Friday, October 19, 2012

Dysart Truck Stop - Bangor, Maine

Outside Acadia National Park, I hitch-hiked along highway 1A, destination Bangor, Maine. No, that's not right. Wasn't I supposed to be on the third box car, midnight train? Probably, but it doesn't matter. I stood by the roadside with my thumb out and a sign with neat block letters on it. B-A-N-G-O-R. The sky was a grizzly, unbroken grey dribbling down rain.

A car pulled over. Black porsche with an immaculate interior, the driver in a black jacket, black pants, and black buttondown. Mozart was playing through the speakers, and he had a look that said more Santa-mourning-the-loss-of-Mrs-Claus, and there was the cross on the black cd case. Priest, I figure and think to say something about it, but what is there to say? I didn't feel like discussing the finer points of the spirit, and my soul felt fairly free of aches, that I just sat there, waiting for him to introduce some topic, or none at all. Besides, priests, like anyone, must feel the need to discuss things other than God.

I had for a time considered the clergy, but my reasons were not good ones and I would have been a terrible priest. The celibacy didn't trouble so much as the ardent belief, and I don't think I could stand to have every troubled sinner pouring out his soul to me. But, I thought sitting passenger side, it might make travel easier, people would be more willing to invite me to trust them. Though there's no necessity to go to seminary to play dress-up. I went to a party once dressed as a Tibetan monk. I still got cornered into all kinds of spiritual debate, even after explaining it was costume and not career, but I don't remember having to pay for a single drink that night. Perhaps I should look at Amazon for some clerical robes, see if I can get any on discount. And I do look good in black.

When we broke the silence, he spoke of one of his preferred subjects, his wife. Not a priest then. Not Catholic anyway. Perhaps one of a different persuasion. Do they call them priests in the Anglican faith? Then he went on to another subject, his work as an engineer. So not a priest of any kind. A priest-mimic. And I had trusted him. So you see it does work.

The not-priest drove me direct to the bus station - an inconvenient to hitch hike 5 miles outside town at a truck stop. He even waited outside while I checked to see if my bus was running on time, which it was, so we parted.

The truck stop was an intriguing way place in itself. Here I had spent nearly a week in Acadia, and I was as intrigued by a truck stop as I had been by the many hidden paths and discoveries of a forested sea island. There was a restaurant, set of wash rooms, laundry facilities, showers, bar, and general store.

The restaurant was divided into two sections, one side for families and the other for truckers. The trucker side was arranged in long tables where solitary men sat together talking story. Men who left the slimmest ration of chairback visible behind their flannel mass, who had backsides the size of Franklin stoves and went by 'Junior' and 'Sonny' into their sixth decades. Baseball caps were common, though none carried the flared insignia of a sports team.

Four or perhaps five waitresses hovered about - they seemed interchangeable - refilling coffee mugs and bringing out great slick portions shiny with grease. These were called 'girls' even when they had given up on allowing the natural color of their hair any show. Every patron was 'hon' and 'sweetheart.' I asked one how far she walked in a day. She said some years back she had worn a pedometer which measured out 9.5 miles for a day. But she had changed her schedule and didn't work as much of the week now, although she had added an additional two hours to each shift. So the figure might be nearer to twelve.

If the background noise of cutlery and country western were dialed down, then the prevailing noise would be of salivary mastication, like the chewing of many thousands of caterpillars. I wasn't hungry enough for food, so I ordered tea for several hours. The photographs on the wall read from left to right spanned a centure of blue collar toil as black and white images of logs, sawmills, and horses changed to tractors, trucks, and trailers, from black-and-white to kodachrome. The company had originally been in the timber industry, then changed to fuel oil, then heating-oil postwar, and though that was still an element of Dysart's Truck Stop, they were largely in the service industry now.

The place felt legendary, one of the great gravy halls of hospitality one encounters on the American road trip, where coffee is regular or decaf, where any compound of oil in a thumb-sized packet is called 'butter', and where Hank Williams will never tire of crying how lonesome and lachrymous he is.  I must have looked pitiful enough, for I was not permitted to pay, though I offered.

I went to the general store to browse in the ten minutes before my bus began boarding. The driver in a crisp uniform perused the keraffes of coffee, set to the side of a range of boxes showing every plastic-wrapped food product containing sugar known to humankind. I watched his move for when he left, taking my cue to leave when he went to the till. Two old men clucked over a display of 'motor stabilizer,' arranged with the flare of exotic fruit, nodding as they inspected its claims. There were many items peculiar to those used to long stretches of motorized solitude. Neck pillows, spit cups, GPS, audio devices, and a not insubstantial collection of romance novels, sporting such lurid titles as 'Never Seduce a Scot' and 'The Undead in My Bed.' Surprisingly, I did not find it hard to imagine the gruff, NASCAR crowd drawn into these intrigues of 18th century lust and haunting desire. We do all sorts of things alone to which we might never confess.

