Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Ten Bucks

I guess it's good to know where you stand in the world, right? 

Some people go through their entire lives and never have an idea of how the rest of the world perceives them. A great example would be Hitler; he thought of himself as the savior of the German people, elevating the Visigothic horde in a thousand-year reich, all to the tune of some Wagnerian opera.  The rest of us see him for the little-dicked monster that he was: a failed artist rife with daddy issues, trying to prove on the world stage that he was an overachiever, unlike his absent daddy, by killing off most of Europe's Jews.  He went to the grave with an ever-so-slightly elevated opinion of himself,  with a glaring lack of self-awareness as to how the world would truly remember him.

On the other hand, I know exactly where I stand and, apparently, I'm like one shower away from looking like a homeless person.

Last week I had an opportunity to hit the road with my truck driver buddy Jeff. We've been good friends since the fourth grade; he was recently home for about ten days to celebrate Easter with his family.  One night, over a few beers, it came up in conversation that he had to make a run to Philadelphia, NYC, and Boston to pick up a load.  His mission: pick up all the gear for the upcoming Dropkick Murphys' tour and deliver it to the Left Coast by mid-April. After the final stop in South Boston he planned on coming back through Cleveland. 

We've talked for a few years about me tagging along for a ride to see how truck drivers live.  I made arrangements for my son and his buddy to house sit the herd while I would be gone.  I packed a bag, charged up my camera batteries, and climbed aboard his truck for a week of sight-seeing, no responsibility, and a Kerouac-style existence all punctuated by an intro to basic CB lingo and copious amounts of late-night road food.

Which begs the question:  Why is every other restaurant in New Jersey and New York a diner?  I've never seen so many diners in my life; the proto-typical rectangular 1950s-era eatery should be on New Jersey's state flag. Or maybe it needs to replace their current state symbol.  I used to think that the Garden State was just a gaggle of track suit-wearing mafiosos with bad comb-overs.  Now I have the unfortunate visual of said mobsters eating in a bright chrome-and-neon diner with a blue-haired waitress named Irma serving them, conversing in that Joisey twang while wolfing down huge portions of chicken-fried steak.  Oh yeah, by state law a framed picture of Sinatra must adorn a wall somewhere in the diner with a special spotlight shining upon it twenty-four-seven..

So now you get to have that visual, too. And, yep, it's a fairly accurate one.

However, they may not have been mafiosos...they may have been public-sector union retirees too lazy to change into appropriate clothing.  Or comb their hair properly.

To be fair, the diner food is generally very good, portions are large and the prices very reasonable.  So, take that, Denny's.

Four days into our trip (ever pee in an old cider jug while standing in a truck bouncing along at 70+ miles an hour down a mountain?  Checked that off the bucket list--a few times, actually) we were parked in a field that, until recently, housed an old gas station.  It was now an overnight truck stop about thirty miles south of Boston.  A sports bar called the Great American Pub stood sentinel across the busy two-lane road that connected Boston to Fall River.  The night before I had one-too-many Sam Adams, a personal pizza and a dozen (or two) spicy wings.  Somehow, I've forgotten that I'm not twenty-two any more and these Bacchanalian rituals usually lead to unintended consequences the next day.  Or two to three days.

So, I rolled off my three-inch mattress tucked, all bunkbed-style, six feet below Jeff's snoring, lifeless body, mustered outside in my underwear and socks, needing to relieve myself all trucker-style in the parking lot.  As my one good eye scanned for cops who may have a problem with a chubby white guy from Ohio peeing all over the commonwealth's sacred soil, I focused on the immediate surroundings. I noticed a Dunkin' Donuts not a hundred feet away, visible through a copse of trees. Thankfully, no cars were idling at the drive-thru to witness my makeshift potty.

After hauling myself back into the truck, donning the proper clothing and grabbing a towel, shaving-kit, and a fresh pair of underoos, I hopped down the six feet to the ground and made my way to the donut shop with the notion of cleaning myself up in their bathroom.  I gotta admit, I felt a little uncomfortable using a public bathroom as a shower but no one gave me any grief when I locked the bathroom door behind me and quickly washed my hair under the faucet.  I brushed my teeth, ridding myself of the morning breath that was punctuated by a hint of hops, a dollop of anchovy, and the slightest aroma of medium-heat buffalo sauce; a reminder of the lost-by-seven-points near-victory we had in last night's trivia contest at the Great American Pub.

So I unlocked the door, meandered to the counter and ordered a large coffee and two jelly-glazed donuts.  Upon taking my seat and gazing around the restaurant, I saw a scene not unlike a donut shop you'd encounter anywhere else in our united states.  A Boston radio station's morning zoo crew obnoxiously blared through the ceiling-mounted speakers. Five men, brandishing baseball caps, torn jackets, and walkie-talkie radios sat two tables away.  They were talking about their wives, the Red Sox, and plans for the upcoming weekend. 

The only noticeable difference from the same type of conversation in my hometown was this groups' apparent disdain for the letter "R."  It seems no one in New England likes to use this letter.  "Beer" becomes "bee-ah" somewhere a little bit north of Newport, Rhode Island.  I overheard a guy talk about sharks.  I wasn't sure what he meant because I only get a "shock" when I stick my finger in an electrical outlet, not when dipping my toe into the cold waters of the North Atlantic.

I sat sipping my coffee, munching on a donut, and nursing a too-early-for-this-shit thousand-yard stare when an older lady appeared in my peripheral vision.

"Young man?" she said. 

I snapped to.  Young man?  I looked at her and an age-spotted hand pointing in my general direction.  I smiled at her.  "Here," she said.  I looked at a crisp ten-dollar bill in her right mitt. 

"It looks like you've had better days; why don't you get yourself a hot meal."

I sat back, confused, for a moment. 

Jesus Christ, I thought.  This woman thinks I'm homeless.  A quick glance at my table probably confirmed that notion:  my towel, rolled up, sat next to my coffee cup.  The shaving kit was next to my half-eaten donut.  I hadn't shaved since Monday and a scraggly three-day shadow covered my chin.  If I would have had a large garbage bag tied and sitting at my feet the ensemble would have been damned-near perfect.

I must have sat quiet for a good thirty seconds before saying anything.

The five guys two tables away stopped talking and were now intently listening to my little drama.

Uhhhh, I spit out.

"Thank you for your kindness but I'm okay."  The smile somewhat left her face.

I explained that I was a photographer traveling with my buddy.  I pointed to the big white truck inhabiting most of the adjacent  lot and told her that life on the road wasn't exactly the Ritz; I grabbed a little hot water whenever I could.  Her smile was replaced by embarrassment.  She apologized profusely, to which I smiled.

She wouldn't stop apologizing and begged me to take the ten bucks, probably to relieve her embarrassment.  I declined, but thanked her for her kindness; a rarity not found in most of the world's chain-store donut shops.

She slowly backed away, red-faced and humiliated from her no-good-deed-goes-unpunished faux pas.

I finished my donut, added more cream to my coffee and then grabbed my stuff.  As I started to walk out the five guys gave me some good-natured ribbing.  "Ya shoulda kept the money!," one of them said. 

I smiled and walked out the door.  It wasn't even eight o'clock yet and I had received a sobering, eye-opening experience.

Apparently, a Sam Adams-induced blank stare and the lack of one lousy shower is all that separates me from looking indigent. 

My hangover was now gone, replaced by a chuckle and the realization that I needed a haircut and that maybe...just maybe... I'm not cut out for life on the road.