The Rogue Voice


January 01, 2007


A draftee from Portland, Oregon, Vic Faber, laughed and mocked Carter every time he got a love letter from Sally.

‘Sooner or later she’ll send you a “Dear John.” I seen a million like you, Carter. You think she really loves you, but she’ll get lonely, and horny, like all the rest, and in no time she’ll be goin’ at it with some draft dodger.’

Part I

By Dell Franklin

Jerry Carter met Sally McCormick a month before he was inducted into the Army. It was 1966 and he was working at Disneyland as a ride operator (lofty in the employee hierarchy) and Sally was an apprentice tour guide. Sally was petite with pale skin and long brown hair and dancing green eyes and a mischievous, lopsided smile. Jerry was Hollywood, surfer handsome with a deep tan and wavy blond hair.
It was a breathtaking affair. They went at it their first night together and it couldn’t be halted, a runaway train. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other and couldn’t stand to be apart. He made her smile on sight, made her laugh without trying, relished her cuddling up to him and controlling the radio when he drove his cherried-out 1955 Chevy, felt himself rise at the mere brushing of her thigh against his, mind lost, numb to all stimuli but her, and they did it in drive-in theaters, on the hill overlooking town, in a cheap motel room, on the beach near the caves in Huntington Beach; they were like rabbits, rabbits, and then he was inducted and gone to Ft. Ord in Monterey in the dead of winter.
Sally wrote Carter daily. He wrote every chance he could, but the Army kept him busy from 6:30 in the morning until midnight, depriving him and fellow trainees of all former privileges and amenities, the only break from the constant physical and mental harassment being his reading the perfumed letters from Sally.
One Sunday afternoon he had an hour and Sergeant Tull caught him in his bunk gazing at her picture, sniffing her letter.
“You dumb-ass, shit-head,” he growled. “Forget the girl. Sooner or later she’ll send you a ‘Dear John.’ I seen a million like you, Carter. You think she really loves you, but she’ll get lonely, and horny, like all the rest, and in no time she’ll be goin’ at it with some draft dodger, goin’ at it like she went at it with you, and you’ll be crawlin’ around in ‘Nam dodgin’ bullets. Forget her, boy, you’re ours now, not hers.”
Other troops who had girls and wives back home heard the same speech from Tull and all the drill instructors, like it was part of the training. A draftee from Portland, Oregon, Vic Faber, laughed and mocked Carter every time he got a love letter from Sally. He claimed to be thankful he was unburdened with such heartstrings, thankful to be on his own to go whoring, mistrusting 99 percent of all women and maintaining it was a biological impossibility for any woman to be sexually loyal to a man while he was away for two years, especially if they were used to “getting it,” because in that sense women were just like men—needing it and thinking about it; so they broke down and had affairs because the “flesh was weak.”
To Carter it seemed inconceivable Sally could carry on with another man as she did with him, and he was encouraged by the fact his own mother had been loyal to his dad when he was gone during World War II, and he was further encouraged when he re-read letters from Sally who said she missed his voice and laugh and the way he looked at her and touched her and wanted to marry him when he got discharged, and prayed every night he wouldn’t get sent to Vietnam.
After the sixth week of basic, he got a weekend pass. His parents wanted to come up and see him but he lied and told them he had extra duty and wouldn’t be available, and Sally drove up in his Chevy and they went directly to a motel in Monterey and stayed there the whole time, Sally at first crestfallen at the sight of his pale skin and shaved head, but loving his harder body, for he was in the best shape of his life.
Two weeks later he was home for a 15-day leave and his parents were furious when he spent all his time with Sally. They became engaged, though he had no money for a ring. They went to the beach every day and made kissy face, and at night they did it in the drive-in or on the hill overlooking town or in a motel room or down at the caves on the beach, and then the 15 days were over—gone so fast—and he left for Fort Sill in Oklahoma for artillery school.
Ft. Sill was a blistering hot, barren hellhole, and all Carter did was shoot rockets and cannon and after a while he knew only the stench of powder and a steady ringing in his ears from explosions. He was told this would go on until his discharge, so get used to it, and here he had almost two years to go, the only solace being Sally’s letters, which came nearly every day, like clockwork, telling him how much she missed and loved him and how deeply it hurt to be away from him and how she thought about him every waking moment and could hardly sleep or keep her mind on work, and how she wished more than anything in the world she could just be in his arms and have him touch her and make love to her the way no man ever had or ever would; she knew their love was powerful enough to stand any test, so whole, so pure; it was meant to be. They were, like, connected….
Vic Faber his bunkmate—cynical, a drinker and carouser—was at Sill, too. The training and discipline became more intense because of ‘Nam and everybody talked of going there. Jerry was hoping to get stationed in the western United States, so Sally could visit him, or he could come home on leave, but instead they sent him and Faber to Baumholder, Germany, a duty post described by his first sergeant as absolutely the worst shithole in the entire United States Army that was not a combat zone, a place so grim and depressing that guys who hated the Army actually re-upped for ‘Nam just to get away, so they wouldn’t go nuts and end up in the stockade or loony bin. Word was the sun never shined in Baumholder, even in summer, and all you did was soldier, soldier, soldier, because it was a strike unit for NATO vigilance against the Soviets. What’s more, the local Germans resented GIs, and there was nothing to do but drink, fight and whore.
Top wasn’t exaggerating. Carter and Faber got there in late August and it was already cold, damp, glum, the base a feudal fortress, like a prison. Troops seemed edgy, depressed, sour, and they bitched about everything and were scornful toward newcomers, warning them they were in for the most terrible time of their lives, lording it over them that THEY were short-timers and would be home in a few months while THEY went nuts in Baumholder. They wanted nothing to do with Carter and Faber. They played cards, drank, argued, screamed at each other, threatened to kill each other, fought viciously.
These men were changed, different, almost demented, drinking with a vengeance, full of bitter hatred toward their situation. Carter stayed away from them, buddied up with Faber and wrote his Sally, reading and rereading her letters when he wasn’t out on maneuvers or on post polishing his brass and spit-shining his boots and shoes and cleaning his equipment, writing her long, passionate letters, the reading of her letters and the writing of his own being the only trace of civility in this new environment, everything else dark, the winter coming quickly, the first real cold and snow held ever experienced, and it seemed the sun never did shine, and they were always out in the miserable elements, always being yelled at and ordered around, and they began going miles and miles away on long field problems and war games in a wrath-of-God placed called Grafenvoer, where they met up with other battalions, Grafenvoer even uglier and grimmer than Baumholder, staying in these ugly cinder-block huts warmed by burning coal, spending all day and every day marching around in mud and snow and sleet, shooting off rockets and cannon, going deaf, shivering, teeth-chattering cold, sniffling, coughing, hacking, weak, sick, pushed to the breaking point, eventually released from this abject drudgery, only to return to Baumholder, where everybody drank and fought and whored, Faber soon finding his own private whore, a sultry, stacked blond, Faber telling Carter he ought to try her friend, they could party together, for this was the only way to keep ones sanity in this fucking maelstrom, but he still had his letters from Sally, though by around the holidays they were no longer coming on a daily basis.
Nor were they as intense and intimate. At first she had ended all letters with “I LOVE YOU.” Then it was “All my love.” By the holidays, it was “Love, always.” The letters became shorter and she apologized for being so busy with her job, and these letters seemed chatty and less warm and passionate, there was less perfume, and then she began ending her letters with “Love,” and, finally, “Love yah.”
Carter began to get nervous. Then the letters ceased coming. He waited and waited—one week, two weeks, three weeks, a month. He thought about what Tull had said, and about Disneyland in general. The place was a meat house, a body exchange. Everybody who worked there was young and attractive and “looking” for somebody—a breeding ground for the goddamn mating ritual; young, eligible people in the prime of their sexuality; and word from the states was that there was this new drug-induced movement of sexual freedom, and all these aspects began to torture Carter, and so he drank, and began calling Sally long distance, but she was never home, only this bitchy roommate, who was always evasive when he asked her how Sally (who had his car) was doing and why wasn’t she writing him and was she seeing another guy. Goddamn you, you bitch, answer me! She called him an asshole and hung up.
He couldn’t afford to keep calling her on the pittance he made. He brooded and felt himself unraveling. How could this happen? They had been so close. No man had ever given her orgasms as he had. No woman had ever gotten him as hot as she did. They were born to be together. How could she fall in love and have the same feelings for some fucking draft-dodger? Some manicured very cool pretty boy from Disneyland, while he was bogged down in the worst shithole on earth, jacking off to the sight and scent of her letters and picture whenever he could find the time and privacy. He woke up in the middle of the night with visions of Sally sucking another man’s cock, of Sally gleefully straddling another man and creaming as she had upon him….
Faber had no mercy for Carter and explained that most girls didn’t send “Dear John” letters when they were getting it steadily from a new beau, because they felt guilty, so it was easier to let things slide away and slowly dissolve, especially when you were 6,000 miles away and there wasn’t a goddamn thing you could do about it anyway.
Carter told Faber he was going to write Sally a different kind of letter than he had the past month—begging, pleading, lovelorn. He was going to write her a letter calling her a lying, phony, disloyal, two-timing cunt! Faber urged him not to write such a letter, but to “ride things out” and accept her weakness and then, when he got home, revenge-fuck her. But “dammit,” Carter claimed, he LOVED her. Faber laughed, patted his back, took him out and got him drunk and Carter fucked a whore and it was no good, he couldn’t stop thinking about Sally. He was bitched, dammed, felt empty and more miserable than ever, and then he got a letter from a pal out at Disneyland telling him that Sally was shacking up with a big shot at Disneyland, a guy named Lancaster.
Carter felt himself go weak all over, as if palsied. He scribbled off a letter telling Sally he knew all about Lancaster and just could not believe she’d dump him while he was 6,000 miles away for an asshole like Lancaster, and he asked her if she was getting it as good from him as she was from him, Carter, and if she was cooing all the same lovy-dovy bullshit she’d been cooing to him, Carter, and he hated her now, but could not stop thinking of the two of them going at it the same way he and Sally went at it, and in the same places, like rabbits, all these thoughts gnawing at him until they became obsessions…and he marched around and blew off rockets and cannon in a daze, detached, always thinking only of Sally and Lancaster, crying inside, crying quietly into his pillow at night, wanting to go AWOL and borrow money and take a plane back home and find the two of them together and kill them both with his bare hands!
He told Faber of this plan and Faber told him he was crazy, around the bend, to calm down, that he was stupid to eat his heart out and pine over Sally, that it was a good thing he found out what kind of woman she really was now, before marrying such a slut, and here he was depriving himself of local whores, but “no, no, you don’t understand, Faber, I LOVE the bitch, I can’t help it.” Faber horse-laughing, implored Carter to meet this whore who was a friend of his steady, and so Carter got bombed and did so, and it did no good, made him feel miserable and empty and more alone than ever, so he wrote Sally a new letter, calling her a whore, cocksucker—stupid cunt!— bitch, witch, pig-gash, rotten piece of shit, offal, human garbage, a worthless immoral slut no man could ever trust…a page and a half of horrible insults, stuff so vile Faber started to read it and threw it down, telling Carter he was cuckoo and needed help.
Two weeks later he got a response in a manila envelope. He tore it open. No letter. Just two color photos. The first was of Sally facing him naked, giving him the finger, with Lancaster laughing in the background. The second was of her straddling Lancaster. Carter found himself screaming and howling like a wounded coyote. Ahhhhh. AAHHHHHH!
Like he’d been shot. Faber came over to glimpse the photos, whistled when Carter snatched them away and began beating them on his bunk, punching them, yelling Sally’s name while troops came around to observe, calling Sally as loud as he could a lousy bitch whore cunt cocksucker aaaahhhh!” Faber brought him a bottle of whiskey which he drank down like a beer, and then he took the photos and a big blown up one of Sally taped to the inside of his wall locker and those of her in his album (several of them embracing on the beach), and he took these photos and all her perfumed letters and tore them into little shreds and took the remains to the latrine and burned them and pissed on the ashes while everybody looked on and laughed, drinking, having a big time.

