Part 1, The Drive
So many things are referred to as “Quintessentially American”. As a Illinoisan, these references have always seemed to be centered around middle America. Mom’s apple pie, baseball in the park, picnic’s on the fourth of July always held a homespun rural feel to me.
But the obvious alternate side to what is “quintessentially American” means has to do with excess. Hollywood is equally as American in the archetypes of the news and the opinions of those in the world around us, but can it still be America to me?
That is the question my subconscious is asking itself on the 3 day drive from McHenry Illinois to Long Beach California. My father and I are sharing this trip, because my dad is pretty much the perfect blue collar American archetype. To the best of my knowledge Dad’s favorite movie is “Its a Wonderful Life”. His favorite band is the Eagles and the only song I have ever seen him sing along too is “Sweet Home Alabama”. He has worked outside in northern Illinois my entire life as a phone man. He goes to church every Sunday, pays his bill’s on time and enjoys his wife’s/mother’s/mother in law’s cooking. Suffice to say my dad should have been painted my Norman Rockwell.
So on this trip to the unknown he is my copilot, and a hell of a one to have. He rents a trailer for my car and drives his 2007 suburban in lieu of having to stuff himself into my 98 Nissan Sentra. He pays for all the gas, which we stop for every 250 miles or so. The only thing I pay for is two meals, which I do as a token gesture, being that my dad spend near a grand on the trip, and I spend about thirty dollars on the two meals.
The trip itself is not wrought with the father-son bonding that one might assume. For the most part we don’t talk while driving being that the passenger is sleeping in his time away from the wheel. Working in three hour off and on shifts we make good time and decide to drive straight through the night to make it to Las Vegas for a night of fun. The bonding is being packaged for Vegas.
I, for most of my life, have lived in fear of my father. I respect him and understand him, but I will always remember a conversation I had with him while still in college. He said something like “I don’t want to be your friends, I don’t want you to tell me the things you tell your friends. I’m your dad and I will always maintain that relationship. I’m here to tell you when you screw up, not to sugar coat it”. Straight out of “Boiler Room” right? And Dad has never been one to hide his criticisms, and more power to him for that. The only problem is that I have a knack for pissing him off, not on purpose like my tattooed sister, but incidentally through my complete lack of common sense. I know since the last time I spent three straight day’s with my dad (probably 2000 or 2001) i have not garnered a new level of common sense and I am fearful of a day of the drive being ruined by my stupidity.
The drive through Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska is pretty smooth without any arguments. Me and Dad are downright chummy for most of this time and we spend our time cracking jokes about Nebraska “I wonder why the call it the corn husker state?” and having conversations about sports “After twenty five years of Rick Mirer, Erik Kramer, Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton, the Bears finally have a quarterback, and I’m gonna live two thousand miles away”.
This is the atmosphere until somewhere around 1:30am on route 70 past Denver where after thirty minutes of an uphill climb, the Suburban and the Nissan it is trailing begin the decent down the Rockies. I had been driving since midnight and dad was well asleep. My stupid GPS was set on “shortest distance” and not “fastest time” meaning that it takes me off of highway and through a back mountain roadway. Dad has not had this problem since he didn’t listen too the GPS. “I hate those things, I know how to use a map” he said, almost prophetically. The back road leading back to the highway and to the ultimate decent down the Rockies is full of “S” curves through the Rockies and along cliffs. I am tense as shit and the only thing I can think while driving through the mountain is that I am not only going to crash my Dad’s nice two year old luxury SUV but I am also going to crash my Nissan in the process. I am wide awake with hyper-tension when i get back on the freeway and eventually begin my decent.
It must be like a 20 degree grade on the backside of the Rockies and in the dead of night with little visibility off the road. It is hard to distinguish mountains from clouds in the horizon and I have a uncanny feeling of claustrophobia surrounded by the hulking giants creeping in and out of the limits of my vision. The car is racing down hill and the speed limit of 60 mph for trucks with trailers seems like a cruel joke. I struggle to keep the needle under 70 and whenever I press the brakes (mostly the entire time downhill) they give a strange vibration that seems to say “fuck you buddy, what do you want from me”. My mind cannot escape what it believes to be the logical conclusion to this decent; my and my fathers as the brakes give out and the cars ram straight into the back of a Semi. I try to pull off at the first exit but the truck is moving far to fast to hit the 35 mph speed limit of the off ramp, so I blow past it hoping to survive until a more logical exit.
