The road trip with Jens and Craig had ended by winter 1994. I was nineteen and didn't want to return to Alaska, so I spent several months living in Isla Vista, California, renting out a toolshed adjacent a garage a coulple blocks from the beach. I worked as a department store and a pizza place, saving up for (and eventually purchasing) a car: an orange 1979 Toyota Corolla 5-speed I named "Greg" in honor of Bad Religion front man Greg Graffin. The derelicts with whom I was wasting my scant spare time were finding themselves deeper and deeper into methamphetamine abuse, and at one point they even stole my car and drove it to Mexico. And since I had the key to the gas cap, they pried it off with a crowbar and stuck a sock in its stead.
After recovering Greg, I decided it was time to kick somebody's ass. But I was outnumbered and ultimately these people were useless losers anyway, and in reality I just wanted to bail. So I decided instead to kick the dusts of Southern California from my boots. I packed my shit, hopped in Greg, and headed north up 101 to Berkeley where my buddy Joel lived: dear old Joel who had once scooped puke off my chest with a piece of paper after I'd tried to vomit through a screened window.
As I approached Joel's, my fuel gauge approached empty. I wondered who would win.
Relieved, I coasted in on fumes, literally, and literally with no money. Joel wasn’t employed, either, and he too literally had no money. He did have fixings for a strict daily ration of quesadillas, and we pulled enough change out of his couch cushions for malt liquor. We drank and bullshat on his porch about politics, religion, music, literature and the rest it late into each night.
At day we'd stroll around East Bay, window shopping in used record shops and anarchist bookstores. Ambling down Telegraph Avenue, my head turned, babbling at Joel, I placed kicked a large coffee can of change all over the sidewalk. The homeless man who owned the coffee can and its contents was curiously congenial as Joel and I groped on hands and knees, gathering the hundreds of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters I’d scattered.
“Man I am so sorry. We’ll get this cleaned up for you.”
“It’s okay, fella. Coulda happened to anybody. Ain‘t no big deal. It's just money,” as he swept lose change into a pile with his hands.
Yeah, but I bet it’s all he has.
“Looks like a case of ‘bad peripheral vision meets life’s savings,’” Joel muttered in a low tone, dropping a handful of coins back into the coffee can.
“I am so retarded,” still apologizing to the homeless man.
“Can’t fret over money, my friend,” comfortingly. “It’s just not that important in the grand scheme of things.”
Berkeley. Even the bums are philosophical.
The next day, realizing the homeless man had considerably more money than I did (grand scheme be damned) I hit the neighborhood ringing doorbells for odd jobs. It was springtime, so I easily found lawns to mow, fences to mend, gardens to weed, and all manner of yard work needing doing. After a few days, I had a couple hundred bucks, so I said goodbye to Joel and headed up I-5 for Portland.
Portland? Why Portland? Good question, gentle reader. I've failed to mention heretofore that datingback to Alaska, and throughout the trek with Jens and Craig, and whilst living in Isla Vista, I'd been carrying a torch for a girl from high school who was now living in Portland. Her name was Sarah. She and Wolf had dated for a time, which made me jealous, but I never held it against Wolf. How could I? It made no sense to blame him for doing what any sensible young man would do. Sarah was beautiful, very smart, and a great deal of fun to be around.
But Wolf was in seminary at Gonzaga now, which complicated things for he and Sarah. If there was a window of opportunity for me, that window was drawing nigh and to a close, and quickly. Sarah had written me earlier that spring that she was dating a new guy, a dude who enjoyed participating in vampire-related role-playing games.
"It's called Masquerade. It's like Dungeons and Dragons, but with vampires. They dress up in costumes and run around acting out their characters."
What? Vampires? No fucking way.
I decided to throw a Hail Mary and rescue Sarah from this dork. I was off for the City of Roses, come what may: groundless, homeless and broke.
It wasn't easy to find the time, place or courage to profess my true feelings to Sarah. So in lieu of pursuing my stated ambition, I crashed on her couch for weeks, not doing much at all. This strategy would surely win her heart, no? Who wouldn't fall in love with a depressed, penniless teenager overstaying his welcome and then some.
