I even saw two roadrunners, side by side on — the road. I tried to snap a pic but — they ran.
Epp and I met back at the car and headed for the famous rock formations that highlighted her travel plan. Less than a mile down Hwy 179 out of town we stopped at a lovely place called the Tlaquepaque Arts and Shopping Village. Some guy dressed as a 19th-century merchant recommended it to me while we chatted during his smoke break. The place provides a concentration of galleries to make any art lover smile.
Next stop: the site of Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte. Both are remarkable rock formations and easily hikable, at least along their bases. Hell, even Scooter got some action in, ascending a little rise until the trail turned rocky. We spent at least ninety minutes in this area as the sun illuminated different areas on its way down. I nominate this place as the best place for a 360 video anywhere, even in sub-optimal light.
I sat on my ass and gazed in wonder, mostly. Epp, the youngster, still had the energy to hike all the way around Bell Rock. She reported some scary passages once she’d returned. I regretted not taking the walk myself after talking to her, but I’ll catch it next time. Cathedral Rock still awaits anyway. Daylight expired before we made it there.
An awkwardness arose for me regarding Epp at this point. On the surface, our surroundings required a makeout session. But the place felt deeply spiritual, and messing around with someone I’d known a mere day would sully it. She turned me on, but kissing her made no sense. Especially since she showed no sign of wishing to be kissed.
We exchanged no words on the topic but kept many yards apart during this period. No stress or consternation lingered; it felt like a natural choice. I relished my thoughts about the natural beauty surrounding me, undistracted. Chief among them: just how in the fuck!? Anyway, maturity wins again. Oh to have known in my youth what I know now.
On the way home I stopped at Chick-Fil-A to show this foreign bird what the fuss is all about. “I doubt I’ll eat much” Epp claimed. She devoured her sandwich in half the time it took me. “I would’ve asked how you liked it, but that was clear enough,” I quipped.
Once back at the hostel we enjoyed a wine nightcap. My heart wanted to make out with her, but my body wanted to go the fuck to sleep. The highly-active past three days — on top of the previous five weeks — had me tuckered out. Staying up later and doing anything physical couldn’t happen. I’d been friend-zoned a long time ago anyway for all I knew.
Epp and I shared a warm hug goodbye before she headed up to her room. She was headed way up north to Antelope Canyon early the next morning, and I intended to drive south to Prescott. Epp will go down as my favorite platonic coulda-been fling in many years. Intelligent, confident, sexy women slay me.
My Stretch Run
I planned to drive back to L.A. that night after checking out Prescott. My muse requires my fantasy life to end. Needless to say, a better option emerged so I extended the trip one more day.
Prescott is home to natural delights of its own — and it’s big enough for a Costco. I stopped first at the highly-recommended Canyon Gardens Trail, home to wonderful hiking. In my case, it should be called Canyon Scootering Trail. One day of hiking per decade is good enough for me, and that was the previous day. The 360 video recorded here is not too bad either . . .
Smooth roads, no traffic, and a fascinating array of rocks, well, rocked. Turns out modest stylish homes can be built amid stunning natural surroundings too. I enjoyed seeing several of them on another perfect weather day.
Scooter devoured smooth pavement while dealing with practically no traffic.
Heaven for Scooter was also found downtown, a short drive from the natural wonders. We zipped around smooth, lightly-traveled roads on a Sunday afternoon..
The lively town square was among the most charming I’ve seen. Famous Whiskey Row featured saloons, shops, and several excellent art galleries. A stop here to absorb a laid back Western vibe is highly recommended.
Following this, I expected Watson Lake to be the crown jewel of the stop but found it underwhelming. The little lake was cute and scenic, but nothing worth driving a long distance for. I’m glad this trip just fit into a fresh route back to LA. Prescott is sweet though, don’t get me wrong. But leaving it was fucking awesome.
* * * * PRESCOTT PHOTO BREAK * * * *
I aimed to take Interstate 10 home, so the navigator lady in my phone took me on US 89 South to get there. Best happenstance ever. The route first toured me through charming old Prescott neighborhoods. Next, I found myself in upscale areas in the hills overlooking the city — like a mini Mulholland Drive. Then shit got real. I would’ve given my left testicle to be driving a car that ate up curves. A rig not weighed down with luggage, golf clubs, and Costco supplies.
The next one hundred miles or so featured the kind of roads you see in car commercials. Perfectly-smooth pavement separate from the northbound lanes.
Vistas to die for — as the sun set, no less. I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried. The valleys between mountains featured picturesque and real, working ranches that I was too stupid to stop and take pics of. Just a phenomenal ride.
I ended up on flat road off of US 71 just before dark, whereupon I got some pics of my 2011 Ford Fusion. He’s the unsung hero of all this. Runs perfectly and cruises smoothly with the best of them. It’s not his fault he isn’t built for cornering. It’s also not his fault he doesn’t have a name. (For some reason I rarely name my cars.)
The sky seemed purple, which lent an eerie feel to the scene. Approximately one car passed every two minutes — in either direction. A feeling of slight danger lingered, which somehow felt glorious.
