I went to the airport last night. Well, it has to be the first time in about eighteen years. I prefer to drive if it’s on the East Coast and I haven’t been elsewhere in a long time. A drive of fifteen hours is about my limit. So I can get some oh dark thirty driving in on these excursions.
You know, two AM and the mind starts wandering, listening to some live shock jock on the high end of the radio dial. The rest area caffeine is alive and well in your veins, and the creepy crawlie tendrils of memory come out to romp because you’re alone on a dark highway, and your mind begins to play with reality.
It wouldn’t be necessary for me to describe it if you’ve been there, but I understand that a segment of the population flies all in one straight line and never looks left or to the right to check the flight pattern. Lucky you.
So one night, I’m on my way back from Philly, I’ve just crossed into Connecticut, and as I pass some little drive-past town, I remember stopping there one night in the sixties. There was a dynamite all-night diner there. It was the sort of place that served breakfast at midnight for late-night excursionists and truckers. I was on my way back to Boston and had been let off my last ride there with advice that I could find my next if I asked around. I got the ninety-nine-cent breakfast special with an endless cup of coffee. Someone asked if I could play the guitar or if it was a machine gun, so I pulled the guitar out and gave them a song. This was followed by about five more with breakfast on the house and about five dollars in tips for the music. An older guy with a horn in a case offered me a ride to the Boston area, and soon we were on the way.
About an hour into the drive, the horn player offered me advice. ” I know you don’t want to, but start thinking about what traveling from gig to gig will be like when your hair gets grey like mine. You’ve never made it to the top tiers, commanded big money, or been recorded. You live in a wreck of a studio apartment with your cat, and the wife moved out because you can’t keep a job.” He went on in tone for a while before lapsing into silence. Eventually, he let me off at a streetcar stop, and I watched the sunrise, waiting for a ride into town. Being about twenty, I paid little attention to what he said.
About 1969, I began to separate myself from counterculture lifestyles. Several friends had already departed life from alcohol and drug abuse, and I knew several performers who fit all too well into the type cast the horn player suggested. A violent incident almost cost me my life, and I began reconsidering my path. But what if?
And that was the alternate reality my mind began to spin out as I drove into Massachusetts, heading home. I had continued to make bad choices, my hair was grey as it is, but the nicotine stains still graced my fingers. I had moved on from folk music to calling myself a singer/songwriter. A self-produced CD of my material occupied boxes in the car’s trunk; for sale at whatever venue I was playing at. A long-term relationship had eluded me; it’s hard when you never know your schedule. But the new songs were solid, and I could finally see the future clear before me.
About then, I saw the other car pull alongside, and I looked toward that driver and saw the resemblance. I almost spun off the road then but continued to the little rest area ahead. I pulled over and almost forced myself to take a break and sleep for a few hours.
When I first woke up, I had a moment of uncertainty. Which one of us was I? No nicotine stains, no guitar in the back, and clear memories of the wife and home I was returning to. I wondered if that other Lou was doing the same else when. He might also be shuddering. His alter ego had surrendered his art for a bit of economic stability, given up unusual friends for a sort of middle-class stasis. He, too, might check to see if the old beat-up guitar was in the back. We had parted ways somewhere on the road years before and continued down non-parallel tracks. But there was a sort of kinship between us still. The beat-up guitar still had a place of honor in the house, scribbles of songs still populated the desk occasionally, and whenever I was asked to bring the guitar, I felt that old feeling as I did in my coffeehouse days. I’d pluck out the music with the same alacrity I had that night in the all-night diner.