I don’t know how you know you have to make a change. I just know you just do it and think about the whys and wherefores later. And in any case, I would only be making it up to sound like I wasn’t crazy or something, as though I actually had reasons for doing what I did. Maybe it was the rain. Who in his right mind would throw a few things in a backpack, leave his car and bank account behind, and just set off walking in the rain? That's exactly what I did. At nightfall I found a place along the side of the road to sleep, but I couldn’t stop shaking. It didn't stop raining until early the next morning when the sun came up as though for the first time.
I had started out in Rhode Island but hitched rides that left me the next night in Georgia and the next day I was in the panhandle of Florida, walking down some back country road that would take me wherever I was going. I really had no idea, but I was goin and I was gonna stay gone. I know that this all sounds crazy, but it didn’t feel that way then. It felt right and for the first time in a long time my head was clear. That’s all I can tell you.
When I had started out I had only a couple packs of cigarettes and about twenty dollars which paid for coffee and more cigarettes for awhile. The kindness of strangers supplied the rest. Folks who picked me up were curious about what I was doing and where I was going. What interested them most was that I didn’t know. They saw my sorry shoes, shook their heads, and gave me money for a meal at the end of the ride. One man said he had never picked up anyone before but now he thought he would the next time he saw some young person thumbing a ride. It had somehow been interesting. I told him that was a bad idea.
I went wherever a ride would take me and that’s how I found myself in a small West Virginia town, where an old preacher picked me up and took me home for a meal. He showed me with pride the wooden casket he had made with his own hands and how he was all set for eternity. He called it his boat. It was really no more than a crate, though its dimensions where about right for a coffin. I don't know about eternity. What I was really curious about, however, were the huge old books that were lying on the casket as if to keep the lid on. He said the truth was in those books and I could see for myself if I wanted. The first one I opened had the picture of a young woman, tied to a stake, her breasts exposed, looking up at the heavens ablaze with lightning. I swear her whole body looked like it was electrically charged as though she were having an orgasm or something. Beneath the picture were the words, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” I turned over the page and saw the words "I ad crucem!" scrawled over the English text. I knew what those words meant alright: "Go to the cross!" On another page was the picture of some wild man who was having a crimson X branded into his chest. After that I was in a hurry to go, but the old guy kept me there talking about how half the town was dying of cancer because everyone was marrying their own kin and goin’ to hell. I got the crazy idea that he was about to ask me to nail him and his books up in that crate and set him adrift. I told him I had to go. He wanted to know why I was in such a hurry. I told him someone was waiting for me in Winchester, which was just across the state line. He said he would drive me there, but I just walked toward the door and thanked him. I closed the door behind me and didn’t look back.
My next couple of rides landed me in New Orleans. I was beginning to realize that though everything was new to me, I was not quite a stranger to the folks I met. In New Orleans, I fell in with others about my age who looked just as lost as I did. They had liberated an abandoned house, worked at odd jobs and did drugs at night. When I didn’t partake, they became suspicious and shortly came to the conclusion that I was a narc. I had never heard that word before but its meaning soon became clear to me. They said my story about going wherever the road would take me just didn’t add up. That wasn’t the last time I was suspected of being a narc, but later it somehow didn’t matter. They could just think whatever they wanted. The first time, however, it was a shock. I had been glad to have a place to crash for a few days, but they told me I had better leave.
I ended up spending a month or so in New Orleans, making some money by working out of a day load outfit that sent out sober men like me on jobs that paid ten dollars a day. If you didn’t quit the job – loading, unloading, throwing bricks out of boxcars and digging holes – you got paid at the end of each day. In the late afternoon after I was paid, I felt like some goddam saint. Cripples, men with no legs, drunks and drifters like me were lined up along the sidewalk with their hands out. One fella, mounted on a board with rollers, had no arms or legs, just a cup. I had a simple rule. I would give away half of what I made and keep the rest. It was more than enough for my needs. They would call me father, though I was younger than they were. Maybe I looked older because like them I had grown so thin. A fellow worker had his own room where he let me sleep on the floor and he knew all the churches and other places where a person could find a free meal, though sometimes you had to pay by praying after you ate. I didn’t like that and said so. I ended up basically stealing the food before the praying started. The problem with that was that they were on the lookout for you the next time. At night, I wandered the French Quarter looking in the jazz joints and at the girls who looked right through me as if I weren't there at all. I can't say I blame them.
I forgot to tell you that before I left to nowhere in particular, I had been a desk clerk at an otherwise respectable hotel called the Pilgrim Inn that catered to a certain class of working girl. They were all somebody’s daughter and they sent the money they made back to their families. Some paid guys who protected them and would beat them up to keep them in line. I would take payment for rooms from the johns and take them up in the elevator first and then the girls. It became routine. I liked the girls, but they all thought I was queer because I hadn’t done anything with them even when they offered for free. They would laugh and ask me if I knew which hole to put it in. I didn't mind. Everything had been going along fine until one night I was arrested along with the girls in a police raid and spent the night in jail. The next day they just sent me home. The hotel's lawyers had worked something out. The girls had to pay a fine. After that, I felt like I almost belonged and everyone treated me as if I were one of them. Then one night a little later I got beat up really bad by a guy who demanded to know where a certain girl was and when I wouldn’t tell him, he came around the desk and let me have it. It all happened so fast I didn’t even have time to be afraid or even feel any pain. I was kind of numb or stunned I guess. After that, the girls treated me like a brother, which I guess I was.
After I had saved a little money in New Orleans, I set out again. I had heard from others about riding the rails. It was fast and straight but they also told tales of railroad bulls that discouraged me. I thought hitching was safer. My first ride, a long sleepy cruise through the night, took me to Texas, a little west of Austin. It had been a sweet ride; the stars out the open window seemed to pump their light right into my veins. My very next ride, however, changed everything, but I have written about that before. I don't really want to go into it again except to say I came out whole after a man tried to force me to have sex with him and maybe for the first time in my life I had been brave. That was then. What I really want to talk about is Richard whom I had met a year before all this craziness began, never saw again, and miss every day of my life. Before we parted he gave me a small carving, made from an odd piece of wood found on a West Texas beach. He had used only the sharp edge of a stone. It was like something out of the prehistory of man and had three faces on each side, one emerging out of another. It is the face of every man I meet. For forty-six years I have kept this carving with me. It really is Richard's story that needs telling, not mine, though maybe his is in some way mine as well. You see, he taught me the only true word I know and he taught me by example and it cost him dearly. He was the most honest person I have ever known and the bravest.