Blogging in E minor
Usually just a bunch of silly crap.

A Box Full of Pennies and a Dream, Part I: There Are No Gnaus!

Pronounced ge-NOWz

Written in collaboration with special guest blogger Lee Murr 

             I was homeless, broke and had nothing left to lose. For several months I had been living in my ’77 Pontiac Catalina, a car known to me and my friends as the Jolly Cow. When I could, I found work with temp agencies or family friends. Given the opportunity, I would sleep indoors whenever possible, sometimes at my girlfriend’s place, though most nights I slept in my car.

            My ambition since about the age of 12, had been to become a rock superstar, this being a contributing factor to my homelessness. I had dreamed about making a pilgrimage to Los Angeles, the showbiz capital of the world, to pursue my dreams. Now age 20, with seemingly nothing holding me back, I felt it was time to make my move.

            This recent resolve had been inspired by my friend Lee Murr, who was a guitar player with similar ambitions. He kept a backpack in his room, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Lee was planning a hitchhiking excursion from the mediocre familiarity of our home town to explore the country and to go wherever his adventures would take him. I had decided, right then and there, that the time was right for both of us. I would call on Lee.

            After all, don’t all big adventures start this recklessly?

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            David Letterman was on when Takkic arrived. “Wanna go to L.A.?” he asked.

            I think we had around $20, not nearly enough to get there, but it was a start. And when you’re 19, that’s good enough. So just like that, we were headed west to L.A., two long-haired musicians drawn inexplicably westward like moths to a flame, or more accurately, like youth to a challenge.

Takkic and I had an interesting effect on each other whereby our natural self-preservation instinct seemed to be suppressed in each other’s company.  Examples include:

  • chasing a police car through a subdivision at 60 mph to try to alert the driver that his headlight was out, 
  • deciding that the way to overcome our fear of heights was to climb on bridges, and
  • thinking it would be just grand to go to L.A. with $20 and some ketchup packets in the glove compartment.
 

            My bass was packed away in its case in the trunk, though my amp remained behind at a buddy’s house. There just wasn’t room for it, so I’d have to deal with that later. Lee’s guitar rested upon the rear window ledge in the back of the car.

            Lee’s guitar was an abomination! The homemade Stratocaster was purposely designed with the intent of making people reflexively vomit at the sight of it. Red, green and cream-colored paint drippings covered the unfinished body, resembling an overused painter’s drop cloth. Due to the lack of a pick guard, the electronic cavity was exposed, revealing the sloppy, haphazard wiring within. Functionally, however, it was a solid instrument, complete with a top-of-the-line Floyd Rose locking tremolo system and Seymor Duncan pickups.

            Because it was late, I left a farewell letter in My girlfriend’s mailbox, promising better times in the future. I’d send for her once I was settled. This was difficult, but necessary, I felt.

            Unbeknownst to us, our difficulties started almost immediately. The Jolly Cow bottomed out on a hump in the entrance to the gas station where our journey began, the effects of which would only be realized later.

            Aside from the aforementioned $20, I had a shoe box full of change, mostly pennies, and some coupons. We sank most of our cash into the tank, knowing that we would have to sell of various items – clothes, cassettes, jewelry, etc. – to fund this excursion. Residing in my car, everything I owned happened to be on board. All we had for food was a few cans of soup between us.

            To the casual reader, the fact that we left town with minimal funds may seem foolhardy; but one must realize that I was broke, homeless and hungry most of the time anyway. The geographical location of my suffering seemed irrelevant. If I were starve, I’d prefer to do so in California.

            Then we were off with a hoot and a holler to the City of Angels in pursuit of our vision. We were finally leaving the smallness of the Midwest behind to chase the legendary, fast-paced, Big Rock, fun-in-the sun, hot-women fantasy we associated with the LA dream.

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            With both of us being nocturnal, we had no problems driving through the night. We had picked up a hitchhiker outside of Kansas City in the morning, and he bought a few cassettes off me that would be converted to fuel. We dropped him off in Topeka, Kansas.

            From there, things got hairy. We had noticed that my car was leaking oil profusely, which was probably caused from bottoming out at the gas station. We had to begin spending money on oil and gas.

            As we crawled across Kansas at 40 mph hoping to conserve fuel, we were hindered by frequent stops. Along the way, I sold a suede vest at a trading post and cassettes at a strip mall. We panhandled at every rest stop, sticking what bills and coins we could scare up into the shoe box until it was consumed. A family cut us off a chunk of watermelon, which we devoured in the shade of a tree. It was day two, and we were already hot, hungry and tired.   

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             I don’t think we got much real sleep as sleeping in the car is just awful.  For the first part of the trip my memories are cloudy, as we were sitting in the car driving, just barely conscious. Somehow Takkic managed to keep us moving by doing whatever it took to get fuel in the car. Fortunately for us his car had been well-maintained and was a style that didn’t draw too much attention to us.  

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            Near disaster occurred when Lee left our canteen in a reststop bathroom while refilling it. We noticed it missing a few exits later and circled back to get it. Already we were learning not to take anything for granted out on the road, so we could not risk being careless, even when it came to water.  I secured the canteen to a belt loop on my pants with a set of trick handcuffs that Lee had brought with him, and it remained attached to my hip for the remainder of our journey. 