And then some more.
One night after dinner with friends, I headed back to Sarah's house but got lost: not a difficulty, as you know if you’ve been to Portland. More bridges, ferry roads and rivers than anywhere I’ve been, I think. It’s like a land of ports. Streets swing schizophrenically without any perceivable grid-like rationality to them. It was getting dark, and I was nervous.
Dave you fucktard. You’ve done it again.
The more lost I got, the darker it got, and the more nervous I became.
Oh shit this sucks.
Eventually I divined my way back to Sarah’s street, having exhausted every driving-by-braille trick I'd devised to date.
Whew…that was insane...fucking close.
I exhaled with ultimate relief. It was deep into twilight, by this time, which is the worst time of day for the partially sighted. But I was on Sarah’s street, almost to the parking lot and ready to call it a night. Disaster was averted, and another bullet dodged.
So I swung into the parking lot and smashed into a brand new Jeep Renegade.
No one in the Jeep was hurt and the insurance I’d bought back in Santa Barbara was still current.
Sarah was becoming increasingly concerned about my life generally and my driving specifically.
“David, are you really sure you should be driving at all? You’ve had so many wrecks, and, frankly, I’m scared to drive with you anymore.”
Sarah had good reason for concern. She’d sat shotgun during my maiden wreck back in Alaska: a minor affair involving a loss of control on the ice and smashing into a guardrail.
Without the guardrail, it'd have been a major affair.
“Your eyes are really bad, David. They're worse than you realize, I suspect. I think part of why you're so miserable is because you're not dealing with it.”
“Look, it’s alright. I just need to not drive at night. And I need to be more careful, I admit.”
Sarah would let it go, and she never pressed the point too hard or for too long. She must have known something, someday, would finalize my driving career, and while she must have thought it could be my death (or worse) she’d cut me slack and drop the point time and again. She knew I was miserable, she knew my eyesight sucked, and she knew I was in love with her. She didn’t need to kick my ass anymore than it was already being kicked, nor anymore than I was already kicking it myself. But she hated to see me like this. I was approaching absolute zero and needed to figure out what to do with myself, but nothing came to mind.
After failing from continued lack of nerve, and being a general pill about it, I said fuck all and professed my love to Sarah. Still no dice. She was with Bram Stoker now and was happy with her situation and that was that. In the end, I couldn’t blame her. That guy may have liked to play vampire dress-up, but he wasn‘t the catastrophic excuse for a human being I was. Wow. I couldn't compete with a man who played make-believe.
Or was it that my own pathetic brand of make-believe was just that pathetic? Maybe, but mine felt pretty real, realer than Anne Rice, anyway.
In the final analysis, it didn't matter how ridiculous the man she was with was because that man was never going to me.
Sarah was gentle, and said she was flattered. But she never intimated anything to the effect of “if the timing was different,” or “you had your chance in Alaska,” or “who knows what the future will bring?” or so on. Just what I needed. There'd been too much vague innuendo which I'd taken to be hints and hidden messages that were not. I'd been clinging desperately to a potentiality that would never actualize. I had, in fact, been wasting my life in a useless obsession with someone who could, or in any case, would, only be my friend. Yes, Sarah was caring but forthright. It was the brutal truth, and any doubt, any hope, any pitiful clinging at roots, any fingernails clawing at the dirt, and all final vestiges of a dying hope, had died.
The Hail Mary was incomplete, and the game was over. Within a day, I was over Sarah.
I decided it was time to earn some money and let Sarah be for a while. She (and her mother with whom she'd be living) had had enough of me, and it was time to move along. So it was back to the suburbs, knocking on doors and doing chores. Eventually, I stumbled upon a cul-de-sac with a dozen houses going up and found a crew.
I helped frame a couple of houses, and the boss always paid me at day's end and would say “Come around tomorrow, if you want.” I came around every day for a week or two until I had enough cash for a few tanks of gas to be on my way. But to where?
