I have made tracks and left prints fairly extensively across this vast land of ours, being naturally of a nomadic tendency and also of necessity sometimes lamming it outta Dodge mere steps ahead of the law and/or lynching parties. Figuratively speaking, of course. I've yet to commit a hanging offense and
hope never to find myself judged as having done so, but it's true that I have observed in the rear-view groups of sorely disappointed people wishing fervently to discuss certain aspects of my behavior, groups with some marked posse-ish qualities.
I wouldn't say I've been "ever-whar," as Johnny Cash boasted having been, but there's not many regional dialects I haven't mocked nor local cuisine I haven't barfed up in alleys behind bars, which I find are comfortingly similar wherever you go. From coast to coast (to coast) I've traveled, from the frozen north to the sultry south, the chill damp of the northwest to the dank swelter of the southeast, from the arid glare of the southwest to the leaden skies of the northeast and many points in between. In so doing I have developed and cultivated a skill necessary to one of my inclinations, namely, the ability to sniff out and locate the seamy underbelly of any given region, or, failing that, the person or persons in any given group most apt to accede to one of my patently reckless suggestions or schemes.
While most towns delineate the division between the "right" and "wrong" side of the tracks fairly clearly, in practice it's not always so simple. If I am in, for instance, Houston, I know that drugs are being sold and crimes being plotted on Telephone Road and in the Fourth Ward, but I also know that to go knicker-knacking blithely around those areas is to invite oneself into a condition of victimhood.
Whereas if you frequent certain blocks of Westheimer or Shepherd, you can find people from those areas interacting more civilly with danger-seeking dilettantes.
Some places don't appear to have any recognizable squalor or social pathology, which just means it's concentrated in decadent veins throughout the region and takes a little effort to locate.
One summer I was visiting Fredericksburg, Virginia, an extremely historical and picturesque little town which, like most places dependent upon tourism for its livelihood, takes great pains to present a thoroughly wholesome image to outsiders. Shortly after arriving, I had the following conversation with my host.
Clueless Fredericksburger: Didn't you have $500 yesterday?
Me: I did, but I converted that $500 into crack cocaine and had a party with some new friends.
C.F.: What? You drove all the way to Richmond last night?
Me: Richmond? Hell, no! Right around the corner, in those brick apartments.
C. and now also Horrified F.: Crack? Here? Oh my God! You're kidding!
Me: I never kid about crack cocaine. What's for breakfast?
She'd lived there for years and had no idea what manner of degeneracy was infecting her neighborhood, while it took me about 8 seconds to find somewhere to throw away my money, brain cells, and self-respect.
* * *
The most recent stop on my peregrinations, the lovely and verdant county of Mendocino, proved an initial challenge, landing as I did smack in the wilds of Albion. I adjudged the region to be some kind of combination of retired-hippie pasture, militant feminist enclave, and outdoor insane asylum, determined that any pathology I might be able to uncover here would probably be over my head, and lit out for the metropolitan area. Fort Bragg and Ukiah proved different barrels of fish entirely, with the scum being layered quite evenly across the top and clearly visible. More challenging was finding the pockets of decency and respectability (hint: don't look in the courthouse or City Hall).
Ukiah's condition of thoroughgoing decay probably explains why it took me so long to find the greater Talmage metro area which, given an alternate reality postulating the sort of clean, thriving Ukiah of yore constantly bemoaned in the editorial pages of the UDJ, would have beckoned like a distant lighthouse to a foundering ship.
I'm going to issue the usual disclaimer here and say that I in no way mean to assert or imply that Talmage is some sort of hotbed of drugs or crime or any other social ill, and the population is no doubt largely composed of law-abiding citizens and not dangerously unstable, heavily armed, recklessly felonious and probably insane people like literally every single person I ever met out there. But, like I said, that's me; I gravitate toward the bottom, the better to facilitate my own questionable agenda and get my unsavory needs met. Sometimes, though, you fall a little farther than intended and find yourself wishing you'd not so hastily and firmly committed to the dark side.
My first visit to the area was with Christine, my amusingly idiosyncratic girlfriend, who asked me one day if I'd like to cycle out to the land of 10,000 Buddhas. Knowing her as I did, I assumed something fanciful she'd cooked up — and the “Buddhas” were actually a pack of dogs or a cluster of rocks or something.
"Let's roll," I said.
I was pleasantly surprised to find, as advertised, a land with indeed the promised sufficiency of Buddhas.