Congo Square: New Orleans

I got off the train and into the pit of August heat. It felt and smelled like being in a mouth of a large dog which had fed on the unsavory remnants of something already pre-digested. A lurking stench crept around the moldering subtropic rail station. Not sewage or septic but the raw smell of uncut shit, as if someone had dropped drawers in mid-traffic.

The river snaked through the last patches of the state before dissolving through a sieve of mangroves and entering the gulf. Cumulus rose like spouting whales the colors of apricots and peach skin. I walked up the steps to a platform, pulling out my camera.  A young woman leaned on a railing in front of me as I raised the lens. Someone spoke from behind.

"Yeah, take a photograph of that," he said.

"I know. It's magnificent."

"Yeah," he laughed.

I took a few shots of the clouds, then realized the girl in the foreground had been standing in something of a lurid pose, or at least enough suggestion to her stance to make me feel like a creeper. Damn film. I can't just erase the shot and now I''ll have the judgement of the developer on me.

It was a good place to photograph, New Orleans, and I saw many good angles for it. Much was new and strange. Wrought iron balconies. Taro pushing up leaves the size of card tables through cracks in the pavement. Geckos. Humidity. And plenty of good characters. It started raining and I stepped into a thrift store to stay dry. A tophat sat on a mannequin. Five dollars. It fit perfectly, riding just above the brow, and made me look more of a character myself. A tourist stopped me in the French Quarter to take my picture. He gave me five dollars for it. I suppose that makes you seem a local, when the tourists stop you to take your photograph.

A good hobo band was playing on Frenchman street. They were clearly freighthoppers. Unwashed, untrimmed, and all in the same olive drab and dirty grey. The guitarist knew how to work the crowd, the banjo not bad as backup though hesitant on solos, and the washtub bass hit each chord satisfactorily, but I was most impressed by the washboard. He had thimbles on all fingers and had fastened a few cans and bowls onto the board which he struck as he played. I appreciate any percussionist who does not need a proper instrument to get his music across.

I had arrived in the middle of a song and hoped for another, but it was their last number. So I gave them a dollar and complimented the washboard. He was hesitant in talking, not taking over-much pride in either his playing or craftsmanship. He was a narrow boy probably not yet twenty. Though his mouth was bracketed by a rancid beard and his head a clot of dreds, his cheeks were smooth and unblemished and he had the eyes of the Virgin - gem-like, liquid and sorrowful. Cleaned up, his features would have a femenine delicacy that would remind men of some forlorn stripling relative and women of a junior-high crush. Had he wanted to, he could have gotten away with anything. It impressed me how careful he was of his looks, just the other way than most people might take it. What number of beautiful faces hide and age and go uncelebrated. I wondered just how financially stripped he and his bandmates might have been originally. They might just be rich folk playing paupers. I'm the reverse.

My host in the city and I were unfortunately too much alike to tolerate each other's company much, so I spent most of my time wandering. Supposedly New Orleanians are a talkative bunch. I have not found it so. Unable to locate the chatty folk, I was feeling bored my third and final day and unwilling to go back and argue some more with my host. So I went over to Congo Square to read for awhile. A man was standing by the channeled creek tossing bread to the ducks. He shared half a loaf with me.

"I'm the arborist of Louis Armstrong Park," he said. He moved his arm behind him to indicate a park bench. "That's my office." Then he swung his arm back to the ducks. "These are my constituents."

"I haven't done this since I was a kid," I said, wadding up chunks of wonder bread and tossing them out.

"Satisfying, isn't it," said the arborist.

A school of irridescent scales shimmered under the duck bellies, snapping at the scraps. "What are all these fish we're feeding?" I asked.

"Rio Grande cichlids. They came in on the flood," he said, referencing Katrina. "They'll strike anything that hits the water."

To prove the point the arborist spat into the creek. The surface churned with a scrum of fish.

"Anyone wanna go swimming?" he said, then turned his head to two hunchbacked birds. "Look, some goose-hawks."

I knew them as night herons. They looked intently at the water so I threw them some bread. The pair pounced like trip hammers, each coming up with a cichlid.

"That is satisfying," I said