My mind needs nicotine. Anyone who knows me knows that I am the chain of chain smokers, and especially in this tense situation I crave a camel. I think I am hallucinating the smell when I finally pull off the highway, but alas the smell is not tobacco smoke. The deceleration of speed wakes up Dad and he apparently smells something too. “Were you on the brakes” he asks to which I reply in the most manner of fact way possible “Yes I definitely was”. He looks at me and says “pull over” which does not need to be said since people don’t generally get off the highway on long distance trips to do anything but pull over. As I pull into a darkened strip mall parking lot I take the cars to a full stop that is accentuated by the grinding of slipping brakes which in turn is accentuated by my dad saying “Shit”.
My dad is not one for foul language. I can only remember one time when my dad has said “fuck” in my presence, and minus the entire explanation feel free to assume pops was pretty pissed off. After saying “Shit” he hops out of the truck and begins a long pace around the car. He is muttering to himself and shaking his head, these motions as they pertain to my dad can be likened to the rattle of a snakes tail or the growling of a dog; these characteristics are a way of conveying “don’t touch”. He shouts for me to come and look at what he is looking at.
The brakes on each tire are red-hot. The are literally illuminating the rotors in amber light and dad’s face seems to be doing an impression of the brakes. He starts into me and quickly my life quotient of one father to son f-bomb goes to two. He makes a sarcastic impression of me saying “Don’t worry, I’ve driven trailers before”, something that is true and was said about twelve hours ago. I reply “Yeah but never down 7000 feet” which is also true. “Why didn’t you downshift” he says to me which i reply “cause the car is an automatic”. There were plenty of signs that said “Trucks shift into lower gear” and I remember thinking “Man I wish I was driving a stick shift” and keeping my foot on the brake. Dad briefly explains to me what 3,2 and 1 are for in automatic cars and I hear my third lifetime f-bomb from dad.
He gets back into the car and slams the door, I go to sit on my Nissan and have what I consider a deserved cigarette. No part of me wants to get back into the car and i sit staring at the back of his head. “Don’t poke the tiger” I think to myself as i slowly inhale smoke. There are two things red-hot at this point and I hope desperately that they both will cool down. I am a little ticked at the situation, and Dad I guess because in my opinion I have just saved both my and my fathers lives.
I in true casual religious person fashion I say a little prayer that the car is not fucked and all we need to do wait and we can hit the road again. After an hour of waiting in the cold air father-son tension dad starts driving. “Please God, don’t let the car be messed up” I think to myself as he pulls out of the strip mall parking lot. Ka-thunk, Ka-thunk, Ka-thunk. The sound is not good and I am once again convinced there is no God, and my dad says “what the hell is that” and “Get your stupid GPS thing and see if their is a GM dealership around here”. There is not, and the nearest mechanic operates a facility literally named “Billy Bob’s Garage”. We drive another quarter mile and the noise stops and I become a Christian again. The noise is later determined to be a chunk of asphalt stuck to red hot tires.
Dad drives out of Colorado and explains what 3 is for in an automatic. I drive through Utah which is absolutely the coolest looking place I have ever been. Long stripped mountains dominate the horizon. The whole place looks straight out of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. It becomes incredibly apparent to me why Brigham Young and his followers would think that this place was Canaan in America. It looks ancient and untouched, beautiful and demanding. Things ease during this part of the trip between me and Dad and only heat up again when, ironically, he yells at me for going too slow down the next set of mountains towards the Nevada/Utah border. “If you go forty the whole way we won’t get to vegas till midnight” he states.
We stop in Salines Utah for breakfast around noon. Off the highway we see a Denny’s and a sign for “Mom’s Cafe”. Dad and I share a penchant for greasy spoons and hole in the wall diners, so the choice is obvious to both of us. At “Mom’s Cafe” we are waited on by a seven foot giant of an old lady. The food is expensive by diner standards and I offer to pay and state that Dad can order anything he wants. He, much to my joy and surprise, orders the most expensive of the eight things on the menu; the $11 pork chops, eggs and hash browns breakfast.
We get into the Vegas city limits around 4 pm. I am trying to take pictures of the place and pops lowers the sunroof so I can stand through it and take what dad calls “a real Vegas style picture”. As I try to get back into the car I stumble and almost clip off part of the rubber insulation around the window. Dad turns his head then shakes it.