Meanwhile, my maternal grandmother died. I had recently spent time with her at her home in Georgia, and we were very close. Given my fragile state, her death hit me particularly hard. I was very lucky to have a friend like Sarah around as I dealt with the loss.
I still had no plan of action. I spoke with my parents semi-regularly following my grandmother's passing, and they shared my concerns concerning what I was going to do with my life. I had no skills, and all the while I was beginning to gain a greater grasp upon just how god-awful my eyesight really was.
“Why don’t you come home?” my father suggested one night.
“Dad I can’t bear the thought of coming back to Alaska. I miss you guys, but I want to make my own way down here.”
The crux of the issue, to be sure. But returning was an overt admission of failure. I cringed at the idea, but drew a blank as to what the hell else I could do.
“You can stay at home for now, work, save your money, and start school in the fall. I'll jump-seat down and we’ll drive your car up together. It’ll be fun. I can be down in a few days.”
At the end of my rope, I let go.
“Alright, let’s do it.”
So he took some time off from his airline pilot job, and was in Oregon within a few days. He helped me pound Greg’s front fender back into shape and to track down a replacement gas cap (neither of which I could be bothered to do, apparently). He, Greg and I headed back up the Al-Can, a mere nine months after my glorious escape with Jens and Craig. Pops drove at night, I at day. At one stretch, while Pops lay sleeping in the passenger seat, the dust on the road in the bright sun became so opaque I could see nothing. We hurled up the highway, I utterly unaware of where I was going.
It was one thing to put myself in danger, but not my father.
What if Sarah's right? Should I really be driving?
My hair was a manic panic magenta at the time, which confused and annoyed folks along the Canadian highway.
"What happened to your friggin' head, eh?" with a scowl.
Pops was right about one thing: it was a fun trip. Paradoxically, there was something liberating about the absolute concession of my dream of supreme autonomy.
So I was home. Craig had been home for a few months, and Jens had joined the Army.
Some weeks later I visited friends living up Wasilla Fishhook Road. Following the visit, I sped home along the aptly named roadway, which is tempting to do. I felt like I was in a car ad, shifting and downshifting as I flossed along the hairpins, Bad Religion blasting on the stereo. Was it safe? No, but everyone likes driving fast on winding roads, including the driver of the oncoming Jeep Renegade who'd veered half-way into my lane over the double yellow line, also traveling way too fast. With a microsecond to spare, I swerved to avoid a head-on collision, hooking my tires over the edge of the asphalt and onto the shoulder.
In preparations for my five driver's license tests back in high school, I was often reminded to decelerate if the wheels get hooked on the shoulder, and never to jerk the steering wheel in an effort to get back on the road.
So I jerked the steering wheel in an effort to get back on the road.
Greg and I tumbled down the road and landed upright in a patch of grass alongside it. Two of the tires burst and the glass was smashed. I had a box of cassette tapes in the back seat which exploded in all directions like the homeless man's can of coins back in East Bay. During the roll, I came dangerously close to crashing into the next car in the opposite lane, which turned out to be driven by an employee of the Alaska Department of Transportation.
I don’t know if the driver of the Jeep Renegade ever knew what happened to Greg and I. He or she never stopped, in any event.
The police arrived and I explained what happened. They decided it wasn’t really my fault, what with the oncoming Jeep. They expressed sympathy for my loss, but “As far as the car, it’s your responsibility to get it out of here and to a junk yard.” The chassis was twisted like a wrung wash cloth, and the cop diagnosed correctly that poor Greg was irreparable and should be laid to eternal rest.
“We’re not going to cite you for reckless driving. Just send this proof of insurance form into Juneau within ten days.”
I’d have loved to, had I had insurance. The policy I'd purchased in California had long since lapsed from failure to make payments, so I decided to face the music by calling Juneau and fessing up. Juneau was pissed, so they fined me and suspended my license for 90 days.
It was during this 90-day period that Alaska’s preeminent retina specialist, Dr. Thomas Harrison (and his trusty penlight) diagnosed my retinitis pigmentosa.
My driver's license remains in suspended status to this day.