Carter went on a bender to end all benders. He ceased caring about his appearance and welfare and fucked up his gear and screwed up his job. He considered re-upping for ‘Nam it if allowed him a 30-day leave so he could go home and beat Sally and Lancaster to death. He muddled through maneuvers and got gigged and reprimanded and went to town every night on money sent to him by his parents and brother and drank and whored with a vengeance. He got in several brutal, vicious fights that resulted in a broken nose, chipped front tooth, and a 23-inch scar on his scalp and forehead from a bottle someone busted over his head. He received a double Article 15 and was restricted to post for a month, doing every shit detail in the manual, which was probably better than going out to Grafenvoer for war games and maneuvers and blowing off rockets and cannon, but he was also an object of humiliation, a sad sack, a Beetle Bailey cartoon character, a joke, the guy who got the naked pictures of his babe back home fucking another man, and the worst part of the whole rotten ordeal was that deep inside he still LOVED her, oh goddammit he did, couldn’t get her out of his mind, couldn’t believe this was all actually happening, and still loving her made him hate all men and women, because all women were untrustworthy whores like Sally and all men were out to fuck Sally, they were all out to fuck him over and make his life miserable, people like Tull and Faber were right—right about everything.
When his restriction was up, he and Faber went to town and his girl, Bridget, introduced Carter to a 35-year-old blonde Amazon woman named Heidi. Built. Not beautiful or pert, but handsome—an air of take-charge authority about her. She sized Carter up, touching the raw scar on his forehead. She didn’t flirt. She had a harsh voice. She had money from being a big-time hooker who sat in the windows in Hamburg. She liked Carter. Flattered him. Pampered him. Treated him like a king. Made him feel like a man, yet had a way of ordering him around like a little boy, a bold and domineering Fräuline indeed, who took charge of their love-making, bringing to Carter a new and different kind of pleasure that would seem foreign to shallow, unimaginative Sally. Heidi seemed to know his needs, and after a while it seemed he belonged to her, became addicted to her, and all this made Baumholder and Grafenvoer and rockets and cannon and constant noise and the stench of powder and barracks life bearable, and he was a short-timer now, over the hump, just six months to go, the worst over; they could not do any more to him than they already had.
Faber and Bridget and Heidi and Carter drove to Munich in Heidi’s Mercedes for Octoberfest, Heidi in charge of rooms and where they went and ate and how they spent their days, and they drank in the gigantic beerhouses and rocked with the Germans and celebrated and fucked at night like rabbits, Heidi’s tough skin smelling of lilac, her pussy perfumed, and before he knew it Carter was convinced he could not live without her and wanted to marry Heidi and take her home…yes, yes, that would show Sally. Heidi would eat her alive, she was a real woman, not some little girl.
Faber and Carter took 30 days leave before their discharges, and set off for Paris and then Barcelona where they shacked up with more whores and drank and partied, Faber advising Carter against marrying Heidi, telling him he was crazy to marry a prostitute who was 10 years older, and that he shouldn’t be like so many other GIs in Germany who weakened and married prostitutes and took them home to America because they couldn’t deal with a couple years of loneliness and misery. Faber advised him to ride it out, go back home and get his job back at Disneyland and fuck all the pretty girls there. So, when he returned to post, he stayed there and avoided Heidi, hiding when she strode onto post searching for him; he never called her, just as Faber eluded Bridget, and they took the same bus from Baumholder to Frankfort and flew the same plane to New York, drinking the whole time, and then Faber flew to Portland and Carter flew to L.A., where his parents picked him up and drove him to Anaheim. He wasn’t home half a day when he infuriated his parents by taking their car so he could go find Sally. He heard she was a tour guide at Disneyland and lived with the same crow in an apartment complex in Anaheim. He drove over and saw his 1955 Chevy parked in the underground lot. He half expected her to come out with Lancaster, holding hands. He would kill both of them. He stood for an hour, leaning against his car. Then he saw her—hair still long and brown and lustrous. Swathed in a dark turtleneck sweater, her hard little titties on the high ribcage perked right up, her pronounced bottom merging with her slightly swayed back as she moved her hips in rhythm on high heels. His heart literally burned in his chest. She saw him. Stopped in her tracks, almost fainting, beside the Chevy. Carter wore OP swim trunks, Hawaiian shirt and huarachis, a California boy once again.
Her head tilted. He tried to appear stern but felt his nearly two-year storehouse of anger melt away as Sally’s mischievous, lopsided grin spread across her face. Carter’s legs weakened and his mind stalled. No words came to him. She moved toward him, tentative, stopped again. Her face changed. Tears welled in her eyes. She reached for his face, her hand ceasing in mid-air, inches away. “Oh darling, my poor darling,” she croaked, crying now. “What happened to your poor little face? What did they DO to you?”
He took her hand, ran her fingers along the jagged scar on his forehead, and smiled, showing her his chipped in half front tooth. §

Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at

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    Magoo eats it

    The starkness and beauty of the place felt unsettling: Snow and sheets of ice, the jagged edges of a mountain, mosses, low grasses, and rivulets of water everywhere.

    Stark gray, blue and charcoal-colored stones popped through the snow and climbed into the sky, one on top of the other, until they became one and formed a jagged crest cutting into the cobalt blue above.

    Magoo eats it

    Scott’s dog gets in the last lick

    Editor’s note: The following story is part of a series on culture and religion in America.

