Authors: Colby Buzzell
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Nonfiction, #Personal Memoirs, #Retail
Lost in America
A Dead-End Journey
For my mother
“If you are going through hell, keep going.”
Rendezvous with Destiny
Take as Needed for Pain
The Path to Hell
A Veteran in a Foreign War
Changing Atmospheric Conditions
Down and Out in Cheyenne
Life After Last Call
The North Will Rise Again
Never Look Back
Committed to Excellence
Mission from God
Unsuccessful Men with Talent
Ignoring All Legal Disclaimers
A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Artist
Failing Journalism 101: A How-to Guide
Love Thy Neighbor
“I feel there is a universal sense amongst our generation that everything has been said and done. True. But who cares. It could still be fun to pretend.”
utting my own personal feelings aside on Kerouac and the Beats, I enthusiastically agreed to this assignment to “Retrace Kerouac’s footsteps and paint a contemporary portrait of America. A love letter to Kerouac.” Now I could start this off by crafting a predictable segue into a nauseating tribute to Kerouac, offering some soulful reason for writing this book, or rambling about how I’m on a mission of self-discovery.
Like hell I am.
Times are hard, and right before I left their upper-floor midtown Manhattan office, after I’d shaken their hands and told them all thank you, that they’d all made a great decision and how I couldn’t wait to start, one of them asked me if there was anything at all that would prevent me from doing this assignment for them. I paused, thought about that for a second, and then I lied. Shaking my head, I told him no, that there wasn’t.
With a smile he said, “Good.”
I smiled back.
Life takes its turns, and after purchasing an American classic off some stranger, I filled the tank, lit a cigarette, thought about Kerouac for a second, then thought about something else, put the car in gear, and headed off toward the opposite coast. Destination? East.
I don’t write love letters.
Fuck that, and fuck Kerouac.
n my flight back home to San Francisco I began to worry at length about how in the world I was going to pull this one off while at the same time I was suffering from a huge migraine. I asked myself over and over again what in the world I’d just gotten myself into when, out of nowhere, I started thinking about the time growing up where I would hold my mother’s hand as she walked me to school each morning. Recalling this time in my childhood, more specifically this one particular memory, seemed to calm me and make the road ahead less daunting.
The elementary school I attended was located only a couple blocks away from our house. I was either in the first or second grade at the time and my lunch box like always would be packed with a meal she had carefully prepared for me. She believed the Rambo lunch box I had wanted was too violent, so I had a G.I. Joe one instead. For some reason I have no memory of socializing with any of my classmates, none. Most of what I remember is sitting at my desk with my Beatles haircut (which my mother literally used a bowl to cut) wondering what in the hell was going on, and other assorted thoughts that seem much more important as a kid. What if the school was a spaceship and it launched and we all got to go into outer space? An elephant in the backyard would be cool. Cheerios with soda instead of milk: yum or gross? I want to be a professional bike racer and pedal really fast. What if I had every single toy that was ever made, do you think that’s possible? Would they all fit in my room?
Always feeling off in my own world at recess, I’d keep myself company just walking around with my thoughts, head down, every now and then picking up a rock to see what kind of bugs were underneath or studying some flower growing in the grassy field bordering the schoolyard.
One day the bell rang, indicating the end of recess. While all the other kids frantically ran back to class, I didn’t. I saw no reason to. I just stood there out on that grassy field dumbly, watching. One by one doors began closing and silence filled the playground.
After a couple long minutes just standing there, waiting, I realized no one had noticed my absence back in the classroom. So I left.
I casually walked off campus, making my way down a couple of the suburban residential side streets, looking at the lawns and houses I passed. When I reached the nearby grocery center, I stood there and watched people pull up in their cars, park, enter the grocery store, leave. None of the adults seemed to notice me, or the fact that I wasn’t at school. I slowly walked over to a nearby park, where there was a playground. I didn’t play in it for whatever reason, though I remember just staring at it. Leaving, I headed down a busy street with cars thundering by. An enormous black van pulled up. After studying me for a bit, the lady driving told me to get in. I saw no reason not to.
A mob of parents crowded around once we arrived back at the school, one of the adults in this crowd a particularly frantic Korean lady. It was my mother. When she saw me exit the lady’s van, her panic turned to a smile of relief and a warm hug. The crowd dispersed and my mother, after thanking them, grasped my hand tightly and walked me home.
Surprisingly she didn’t yell at me at all, and I wasn’t punished. Instead all she did was tell me never to do that again, that it scared the heck out of her, the other parents, and the teachers, that they had all feared the worst: that I’d been kidnapped or that “something bad happened” to me. All of this confused me. I nodded back, promising that I would never wander away again.
But I love grime, alleys, and alcohol. I’m an alley cat, I like to wander. It’s not really any more complicated than that.
Rendezvous with Destiny
“I think it’s a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one’s self.”
the fucking speech that I flew all the way across the country to see? I could have YouTubed that from home, I’d be a lot fucking warmer if I had. Witness history, my ass. The only thing I’m witnessing here in D.C. is me freezing my ass off.
