Roads are like rivers, carrying along the detritus and the passengers, the silver and the gold, the silt and the stones all the way out to a single destination. They say all roads lead to Rome: maybe at one point they did, but Rome is no longer the ocean. I suspected all roads led to Lodi, but I went there and was unimpressed. Creedence went on the road and ended up stuck in Lodi again. I went on the road, and though I too was only passing through, too ended up stuck in Lodi again. They were looking for fame and fortune, I was looking for distance and a place to hide. The Beastie saw that white arch and chugga chugga chugga-ed, splittered and splutted to a horrifying stop. She must have known the song. We were driving out of Los Angeles in the late springtime, a mid-May shot at redemption. I hadn’t seen Billy for years. He was skinnier, balder and his face was older, but he was still more himself than I had ever seen him. He hadn’t had a drink for fifteen years and it suited him. Instead handfuls of dirty tramadol, prescribed to him by the biggest drug dealers in the United States – sketchy pill mill doctors – made their way to his brain via his health insurance. He threw a few at me. Now this was how it used to be. Crumbs from the big man, who carried a whip wrapped around his shoulder, under his leather jacket like a junkie John Wayne. The dirty buzz hit me like a freight train. Stuck in Lodi again.
Billy coasted Beastie to a graceful stop; at least as graceful as 26 foot of rusted out tin and glass can make. We were dead in the water, on the side of the road, and I opened the door and puked. I am a puker of prodigious proportions. Opiates make me puke, especially when I can still get high and have no tolerance. I don’t mind vomiting, I associate it with a good high. My hands were trembling. There is something nasty about tramadol. It has an antidepressant edge, and my body hates antidepressants. “I probably could have just eaten one, darling, I mumbled as I let rip again. He smiled: “honey, it would appear, we are stuck in Lodi.” I laughed through the wierdly jittery high of the synthetic painkiller, “I would say again, darling, but this is my first time here.”
Lodi is on the 5, parallel to San Francisco, east of here past Oakland and the east bay. It is not a bay city and it doesn’t want to be. With its Spanish arch and its heat and dust, and the artery of the five running through it, it thinks it is somewhere down near San Diego. It has an identity crisis, and comes on like a benign version of Salinas. There really is nothing there. At the time I had no idea where we were geographically speaking. We were merely on the road. Places blurred into one in our journey from there to here, only sticking out because of a song, or something that happened there. There was the road and the escape and nothing else in May that I needed to pay attention to. Except the fact we seemed to be out of gas. It could have been a disaster, instead I grabbed the gas can, pulled myself together, took a swig out of a can of sprite and stumbled off down the road, leaving Billy and the kids playing the A B C song game. Name a song by an artist beginning with A….and sing a line. They were having fun arguing about whether Dylan is a B or a D, as I headed by foot to find a gas station, singing Creedence, finding it delicious that “I’ll be walking out if I go…” It is one thing walking on a sidewalk, it is another more dangerous state of affairs to walk by the side of a 5 slip road. I nervously shoved myself as far as I could away from the barrelling boats of semis that were desperate to not be in Lodi. Again.
I was not so naieve as to think it was going to be a short walk, and started to curse the fact that I was higher than I really should be out of the confines of the RV, on a drug that I was not familiar with. Give me a handful of acid, or a 5th of rum, or even some speed, and I would have been truckin’. Instead I was walking through syrup and dragging my nauseated ass down into Lodi proper. “Come on Boots…let’s go to Lodi”, I told myself out loud as an elderly woman pulled up in a beatup truck. “Get in, honey! It is a long way to gas on foot, baby!” I took a look at her and her goofy German shepherd, and hopped in. Oh Lord! Lodi! What was I doing, I thought to myself, but realistically, this cool old bird was no danger to me, she was the one taking the risk with a wobby furriner holding a gas can and looking green round the gills. “Ran outta gas but I have some money, my family is up the road in that camper.” She grinned at me and patted my hand. “what’s yer story?” I took a look at her and made a snap decision. “My husband was beating me up. I am running from him with my kids and my friend.” She took a long deep breath of highway air. “My old man used to hit me. He’s dead now. I didn’t kill him.” She was deadpan serious. The Dog shoved his head from the back bench and licked my ear. “Oh Lord!” I replied. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I was too high.
“Pills?” She asked, her blank kind face minus emotion.
“No, my name’s Detroit. Nice to meet ya.” I quipped back. Seeing her waiting for a reply, I threw caution to the wind. Admit nothing. Never confess. Except to cool old women in beat up Fords with large dogs who think they are fluffballs. “Yeah….I had a few tramadol just before we ran outta gas, and the piece of shit fuel gauge got stuck and psyched us out thinking we still had a quarter of a tank.” She nodded, and said nothing. I got a very uneasy feeling of time travel. Her kind plain face smiled back at me. “You’ll be ok,” she nodded.
We pulled into the gas station. It would have taken me an hour to walk it in my state. I hopped out, thanking her. She shook her head as I went to say goodbye. “I’ll take ya back.” She then hopped out, and , grabbed my gas can, and went to prepay. I sat with the German Shepherd wondering if this old woman was me, thirty years down the line, and shook off a feeling of deep uneasiness. She threw the can in the back truck bed and threw herself into the driver’s seat. Iggy only thought he was the passenger, really it is me. I am the passenger. I am always riding and hardly ever driving myself where I am going. I am always on foot. Always hauling suitcases. Hauling through Salinas, trucking through Lodi, heading up the eternal 5. She veered off into Safeway. “You got food, baby?” I didn’t know what to say. Instead I followed her like a lost puppy dog, as she threw a case of water, boxes of cookies, loaves of bread that I couldn’t eat but didn’t want to mention it, and packets of American cheese into the cart.
The high had settled down into a slightly buzzy vaguely opiated feeling. My head was swimming. As we coasted back to the RV, I realized that Billy was standing outside crying. “I saw you get into a fucking TRUCK! What were you thinking!” My new friend was unloading the gas and the safeway bags. “Billy, meet Doreen. Doreen this is my friend, Billy.” He realized exactly what I was thinking and instead started grinning through terrified tears. “We ran out quite a way from the damn gas station, Mr. Wolfman Bill. Doreen was kind enough to give me a ride.”
I hugged Doreen goodbye. She whispered into my ear. “I didn’t kill him, but I wish I did. Never go back, sweetheart.” I kissed her on both cheeks and waved goodbye to Doreen as she and her Ford and her good dog disappeared back into Lodi again.
If I only had a dollar for every time I had tried to leave but got tipped back by people, courts, circumstances and the fear of having no money, no home, two kids and no dog to bite the hand that beat me, I would have had enough to pay for the gas to get out of there and back up the five. Never going back ain’t easy when it involves international borders, you have no family worth shit to help you, and the entire world wants you to die a little quieter.
I was never going to die quietly. I was never not going to fight death and run.
“Your turn, ma! S!”
“Stevens. Cat. Wild world. Tea For the Tillerman. “Oh baby baby it’s a wild world, and it’s breaking my heart in two”….
As Lodi and the past started to disappear in the rear view mirror, and northern California started to become a real possibility, the river of the road running up ahead, and Los Angeles in the rear view mirror, spring threatening to turn into summer and the children peacefully chattering, eating famous amos cookies – apparently the superior mass produced cookie and doing word searches and playing road trip games, someone shouted Strawberry Switchblade and someone else groaned and the river ran upstream northwards towards Yreka and Weed and the green and the trees and the blue of the sky and the freedom. The freedom that said that no soul ever had to be stuck anywhere again.