"Are there really 10,000?" I asked.
"And more," I was assured.
"All that serenity," I marveled. "The surrounding community must be extraordinarily tranquil."
"You would be forgiven for thinking so, but it seems the locals have developed an immunity to the teachings of the Buddha," said our guide. "Perhaps they have erected a force field."
I wondered aloud if that meant that the monks were forced, Shaolin style, to come out and kick ass periodically to maintain order, but she only smiled enigmatically.
The next time I visited Talmage was on a decidedly less savory mission, having been taken by my friend Wolfie to purchase a quantity of zip. The product proved to be of prime potency and after Wolfie left, I decided to stick around the house with my new best friends, whose clearly depraved nature did not become apparent to me until deep into the wee hours. I'd gotten my hands on a guitar and the dark mutterings of mayhem they were plotting breezed through my ears without landing and setting off any warning bells.
At some point I looked up and it was only me and one other person, a squat troll of a man named Kevin Wilkins. He was eyeing me in a discomfiting manner and I ceased my strumming. "Hey, where'd everybody go?" I asked.
"You wanna have some fun?" Kevin asked.
You, constant and astute reader, will already have perceived the dilemma I felt myself to be on the horns of. On the one horn, the obvious answer is yes, because that is the nature of fun. It's like the exact opposite of drudgery and toil and pain. On the other horn, some folks define the term differently.
"Sure, whatcha got in my mind?" I asked, gamely.
He reached into a backpack and pulled out one, two, three, four, five… Five pistols, arraying them on the spool table handsomely.
"Choose your weapon," he said.
Christ! Dueling? Pistols at dawn? What the hell had I gotten myself into?
"Er, urn, uh," I stammered, looking from the guns to Kevin and back again.
"We gonna go shoot varmints in the vineyard. I get 5 bucks for every grape-stealin' rodent I dispatch," he said.
We crossed the street to the vineyard and he gave me instructions.
"You start on that side over there, flush any varmints you see toward me. I'll do the same on the opposite side."
"That seems a little dangerous," I said.
"Just make sure you aim low, that way the worst that could happen is a shot foot."
Oh! Well, that's comforting.
I began strolling down the lanes and by-and-by came upon a skunk. Giving it a wide berth, I nodded politely as I walked by. "Carry on, Pepe. Enjoy your grapes. I understand the Pinots are really coming into their own."
A few minutes later I encountered a possum sitting splay-legged on the ground, munching contentedly on a large bunch of grapes. "Hyah," I said, unconvincingly. The possum stopped chewing but otherwise didn't move. I waved my gun at him. "Go on, git," I said, stamping my foot. He lurched to his feet and waddled off down the lane, looking back once to sneer at me before disappearing into the darkness. "Possum comin"' I yelled.
"Yeeee-haahr” came an answering bellow.
I continued walking down the lane and as I approached the end, became aware of a presence in the adjoining lane matching my own pace. I decided to give it a good scare and when I reached the end jumped and spun to my right, throwing my arms in the air and going, "Boogety boogety boogety!"
One thing Kevin had failed to mention, and that I had neglected to consider, is the nature of the food chain and how it doesn't stop at varmints. Link One: grapes. Link Two: insects. Link Three: rodents and other varmints enjoying both insects and grapes. Link Four: whatever was currently glaring at me with demonic yellow eyes and snarling viciously. My fear-and-chemical heightened senses perceived a full-grown puma, or perhaps a saber-tooth tiger; looking back, it was probably a bobcat, or maybe even a particularly large and bold housecat. Whatever it was, its final view of me was my rapidly disappearing backside as I hightailed it outtathere. I hit Talmage Road and kept running all the way to State Street, realizing when I finally stopped that I'd dropped my pistol in the vineyard.
I suppose a fellow made of stouter stuff might've accessed ancient hunter DNA and sent that hellcat straight to perdition, but what primal memory tends to manifest in my moments of great stress is that of the ancestral clerks and scribes making up my line. I have no doubt that we have survived to this late date mostly by staying indoors and contriving different ways to prepare saber-tooth tiger, and my own rambunctious leanings are the result of some unfortunate genetic mutation visited on my chromosomes by my mother's psychedelic experimentations while I was in utero.
Then again, there is the 'wild hair' theory recently posited, and of course demonic possession must always be considered. Any number of external factors absolving me of blame could be submitted as evidence of my underlying sterling character.