    By Stacey Warde

    We didn’t tell the rangers about Scott’s dog, Magoo. Dogs aren’t allowed in the backcountry of designated wilderness areas.
    Dogs are nuisances in the wild; they attract bears and leave their piles in the wrong places. They bark and harass wildlife; they run after marmots.
    Magoo, a black lab mix, kept quiet and seldom barked, unless provoked. He was a good dog, but temperamental.
    Scott loved his dog and tormented him. They were like lovers. He’d pet Magoo, who’d lick his hand, and then Scott would pull on Magoo’s tail until he barked, first to say, “Stop!” A second bark meant, “Goddammit!”
    Magoo carried his own orange pack with silver bowl attached. The pack rested over his back like a saddlebag with pouches on either side.
    Scott had packed the pouches full with Magoo’s dog food, enough to last a few days. By then, we’d hit Tuolumne Meadows where we’d re-supply before returning to the backcountry, where Magoo wasn’t allowed.
    We broke camp mid-morning for the crest to hike down, into the Upper McCabe Lake area. We first had to climb over the ridge before descending.
    We trekked through snow as the June sun warmed our backs. Magoo held steady and carried his load with no complaints. He stumbled now and then and we lifted him over the more difficult boulder-hops.
    “Magoo’s a good dog, Scott,” I said as Tom and I held him aloft for Scott and Brian to lift him up to the next boulder.
    The passage down started to get a little hairy. We could see the lake below but it would take time and unhurried traversing across exposed boulders to get down there safely, and without falling to our deaths.
    Magoo was the first to sense danger and resist moving onward. He pushed his front paws straight out against the rock, and resisted being nudged forward. He wouldn’t budge.
    “Fuckin’ Magoo,” Scott said.
    We decided to let Magoo have his way. We found a place behind us, stopped to rest, take in the view, eat a snack and smoke a joint before attempting the exposed crossing.
    “This is the best, man.”
    “The greatest.”
    Magoo scraped his bowl against the rocks as his tongue and muzzle swiped it clean. We gazed at the distant ranges, the lake below, where melting snow and ice slid slowly into its belly on the near side.
    Stark gray, blue and charcoal-colored stones popped through the snow and climbed into the sky, one on top of the other, until they became one and formed a jagged crest cutting into the cobalt blue above. The fierceness of it finally struck me, the pointed hardness piercing the sky, the placid lake below, frozen in places, vulnerable to wind, ice and sun.
    “How does anything survive up here?” I asked.
    “You don’t see any houses,” Tom said, as the herb kicked in and he got that goofy grin.
    “You’d be amazed at the amount of life there is, right here under our feet,” Scott interjected. “Stuff under your boots just fucking away like crazy.”
    “If I had to live up here I’d be fucking away like crazy too.”
    “Yeah, living like this makes me horny.”
    “That’s all you think about isn’t it?”
    “Nah, man, think about the risk you’re taking just being here, sitting on this rock, out in the open like this. You’re vulnerable and you know it, and you know the species must survive, so you get horny and wanna fuck like crazy. That’s life, man.”
    “Sure, that’s life. Just keep your horniness to yourself.”
    We reached for our packs. It was time to go. Scott moved first. He surveyed the tilt on the face of the next boulder we had to traverse. The granite’s angle posed a threat to our safety, he said. The rock itself appeared smooth. He ran his hand across the boulder.
    “It’s a little slippery,” he said, his face flushed with concern. He looked above us, beyond the unsafe passage, seeking an alternate route. “We’ll have to slide across this boulder. It’s exposed.”
    “What does that mean?”
    “It means that if you slip, you’re going to fall. I just can’t see from here how far,” he said, looking over and out into the space beyond the boulder. He leaned over as far as he could to see the bottom. “I can’t see how far the drop is. But this is the only way to go. Wait until I get to the other side.”
    He grabbed his pack and slipped across the boulder with the ease of a crab. He stopped on the other side, took off his pack, looked at the drop again and turned to face us. “Shit!” he said, smiling, breathless, “it’s a long fucking drop.”
    “Magoo’s next,” he said, holding out his arms.
    Magoo barked as Tom, Brian and I picked him up and lifted him to the boulder. “It’s OK, boy.”
    He barked again. “He’s swearing at you Scott.”
    “It’s OK, Magoo,” Scott said. “Ease ‘im across,” he told us, then, “Come ‘ere!”
    Magoo scuttled across the boulder and jumped to safety past Scott. He plopped himself down on his belly and turned his head to scowl at Scott. “Good boy, Magoo!” Scott said. The dog continued to scowl at him.
    “OK, who’s next?”
    “I’ll go,” Tom said. He walked across, his weight low, knees bent, body leaning close to the boulder. He jumped off and landed next to Scott and together they urged Brian to cross. Brian slid across sideways, back to the rock, looking into the valley, feet pointing downward. He froze. He started to slide down the boulder.
    “Fuck!” Scott and Tom reached for the collar on Brian’s jacket and the back of his pack and pulled him to safety. He turned and scrambled off the rock.
    “You all right?”
    “I’m fine,” Brian said, shaken, looking at the place he’d nearly fallen. “Jesus.”
    “Face the rock when you cross,” Scott advised me. “Don’t look down.”
    I had no sense of the actual danger until I reached the other side. When I got there, I stared at the rocks below and tried to guess how far. “It’s at least a couple hundred feet,” Tom said.
    “It’s more,” Scott corrected.
    We continued our trek to the Upper McCabe Lake. Once we arrived, we sat breathless, leaning against our packs, sucking up the mountain air. The starkness and beauty of the place felt unsettling: We were surrounded by snow and sheets of ice, the jagged edges of a mountain, mosses, low grasses, and rivulets of water everywhere. I felt we didn’t belong.
    In the days ahead, though, we had plenty of fresh mountain water to drink and virgin trout to eat. We fished and ate well. We jumped into the icy lake and howled like dogs. At night, we sang and told stories until finally we tucked ourselves in, between two enormous granite rocks that leaned against each other and formed an impenetrable teepee, a barrier against wind and cold, in the middle of an alpine meadow.
    Magoo kept good company and never barked.

    We camped three nights before deciding to leave the Upper for the Lower McCabe Lake, a much easier and more leisurely hike that would take us back inside the tree line.
    I was ready for it.
    The lush green forests in the distance below held a perpetual allure, like emeralds, even while we feverishly explored the naked silence of the rocks and ice above.
    The hike down was mostly uneventful, except for the stony bounce in our steps as we smoked dope and tripped along the smooth arms of the mountain’s limbs, dropping to lower elevations.
    Lower McCabe felt warm. The trees offered shelter from the sun. We camped beneath the trees, not far from the lake. We put up hammocks, rested, swam in the lake and washed off.
    I shat forest green.
    “How did that happen?” I wanted to know. “I’ve been eating fish and dried food.”
    “It’s the air,” Scott said. “It’s cleaning you out.”
    “You woulda thought a bear did it.”
    Scott reached inside his pack for a towel, put on his swimming trunks and said he was going to paddle out to the rock in the middle of the lake and sun himself. He whistled for Magoo, who lay quietly beneath Scott’s hammock, and trudged into the lake. “Come on, Magoo!”
    Magoo stood and shook himself off and turned toward the lake. He strolled, as though the thought to go swimming had originated with him.
    Scott turned himself and lay back on the sheet-glass surface of the dark lake, holding the towel above his head, pointing his body toward the rock. The sun glistened on his wet, black hair and the green lake surrounded his face. He whistled again. Magoo loped into the water and began paddling out to Scott. “Keep paddling, Magoo. That’s it, toward the rock.”
    Magoo dogpaddled past Scott’s head and pressed hard for the center of the lake. Scott reached over and grabbed his tail and held on while scissor-kicking his own legs. “That’s a boy, Magoo.” The dog panted hard as he neared the rock’s edge. He pulled himself up and Scott let go of his tail. Magoo tried to bark at Scott—twice, but it sounded more like a hacking cough. It was a definite scold. He rested for the longest time while Scott stretched himself out on his towel to soak up the sun. Magoo simply laid there, head up, tongue hanging, panting, waiting, staring ahead, not paying any attention to Scott.
    Then, without warning, after catching his breath, Magoo jumped back into the lake and swam for shore, toward our campsite. I decided to explore the woods surrounding the small lake. Brian set out earlier in the morning for a hike of his own. Tom slept soundly, snoring like a bear in his tent.
    I returned half an hour later to find Scott still on the rock, sitting, preparing to jump into the water. At camp, Magoo lay contentedly beneath Scott’s hammock, chewing up the last bits of Scott’s straw hat. §
    Part I of this story can be viewed here:

  • Hat's in the wind

  • Stacey Warde is editor of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at swarde@rogue
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    Life in the cage: Destination ASH

    ‘You tell the psychologist you hearin’ voices, that you see the devil in your cell at night, that you feel suicidal. They gonna put you up for transfer to Vacaville with the other girls who are there, fo’ sho’!’

    ‘I did lot of LSD. In fact, I hung out with Dr. Timothy Leary, the media psychologist. We organized RAVE parties in Southern California. He told me LSD was good for my mind, it would make me smarter.’

    Destination ASH

    How ‘nutcases’ find treasure in the California penal system

    By David Valdez

    Coming to the prison system in 1995, just 25 years old, after spending nearly two years in the L.A. County jail, I was scared, not knowing what to expect. I had already been involved in racial riots in jail dorms, seen men beaten with bars of soap inside a sock, men slashed with shaving razors. I had to fight for my survival. There was nowhere to hide. All my life I had heard stories about the “joint.” Cellmates who were named “Booty Bandits.” Shot-caller inmates who ordered naive young first termers to prove themselves to earn their bones and respect.
    My first day on the yard at New Folsom Prison, a maximum-security joint in Sacramento, I saw an African American inmate get rushed by three hardened convicts and nearly stabbed to death. It only confirmed my fears. For nights, I couldn’t sleep, being celled up with desperate, edgy cellmates. I had paranoid thoughts, panic attacks. I decided to finally see the prison psychologist to get some sleeping pills to take the edge off.
    I put in a request for sick call and in three weeks I was called to the infirmary. I sat in the waiting area with about two-dozen inmates and listened to dialogue next to me….
    “Girl, I need to get to Vacaville, my man is there for dialysis treatment. They got me in this nasty place with a pervert cellie who is trying to get THIS. Honey, I ain’t givin’ THIS up,” said Tanisha, a very young feminine light-skinned African American homosexual queen with beautiful long straight brown hair, flawless complexion, round ass, curvy chest resembling the super model, Tyra Banks.
    A more masculine-looking, overweight dark-skinned African American queen with nappy black hair in a ponytail and razor stubbles around his neck, which eliminated any illusion that this was a woman, who went by the moniker “Chocolate,” said: “You know what to do—you tell the psychologist you hearin’ voices, that you see the devil in your cell at night, that you feel suicidal. They gonna put you up for transfer to Vacaville with the other girls who are there, fo’ sho’!”
    “How fast they transfer me?”
    “They gonna put you on 72-hour suicide watch in the rubber room. Strip you down to nothin’, just a paper hospital gown. When you in there, don’t eat, cry a lot, talk to yourself.”
    “You done this before?”
    “Yeah. That’s why I am here today. I am tryin’ to get to Atascadero State Hospital. Lots of love there. Hamburgers or pizza for lunch. A menu for breakfast and dinner. Your own room, not a cell. Telephone to get incoming calls. It’s a hospital, not a prison.”
    “Wow! What’s I got to do when I get there?”
    “Keep playin’ the psychologist. If you and your man don’t work out at Vacaville, come to Atascadero. I’ll be there. We can live in the same room.”
    “Don’t the psychologists know who is faking and shaking?”
    “Some do, most don’t. It’s like a headache—they don’t know if you got one or not. When you get to the prison library, get a book on psychology, study the symptoms of psychosis, to know how to fool the doctors.”
    Sitting there, I drifted off in my mind, thinking what life would be like at Atascadero State Hospital. The delicious food. Freedom. Then I thought of Jack Nicholson getting lobotomized in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” No way I could fake mental illness.
    After about a four-hour wait in a crowded waiting room, I was called into the psychologist’s office. Dr. Ahmed, a tall, lanky, dark-skinned man, wearing glasses and white doctor’s smock, greeted me.
    “Mr. Valdez, what can I do for you?” he asked in a Middle East accent.
    “I got life. I can’t sleep. I’m stressed out. I feel paranoid.”
    “Paranoid, huh? Who do you think is trying to get you?”
    “I get thoughts that the guards placed a bug in my cell to listen to my conversations. I feel every cellmate I get is a spy.”
    “Hmmm…tell me, did you use speed or LSD, any other drugs before your arrest?”
    "Yes. I did lot of LSD. In fact, I hung out with Dr. Timothy Leary, the media psychologist. We organized RAVE parties in Southern California. He told me LSD was good for my mind, it would make me smarter.”
    He began to write down everything I said. He had a look of disbelief, scratching his head every so often. He then flipped through my medical file, read a few pages, skimming them quickly. Then he smiled.
    “OK, do you feel I am a spy out to get you, too?”
    “Yeah. I feel there is a video camera in here. Are you recording me?” I peered around the room, stared temporarily at the ceiling, then turned to look behind my chair.
    “Do you feel suicidal?”
    “Do you want to hurt yourself or others?”
    Dr. Ahmed continued to write down notes, shaking his head, with a grin of disbelief, as if he had heard these lines before. “Mr. Valdez, clearly your thinking is messed up. I believe you are having side effects from prior LSD and meth use. I will put you on a medication called Flavil to help you sleep, Cogentin to help you with the side effects you will experience with the medication.”
    “Side effects?”
    “Yes. Here is a disclaimer form. Review it. Then sign here that you understand the risks of taking psychotropic medication.”
    Reading the paper, I felt afraid to even take the meds. Side effects included: trembling, difficult breathing, sexual dysfunction, slow urination, excessive thirst, blurred vision. Feeling the meds might help me sleep, I signed the waiver.
    “OK, Mr. Valdez, I will have you moved from building three to building seven, the mental health unit. The unit officer will provide you with ice cubes daily. An MTA will deliver your meds right after dinner. If it’s over 90 degrees outside and you are on the yard, present this card to the yard officer who will follow you to come back to your cell. I will see you in about two weeks, to see how the meds are working. Any questions?”
    “Yeah. What does sexual side effects mean?”

