Car Wash Blues
It wasn’t supposed to rain. It was summer and we were crazy bored. The car wash had fired us both, myself for steaming Nixon bumper stickers off as many cars as I could and Roland for swiping coins and cigarettes from interiors. Obviously the only thing to do was hitch-hike to Provincetown for a few days, celebrate our freedom and find some hippie chicks to crash with. We were going to have a blast, as soon as it stopped raining.
We were used to being wet all over from our long days at the car wash and held our thumbs high to summon a ride north on the Connecticut Turnpike. Passing drivers saw two raggedy young men, one white, one black, a Keith Richards lookalike in tight, red, stove pipe Levis and a diminutive Jimi Hendrix complete with monstrous afro, wraparound shades and striped bellbottoms. Our first ride possibility was both good and bad. Good because any ride is good when you’re hitching, but bad because the driver was our very own football coach, ex-marine Crazy Joe Sapinsky. One of his younger daughters (I think he had four) rolled down the passenger window and stared straight ahead as her father leaned across her to bellow at us.
“Where do you Commie Pinkos think you’re going, huh?”
Any young man with long hair that refused to participate in Sapinsky’s football program was a Commie Pinko and probably a fag too. I spoke up first, seeing some panic in Rolands eyes as he mentally searched for the bag of weed somewhere in his old army jacket.
“We are going to Provincetown Coach.”
Coach’s daughter slunk down lower in her seat and chewed on one of her braids.
He jabbed a fat kielbasa finger at us.
“P-Town? Are you nuts? You know what kind of people summer in P-Town?”
Roland answered this one.
“Uh, people on summer vacation?”
Coach’s mouth split into a wet grin that was tinted brown from a wad of Redman.
“You are a thick one aren’t you Roland? I should run you both back home right now but Emily is late for her cello lesson.”
It was hard to tell in the rain, but the big black thing on the back seat did look like a cello case. I went for it.
“So then a ride would be out of the question?”
“HA! I’ll see you clowns in September!” Roll up the window sweetie. Use both hands.”
We stood on the shoulder of the on ramp, rain dripping off our faces.
“That was a close one John, maybe we oughta go back.”
“No way Rollo, come on man just think about the girls!”
Roland turned around once and threw up his hands.
“Ain’t no girls nowhwere, man!
“Use your imagination!”
He scrunched up his face, concentrating on his own version of paradise. A Chevy pickup with a camper shell slid to a stop and the driver got out coming around to lift the top half of the tailgate. His dirty coveralls were Sunoco blue with a patch and his name, “TONY” sewed to the breast pocket. He had a long grey ponytail and a nasty harelip that ran up into his nose. It made his voice kind of mushy.
“Tosh you shit in heah and get ihn da cab.”
We were glad to. The cab was dry except for the floorboards and there were sticks of incense rising out of tiny holes in the dash. The burnt ones had left tiny logs of ash and the truck smelled like church.
“Whahr you doohds headed?”
“Nyesh. Ah can take yuh as fahr as Noo London.”
“That’s great, thanks.”
Tony shifted the tall gear lever and returned his right hand to a shiny red suicide knob on the wheel. His left arm and hand never appeared so far as I could tell. We rode in silence for maybe five miles of bleary turnpike when he spoke again.
“Yew buoys lahk knives?”
I had never been asked that question before and guessed that Roland hadn’t either. Tony was insistent.
“Open duh glove box doohds!”
Roland warily extended a finger and pressed the latch button, spilling a selection of mean looking cutlery onto the floorboard and into his lap.
Tony laughed, sounding like a distressed water buffalo, and slapped the dash with enthusiasm.
“Ah make em ahl myself!”
It was a smorgasborg of razor sharp steel, big ones, small ones, hand-stitched leather sheaths and beaded scabbards. Roland delicately lifted a fourteen-inch Bowie knife strapped into a black leather holder stamped with a grinning skull.
“Are they sharp?”
Jesus God what a stupid question! Why couldn’t I be safe at home with Mom and Dad watching Bonanza at that very moment. Tony shot out another laugh/snort.
“You punks seen mah lef arum?
He twisted toward us so we could both see his empty left sleeve pinned to his shoulder with a safety pin.
“Ahll ma nives cut thru bone, stone, and anything else you got!”
I guess Roland had a thing about amputees because he blew his breakfast right out the window. Tony slowed and pulled up on the shoulder as Roland bailed out and slid face first into the culvert. I was right behind him and snatched our backpacks from the truck bed. Roland was up and sprinting through a swampy field toward a distant shopping center pumping his arms like a relay runner. I reached him as he leapt onto a chain-link fence and dragged him back down. He was breathing hard with flecks of his Mom’s waffles stuck to his chin. I looked back at the turnpike nearly a hundred yards away. One-armed Tony and his cache of weapons were gone. We just sat there in the wet grass too winded to speak. I really wanted to be warm and dry. Even the back of Crazy Joe Sapinsky’s Country Squire would do, although he was our sworn natural enemy. In the summer of 1968 he was a hawk and we were two young doves.
Roland scrambled to his feet as if bitten by snakes. He stood frozen, the bowie knife still in his hand and flung it high over the fence into the weeds.
“Shit, Rollo, we could have sold that knife in P-town!”
I grabbed two fistfuls of chain-link and pulled my self up but couldn’t tell where it had landed, swallowed by the tall grass forever. Two feet higher, looping coils of razor wire topped the fence as far as I could see in both directions.
