It was late on a hot early summer night in Bensonhurst in 1984 when I awoke to find my girlfriend gone. This upset me mainly because I would now have to pay all the rent. Also, when I got home from work the next day,I found out she had taken the television. But luckily I still had all my guitars.
There was an ad in the Village Voice the next week. They were looking for people who were musicians to take a bus — first to San Francisco, then on to the Republican convention in Texas — so I thought, what the hell, I decided to go… I wanted to get out of town, anyway.
Well, the bus broke down on the way to NYC, so the person I met through the ad suggested we drive out there in his Subaru. At this point, I should have realized traveling 3,000 miles with someone you barely know was not a good idea.
This guy was not a good musician, by any means, but he had written a song about children frolicking in acid rain which was pretty good. He was also a vegetarian (not that there’s anything wrong with that), so when we passed through Pennsylvania and stopped at my parents’ house on the way out west, we had to deconstruct the ham and cheese sandwiches my mom made for us… ham for me (yum) and cheese for him.
His car was not exactly in tip-top shape, and I was already feeling worried in this early portion of our journey, but we headed on to Ohio, despite ominous sounds from the car’s engine. We had to get to Iowa in time for his grandmother’s funeral.
We didn’t sleep anywhere but in our sleeping bags for the entire journey. There was a town celebration with lots of pretty girls in Indiana, but we couldn’t stay because we had to get to his grandmother’s funeral on time.
We were passing the outskirts of Chicago when the car gave up. We had it towed to a repair shop, bought a case of beer, drank it, and waited. By the time it was fixed, we were too drunk to drive, so we slept in a field and headed for Iowa the next morning.
Iowa is very flat and full of cornfields. There is no real horizon in the distance. The sun doesn’t actually set, but disappears like the blink of an eye. You just keep on driving until it drops from the sky.
We arrived at his parents’ farm late in the afternoon when it was nearly dark. They were very nice people and grateful to have a meat eater for dinner in America’s Breadbasket in addition to their tofu-loving son. After sleeping on what felt like a luxurious couch, some of us non-vegetarian folks enjoyed a ham and egg breakfast and we were on our way to Colorado, Utah, and Nevada.
We crossed the border into Colorado at rush hour. Rush hour over the Rockies… go figure. It was six lanes of traffic and we were in a wounded Subaru. It was about eighty degrees when we started our ascent — when we reached the top it was freezing. Glad I had a jacket in my bag.
We drove on to Utah. This place is nothing but desert. A sign up ahead reads, LAST CHANCE GAS 150 MILES. We fill up and keep on heading for the Utah desert.
We had no air conditioning in the Subaru and my traveling mate (whose name to this day I do not know) slept because he was an insomniac and could not sleep at night.
Like I said before, best not to go cross country with a stranger.
I drove through the arid, extremely hot air, passing ARMADILLO CROSSING signs and the occasional tumbleweed, and, as he peacefully slept, I got a really bad sunburn on my arm.
When we finally crossed the border into Nevada, the car started to overheat a few miles in, and we stopped at a gas station. “Ain’t no girls here,” the attendant announced in a loud voice. “Make a right turn at the corner, it’s about 35 miles over to the nearest place. They got some nice girls there.” Well, now we couldn’t stop because we had to get to the Democratic National Convention on time. Damn!
We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in the early afternoon. The fog had rolled out, and the sun was shining brightly. We made our way towards our destination. We were supposed to have a place to stay in the Haight Ashbury area. The car made it to the top of the hill at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, then gave out and just died.
He went to find the address while I waited in the car.
A long time later he returns with this news: just room for one person — I must sleep in the car. He gives me the car key and phone number to reach him (no one had invented cell phones yet back then). I went to the store and bought a quart of Stroh’s beer and walked back to my not-so-mobile Home on the Bay. Tomorrow was the opening day of the convention and I fell asleep wondering what might happen.
I woke up about 7 AM. The fog was thick and, despite being July 16, it was damp and chilly. I found a newsstand and bought the paper and a cup of coffee. Then I went back to the car and waited. He got there about noon.
We took a BART bus down to the Moscone Center where the event was being held. The street the building was located on was cordoned off on one side a few blocks away, and only people with passes (like journalists) could walk there. My cohort had a press pass, I did not. Somehow we made it to the entrance of the building, which was actually a tent. He showed his pass and got in, then he passed it under the tent and I used it with no problem. They offered free beer and pretzels and I heard Jesse Jackson’s fiery speech. That’s about all I can remember of the politicians. But I had something else to do — there was an afterparty, and we were invited!
The party was held at a Mexican restaurant a few blocks away. We walked there, and inside found a loud, out-of-tune, punk rock band (it was the 80s) ruining 60s R&B tunes. They were terrible, but when they took a break, I walked over to their table and started talking to them. Sitting at the table were two female friends of the band — one really cute. The band played a short set and started to pack up their stuff. The cute girl grabbed my hand and said, “You’re coming with me!” Then her friend turned to my companion and said, “You look like you have money. Well, buy me a drink.” Leah (I remember her name) and I were out the door and on our way across the Bay Bridge to Oakland.