           Somebody told us that churches along the highway kept a “distressed travelers” fund for people in trouble. We followed up on this lead and managed to get a gas voucher from the Hayes, Kansas Sheriff’s Department for a half tank of gas. We came to the realization that these towns would give out vouchers to move people like us along their way, comfortably outside of their city limits. The first time we took advantage of this, it was relatively painless.

            Eventually, sometime during day two or three, we made our way to the Colorado border.

 

            Colorado greeted us with 2 signs that I remember to this day: “Bicycles Keep Right” and “Speed Enforced by Aircraft.” We stopped at the Visitor’s Center to clean up in the restroom, then it was time for some lunch.

            My head was still spinning with the idea that bikes can ride on the highway and police are flying around trying to catch speeders when Takkic whipped out a can of soup and a coil of metal with an AC cord attached to it and proclaimed that he was going to make us some hot chicken noodle soup. The little soup warmer was new to me and I was a little afraid for his safety as it pretty much looked like an easy way to electrocute yourself. So I held it carefully and plugged it in to see what would happen. 

            Hindsight doesn’t require years, months, or even weeks to hit you, it exists milliseconds after an event. In this case I realized that the soup warmer vaporized in my hand because it didn’t have any soup to draw off the heat that it would generate when plugged in. We ate the soup cold and discarded the useless soup warmer. Nevertheless, cold soup never tasted so good!

 

            By evening, we made our way to Denver’s eastern suburbs. To our bewilderment, we were unable to find a grocery store anywhere. We stopped at a convenience store and purchased a loaf of bread and a small package of lunchmeat. We took full advantage of the free condiments available.

            We decided that Denver would be a brief layover stop. I knew a family, the Gnaus, who had moved there a few years earlier. I was good friends with the daughters, and the mother had worked with the Department of Employment Security. We had hoped we could find a place to stay and some temporary employment before moving on to California. I purchased a newspaper for the Help Wanted ads and ripped out the “Gn” page from the phone book.

             Lee and I spent the night in a park. We were once again penniless.

            After yet another uncomfortable night’s sleep, we awoke early to pursue a job lead from the newspaper. It did not pan out. As we were driving about town in the pursuit of work, we crested a hill . . .

            . . . to see the Rocky Mountains in the distance, revealed before us for the first time, spanning the entire horizon. It was breathtaking! The man-made city in the foreground was rendered inconsequential by the awesome majesty of the distant terrain. This spectacle was one of the few highpoints of this trip, enabling us to forget about our problems for a few precious moments.

             And I had a first-hand encounter with the legendary thin air when I had to run about 40 yards to a payphone. I was completely winded by the short sprint and had to regain my composure before making my phone calls – which yielded neither work nor Gnaus.

 

            Denver was a treat after years of unsuccessfully trying to learn the former cowpaths that comprise our home town’s street system.  This city was laid out in a near perfect grid with east-to-west streets numbered and north-to-south streets named in sequential alphabetical order. It was a great place, but we were just passing through. And the pressure of being broke was building.

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             We hung out at a mall in the shadow of the mountains for a while, ate some mustard sandwiches, checked the oil level in the Cow and counted the remaining pennies in our shoe box. We made another failed attempt to reach the last Gnau in the phone book.

             “Just face it man,” Lee said. “There are no Gnaus.”

             That evening, I made a collect call to my girlfriend, which made me homesick. Then I made a collect call to my mother, which completely wiped away any misgivings I had about leaving home in the first place.

             Early during our second morning in Denver, we visited a construction site and a temp agency in an effort to find work. After spending several hours there, somebody informed us about a blood bank where we could get cash immediately.

 

             In a moment of desperation, Takkic decided we should sell our plasma – our very lifeblood.  I couldn’t do it. The memory of a near-death bleeding experience as a child had a powerful affect on me so. Takkic manned up and did the deed. 

 

            I sat in a chair as they drained my blood into a plastic bag, spun it in a centrifuge, squeezed out the plasma (proteins) and dripped the remaining red blood cells back into my arm. Then they repeated the process. The return of the blood cells enabled donors to give habitually. Proteins are easily replaced by the body; whereas, red blood cells are not. It was an exploitive process with a surrealistic science fiction feel to it. In the end, they gave me $10 and told me I could return in 48 hours to do it again.

 

            After another underproductive day, we were losing momentum fast.  Though we had gas for the car, some cigarettes and cheap food, the pressure was still there and no progress had been made towards our goal.

            Imagine seeing something shiny at the bottom of a swimming pool and trying to swim down to get it, only to realize halfway down that you don’t have enough air to go all the way down and make it back up. To us, this point of realization was Denver.

 

            I was just outright depressed, tired and hungry. I was disillusioned by Lee’s unwillingness to go through with what was necessary to get some much needed funds. And I seriously missed my girlfriend. As we sat in a fast food restaurant and ate some burgers, I announced I was going home.

            Lee, on the other hand, was not ready to return so quickly. He had his backpack and wanted to pursue his hitchhiking adventure as he had originally envisioned it. So I dropped him off near a highway entrance ramp and said farewell. As he headed out on foot to wherever his travels would take him, I got onto the highway and headed east in the Jolly Cow.

 

            We said our goodbyes and I hopped out of the car.  As I looked at the Rocky Mountains that I planned to traverse, I realized that I’d left my coat in the car. Takkic didn’t see me waving as he drove away. I was not about to attempt a passage through the mountains without a coat. We would both be going home after all.

To be continued

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