He was standing on the highway
Somewhere way out in the sticks
Guitar across his shoulder
Like a 30 aught six
He was staring in my headlights
When I come around the bend
Climbed up on my shotgun side
And told me with a grin
I'm going to new york city
I never really been there
Just like the way it sounds
I heard the girls are pretty
There must be something happening there
It's just too big a town
See I've been to new york city
Seems like it was yesterday
I was standing like a pilgrim
On the great white way
The girls were really pretty
But they wouldn't talk to me
I held out about a week
Went back to tennessee
So, I thought I'd better warn him
As he climbed out of my car
Grabbed his battered suitcase
And shouldered his guitar
I knew I was just jealous
If i didn't wish him well
I slipped the kid a twenty
Said 'billy give 'em hell'
Excerpt from Steve Earle’s “NYC”
I awoke on the couch in M’s cave-like basement barroom. Strangely, I knew that even before I opened my eyes. With my cell phone dead in this windowless world, I had no indicator of the time of day, so I maintained my repose until I heard footsteps above.
Once I had returned to the world, M and I made a plan to visit a local REI, and he printed a couple of maps to get Little Bird and Ox oriented to Portland. Meanwhile, Little Bird and Ox were in that strange situation of sleeping outside of someone’s house, not knowing how or when to come inside. Would it be rude to just walk in? Knocking or ringing would certainly result in a barking dog and people would still be asleep. Such are the vagaries of life in a van.
Eventually Ox and Little Bird did awaken and found their way into the house. Coffee was served. Knowing that the would not make the imposition themselves, I asked our hostess if Ox and Little Bird could get a shower. She scurried off to get them towels.
With my young friends clean and packed up, it was time to send them on their way. I wanted them each to have a little something to commemorate our time together, so our farewell began at REI. M, not trusting my GPS, lead the way in his truck and his kids came along. We followed for our last ride together in Walden.
I felt a little silly having M and his kids waiting around for me to make my farewell purchases, so I tried to think and move as quickly as possible. Ox had lost his knife on the Piegan’s Pass hike, so I thought that seemed an appropriate gift. The brand of knife that he lost was a bit out of my price range, by a factor of two or three, though I considered going for it anyway. Ox looked around at others, and found what looked to me to be a fairly suitable knife and it came with a titanium spork. Problem solved.
Little Bird’s gift was more complicated. As I expected, she insisted she needed nothing. I tugged her around the store pointing at things big and small that might provide a lasting memento of our sojourn, but she refused. How about a really nice coffee mug? No, the two dollar plastic KOA coffee mug was going to have to suffice as my farewell gift. She had won.
As we left the store, however, I remembered the perfect gift. Along the way I had taught Little Bird to juggle. She wasn’t quite expert yet, but my rolled up socks that she had been using as balls weren’t very easy to catch. I spotted a National Chain Bookstore across the parking lot, told the crew that I’d be right back, and set off in a run to the bookstore. I asked a young man at a help desk where the Klutz juggling books were. He was familiar with them, but instead of telling me that they would be on aisle six, he insisted of looking it up in the computer. They didn’t have any, but would I like to order them? I considered explaining to the nice young man that I live in a van and that the person for whom I was buying the gift lived in a backpack. He then insisted on performing several other computer searches, none returning anything use. I asked him again if he would please just f-ing show me the place where I might find books about juggling, if there were any. Reluctantly, he took me to the front of the store and there they were. The balls weren’t quite as good as the bean bag cubes that come with the Klutz book (from which I learned to juggle), but they would suffice. I seemed improbable that these balls would last as long as, say, a knife, but if they got her to practice for even another hour or so, she would have a life-long skill. I could feel pretty good about that.
About this time M, his kids, Ox, and Little Bird found me in the store. “Is he always like this?” Little Bird asked M, apparently referring to my frenetic pace, or perhaps my insistence that I get her something; I can’t really be sure.
M just shrugged.
With the gift acquired, I took the package to the counter, paid, and we were on our way. Ox used his new knife to extract the book and balls from the packaging. M told me that he’d pointed out to my friends the train station at the far end of the parking and given them a little cash.
“You got Little Bird to accept cash?” I asked incredulously.
“No, but I told them that if they were going to be traveling without cash, they’d need to accept gifts along the way. I gave hers to Ox,” he explained.
With Steve Earle’s lyric in mind, I’d already grabbed a couple twenties myself. I slipped one in Ox’s hand, and he thanked me graciously. I stuck another in the little how-to-juggle book that had come with Little Bird’s juggling balls. Before we parted, however, she flipped through the book and spotted the twenty. I told her that she had to take it. Knowing that I wouldn’t relent, she accepted.
They got their stuff loaded up into their packs, and walked off toward the train. I snapped a picture as they disappeared across the parking lot.
I kept up with Little Bird via text message pretty much every day for the next week or so (at least as long as it took me to get this posted). The first night they had rented a cheap hotel room. I checked in a few times to make sure she was taking her meds; that got me an “Aye, Aye, captain,” and a “Thanks, Mom.” Within a couple days, they both had job interviews, her with a pretty cool-sounding little restaurant, and him with restaurant renowned for melted cheese. Just over a week after I dropped them off, however, I checked to see if she’d taken the job. She replied, “No, they wouldn’t work me for another week. But I start my job in Colorado today.” Their Big Adventure had come to a close.
Apparently Portland wasn’t as cool as they’d been lead to believe.