Once I reached I-10 my plan for the day changed. I remembered Joshua Tree National Park lied along the way. Why not cap off this little journey with that highly-acclaimed attraction? Temperatures in this part of the world normally exceed 110 degrees at this time of year, but the next day’s forecast called for only in the mid-’90s. Hotel rooms in Palm Springs, the closest real city to Joshua Tree, were priced to move. Count me in!
A night in a luxury hotel hit the spot after my exhausting run of hostel accommodations. Sixty bucks.
After delightful sleep I greeted the morning with renewed vigor and scooted out to sample a bit of Palm Springs, starting with the Museum of Art. I decided to go even though it featured mostly modern art because it was free. Except I learned that’s only for four hours a week. It’s $14 for the rest of the time. No thanks. I dislike most modern “art.”
This freed up Scooter and me to really take in the town. Traffic was extremely light since the majority snowbird population doesn’t start returning for a couple weeks. Some retail businesses weren’t even open for the season yet. Many roads offered four lanes, rendering wide bike lanes superfluous. And Palm Springs is so affluent I think bumps in the road are repaired within an hour. No other paths, including in Manhattan Beach and Beverly Hills, proved as smooth.
Incredible architecture and fauna made the scootering sights second only to the Grand Canyon. The marriage of plant colors and textures with home exterior colors and features left me standing in awe several times, like in a museum. I must’ve taken fifty pictures.
What a remarkable place. I scrapped my Joshua Tree plan to see more of it. I’d seen enough natural wonders for one trip — and I needed to be near air conditioning and water.
I got carried away checking out all the B&B’s and housing enclaves. The relentless sun, and eventually the heat, finally drained me by mid-afternoon. If not for a twenty-minute break in a chilled library with a ton of water I might have succumbed to heat exhaustion.
I pried myself away from paradise and headed back to LA mid-afternoon to meet my old friend Jim Thornmartin for dinner on the way in (he lives in Alhambra). Traffic kicked in practically right way, even one-hundred miles out. Not stop-and-go yet, but that came soon enough, going opposite of rush hour traffic. God help me deal with reality after this odyssey.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Palm Springs pics as an outro, because too many need to be shared . . .
I submitted my labors of love to Olive Oyl, the awkward programs director, with great pride. She seemed surprised to receive contest entries at all, presumably because prison isn’t exactly full of writers. Or perhaps my inmate brethren shied away from entering for reasons I’d yet to learn. Whatever the case, I’d cleared the first hurdle since the statewide contest had a per-camp entry limit. Let the games begin.
Feeling bold, I thanked Olive and invited her to critique my work before submitting them for the contest. Besides free editing, this friendliness might set me apart for future special treatment that might come in handy. I swaggered through the next few days, buoyed by a sense of accomplishment and feeling less like a loser. Having produced high quality material, I was already considering frame styles for my Winner’s Certificates.
Two days after my contest submissions, the intercom blared: “Garrett Phillips, report to the sergeant’s office.” My heart entered my throat. I embarked on the cross camp walk.
If you’ve been called to see a school principal, you know the dread of going to a sergeant’s office. In prison the reason is often harmless, like to receive legal mail or a box of books someone sent. However, sometimes disciplinary action looms, or instructions for an unwanted bunk switch. Worst case is notice of a death in the family.
Rutherford’s sergeant office featured a walk-up window, and I noticed Olive in it before I got there. I exhaled, assuming she intended to congratulate me on my fantastic writing.
She was flanked in the background by a sergeant seated at one desk and a CO at another, both seemingly interested in my arrival. Olive abruptly shoved my writing contest pages through the window and into my face. She spoke with a southern accent common among stilted wenches.
“You cain’t be serious with these, and you should be ashaymed of yerself!” she spat. “There’s profanity in awl of them, and you cain’t write about bowel mooovements!”
Given the laughter from the COs behind her, I briefly wondered if Olive was joking. Apparently she was a black belt in Southern Baptist, however, because she clearly took my prison writing contest entry personally; hardly with humor.
“You know, the contest guidelines don’t . . .” I offered, only to be cut off.
“No one wonts to read about your duuump! Or yew comparin’ a bowel moovement to a slot machine jackpot!” she huffed.
Whether she was offended by the deuce-dropping or the gambling machine was unclear. I would’ve asked, but Olive had closed the window on the episode − both literally and figuratively. She slammed it shut. Rattled but undeterred, I buzzed back to my bunk and began the necessary revisions to my masterpieces.
As I changed words like hell to heck and shit to stuff, I heard my name shouted from around the corner. I walked to the CO desk by the barracks door as dramatic murmurs from my fellow felons filled the air. And there stood Olive, still so red-faced that she’d come in person instead of summoning me via the intercom. She greeted me with a glare. You’d think I sold her dog for parts or something.
“Give me those entries back,” she commanded.
I returned to my bunk and grabbed the pages, thinking someone talked some sense into her and I’d be in the contest after all. As I placed writings into Olive’s trembling hand I said: “By the way, the contest guidelines don’t ban profanity, you know.”