On the way there, she told me she knew a band that needed a guitar player, a friend of hers needed a gas station attendant, she had a little boy, and she always wanted to see Brooklyn. I thought I was set. When we arrived at her friend’s house, there was a party going on. I gave her a quick kiss, and we went inside.
There was a small party going on… five or six people smoking pot, drinking wine, and listening to music. I wished I had a guitar with me. As the night progressed, some folks fell asleep in chairs, on the couch, and on the floor. Leah found a blanket, and we slept on the floor with everybody else, destroying any chance at intimate romance — we just cuddled.
In the morning, everybody went to Jack in the Box for breakfast. Up to this point in my life, I had never spent the night with a woman and not provided her with breakfast the next morning. Whether I would prepare it or buy it would vary, but I would always do one or the other. Besides, I’d be hungry, too. But on this day, I only had a quarter and a dime in my pocket. Leah bought us each a coffee and drove me back across the bridge. She left me off at the car in the Haight. I told her I was getting money from back East later that day, and she should come back and meet me there. She never returned.
I wandered around the city all day and had a slice of pesto pizza for dinner. When I returned to the intersection of Haight and Ashbury that evening, the car was gone! Inside was my tool box, one electric and one acoustic guitar, a couple duffle bags with clothes, and my sleeping bag.
At about 6 PM, I called the number for the car owner. He has had it towed. He has had it towed with all my stuff still inside! The car is sitting in a lot way, way, way down to a place where the buses don’t run and the dogs are quick to bark. That’s where I’m heading, and it’s close to dark.
It’s a desolate area with few street lights, but I see the car in a fenced off area. Luckily, very luckily for me, the junkyard dogs were in a separate area. All I had to do was climb over the fence, unlock the car, get my stuff out of the car, and climb back over the fence with my stuff. In my tool box I had some speaker wire. I used it as a rope to lower the tool box, one electric and one acoustic guitar, a couple of duffle bags, and my sleeping bag one at a time over the fence.
I’m guessing the nearest bus stop was about a quarter of a mile away, but it felt like a hundred miles. I picked up what I could carry and walked twenty steps, then put it down and returned for some of the rest. I repeated this many times over as I slowly advanced toward the bus route.
There were few passengers on the bus, and the driver didn’t mind waiting for me an extra minute to load my things. As we drove back to the Haight, I told the bus driver my story. He told me I could store my stuff at the Haight-Ashbury Switchboard. It was near the end of his route, and he would drop me there.
It was open 24 hours a day — sort of a community center. They let me check in and store everything except my sleeping bag. I walked over to Golden Gate Park, found a soft spot, and lay down to sleep.
The next morning I had a curious wake-up call: a fat lady from a funhouse! It was being broadcast from a police cruiser loudspeaker as it drove through the park to wake slumbering hippies. I looked up at them as they drove by, and then went back to sleep.
When I woke up, I found my way to the Haight-Ashbury Switchboard where I left my things. They were all there.
The Haight Ashbury Switchboard offered two opportunities to earn money: one, take a bus upstate and pick whatever is in season; or two, stay in the city and panhandle for the Switchboard (split 50/50). At day’s end, I chose the latter.
They sent me down to Castro Street, the infamous gay district. I had mixed results, but always ended up with some pocket money so I could eat.
One day a pretty girl stopped to talk to me. She invited me to her apartment that evening, and told me to bring my guitar. Great (I thought for a moment)! I would go home, take a shower, grab my guitar, and go! Except I forgot I have no home nor shower to go to — I am living in a sleeping bag.
I showed up at her door anyway. She wasn’t there.
The next day, I saw a flyer on a post for the Green Tortoise Buses. A hundred dollars from Frisco to New York with a five-day travel time. I had enough of the West Coast and wanted to go back East. I called back home for the money and my parents wired it to me. I booked a ticket for that Friday night. I was outta there.
The night of my departure, I claimed my toolbox, two guitars, sleeping bag, and two bags of clothes, and waited in the front room. After a while, I took out my guitar and began to play (Friend of the Devil, I think it was). There was a group of people in the room and a guy came up to me and said, “You play like that? I’ll give you a gig right now! Go figure. The bus pulled up and I climbed on board.
The morning sun revealed my fellow passengers. They were young and old, tourists and hippie-types. Our first stop was the hot springs in Nevada, early in the morning. All of the passengers threw off their clothes and waded in for a quick sauna. We had to leave before the park rangers came by on their rounds.
There was a small refrigerator on the bus where anyone could store food or beer. And if you were a musician, you were obliged to play. Also, each person could choose music to be played on a tape player when their turn came up. Some people (including me) were smoking pot and drinking wine. Overall, it was a festive trip, but I was glad to hit Pennsylvania around 3 PM on the last day. I knew I’d be home soon.
We pulled off the last exit before crossing the Delaware River to New Jersey about midnight, and my dad was waiting in his trusty Ford pick-up truck. We loaded my stuff up, I said goodbye to everybody, and we went home. My mom made me a sandwich. I ate it then slept for about 15 hours. It was good to be home.
The next day, I got a ride back to Brooklyn, and New York never looked so good!
I’ve remained here ever since.
Coast to Coast
Written and performed by Gary Newton