    Later that night, I was moved to building seven, an air conditioned cell, and told I’d receive a cellmate in a few days.
    Right away, I noticed a big difference. The inmates here were very mellow, friendly, didn’t have the hardened prison look. Lots of homosexuals, a few queens of every race. A safe haven.
    Every day at noon, when the temperature outside reached 90, guards placed a huge container of ice cubes and jugs of cold water on dayroom tables for anyone who needed them. Inmates taking psychotropic meds must stay hydrated to avoid heat stroke. At 6 every evening after dinner, a white female medical technical assistant handed out pills by sliding a tiny manila envelope under the one-inch crack of the cell door. She checked out mouths to make sure we swallowed the pills.
    Alone in my cell at night, without a cellmate, I had the luxury of masturbating when the mood struck. However, after an hour of spanking the monkey, I couldn’t bust a nut. The meds altered my mind and body, I felt lethargic, wished I knew about these meds as a free man, could have lasted hours making love to a woman, instead of being the minute man that I am.
    Without yard access because of the hot weather, I spent a lot of time in the dayroon socializing, and discovered that many inmates were faking mental illness—all with different motives. Some were close to their release dates and wanted to collect SSI because mental illness qualifies as a disability. Others were looking to stay in the mental health unit or transfer to another prison.
    “Hey holmes, you a fish?” asked a Chicano nicknamed “Spider,” a 25-year old with bald head and tattoos of Aztec art all over his muscular arms and chest. He wore baggy shorts, XXXL grey sweatpants altered into shorts hanging three inches below his knees and just above the tops of his long, white tube socks which he stretched to his knees. He wore a wife-beater white tanktop and classic white NIKE Cortez tennis shoes.
    “Yeah, man. I just got here. Came from reception center two weeks ago.
    “You don’t have to trip here, holmes. Ain’t nothin’ jumpin’ off. People just doin’ their time.”
    “Why is it so mellow here?”
    “I’ll tell you like it is, holmes. Me, I got six months to the pad. I’m in max security due to my violent past. I used to gang bang. If I lived in other buildings, I’ll get into trouble for sure. My mom is sick on the outs. I want to be there before she dies. So I’m on a light dose of meds, to stay here in this quiet unit. Why you here, eh?”
    “Man, I’m desperate. Got life. Wife left me. I need meds to sleep.
    “Hey holmes, you don’t need the meds, you just need to do routina (exercise). Bust down, do some pushups, burpees. It will clear your mind. The meds will fuck you up over time. Make you do the thorzine shuffle, Look at Brad over there, the white boy.”
    A 23-year-old with unshaven face, sat at a table alone, his blue eyes staring into space. His blond hair was long, past his shoulders, unwashed, with split ends. His state blues were dirty, wrinkled. He wore black shower shoes. He was a true “J-Cat,” a term given to mentally ill inmates.
    “What happened to him?” I asked.
    “Too many years on psych meds. You keep taking that shit, you will end up like him. I think the meds are experimental.”
    “Really? Like we are test subjects? Lab rats?”
    “Yeah, holmes. The shit I’m on, I can’t even get a weso (hard-on) anymore. It’s all about population control, homie.”
    Within 10 minutes of talking with Spider, I could sense he was a couple of sodas short of a six-pack. He spoke of a conspiracy theory where all 35 California prisons would one day be used as concentration camps under the rule of the anti-Christ, and New World Order. He smoked too much PCP back in the day.
    Later that night, as I was about to fall asleep, just after pill call, the cell door opened, and my new cellmate walked in, carrying all his property in a pillow case.
    “Hi, I’m David, from Los Angeles,” I said, trying to be friendly.
    “I am Cortez, Hernando Cortez, from Spain,” he said in broken English, with the accent of a Mexican National. A short Latino, about 45 years old, dark-skinned, brown hair, his upper grill of gold teeth glittered when he spoke. He had a mustache like the Mexican revolutionary Zapata, and was slightly overweight.
    He placed his property in his locker, then jumped up on the top bunk and stayed quiet. I tried to initiate conversation but he didn’t answer. I figured he had a busy day, wanted to rest. As I started to fall asleep later on, I heard Cortez talking to himself in English and Spanish, a dialogue between two separate personalities.
    “Yo soy el Capitan de este barcol (I am captain of this ship!).”
    “You are a faggot!”
    “Yo soy el hombre mas guapo in del mundol (I am the most handsome man in the world!).”
    “You are ugly, a piece of shit!”
    Knowing this guy was a nutcase, I forced myself to stay awake. He continued all night, ranting on and on about pirates and gold. In the morning, I asked the unit office for a cell move. No open cells were available. So that day I stayed out of the cell and kicked it in the dayroom to avoid him. He didn’t leave the cell. During count time, while I was back in the cell, I noticed he always read his old Bible, flipping pages back and forth like a madman. The pages were worn from turning back and forth so often. Each page had scriptures highlighted and underlined. The cover of his Bible had a drawing of an old 1600s style map, the kind pirates used, with skulls all over. The initials “ASH” were circled at the center of the map.
    During every count, which took place at noon, 4 p.m., 7:45 p.m., 9:45 p.m., and 11:45 p.m., he got off his bunk, kneeled, and prayed like a Muslim, placing his head on the ground. I fought the urge to sleep. However, the meds kicked in and knocked me completely out. At about two in the morning, I was awakened by Cortez towering over me. Suddenly, he grabbed me by my T-shirt and threw me to the ground and began choking me.
    To escape, I head-butted him like a WWE wrestler, and he fell to the ground, holding his nose, which bled profusely, dripping blood all over his shirt. “I am Cortez!” he yelled. “Take me to Montezuma!”
    Still half asleep and drowsy, feeling this had to be a nightmare, I stared at him, not comprehending what the hell he was talking about.
    As he got up and lunged at me, swinging his fists, my first instinct was to kill him, or he would kill me! However, after having listened to his rantings for two days, I thought of a nonviolent solution. I kicked him in the balls with all my strength, and he fell on his ass.
    I stood over him and invoked the pirate code: “PARLAY! PARLAY! PARLAY! I want to speak to the captain of this ship!”
    He looked up at me, immediately changing his voice and personality and spoke in a deep, raspy tone of a pirate. “You invoke ‘parlay?’”
    “Yes, I am ready to plead my case.”
    “Tell me, why shouldn’t you die?”
    “I will lead you to the treasure, Cortez!”
    “Treasure? Where?” he shouted, very excited.
    “In the morning, when the sun rises, I’ll lead you to the long-haired lady, who has the correct map.”
    His personality changed again, this time to that of a scared child.
    He jumped back on his bunk, pulled the sheets over his head, and fell asleep, snoring.
    I stayed awake, reflecting on what could have ended up a murder. In the morning, on the way to chow, I told Cortez to follow the other inmates while I contacted the “long-haired lady.” He kept walking. I went immediately to the unit officer and asked for another cell move. Unfortunately, he reconfirmed there were no empty cells.
    Suddenly, an alarm sounded in the chow hall. Officers ran from different directions to the scene. I sat on the ground, as other inmates did, per prison regulations, and observed two officers escorting Cortez to a holding cage. Not far behind him, officers were escorting a long haired native American inmate who was often mistaken for a woman. The program resumed. All of us inmates rose from our asses and continued going our way. My unit officer suddenly returned, still out of breath. He handed me two plastic bags.
    “Here, Valdez, take these bags and roll up your cellmate’s property. He isn’t coming back.”
    “What happened?”
    “Apparently, he attacked the Indian guy, screaming, ‘Where’s the treasure?’ He is what we refer to as a J-Cat. My sergeant says that he has attacked inmates at three different prisons in the last four months. He has priors. You are lucky he didn’t attack you. He will be transferred to Atascadero State Hospital; the psychologist will be making arrangements.”
    I walked back to my cell, and stood waiting, until a guard electronically opened the door. I stepped inside and opened Cortez’s locker and began packing up his property, placing it all in the plastic bag. At the back of the locker, I found a small plastic bag which contained about a hundred different psych meds. He had been palming his meds, not taking them.
    The unit officer came to the cell about five minutes later. He was a young white officer who looked like a college student, blond hair, blue eyes, crew cut, lanky.
    “Alright, Valdez, thanks for packing your cellie’s shit. You lucky man, you will be having a conjugal visit tonight with Rosey Palm. Enjoy! You will get another cellmate in about two days, when the next bus comes in.”
    I handed him the property. The cell door automatically closed. I took the bag of pills and flushed them all in the toilet.
    It dawned on me that perhaps Cortez wasn’t crazy…that this was his con to get to Atascadero State Hospital, the “ASH” on his treasure map where he’d find lots of love, hamburgers and pizza for lunch, a menu for breakfast and dinner. His own room…. §

    Tito David Valdez Jr. resides at and writes from the minimum security Correctional Facility in Soledad, Calif. Listen to his radio segments on prison life on the nationally syndicated program, “The Adam Carolla Show.” For times, visit Tito can be reached by email at, or by mail: Tito David Valdez Jr. J-52660, CTF Central E Wing Cell 126, P.O. Box 689, Soledad, Calif., 93960-0689. Read more of his "Life in the cage" series here:

  • Mischief in the prison chapel
  • Jailhouse pruno
  • A momentary breath of freedom
  • Breakfast Club
  • Trapped
  • Institutialized
  • Evening dayroom

  • Go to the main page for this month's Rogue Voice
  • Read more!