“I doubt that’s going to help yew!” Olive spat, and stormed out the door.
I took this to mean my entries would be entered in the contest, despite her disapproval. Or Olive’s co-workers insisted she retrieve them so they could read an entertaining story about some inmate’s dump.
The assembled barracks crowd jeered and whooped it up. “Damn, Homie! Bitch was pissed!” So much for me staying low-key at this camp.
Word of my debacle quickly spread, and repeating the story felt like holding dozens of press conferences. Guys were dying to read it too, but I had already mailed the first drafts back home for safe keeping. Even COs asked about it. Evidently most of them considered Olive to be especially uptight, and enjoyed watching her freak out.
The following day as I sat signing autographs, another announcement came. “Garrett Phillips, report to the sergeant’s office.”
Olive was again at the window, only slightly more composed than last time. She explained that not only were my contest entries rejected, but I was to be written up for obscenity for me use of profanity. “Obscenity?” I sputtered. “With all due respect, my essay lacked taste, but it wasn’t obscene at all.”
This sent another surge into Olive, one she had probably prayed to avoid. She grabbed the offending pages and applied her reading glasses. “I quote: ‘my body − or more specifically, my sphincter − screamed: No! This is too tall a mountain to climb!’ That’s clearly obscene!”
“Probably not to inmates,” I countered. “And it’s our writing contest, right?”
Alas, this was not a discussion or negotiation − I was a heathen being chastised. Olive ignored me and continued, to the delight of two COs seated behind her who failed to stifle laughter. “And your short story has a murder in it! How . . . how can you think describing a stabbing with a sharpened AA book cover would be okay?”
“This is a writing contest for prison, not a garden club.”
This cracked up the peanut gallery, but Olive’s demeanor resembled that of a church pew. She told me to expect a formal write up and then slammed the window closed with authority. No “Good day, sir,” and no compliments on my paragraph structure or for the snappy phrases I coined in my writing.
The farce continued two days later when I was called to the mail room/disciplinary office for an arraignment. An affable young CO named Hastings had been dumped this paperwork duty, but at least he was entertained. He laughed often as he recited and typed up my charges.
The official indictment referred to a “’dangerous weapon (hunting knife),” and contained the phrase: “comparing his bowel movement to inanimate objects.” This was erroneous, however, as I had compared a human being − or at least Rush Limbaugh − to the result of my bowel movement. Not the physical act. If word semantics were a defense, perhaps I had a chance.
I was far more worried about denial of a Winner’s Certificate than official punishment. Almost everyone figured I’d draw a suspended sentence, to be struck from my record if I behaved myself for a few months. I assumed even better: that someone in the appeal process would stop laughing long enough to dismiss all charges.
The next step in my persecution involved meeting with the warden, a portly gentleman who was as pompous and humorless as out of shape. His doughy index fingers pecked out my Incident Report on a keyboard, followed by me presenting my side of the story to him. Clearly the facts and logic were unimportant in this case. The warden barely paid attention, and rolled his eyes when he did. He was not going to side with a smart-ass like me over his director of programs, regardless. The warden pronounced me guilty, so I appealed.
I returned to the same room a couple days later to face a theoretically impartial Disciplinary Hearing Officer, employed by the state. Surely he would halt this debacle. Instead, the guy might as well have been Olive’s brother. He read aloud: “a turd frozen and fashioned into a hunting knife” through a smirk, with eyes narrowed.
“You are hereby offered a suspended sentence for a profanity charge. If you decide to appeal further, I will add charges for insubordination and obscenity.”
I had planned to appeal as far as possible, and perhaps alert the media as a last resort. I envisioned my story becoming a cause célèbre among creative minds, at least on a slow news day. The Man not only took my freedom thanks the indefensible War on Drugs, but now artist creativity was under the pressure. I figured my oppression could not stand, tasteless topic or otherwise. Poop humor is art too, after all. Someone had to go to the wall for shit jokes. Otherwise where would the tyranny end?
Instead, my resolve crumbled in the face of escalating penalties like a stay in the Hole if continued appeals failed. In other words, The Man broke me. I wussed out and protected my ultimate goals: a transfer to the state’s best prison camp, in Asheville, and a good work-release job there. Also, better to not have the current authorities pissed at me, to avoid retributions such as a shitty bunk assignment.
The next day I accepted a suspended sentence for the flimsiest inmate violation imaginable: profanity. Turns out official prison regulations forbid “profanity of any kind,” so its lack of mention in the contest guidelines was irrelevant. My only consolation was a poor man’s Writing ContestWinner’s Certificate: the official document that includes numerous quotes from my disqualified works. I will display it with pride.
The final ruling was as disgraceful as a smoking ban on all government property in North Carolina. Tobacco built the state, and Sir Walter Raleigh would surely choke on his chaw if he were alive to witness the outrage. Odds are the next penitential regulation will prevent inmates from expressing lust towards their wives or girlfriends, both verbally and in letters. This would probably suit Olive and her ilk just fine.