I’m at table with Ms. Abby in the tea room of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. My current girlfriend has dressed me with care (Harris Tweed sports coat, matching slacks, shoes, and tie), as women do when sending their man off to visit a great love from the past. You are a representative of the new firm now and must look your best.
Tea time came by way of a call I’d made to an acquaintance in Las Vegas, a professional gambler, the only person I’ve ever known who makes a decent living betting the NFL. I’d called to collect background for a column about bookies. A compliant husband, father of three, suburban homeowner, Little League coach, and affluent gambler, the lad had also been a classmate at dear old NSU. Somewhere between the Jets’ third-round draft pick and the Raiders/Chiefs betting line, I heard mention of Abby. Further inquiry retrieved her address and phone number. I called her that night.
Abby now lives in Mississippi, owns a rare-book bookbinding company and, twice a year, travels to San Francisco to meet with clients. We agreed to have tea the next time she came to San Francisco.
I arrive at the St. Francis Hotel early. I am sweating, and the worry that my sweat will dampen the thin tissue which sheathes the white roses I clutch in big, sweaty hands makes me sweat all the more. At precisely 4:00 p.m., Abby glides down the hotel’s grand staircase into the lobby.
My god, the years have left little trace. Abby looks like a movie star, a watercolor painting in her lavender-and-blue sleeveless dress, her long hair still flaming red, breasts still full, waist tight, legs long — sexy enough to turn the head of the most worldly 20-year-old male. Nicely done, Abby. I present the damp flowers and escort Ms. Pizer into the Compass Rose Room for tea.
Ten minutes earlier, I’d given the maître d’ $100 and instructed him to “Be fluffy.” He leads us to the table I’d already picked out, flutters about, then waves for a waiter, who arrives instantly. Both men flutter. I am pleased as punch.
Tea is ordered. I say, “How have you been?” She says, “How have you been?” Chit and chat and bingo, we arrive at Arden days. “Arden,” Abby says, “that was the worst time in my life. I spent years in therapy dealing with Arden.” She studies the hotel-linen tablecloth, then locks onto my eyes. “You ruined my life.”
I never intended to ruin Abby’s life
And I wouldn’t have — nor, for that matter, would I have graduated from UNLV — had I not spent five years hitchhiking. Oh, hitchhiking! To never be without adequate food and lodging. That’s how fat and happy this country used to be.
Up North, down South, back East, out West. “Thanks for the ride. How far are you going?” “Hi, looking for a place to crash.” “You are a beautiful woman.” “Where is the local hot spot?” “Is there a university or college around here?” “I want to make love to you.” “Is there coffee in the kitchen?” “Just passing through.”
I hitchhiked across this country 20, 30…well, it was all just one long-ass trip, no beginning, no end. Picture a journey from, say, San Francisco to Florida. In Florida, spend a few days in Gainesville, “ball” (a ’60s term) a co-ed, sleep in the dorm, hitch south to Miami, stay in a dirt-bag youth hostel, tour local juice joints, smoke Jamaican weed, fuck what’s available, thumb down to Key West, meet somebody, stay with her for a week, help her brother refinish his 40-foot houseboat, then hitch back to Gainesville, one more night with the college co-ed, then on to Atlanta to stay with a guy I’d met in Seattle who plays bass in a tone-deaf rock-’n-roll band, meet Alicia during band practice, move to her place, help the band pack up, travel to Macon for a band gig, come back, get drunk, take a side trip to Savannah, spend two glorious days in the library reading magazines and a book, do not relate to anyone, meet law student in downtown coffee house on day three, she has to listen to the Eagles when she makes love, attend the symphony with her, the bassoonist is an old boyfriend, get drunk with him after the show, then on to South Carolina, sleep in the bushes beside the freeway, a couple of nights in Charlotte with bikers met at Johnny’s Tavern, then DC and ten days with Mary, who I met in Eugene, Oregon, and three weeks with Todd in Philadelphia, where I cop a ten-day temp job out of Manpower, then NYC, stay with an Alaskan buddy, Boston, more Alaskan friends, Martha’s Vineyard, Buffalo, Erie, back to Philly, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Denver, continue west and carry on. Hitchhiking wasn’t a trip, it was another day at the office.
See, it’s when you stay in one place, that’s when you spend money, on rent and groceries, which means you need skillets, pots, pans, silverware, and dishes, which means acquiring tables and chairs. But keep moving, and you’ll meet people who are happy to put you up for the night. Dinner is on the house. One day turns into the next.
But. I could never have hitchhiked for five years had I not been drafted into the armed forces of the United States, a shotgun wedding, which, after a long and painful gestation, gave birth to a GI Bill made out in my name. The government dole motivated me to attend Foothill Junior College, thence to meet Abby, move to Arden, and commence hitchhiking — which eventually propelled me into the Fairbanks laborers’ union hall, which led to my employ as a writer, and proceeding from there, on a straightish line, to my current position of author and affable host.
The GI Bill, you see, augmented by the odd Pell Grant and NDSL loan, afforded a small stipend, thereby permitting me to hitchhike for years. I avoided a job between the ages of 23 to 30, a formative time of life when contemporaries were dispatched to the employment camps. As a bonus, the Army also introduced me to Alaska, the best part of Alaska, Alaska of 1965.