“I’m not driving to Colorado every time your grandfather decides he’s dying,” my father muttered. He jammed the last of the luggage into the back of the station wagon. “He rotted his stomach drinking and now he expects everybody to feel sorry for him.”
This would be our last full family station wagon trip across country, but it was far from the first. One of my earliest memories is of my mother carrying me to our Bel-Air wagon before dawn, still in my Underdog jammies, for one cross-country trip or another. We were the original Griswolds, making good time and stopping only for gas and bathrooms.
Stuckey’s ahead in 60 miles!
40 miles to Stuckey’s
Stuckey’s – 20 miles! Stop in for a Pecan Log!
Stuckey’s – NEXT EXIT!
“Dad, can we stop at Stuckey’s?”
“You just missed Stuckey’s! Turn around at Exit 13!”
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Our vacations were primarily dedicated to enriching destinations: Carlsbad Caverns, Yellowstone, Dinosaur National Monument, Washington D.C. Occasionally they took an aviation bent: Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, for example; or Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the Wright Brothers first flew. Now and then they even focused on fun destinations like Disney World or Six Flags.
But every few years we made a station wagon pilgrimage to Colorado, the mother land. By the time we left that summer morning in 1982 we hadn’t lived in Colorado for eight years, over half of my life. I didn’t know my extended family beyond their two-dimensional high concepts: the war hero; the drunk; the smart aunt; the bad boy uncle; the deadbeat aunt and her horrible children; the fun aunt and uncle and their kids, the good cousin and the bad, troubled cousin.
It was this last cousin who was the most interesting to me, probably because I was of absolutely no interest to her. Lindsey was four years older chronologically and a good twenty years ahead of the rest of us in the “take no bullshit” department. She was street smart, as much as I hate that hackneyed phrase, and she had no time for a nerdy little kid like me.
And that’s how the Colorado contingent perpetually saw me. I was forever seven-year old Jimmy, the precocious reader, the airplane kid, waving goodbye from the jumper seat of the station wagon as we left our extended family for a new life in Chicago, Texas, South Carolina. Even now, forty years later, I am still Jimmy to a handful of relatives whom I’ve seen rarely since we moved away.
Anyway, Lindsey. When my sister was into “Seasons In the Sun,” Lindsey was rocking “Smoking In the Boys’ Room.” While I was going through my church phase she was jumping out of her bedroom window to see The Who. U2’s Live Under A Blood Red Sky concert? She was there. Without question she was the cool cousin, but her parents were in a constant state of conflict with and worry about her.
The last time we were there Lindsey was living in a trailer with her teenaged husband. On this visit she was back home and divorced, aged 19. The mothers/aunts were now just sisters at the kitchen table, slouching over coffee cups and furrowing their brows.
“I just don’t know what to do. I’m so darned worried about her ever since she got mixed up with the drugs.”
Furrow furrow, nod nod.
“And that husband of hers wasn’t any better.” Furrow, nod. “I don’t think either of them will ever hold a steady job. And she looks like such a tramp with her butt hanging out of those blue jean shorts.” Furrow furrow furrow.
Out on the porch the fathers/uncles were now just brothers-in-law. “I went down to that goddamned trailer and told him if I ever had to come down there again I’d whip his goddamned ass.”
I decided to split the difference between the kitchen table and the patio and visit the basement. When we lived in Colorado my aunt’s basement was the happiest place on Earth. This was where we played ping-pong and pinball, board games like Dark Shadows and Clue. After our grandmother died this was where we went with our cousins’ Ouija board to make sure that she was okay. We huddled around and placed our fingers on the planchette.
“We summon the spirit of Grandma. Grandma, are you in Heaven?”
A few beats, and then our hands started moving slowly toward the word “yes.” We all looked on amazed as the ghost of Grandma slowly slid the planchette across the board.
“Jesus Christ,” Lindsey said. “We all know where we’re pushing it.” She shoved the plastic pointer over the “yes” and went back upstairs.
But that was eight years ago. The basement now wasn’t much more than a storage space. I turned on the light. My uncle’s Nutty Mads were still on the shelf behind the bar. The ping-pong table and pinball machine were gone, but a stereo rested on the bar along with a small stack of records. Really nothing for my discriminating fifteen year old Guy In Black Tee Shirt Who Jams taste, but anything was better than listening to the hand wringing upstairs.
Saturday Night Fever already was on the turntable, so I dropped the needle and let it fly. This remains the one and only time that I’ve listened to that entire album in sequence. I appreciate the craftsmanship, but sweet God — did Barry Gibb one day wake up and say to himself, “Bob Dylan writes great songs, sings like a braying goat, and people adore him. If I can find and even more annoying singing voice imagine what they’ll think of me“? This is also the album where Kool and the Gang start their downward spiral from “Jungle Boogie” funkmeisters to perpetual “Celebration” hacks. “Open Sesame,” the soundtrack’s only Kool and the Gang cut, is the musical median between these two extremes.