    Rogue of the month: Steve Tross

    Steve Tross: Roving, straight-talking mechanic
    (Photo by Stacey Warde)

    Steve Tross, with his stocky build, bulging forearms, walrus mustache, deep voice, deliberate and dead-on manner of speaking, could pass for a blacksmith in Dodge City 150 years ago. Actor Sam Elliott comes to mind. But in today’s world, Tross is a mechanic, and not just any mechanic—a mobile mechanic lumbering around the county in a boxy, monster of a 1971 Gruman van, once part of a SWAT unit’s arsenal, and the only one of its type that you’ll see for hundreds of miles. It’s stocked with every conceivable tool for Tross to service ailing or dead cars and trucks.
    Tross is one of those naturally born grease monkeys who knows how to take apart that which doesn’t work, then put it back together and watch it run like a clock. After spending a year and a half at auto mechanic school in Florida, where he moved from his hometown of Greece, New York, Tross, at 20, set out with his tools for Southern California beaches in 1974 because he’d heard they had the hottest, most beautiful and willing chicks in the country. And, at that time in his life, what drove a man to drive 3,000 miles across country was chicks. Among other treats. I interviewed Steve while he tinkered with a pickup truck in North Morro Bay and the sound system from his van piped in nonstop jazz.

    —Dell Franklin

    RV: How’d you end up in a tiny, obscure little beach town like Cayucos, when you had all those hot beaches down south, and up north?
    ST: I started out in San Diego and made my way up the coast, look-ing for the right place. I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I figured I’d find what I wanted by instinct. I stopped off in places like Santa Barbara, Goleta, and kept going clear up to Eureka. It was too rainy and cold up there. When I stopped in Cayucos, I was down by the beach wall for about half an hour when somebody invited me to a party. I had the long hair then, so I looked like a hippie. Anyway, I went to the party, and it lasted ten days. They had everything—the best cocaine, the best green bud, plenty of booze, cool people, and beau-tiful girls. I ended up staying for 25 years.
    RV: What was Cayucos like in those days?
    ST: It was actually like a hippie place, and a blue-collar place. I really dug the old shacks lining the main drag and the beach. There was a big apartment house up on the hill, kind of a communal atmosphere, a people-friendly place. Wide open, off on its own, where anything goes. Mellow. Laid back. I found a place to live right off, and stayed there eleven years and they never raised my rent, and if anything went wrong there was somebody there the next morning to fix it. You try and find that today. No way. They’ll bump your rent every two years, until they push you out, and then they can either rent it to a high-roller from the big city, or they can knock the place down and turn it into an exorbitant beach rental.
    RV: Why’d you move out of Cayucos?
    ST: Things started changing in the early ‘80s. All of a sudden the cops had a bigger presence, and they made it a goal to drive out all the hippies and all the drugs, and gradually, like I say, the town turned into a beach rental haven. One day you woke up, and instead of having neighbors to hang out with, you had a ghost town all week, and then on weekends you had these yahoos from the Valley partying all night, turning the place into a goddamn dump. I moved out five years ago because I couldn’t stand the place any more. I still love Cayucos, but you take the Fourth of July parade. It used to be a funky local gathering. Now you got 25,000 idiots coming from all over hell, and especially the Valley, and they don’t care where they park, they’ll park in front of your driveway. I had a guy park in my driveway and I jacked his car up and moved it into the middle of the street and called the cops and had it towed. These people think because they rent a place they own the town and can do anything they want. Another thing that happened is real estate agents that don’t care about the town, just the bottom line. You’ll never see them selling to somebody making forty-grand a year. What they’ll do is quote you a price, then start a bidding war, so you can’t afford it, and then somebody with big bucks will buy that particular house; and the next house like it will start out at that exorbitant price. What I call them is property pimps. They sell to people that don’t give a fuck about Cayucos, but just want investment income, or a rental. They’ll tell you this load of bullshit that they want to keep Cayucos a rustic little beach town, which it was, and which it should be, and they’re the first ones to hunt down one kind of person—somebody so wealthy that sooner or later that’s all we have in Cayucos, and it’s not a rustic little beach town, but some goddamn thing like Malibu, or Carmel. That’s why I’m out of here. Who’s left? Very few of the kind of people I know and get along with. We’ve lost our working class. We lost the hardware store, where everybody met. That was the last straw. That was a people-friendly hardware store, and now you got antiques and wine-tasting.
    RV: Now that you’re wound up, Steve, tell me why you stopped work-ing for other people in garages, and started your own mobile auto service in that big old beast of a van?
    ST: Why do most people go to work for themselves? Because, work-ing for other people sucks! You work for other people and they want you to do more than is expected for less pay. They wanna squeeze you dry. Only way you get a raise is to threaten to quit, and then the bastards give you a minimal raise, enough to keep you hanging on. I finally got fed up twelve years ago and started my own business.
    RV: How are you doing? How do you like it?
    ST: Hell, I love it. Instead of an owner being my boss, you, the customer, are my boss. I don’t have any overhead except this van, which I might have to put a new motor in every ten years or so. I can cut some slack on labor costs. The way it is in garages, it’s the bottom line above all else. I’m able to give something back to the customer in that I can charge by the hour and not have to quote an estimate that usually runs over. I feel good about that, and so does the cus-tomer. I’ve been a lot happier being my own boss. I’m the kind of guy who has to be his own boss. I just won’t put up with the bullshit of working for somebody else. It sucks.
    RV: As you know, mechanics have bad reputations as ripoff artists.
    ST: Right.
    RV: Most people don’t know their asses about cars, and they’re at the mercy of mechanics, fearful of getting shafted. How many mechanics, or garages can you trust?
    ST: A few, I wouldn’t know how to put any percentages on it, but I’d say a few. Not a lot.
    RV: How does one go about picking a mechanic he can trust?
    ST: I’d say talk to him, feel him out, try and get a feel for the guy, and go by instinct. If he’s shady, or too smooth, or gives you bad vibes, don’t use him. I always go by my instincts whenever I hire somebody to do something I can’t do.
    RV: Is that how you built your clientele?
    ST: Damn right. The more honest you are, the better quality of work you do, the fairer the price, the more repeat business you get. Instead of working in a garage, like a peon, you get a chance to shoot the shit with the people you’re working for, and as you can see, I enjoy shooting the shit. It’s more personal. The time goes by in a more pleasant manner when you can talk to somebody while you’re fixing their car, and explain what’s going on, and so forth.
    RV: So you moved to Los Osos, where the brain-dead squabble over sewers and water, and there’s no downtown, just a soulless, half-assed shopping center. You like it?
    ST: I like it. I miss the beach, but I like Los Osos. It’s more like a bedroom community. It’s not going to end up like Cayucos. In seven years, Cayucos’ll be just like Carmel. Its shit won’t stink. Just another enclave for the rich. Los Osos still has a solid working class. Oh, there are some would-be gangbangers, real punks. They think the only way they can write anything is with a goddamn spray can, I got some neighbors like that. They think it’s funny setting off car alarms in the middle of the night. They remind me of dogs pissing on your tires. If I find them pissing on my tires I’ll take out my .45 and turn it loose on THEIR cars, or I’ll kick their goddamn asses! §

    Visit some of our previously featured "rogues" here:
  • Mandy Davis
  • Casimir Pulaski
  • Jim Ruddell

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  • Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at

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    Washing windows across America: Zen and the art of messing with Texas

    Beginning is the path to true joy. Maybe the high plains of Texas would be where I would stumble onto enlightenment.

    The question I keep asking myself is, ‘Why did man give up the nomadic life?’

    Washing windows across America
    Zen and the art of messing with Texas (episode 16)

    By Ben Leroux

    In the summer of 2003, I discarded all I owned and loaded a troubled 1975 Plymouth with clothes, books, a guitar, a cat named Reggie, and $17.94 worth of window-cleaning equipment. I drove across the United States, stopping in nowhere towns, pail and squeegee in hand, cleaning windows for another day’s pittance. Free of any attachments, I floated vaguely east, wandering in a private stratum without itinerary or expectation. I became a true outsider, a fugitive from the banal, suffocating cycle of madness that passes for a “normal life” today in America.

