On the phone with an old friend and Poway resident who I’ll call David Becker. I’m listening to David vs. the Power Outage. He’s saying, “It seems strange, after ten years and spending a billion zillion dollars, one guy with a screwdriver, working at a wretched little substation in North Gila Valley, Arizona, can cut power to seven million people.” I called David to talk Chargers football, halfheartedly, since I don’t believe in Super Bowl as long as Norv remains commander.
David, me, Karen, and Karen’s nine-year-old daughter Robin hitchhiked together for almost a year. It was the ’70s. How we became a hitchhiking pod is another story; the actual hitchhiking was a king-hell adventure. We saw the country from its inside, and, happily, the trek didn’t damage Robin or anyone else; everybody turned out okay. Ever since, when I talk to David, I remember the moment we became friends.
It was late November. And cold. The four of us were stuck in Yermo, 12 miles out of Barstow on the I-15. On the way to Vegas.
The trouble with places like Yermo is, it’s the last stop before a distant destination. In this instance, 140 miles. Every driver thinks, Do I really want four strangers in my car for the next two and a half hours?
It was dark, way dark, too cold to continue hitching in summer clothes. We four prison-gang marched — it might have been a mile, might have been more than a mile, it was a long way — to the first lighted building, a Chevron gas station. These were pre-food-mart days. The station office had cement floor, one gray metal desk, one small motor-oil display case, a rack of tires, and two bathrooms. There was a single employee, a Billy Ray Bob guy, maybe 20 years old, with a big red handkerchief hanging out of one back pocket and a bag of Red Man chewing tobacco out the other. He didn’t like us; we didn’t like him.
We began intense, insincere happy chat with Billy Ray Bob. We thirsted to learn about his malicious, mean-spirited life. Every now and then a car pulled up to a gas pump and a man (always a man) got out and pumped gas into his vehicle, then came inside to pay. We waited until payment was rendered, careful not to interfere with Billy Ray’s commerce, then, one of us, in a tiny voice, coming out from behind an angelic smile while making sure the kid stood in front, would sweetly inquire, “Going to Vegas?”
They all said, “I would, but there’s no room.”
The fourth man who said that — it was after 10:30 p.m., the station closed at 11:00 — was a mid-30s hipster, slight build, five-foot-seven, maybe 150 pounds, with long black hair and mustache, wearing a brown, 1970s Shaft mean-motherfucker knee-length leather jacket. He was driving a red Mustang with all sorts of baggage stacked in the backseat. “I would, but there’s no room,” he said on the way to the bathroom.
David and I looked at each other, then grabbed our gear and rushed outside to the Mustang. I opened the passenger door, rearranged all the bags and boxes, crowded three people into one-half of the backseat, placed self in the front seat. The man returned, opened the door, we chirped, “See, there’s plenty of room.” Beam, beam, beam.
Oh, yes, he was angry, but got in, cranked the car, and drove. Refused to talk. Normally, we could wear anyone down: one of us would find a spot, a place in that other person to talk to, but not with Mustang. For the next two hours, Mustang seethed, the backseat went to sleep, and I kept a suicide watch over our benefactor.
The first overpass in Vegas belonged to Tropicana Avenue. Mustang squealed to a stop on the freeway’s shoulder. Said nothing. We disembarked, careful to put our gear out first. Mustang stomped the accelerator, leaving 10,000 miles worth of rubber on the pavement.
It was past midnight, windy, chest-sucking cold. Destination was an apartment near UNLV, home to a friend of David’s. Before us was another marathon schlep...a long way to Maryland Parkway. I put it at two miles. We were exhausted 12 hours ago. The four of us dead-man stared down the boulevard. I picked up Karen’s suitcase and my backpack. David picked up the kid’s bag and his backpack, said, “I’ll tell you a story.” And in the coldest, darkest, hungriest part of the night, David reached into his guts and pulled out a 55-minute story about living on a houseboat in Belize. It was good enough to keep us interested and long enough to get us to his buddy’s apartment.