But listen, if you were born between 1955 and 1969 those Saturday Night Fever songs are in your genes; of course, so are the traits for alcoholism and flipper babies. Approach any group of people unlikely to beat you and sing “ah! ah! ah! ah!” and someone will throw you a “Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.” For the most part that album is populated with solid songs, which is what differentiated it from so much of the paint-by-BPM dreck of the disco era.
Anyway, eventually I heard the stairway door open and creaking footsteps in the stairwell. (Another sure sign time had passed: When we were little we usually slid down the stairs on our butts.)
“Jim? Oh geez, look at you. You grew up.”
“Hey, Lindsey.” She didn’t look like a doped up loser, she just looked like Lindsey.
“What are you doing? Did you guys have a good drive?”
“Other than not peeing for three states and getting hit in the head with a suitcase every time we hit a bump.”
When she laughed she looked and sounded just like my aunt. “What are you listening to?”
“It was all I could find.”
“That’s from Mom’s dancing phase. Come on upstairs. You want a pop?”
We went to her room. She cracked open the closet and revealed a treasure trove of vinyl: Led Zeppelin, Frampton, The Who. But it didn’t stop there. In my little world free copies of Police and Motels albums created the first fissure in my mighty jam collection; however, Lindsey seemed to have her feet firmly planted in both the old and new waves. Next to Supertramp’s Crime of the Century was Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. She owned The Cars’ first album, too, and something by Icehouse.
We hung out for a couple of hours, listening to records and talking about the family. She treated me like a peer and a friend rather than as the bratty younger cousin, and I in turn revered her as the coolest. Relative. Ever.
“Oh shit! I was supposed to be at Gary’s twenty minutes ago.”
“Who is Gary?”
“Just a friend. A bunch of us play cards. You want to come?”
Kitchen, furrow. Patio, violence. Basement, Bee Gees. “Yeah, cool.”
We drove to Gary’s place, which was an exact replica of every fucked up rednecks’ apartment I had ever been in, as if Gary’s neighborhood was a suburb of Boiling Springs, South Carolina. Four guys were sitting around a small table with just enough room for their cards between the Coors cans. Smoke and Fleetwood Mac lingered in the air.
“Hey, where you been?”
“Hanging out. This is my cousin, Jim.”
“Hey man, want a beer?”
“Jesus, Gary, he’s fifteen.”
They played a couple more hands, then two of the guys took off. Maybe the minor in the room was harshing their mellow, I don’t know, and then Gary said, “Hey Paul have you showed Lindsey your new bike?”
“You bought a motorcycle?”
“Yeah, you want to go for a ride?”
“You okay, Jim? Gary’s cool. I’ll be back in like ten minutes.”
“Yeah, that’s cool.”
And then there were two. We sat quietly until Gary asked, “So how long you known Lindsey?”
“About fifteen years.”
More silence. The record ended. Gary got up, put on Led Zeppelin II. “You want to burn one?”
“Nah, I’m cool.”
“You mind if I get mellow?”
“Nah, man, go ahead.”
He lit up a joint and went off into Gary Land. I gathered up the cards and played solitaire. Side one ended. He flipped the record.
“They should be back soon.”
We listened to side two. He put on Jethro Tull’s Aqualung. “You ever listen to this high?”
“Nah, pretty cool?”
“It’ll fucking trip you out, man.”
“‘Locomotive Breath,’ man.”
“I heard that.”
“They should be back soon.”
We listened to three more albums. “You got someone you can call, man? They’re probably partying somewhere.”
“Do you know my aunt’s phone number?”
“Is it the same as Lindsey’s?”
“I don’t know, I guess.”
Ten minutes later Lindsey’s and my mothers drove up. All the way home my aunt railed about my cousin and my mother nodded and furrowed.
“We should kick her out but you just don’t do that to family….We’re already raising her son….I can’t believe she just dumped Jimmy on some dopehead like that…”
The night when I finally had the living room to myself I turned on MTV, a rare treat for cable-free me. What defines a game changer? Well, I’ll tell you: I’m talking about an hour of disposable television from thirty years ago. Let’s assume that with commercials and Triple J’s DJ blather I saw ten videos during that time, and I remember two: X’s “The Hungry Wolf” and The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah.” I was completely transfixed. This wasn’t stoner rock or Myrtle Beach music, it was different, and for whatever reason it felt like it was mine.
The front door opened and there stood Lindsey the Amount To Nothing Loser in her cutoffs and her halter top. She was bruised and limping, her right side one big strawberry from ankle to shoulder.
“Paul lost it in some gravel when we were coming back down the mountain. We had to walk ten miles back because nobody would pick us up and his motorcyle was ruined.” Her road rash was scabbed in some places and still weeping in others. Her legs were trembling. “Are you okay?” she asked me. “How did you get home?”
You just can’t judge a book by its cutoffs.
Related “Why It Matters” Pieces: http://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2011/09/05/43-a-one-way-ticket-only-one-way-to-go/