    Episode 16:
    Slaton’s town square, though clean and orderly, looks fatigued from years of economic misfortune. Four sparse rows of resigned businesses face each other across a manicured yard bordered by four wide streets. Like withered wallflowers at the town mixer, the stubborn little businesses just wait.
    I step out of the Plymouth and begin going door-to- door. What do I care?
    Beginning is what I do now. I’m a fugitive from the Big Rut—Career, Home, Family. All I do is begin. The Buddhists are advocates of it, saying that beginning is the path to true joy. Maybe the high plains of Texas would be where I would stumble onto enlightenment.
    Slaton’s town square puts me to work right away: physical therapy clinic, cell-phone store, mail store, furniture store, two insurance offices, and an auto-parts store.
    Pockets loaded with sweaty, gnarled bills, I get back in the Plymouth and leave Slaton. The window-dirt of Slaton now settles at the bottom of a water-bucket with the window-dirt of Lubbock. Soon it may be joined by the window-dirt of Snyder or Post or Sweetwater. Or not, my only commitment being the here and now.
    Windows down, I take Highway 84 southeast toward Snyder. Some of the tiny farm towns of the Texas panhandle are nothing more than a church and a silo. The Plymouth slices through the wide-open skies, fearless as any car on the road. The question I keep asking myself is, “Why did man give up the nomadic life?” With the help of some Old English malt liquor I slurp through a straw, my mind explores the myriad possibilities. The Old E helps with the mindfulness–yes it does. So does messing with Texas.
    It’s a little past five when I arrive in Snyder’s town square. A Norman Rockwell evening has begun. A grandmother and two grandchildren sit on a bench feeding squirrels. A mom drops her kids off for karate classes. A bronze sunset moves in.
    Warm from the Old E buzz, I walk around the square, evaluating the cleanliness of Snyder’s windows.
    The way I do it is I get up close to a store window, and while walking by, extend ever so slightly the backside of my index finger and swipe it along the glass. Once past the store, I examine the back of my finger. It’s a method I’d developed when I’d learned that people didn’t appreciate me standing and staring at their glass point blank. They’d come out to see if I was a kook.
    There is more than enough dust on Snyder’s windows to justify staying the night and attacking the square in the morning.
    But the vastness of Texas makes me want to cover ground. So I put gas in the Plymouth and ask the cashier where, with all the inane county-to-county Texas liquor laws, I might find some beer. I tell her I’m headed toward Sweetwater.
    “You can get anything you want in Sweetwater,” she says. “Or better yet, Colorado City.”
    I head for Colorado City, taking back-roads through smooth fields that fade under a coppery dusk. Light gusts of crude oil and manure float in some places. An armadillo–a slick, shiny little guy on the side of the road—watches me go by with two beady black specks.
    The answer was security and safety. It was man’s soft spot for security and safety that convinced him to trade in his spear and basket for a salary and a humming refrigerator. Looking around, I wonder if it’s been worth it.
    I arrive in Colorado City picturing a revolting bastion of sin replete with bars, hookers, and drug dealers lining the streets.
    I search Colorado City for beer. I ask around. No one really wants to talk about beer. There are no bars, no hookers or pimps or gangs or strip clubs or anything. The town is asleep except for a Pizza Hut.
    “What kind of beer do you have on tap?” I ask the young man at the counter. I get out my bills.
    “We don’t, sir,” he says.
    “Bottles then?”
    “Sir, this is a Pizza Hut.”
    “I know it’s a Pizza Hut. Where I come from, Pizza Huts serve beer.”
    “Would you like to order, sir? We have a special tonight. A free salad with your order of a medium or larger.”
    “Let me think. I just need to see beer at this point.”
    “I’m sorry to hear that sir.”
    “Listen,” I say. “Somebody back in Slaton told me there was beer in Colorado City. That’s why I’m here.”
    “I don’t know about Slaton, sir. I’ve heard rumors that in some parts of Texas, beer can actually be bought in grocery stores. But I don’t know it fer a fact.”
    “What about Sweetwater? I was told you could get anything you wanted in Sweetwater.”
    The word “Sweetwater” strikes a nerve in him, and makes his face go from smug to acrid. He looks down and starts straightening napkins.
    “Well?” I step closer. “Tell me about Sweetwater.”
    “Sir,” he says in quivering growl. “Sir, I do not regularly ‘sociate with folks from Sweetwater.”
    I get on the I-20 eastbound to see why.

    Sweetwater’s darkness isn’t warm and coppery like Snyder’s. It has a depraved hot, black chill running through it.
    The sight of a sports bar however, relaxes me. It will be comforting to sit down with a beer while catching the end of Monday Night Football. I think the Packers are playing.
    At the front door I stop. A sign stares at me. DRESS CODE FOR MEMBERS it says, listing requirements forbidding T-shirts, jeans and shorts.
    I put my hands to the glass and peer through. Except for a cute barmaid, it didn’t look like a very sophisticated club. It was occupied with the cheap haircuts, tank-tops, and jeans of a motley crew of Texas white trash.
    I pace around for a while, listening to the beat of the jukebox and the smack of pool balls. I stop and watch the lights of video games and the Packers playing on the high-def TVs. Finally, I go in.
    The barmaid takes two dollars from me and issues me a membership card good for a year’s membership at Manny’s Sports Tavern and Grill. The dress code, I am informed, is seldom enforced. A frothy mug of Budweiser is set in front of me.
    I start climbing the club’s social ladder immediately, as the friendly barmaid turns her back to her regulars and dotes on me.
    “So, what do you do?” she eventually asks. I disclose.
    She waits a minute before escaping. She goes to the other end of the bar and stays there. Good, I get to watch Monday Night Football in peace.

    At McDonald’s the next morning, a table of burly farmers halt their cussing and gossip when a slight, timorous black man in glistening geri-curls and a beige petticoat takes a nearby table. The men sit straight and nod to him. “Mornin’ rev’ren,” they say.
    The reverend sits, spreads a napkin across his lap, nods back, prays, and eats by himself.

    I run both sides of Sweetwater’s main street, making about seventy dollars. Twice I pass a long, steel shed where a fat man in overalls comes out. He stands in the sun and watches me, his charcoal skin prickling with sweat. He bounces with a wheezy, secretive laugh. I don’t know what it means.

    Wanting to take full advantage of my membership benefits at Manny’s, I decide to spend the night in Sweetwater. There are two horridly rundown motels in town, so I pick one at random.
    The office of the Lakewood Inn is decorated in tacky Christian and African art, and smells of curl-activator. A white leather-bound bible lays on the desk, open to Psalms.
    A man comes in and sits demurely behind the desk. It’s the little reverend from McDonald’s. I tell him I’d like a room for the night and he leads me outside.
    “Let me know if this will do,” he says, fluffing his curls.
    The room is in an advanced state of decomposition. The doorframes are splintered, the bathroom door hangs on one hinge, and a decrepit bedspread dips concavely with a craterous mattress. The mirror is lacquered in greasy fingerprints and vice grips serve as the handles for leaky shower faucets that dribble orange water onto a moldy shower floor.
    “I’ll take it,” I tell the reverend.

    With a wire-hanger antenna I try unsuccessfully for TV reception. So I instead sip Old E and play guitar in the worst motel room in the nation. I was happy. This room was fine. It was the comforts and luxuries and the stagnant, mundane niceties where misery frolicked. That was where people turned into depthless bores–not in sordid fleabag motel rooms in Sweetwater, Texas.
    Once amply juiced, I leave for the long walk to Manny’s. The night is again prickly with a sultry chill and there are no cars on the street.
    I’m near the steel shed when I hear the raspy, esoteric giggles of the shed-dweller. I look for his two bugged-white eyeballs lurking happily around in the blackness, but don’t see them.
    What the hell was so funny to him? Was he crazy? What was up with Sweetwater? Why did I hear footsteps behind me? Maybe it was me that was going crazy.
    But the footsteps are real, and gaining on me. I clench a fist and get ready to fight. They sound too light to be the shed-dweller though.
    “Yew waitin’ fer midnight?” a voice says.
    I turn and jump back in a fighting stance. For all I know, it’s the town witch. But I instead look down to see two small, pale women in tight, raggedy clothes. They look up at me curiously. They appear harmless. Town hookers maybe.
    “Didn’t mean to scare yew,” the older of the two says. “Was just wonderin’ if you were waitin’ till mindnight like us. At midnight, food stamps kick in.”
    We start walking together, the three of us. The quiet one, freckled and big-chested, giggles and shuffles mutely along, staying hidden behind the talker. I keep my eye on her.
    “Thanks for walking with us,” the talker says. “We don’t like walkin’ alone in Sweetwater at night.”
    “Something about this town gives me the willies,” I tell her.
    “Guess you’re not from here,” she says. “Wher’re you staying?”
    “At the Lakewood. Probably should have gone to the other one but it’s too late now.”
    “Wouldn’t have mattered,” she says. “Both’re bad. We was livin’ at the Lakewood for awhile, but left on account of the people there.”
    “Bad, huh?” I say.
    “Oh yeah. The owner? The reverend or whatever he is? A white woman and a black woman were stayin’ there, and for $25 they’d let you watch them ‘uh-hum’ and then they’d both ‘uh-hum’ with you, and I guess the black woman liked to put ice on the man’s ‘uh-you-know-what.”
    “You don’t say.”
    “Oh yeah. And so we moved to the other motel. But we got kicked out because of men-strew-ation blood on the bed, even though I told’em I’d make sure there’d be no more men-strew-atin’ on the bed. They said no, too late, and kicked us out even though we’d paid for a week. It was a rotten thing to do. You know, women men-strew-ate. It’s a fact of nature.”
    “Yes it is,” I say.
    “There’s a few things you ought to look out for if you’re gonna be walking around Sweetwater at night. Those two motels of course, but also the black magic and the pokies.”
    “Police. I call’em pokies. But I’d be more worried about the black magic if I were you.”
    “Well,” I tell her. “I’m a member at Manny’s.” I show her my card. “I’ll just sit in there and mind my own business.”
    We stop in front of the 24-hour market where the women plan to utilize their food stamps. The talker puts her hand out for me to shake.
    “By the way, I’m Beverly.”
    I shake Beverly’s hand, then reach over to shake the hand of her friend. But Beverly jumps in front of her, blocking me with folded arms. Again, I step back a few feet, jumpy and nervous.
    “What?” I ask, my voice dry, and an octave high. “What’s going on here?”
    “At’s my daughter,” Beverly says. “She’s only thirteen.”
    “Good god,” I say, walking away. “She looks thirty-five.”
    “Sorry!” Beverly yells after me. “Didn’t mean t’scare yew! It’s just I told’er if she ever touched a man she’d get pregnant! Thanks again fer walkin’ with us!”
    I sprint-walk to Manny’s, planning to close the place down and drink as much as I could. Who knew what I might encounter on the walk back to the Lakewood? There was the black magic, the pokies, that creepy shed-dweller, and the androgynous Christian voodoo reverend.
    Membership card in hand, I push in on the front door of Manny’s. It doesn’t budge. I put my hands to the glass and look inside. My club is dark. The video games, televisions, and jukebox are all dead. Next to the posted dress code are the club hours. I read them. “CLOSED TUESDAYS,” they say.
    Security. Safety. Belonging. The three booby-traps of the nomad.
    On the way back I stop at the market where I’d left the mother and daughter. After ensuring they are gone, I go in for one last Old E and begin walking back to the motel.
    I keep a fist balled as I near the shed, drinking from the paper bag. Luckily, I don’t run into the shed-dweller.
    As I see the disgraceful Lakewood Inn up ahead, I detect that the Old E in Texas doesn’t pack its usual punch. It takes more to do the job. There’s no telling what Texas has done to it. It would be just like Texas to mess with its alcohol content. Dry counties, wet counties, moist counties–the confusion itself was enough to make a man give up drinking. Moreover, it was enough to spoil his state of enlightenment. §

    Ben Leroux writes from a motel room in Morro Bay, and still plies his trade as a window washer. He can be reached at Read more of his "Washing Windows Across America" series here:

  • Evicted From Wal-Mart (episode 9)
  • Santa Fe Pride (episode 10)
  • Leaving Las Vegas (episode 11)
  • Tucumcari: End of the mother road (episode 12)
  • Clovis ain't Texas (episode13)
  • Welcome to Muleshoe (episode 14)
  • Dry times in Lubbock (episode 15)

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    Cabby's corner: A rainy New Year's Eve in the 'A' cab

    Fellow cabbies despise the ‘A’ cab. Most of us would rather skip work than drive it, but because we are all poor and hungry, we have no choice.