We stay at the Tuscany resort where Dad stayed his last/first time in Vegas. Vegas as a whole looks to me like a giant version of the Wisconsin Dells. It is cheap and showy, and the majority of things that are for purchase are nothing more than “I was in Vegas” crap. But me and Dad have a great time nonetheless.
We grab some Mexican food in the lobby and we both enjoy ordering cokes with shots on the side. This practice was founded by my Dad who believes, I think correctly, that you get more liquor for less money when you order your mixer with the liqour on the side. His coke is diet, mine regular, his shot is rum and mine is whiskey.
You can still smoke indoors in Vegas which is a treat for me. After dinner I sneak away to the bar to smoke and I bet a dollar on video poker. At the end of my cigarette I am fifty cents up, the highest I will be up my entire time in Vegas. We walk to Ballys which is down the street. The only thing in Vegas I am truly interested in seeing is “Circus Circus”, which is a cab ride away from the Tuscany Suites. Ballys sells beer at the bar for 6 dollars a bottle, Dad and I both order a beer and play ten dollars of video poker. I am betting 75 cents a hand while my more chaste father bets 25 cents a hand. He by far is getting better cards with his lower bets and outlasts my ten dollars. At the end of our beers Dad asks me “Do you want another one?” and I ask “how much are beers at the Tuscany” to which he replies “Free”.
We both look at each other for a second and wonder why we came to Ballys in the first place. As we walk back I see loads of free magazines displaying local prostitutes. I say to Dad “Las Vegas; were crime is legal”. At the Tuscany we sit and play video poker and order mixed drinks. The bartender is reluctant to give me a drink for free because at the time I was betting a quarter a hand and had a total of $1.50 in the machine. I get my free drink anyway and we move from the bar to the roulette table.
The guy manning the roulette table is a older Cuban gentleman. On the first bet I double my money by betting on my girlfriends birthday (red 15). I half it on both sides and I have recouped my losses at video poker. At this point the dealer leaves and an Asian lady named
Teng begins taking my money. My mother had told Dad to bet on red 3, my and my mother’s birthday. By the time we sat down red 3 had come up 3 times, so when Dad asked me if he should be red 3 I said “not yet”. I came up that spin.
We both lost all our money at roulette and after the Cuban comes back we sit around and talk politics with him. He left during the revolution and he tells us about how Castro used to say “Change” and how scared he as when he heard Obama talking about change this last election cycle.
We drink our “Free” mixers whilst loosing a hundred and twenty dollars between us and go to watch sport center at the bar and have a night cap. Micheal Vick has just been signed to the Eagles and Dad gives me his opinion on the situation. “I think differently than you or your [grandfather], to me its just dogs and he served his time so why worry about keeping him out of the NFL”. In a world that lacks perspective its good to know someone who has it.
The plan for the next day is to go to Long Beach early and drop my stuff off so Dad can double back to Vegas for the night and avoid LA traffic. After navigating the highway system we reach long beach and Ben, the guy I’m moving in with, meets us for his lunch break. We take the car off the trailer, drop the trailer off at the U-haul, and go “Clancy’s” for lunch.
When we arrive back at the apartment Ben takes me around back to the garage I am going to park my car in. Ben had told me several weeks prior that hobos were living in his garage, when I see the garage I can tell it was not a cute exaggeration. Two hobos are splayed on the cement in the garage surrounded by sheets, cardboard and that moldy banana hobo smell. I am quite afraid of my dad seeing these hobos so I say “Hey hobos, I’ll give you cigarettes if you make yourself scarce.” This is my first of many encounters with the Ocean BLVD hobos named Melvin and Shit for Brains.
Melvin calls me Ben, since either that is the only name he knows or he assumes that since me and Ben are the same height and weight we are twins with the same name (eat your heart out Haley Mills). He is older, maybe forty or fifty, and he says he requires a walker. He says his walker was stolen so he had to “borrow” a shopping cart from Home Depot. I nick-named Shit for Brains for his ability to be so drunk that he sleeps with his eyes open.
We unpack my stuff through the front door and not the hobo infested back. Dad gives me a hug and says goodbye and I am genuinley sad to see him go. He after all is my last connection to my idea of quintessential Americana, and as his car pulls out of the gas station next to my new apartment I get the strange mix of paranoia and excitement from being a stranger in a strange land. I am now a California resident and instead of living in a place with seasons, blue collar jobs and homespun logic I am living in a place with super hobos, dellusion, excess and Von’s Super Markets.