The bowie knife was soon forgotten as the rain came down harder, bringing booming thunder and crackling flashes of lightning. We were less than an hour into our summer weekend adventure.
“This is jive, John. It’s really fucked up !”
Roland had a point and was nearly in tears as the wind whipped away the joint he was attempting to roll. At least he didn’t spill his whole bag into the mud.
Since this whole thing had been my idea after losing our summer jobs, I decided to take charge.
“Okay, we have two choices, no three. We can go back to the turnpike and maybe catch a ride, we can stay right here and maybe get struck by lightning, or we can follow this fence to a building and take cover.” Let’s take a vote.”
“We can’t vote, man, there’s only two of us and if we never agree we could be out here forever!”
Once again Roland had a point. He was now 2 for 2, a rarity for him. He reared back and gave the chain-link a monster kick rattling steel far down the field. Before he could launch another one, we were blinded by a pure white light, and deafened by the roar of the earth splitting in half. We tasted charred metal as we fell backwards and saw tiny licks of flame dancing along the razor wire. The entire fence hummed like a tuning fork from hell. It had taken a direct hit. Our hair tingled as we grabbed our stuff and ran toward the distant lights of a massive parking lot, the mud pulling at our sneakers.
Coach Sapinsky had never seen anything like us. Our hair, our clothes, our music and especially our disdain for any organized sport. His efforts to humiliate us had backfired. Because of our “girly hair” he made us wear shower caps in gym class. We spray painted them commie red and wore them Che Guevara style. While running endless laps as punishment we chanted, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!” I guess Coach realized he was wasting time trying to fit our square pegs into his round holes and he finally left us alone. He took me aside one autumn day, looking small and defeated behind his office desk cluttered with ace bandages, broken face guards and dirty coffee mugs, and spoke to me in a gentle voice that I never knew he had.
“Son, if this were Communist Russia, they would make soap out of you. You follow me? Now get out of my sight and think about that.”
I did think about it, and decided that my future travel fantasies would not include the Soviet Union just in case.
We arrived at a tall gate in the fence where we got our first look at the shopping center. No insipid muzak beckoned us, no warm restaurant lights invited us in to try the daily special, no warm booths to dry out in. The renovation project had stalled some time ago and the big sign announcing the grand re-opening in the fall of 1970 seemed like a sick joke. There were piles of dirt, rusting re-bar and a mud covered yellow backhoe that was missing most of its diesel engine and one front wheel.
We both stood silently in the face of this vision of the future, when another blast of thunder shook the ground and sent us running again. At a corner of the unpaved parking lot sat a red, white and blue corrugated metal structure, like a large tool shed, big enough to provide some shelter. The stenciled signage proclaimed it a “Volunteers of America Clothing Donation Center.” It had a clasp hinge on top that should have had a padlock but didn’t. I gave Roland a boost up and he forced the top high enough to look inside.
“It’s all clothes, man.”
“I know! Are they dry?”
“I guess so, but it stinks in here, smells like old white ladies.”
“That’s probably just fabric softener.”
Roland dropped to the ground and spit. The rain let up. It was quiet all of a sudden. We avoided looking at each other, defeat heavy in the muggy air. I didn’t know what to say, but Roland did.
“Man, I’m goin’ home. Fuck this jive ass vacation.”
He gave the clothing bin a good kick and nearly toppled over into the mud.
“Why we got to go all the way to Cape Cod for pussy? Connecticut got all kinds of pussy!”
I knew he was right and I was glad he neglected to add the fact that we never got any. At least I didn’t. Maybe it was different in Fudgetown, the housing projects behind the train station and the lawn and garden center. I followed Roland as he trudged toward the turnpike, the dragging cuffs of his bellbottoms encrusted with mud, his army coat heavy with rain. We climbed the culvert to the northbound lanes and stood on the shoulder. Traffic was light. In a flash Roland sprinted for the median, paused to look back at me then hauled ass to the safety of the opposite shoulder and held out his thumb for a fast moving southbound truck. When the spray cleared, there he was, arm outstretched for the next one. I stood my ground and did the same as a red Corvair came closer, so slow that I was sure it would stop but it didn’t. Roland shouted something that I couldn’t make out so I shrugged in response. The sun broke through a pile of storm clouds and a double rainbow cast a weird glow over the entire landscape. We both pointed to it and Roland began dancing something that looked like the funky chicken.
Into that strangely lit landscape roared a sky blue ‘63 Stingray that swerved toward me sliding to a stop just a couple feet away. It had side pipes that burbled and spit impatiently. It wore personalized plates that read “BYTEME”. It also had a weird blonde chick behind the wheel who looked about thirty. She beckoned me over and I looked inside. She had a big Adam’s apple that rolled up and down her throat and huge hands with fuschia polished nails. She ginned like a cartoon wolf.
“Get in Sugar, you’re all wet!”
She sounded just like my uncle Mike. I looked across the turnpike where Roland was making crazy faces and playing air guitar. I cut loose across the median ignoring the horn blasts of oncoming traffic and reached Roland just a as Crazy Joe Sapinsky’s station wagon rolled to a stop, heading home from Emily’s cello lesson. Coach could barely keep from laughing as he barked at us.
“What a couple of dipsticks! Get in the damn car!”
I didn’t care what he called us or what he might do to us in September.
We were saved.