    The two beauties begin arguing heatedly over the cab, their tender young faces taking on a reptilian cast as the invective grows nasty. I have no choice but to get out of my cab in the rain and order them all out until I get things under control.

    A rainy New Year’s Eve in the ‘A’ cab

    By Dell Franklin

    It’s a cold, blustery, rainy New Year’s Eve and I get to drive the “A” cab because I’m the newest addition to the cab company (2 1/2 months) and therefore at the bottom of the pecking order. The only time anybody drives the “A” cab is when other cabs are broken down, or on special occasions when all the drivers are working—like tonight.
    Fellow cabbies despise the “A” cab. Most of us would rather skip work than drive it, but because we are all poor and hungry, we have no choice. The cab owner does not like to hear bitching, and especially about his “A” cab, one of our favorite targets of bitchery. A month or so back, after a long, grueling shift that stretched into the wee hours, I left the boss a note that referred to the “A” cab as a “PIECE OF SHIT.” The boss in turn left me a caustic note informing me I would be “fired if I ever again referred to any of his cabs as a PIECE OF SHIT!”
    The boss buys dinner for the cab crew in a pleasant restaurant around five in the afternoon before sending us out for New Year’s Eve, which is insane, animalistic, bizarre. As we chow down, he goes over the dos and don’ts on such a night, gets everybody squared away, and grins at me in a leering manner. “Old man,” he says with finality, “you get the ‘A’ cab. Don’t try and take the ‘S’ or ‘G’ cab—they’re reserved for our graveyard drivers.”
    I salute him like a good soldier.

    Early on, with a light intermittent rain coming down, I get small fares in town. I poop along, the gas gauge, after 40 miles, already beneath the 3/4 tank line. The “A” cab gets around nine miles per gallon, while our other cabs get anywhere between 17 and 20, and run well, all gauges, lights and amenities functioning.
    I get a call out in the country a few miles outside of San Luis Obispo, where I am to transport some people back downtown. With rain clouds smothering all moonlight, it is very dark out in the country. The rain comes down harder. I have difficulty seeing, the road because my windows are misting up. I roll down my door window six inches so I can spot signs and hope cold air will dissolve the misting front window. Still, I cannot find the road I’m looking for. I drive a ways, realize I’m half way to Arroyo Grande, and turn around. There is nobody on the road. I’m crawling along like a turtle. Finally, I spot a bank of mailboxes and turn onto a narrow lane.
    The rain slants down hard on an angle from the wind and into the cab, saturating me, splattering my log, blurring its ink-stained numbers and locations. I curse. I have to turn the beast around at a dead end and this involves blindly evading water-filled gullies and fence posts. I have a stiff neck already and it takes me several stops and starts, with no power steering. I grind my teeth; I’m losing time, which means losing money, but finally get the beast turned around and as I cruise back a bunch of folks under umbrellas are jumping up and down, gesturing frantically, screaming at me. I pull over. They pile in, grateful to be out of the heavy rain.
    “You drove right past us,” chirps a girl.
    "Sorry. I didn’t see you. The windows are fogged up.”
    “How come the windows are fogged up?”
    “Defroster quit.”
    “It’s freezing in here,” says a young guy.
    “Sorry,” I tell him. “Heater quit, too.”
    A girl is squished up beside me, turns on the radio, starts hitting buttons, but nothing comes on. I tell her the radio is also dead.
    “You poor thing,” she says.
    “Tell that to my boss.”
    I must write down what time I picked them up and where in my log, but I have no overhead lighting. So I bought this device that clamps to my clipboard and sheds light on the log whenever I open it. Only it has quit after working for about two hours. I can’t see a thing. My bifocals are misted and splattered. In the darkness, I scribble in the log. When I turn off the rural lane onto the country road, the car makes a grinding noise.
    “What’s that?” asks the girl beside me, alarmed.
    “Well, I’m no mechanic, but I think it’s the tire rubbing against the inside of the fender. Anyway, I hope so.”
    “Jesus,” groans a guy in the back. “This thing is a real pig. How fast does it go?”
    “It takes several blocks to get up to fifty, and the tranny tugs three times before you get there, but after that, it’s smooth sailing, though it does shimmy at sixty.”
    All the way into town I tell the crew about the various maladies plaguing the “A” cab in a longsuffering drone, in my own way begging for tips, and it works. They throw money at me, wish me luck.
    Later, in a neighborhood that seems to be a labyrinth, I’m lost, and cursing. I contact my dispatcher, who could perhaps guide me to the residence from her computer, but she lashes out at me in a very strident manner because she is swamped with calls and suggests I use my Thomas Guide map book and hangs up on me before I can explain there’s no interior lighting and my flashlight quit…for God’s sake…you KNOW! I’m in the “A cab—have mercy!
    I get out of the cab and stand at my headlights, flipping through my Thomas Guide as the rain pours down on me, sopping up my map, which I study under the cab’s brights. Through rain-splattered bifocals I manage to locate the residence. I scurry back into my cab. Head craned out the window, and cruise around until I find the address and, just before I am about to pull into the driveway and knock on the door—the horn doesn’t work—the dispatcher comes on and in a weary, disgusted voice notifies me that the fare has cancelled after waiting 40 minutes. She sends me somewhere else.
    “Shit!” What a rotten night. It is close to midnight and I’ve got a 1/4-tank of gas and I’m not making anywhere near the money I’d hoped for and counted on, and all because of the goddamn “A” cab!
    I drive to residences and take students downtown, and where I pick up more students and take them to residences. I drive students from party to party. They all comment on the “A” cab: How you can’t see out of it, and how it’s freezing, and wet inside, and how the radio won’t work, and how the whole beastly thing clunks and rattles and groans and has no guts and is a pig. And to all these charges I continue my longsuffering drone, fretting over my turn of luck, my low place in the cabby pecking order. In almost all cases they over--tip me out of mercy, especially the coeds, soft-hearted creatures who refer to me over and over as “poor thing.”
    As I lumber around, hungry, highly caffeineated, shivering, soaked—more or less adapted to my miserable situation—I notice that the dash light gauges have gone out and a new light has flashed on in bright red—ENGINE. A red flag. Now the “A” cab is threatening to quit on me. I get hold of an experienced cabby on my phone and inform him of my problem, explaining that if I get an OT (out-of-town-ride) and the beast quits on me, I’m stranded in the rain.
    “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “The ‘A’ cab always does that. It’s got over three-hundred-thousand miles on it. It’s on its second engine, and the wiring’s a little off, but it won’t quit. The ‘A’ cab, it’s a real drag, but it won’t quit on you.”
    After one in the morning, my eyes grainy and sore from straining to see through the dark fog of a rainy New Year’s Eve, I pick up a carload of students downtown and drive them up a narrow, winding road at the edge of town—to a hilltop. The cab strains and groans. Everybody’s drunk, but not so drunk they don’t feel the frost inside the cab, a pig, they agree. It’s fogged up and soggy, rain slants through my open window. Again I repeat in an exhausted, highly persecuted voice my long-suffering refrain. There are cars parked on either side of the narrow street, and I grip the wheel tensely with both hands, head craned out the window so I don’t sideswipe a car.
    I succeed in dropping off the students. They toss me money and wish me luck and a happy New Year and then direct me in my turnaround, which includes more grind-ing, squeaking and grappling with the steering wheel. I slither back down the hill and my dispatcher tells me to go downtown and pick up anybody I find in the bar-closing mad-dog free-for-all. My gas gauge is on empty. Somehow, I’m beginning to feel smugly heroic at having negotiated the cab in the ceaseless downpour. There is a certain satisfaction in being victimized. I am now used to the “A” cab, like a soldier resigned to the dirtiest of missions.
    I pull up in front of the Mission Grill in downtown SLO, where a cabby is just pulling away with a carload. It is a mob scene with several formally dressed people frantically flagging me down. From across the street, at Bull’s Tavern, a crowd of young folks dash toward me, converging with kids from Mission Grill. Within seconds there are around 10 people squashed into my cab. The all begin announcing their destinations, which vary in direction. I explain that I cannot drive people in opposite directions. Cold and drunk, they start bickering with each other over who called a cab first, who got in first, refusing to budge, like squatters. Some wave bills at me in an attempt to curry favor and bribe. There are two gorgeous coed knockouts in evening dresses that reveal lots of leg and firm breast. One is in the back seat, the other beside me, and the two begin arguing heatedly over the cab, their tender young faces taking on a reptilian cast as the invective grows nasty. I have no choice but to get out of my cab in the rain and order them all out until I get things under control.
    Very firm, I take charge, herd them all out.
    “Somebody’s got to give in, be fair, be merciful,” I say. “There’s more cabs coming anyway. Somebody be nice—make the sacrifice!”
    The two girls are on opposite ends of the cab, and they’re ig-noring me, still jawing at each other. They look haggard and deranged. One of the girls’ neckline has dropped to the side, so that most of her breast is exposed, and I’m staring at it. She doesn’t notice the exposed breast or me, though; she just wants her cab.
    “You goddamn bitch,” she screams raggedly at the other girl on the opposite side. “This is MY fucking cab.”
    “Don’t call ME a bitch!” shrieks the other. “You goddamn…cunt!”
    Guys wince and fall back.
    “You can eat my dick,” shrills the first beauty.
    “You’d LIKE to eat my dick, wouldn’t you, you ugly…squaw.”
    “Don’t call me a squaw, you goddamn whore…”
    I start waving my hands, like a referee, as the girl on my side of the cab pulls up the strap of her evening dress and tucks her breast back in. “That’s enough! I won’t have that kind of viciousness in my cab. For God’s sake, what would your parents think about your behavior…?”
    Meanwhile, a calm guy around 30, in a suit, tie loosened, eyes bloodshot, seems to have materialized out of nowhere, and nudges me.
    “I’ll tip you fifty bucks if you take my party to the Cliffs in Shell Beach,” he says, quietly.
    “Hop in,” I say, just as quietly.
    While the screaming match between the two beauties continues, the suited guy waves his crew into the cab and before the babes and their lackies can protest I am gone, croaking down the road. I explain to my crew that I must stop for gas, and explain the maladies of the “A” cab, and they’re fine, thankful to have a cab, any kind of cab.
    Once I’m sloshing and shimmying along the freeway, headed south on 101, the front window fogs up, and I roll down the side window and warn everybody in back about the rain. The guy who is going to pay for the cab and I begin talking. He graduated from Cal Poly 10 years ago and now lives in San Diego and has started his own software company. He’s just back to party with old college pals. His girlfriend beside me tells me how wonderful I am for giving them a ride. I’m her favorite cab driver, a real prize. She’s so nice she withdraws a handkerchief from her purse and starts wiping down the inside of the windshield so I can see. Her breath smells of Jager-meister. She yacks and wipes, a worker, and I settle back and drive.
    I pull up in front of the Cliffs, and the software guy gives me a twenty and a fifty and apologizes for being 50 cents shy when the tab comes to $20.50. I tell him it’s okay and they all thank me effusively for rescuing them from the rain and chaos in SLO, and then I’m back on the road.
    It’s two thirty. I check with my dispatcher, who tells me to hurry up and get back downtown, for there are more than 30 fares stacked up all over town and downtown. As I’m tooling along, the red ENGINE light suddenly turns off, and the dash lights reappear. Then a miracle occurs—the defroster comes on, along with the heater. Warm air caresses my wet legs and a steady flow from the defroster clears the fog from inside the windshield. I hit the horn—it works, if weakly. I reach up to turn the switch for the overhead light, and it, too, comes on—weakly. I turn on the radio, find NPR, and—hallalooyah!— it comes on loud and clear, belting out Beethoven’s 6th Pastoral. I turn it up full blast. I am jubilant. The fifty dollar tip has made my night. I glance down at my lap. It is indecipherable—over 30 rides, smeared, streaked, smudged, blotted out.
    There is more money to be made now. People tip like crazy at this hour, in this rain, desperate to get home. The rain is at last fizzling down to a mist. I get off the freeway and drive downtown to the main drag, stop at the busiest bar—MOTHER’S TAVERN. Again parties of New Year’s revelers converge on my cab. A group settles in, gives me directions. I start out, while a girl sitting up front starts messing with my radio.
    “Don’t touch that radio!” I shout.
    She withdraws her hand as if in fear of electrocution. “Can’t we listen to some rap?” she asks in a wee, squeaky, pleady girly voice.
    “What about rock…or rhythm and blues…?”
    “No,” I say. “It’s Beethoven or walk.”§

    Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at Read more of his Cabby's Corner series here:

  • Ode to Tobias Wolff
  • Sisters from South Central
  • A soldier's story
  • First fare (hair of the dog)
  • The good lawyer
  • Mr. Headphones
  • Little Miss Sunshine

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    D.C. wilderness: Taking in a street show with the homeless

    As I turn the corner I am astonished to see that the park has been commandeered by a small group of evangelists. They are banging tambourines and taking turns preaching sermons.

    Shouting above the conversation, a preacher rants on about the evils of drugs and alcohol. He turns to the evils of fornication and homosexuality. A transvestite casts the evil eye at him.

    D.C. wilderness
    Taking in a street show with the homeless

    By Michael Stamper

    L Street and 5th N.W. is an undistinguished Washington, D.C. intersection. It is the apex of two lightly traveled streets, with no notable architecture, no traffic signal, and no association with an historical event. Indeed, much of the land adjacent to the corner is vacant. However, each evening dozens of hungry men and women come to this place for sustenance. Around 5:30, a white van called “McKenna’s Wagon” (named after a legendary D.C. priest) stops to serve soup and sandwiches to those who have no better meal ticket. I know this corner well, as I am often the driver of that van.
    This Sunday, however, I plan to view things from the other side—to wait with the homeless and hungry to be fed. My spiritual advisor has suggested to me that God can be found by venturing into the wilderness. In the district, this corner qualifies as wilderness. I leave home with a spiritual intent.
    I drive into the area and park on 5th, several blocks south of L Street. After locking the car, I walk up 5th, past vacant lots and abandoned buildings. A stray dog zigzags down the street, nose to the cement, sniffing for a lost scent. There are few signs of business activity among the ruins of this neighborhood. Its last working economy was the lowest rung of the sex and drug industry—third- rate topless bars and dingy adult video arcades, supplemented by bargain basement prostitutes and small-time crack dealers. When the host businesses had to leave for non-payment of rent, the parasite entrepreneurs moved on with them.
    As I approach L, I expect to see familiar faces. Most will be black, most will be men, and most will be middle-aged or older. Many will be suffering from untreated physical illness. Others will be suffering from mental illness, drug addiction and/or alcohol dependency. They will be lounging in the little triangular park formed by L Street, 5th Street and New York Avenue. Perhaps, I think to myself, I will gaze into one of these familiar faces and see Jesus or the Buddha.
    However, as I turn the corner I am astonished to see that the park has been commandeered by a small group of evangelists. They are banging tambourines and taking turns preaching sermons. Respectfully, they stay in the park and do not pursue the men, who for the most part, have escaped the preaching by crossing to the other side of the street.
    There is no sidewalk on “our side” of L. If one had existed, it was long ago covered by mounds of dirt and rubble from construction sites elsewhere in the district that had been dumped along the side of the street. I sit on a piece of broken concrete perched on top of one of the mounds. A few yards down the street, a stripped car sits on its axles. I wonder about my car.
    On my side of the street are a dozen or so men, plus a couple of transvestites. More men are meandering in from every direction, sometimes coming in small groups, sometimes as individuals. Several women walk as a group towards us along L, coming from the woman’s shelter on 4th Street. It’s cold, and expected to get colder. A few of the men clutch blankets. One is wrapped in an old carpet pad. These hermits will be spending the night somewhere in the immediate vicinity, most likely in a boarded up building.
    Most of the men stare blankly at the evangelists, but a few nod their heads approvingly and tap their feet. The cold and the wind keep the conversation to a minimum. There will be no arguments or fights tonight. I check my watch, wondering when the van will arrive. No one waiting for McKenna’s Wagon seems concerned. They have no other appointments this evening. Whether it arrives at 5:15, 5:30 or 5:45 is of no concern.
    The white van finally turns onto L. Instinctively, everyone gets up and forms two lines, one for soup and one for sandwiches. The driver’s door opens and a middle-aged white man steps out. He opens the back door of the van and a few of the men help unload two large containers of hot tea. Inside, a crew of bright, white teenage faces nervously look out as they prepare to earn their community service credits by “feeding the homeless.” A preacher across the street offers a prayer, thanking God for the food we will soon be eating.
    Because it’s cold, I go to the soup line in the back. The soup will at least be hot. I am not particularly interested in the bologna sandwiches or two-day-old pastries that are distributed from the side of the van. Once the lines are formed, the conversations pick up. Shouting above the conversation, a preacher rants on about the evils of drugs and alcohol. Most of the men are oblivious to his entreaties, but others look over to him, silently acknowledging his message. He then turns to the evils of fornication and homosexuality. A transvestite casts the evil eye at him.
    I go back to the curb with my soup and cup of tea. The tea is too sweet for my taste, but the soup isn’t bad. Not all of the food is appreciated—a few stale sandwiches and pastries get thrown on the ground. The pigeons, comfortable in close proximity to humans, move in to salvage the scraps. The seagulls and starlings wait their turn in the background. They will make their move when the people thin out.
    The evangelists now become more theatrical. A female puts on a wig and the mask of an attractive young woman. She prances around while the preacher talks of her as a temptress, a metaphor for life’s addictions.
    “And in your hour of need will this temptress, these addictions, be there to comfort you?” At this point the woman pulls off the wig and mask only to reveal another mask, a Halloween devil’s mask. “No, you will find out that the addictions are Satan himself!”
    It’s a good show. It makes me smile. But few others are watching.
    Eventually, the hunger for food is sated. The van packs up and pulls away. Many of the men and women begin leaving too, straying off in different directions. The lead evangelist now asks for someone to step forward to testify, to accept Christ as his or her personal savior. I look in his direction with ambivalent feelings. I both admire and am offended by his enthusiasm. Even though we are at a distance of 20 yards or so, our eyes lock onto one another. For a few brief seconds, I am no longer an observer. He and I are connected—locked together as if we were two halves of the same person. My consciousness feels vaguely distorted and is expanded past my skin boundaries. The atmosphere around us takes on a thickness, as if we are submerged in the warm water of life. The moment feels magic, but a few seconds is all I can take. Instinctively, I look away. With the simple movement of my eyes, I break the spell and the connection. I notice tension in my body dissipate. I also notice a feeling of grief for an opportunity lost—an opportunity to experience the joy of really connecting with another human—an opportunity to experience the joy of connecting with God. Instead, I reestablish my distance, and get back into the safety of my head.
    I notice that the seagulls have now moved in. They are swirling around the heads of the remaining people, as if auditioning for a Hitchcock movie. The starlings sit in the trees waiting their turn. The heavy cross-town traffic on New York Avenue rumbles by in the distance, oblivious to the entire scene. The evangelists hold on to the hope that one amongst the flock will step forward. For my part, it is time to move on. §

    Mike Stamper is a former business executive who worked in D.C. before retiring to Melbourne, Florida, where he lives with his wife. He can be reached at

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