Not only did I desperately need to work more positive thinking into my life, but while trapped there, I also realized that had I YouTubed the speech from the comfort of my own room instead of making the effort to be one of many in attendance, I would have missed out on witnessing the behavior of the sea of people all around me. While just minutes before I had, dare I say, been somewhat moved by the thousands of miniature red, white, and blue flags proudly being waved around me, I was now watching as one by one they made their way onto the ground, carelessly tossed like cigarette butts, scattered all around. There they lay, discolored with dirty footprints, torn apart by the trampling masses. Nearby, trash cans overflowed with discarded flags. I noticed a young girl, maybe kindergarten age, collecting up these flags that had been thrown down into what was now mud.
Though I never made the rank of Boy Scout, I belonged at one time to the Webelos (“We’ll Be Loyal Scouts”), later joining the Cub Scouts. I remember being taught that our nation’s flag should never touch the ground. If that was to happen, it should be burned.
That thought was interrupted only by something far more shocking, the loud shout of a T-shirt hawker: “SALE! Fifty percent off!”
This guy looked like a big fan of all-you-can-eat buffets, waddling around with two arms full of those “Hope” T-shirts so en vogue just minutes before, now downgraded to the discount bin. I followed him for a bit, seeing that no one was buying. Nobody cared. Everybody had theirs already. Though I was tempted to purchase a “My President Is Black!” T-shirt, I couldn’t see myself rocking a shirt with a politician on it, so I passed on the deal. Even at 50 percent off.
Speakers lined the National Mall, and while standing around midfield I heard a loud noise that sounded as though somebody had pulled the plug. On the big-screen televisions also lining the Mall, I could see our new president and vice president happily waving good-bye while Marine One, the presidential helicopter, lifted off above them with our old commander in chief.
The exodus, not unlike the one you see at a baseball game in the latter innings once everyone thinks they know who’s won, hoping to beat traffic, seemed premature. As everyone worked their way toward the exit, the majority seemed oblivious to this moment, the handoff of our country.
Watching Marine One fly over me, I decided it was time for me to leave as well. The Bush years had come to a close.
Thanks to my experience as an infantryman in the army, where I would go for long stretches with everything I needed strapped to my back, I now prefer to travel light. Everything that I would need for my trip across the country was stashed away inside my backpack: three sets of clothes, laptop, camera, various battery chargers, pens, notebooks, that first copy of
On the Road
, purchased so many years ago, and . . . that’s pretty much it. Slowly making my way to the Greyhound bus station, eager to begin the leg of my journey up to Lowell, Massachusetts, with the perspective on travel that can only be gleaned from hours of recycled air and the knowledge that the guy next to you didn’t need to show any sort of identification before boarding, I pull out my cell phone to see whether I had any reception. I did, and there was a text from my sister.
ack home, my mother’s hair was thinning. Many times while I was visiting her she’d remove her hat to show me the effects of the chemo, soon after breaking down, sobbing uncontrollably. There was nothing I could do or say.
Before I left for D.C., I had to wait around for the test results from her latest MRI. That particular MRI was to determine whether or not the chemo was working, whether or not the cancer was spreading. If the cancer spread, I was to call my publisher in New York and notify them of my mother’s condition, which at that point they were totally unaware of, and kindly ask to postpone my trip across America for a bit. If they didn’t grant me an extension, I’d be fucked, but not as fucked as my mother.
The results of the MRI came back, and miraculously the cancer did not seem to be spreading, which meant that my mother had some time left on this planet. No one knew how long, but we were all hopeful that it would be a very long time. Thus, I was able to hit the road. The plan was to finish the assignment, afterward spending as much time with her as possible.
But this decision wasn’t easy, nor was it guilt-free. My mother had cancer. What if she couldn’t beat it, and what if she passed away shortly after I came back, or even while I was away? I would have lost all that time I could have spent with her. On the other hand, if I didn’t leave soon, I wouldn’t be able to meet my publisher’s deadline. What to do, what to do . . .
Earth to Colby: What’s more important, you moron? Your book, or your mother?
What in the hell was I thinking? My mother had always stressed the importance of family. She had always said that there wasn’t anything more important than that, though at this point, she also stressed the importance of health insurance. She would tell me that without health insurance, thanks to her condition, my father would be bankrupt right now, living in a world of shit. She’d have forever felt responsible for hurting the family in that way.
After receiving the results of the MRI, I asked my mother whether I should stay or go. Lying there in the hospital bed, of course she told me I should go, as I knew she would. I was still conflicted, which she sensed. With her plastic hospital bracelets wrapped around her shrinking wrists, she reached out and held my hand. I remember her hand feeling warm and soft, like an old washcloth soaked in hot water, as she told me again that I should go. I should go, and follow my dreams, and not worry about her; she’d be fine, and we’d get to hang out again plenty when I got back.
With a smile, she thought out loud and envisioned the entire family, now somewhat spread out, together again. She seemed to glow at that thought, even talking of a vacation for all of us once I returned, “somewhere nice.”
But the text message I received now from my sister said that my mother wasn’t doing well, deteriorating by the day, and that I should strongly consider coming back home.
I booked a flight back for the following day, and called my father to get an update on the situation. I could hear my mother in the background, crying loudly from the pain, while hauntingly moaning, “Help me,” over and over again, followed by my name.