Running Towards Rock 'n' Roll
by Arlo Hennings
|based on a true story|
Excerpt from the book Guitarlo
I met an old, brown-skinned man with charcoal-colored eyebrows, silver-colored hair, and a white, scruffy beard. A half-smoked cigar smoldered in one hand, and he held a shot of tequila in the other. A red, blue and green shawl was wrapped over his shoulders.
“Hola, señor, my name is Jesus,” he welcomed me into his little office. Jesus kicked his feet up on a desk, and offered, “Care for a drink, amigo?”
“I read you were renting out a bus?” I asked.
“Sí, señor, I have a bus here that no longer runs. But, once it ran for many years across the border when I carried workers back and forth. I named it Up North because that’s where it went. When I wasn’t driving the bus, I ran a junkyard. My father owned a junkyard, and before him, his father too. As far as I can remember there was always a junkyard in my family’s history. What is another gringo’s trash is another man’s treasure.” He gulped a shot and refilled the glass. “I followed my gringo wife to America. She is gone but, now, I have another junkyard.” The end of his cigar glowed. The shot glass emptied again. He let out a long sigh.
“Can I see the bus?” I asked.
“Sí, follow me,” he replied, his old chair squeaking as he got up. I followed him through his junkyard of mostly dead cars and parts. “This is it,” he announced, pointing to an earlier 1960s model Harvester school bus.
Up North sat on rims. Without its tires, the angle of the bus was so precarious that I had to sit on the side facing the doors or I’d slide off the driver’s seat. Once filled with the sound of Mexican workers, it was now a motionless heap of rusted metal. All that remained were empty booze bottles, fast-food bags, torn clothes, a broken nylon-stringed guitar, and a ratty sleeping bag. Most of the seats had been torn out and converted into a living space.
“I’ll take it,” I answered. His cat jumped on my lap and meowed in my face. “How much do you want?”
“It does get cold at night, señor,” he said as he rubbed his hands for warmth, and pulled his shawl tightly around his neck. It was only September and I tried to imagine the darker part of winter. As long as I had propane in the camping stove it heated the bus and food. I thought of ways to fix up the bus by insulating the window cracks with electrical tape and painting the interior with Day-Glo like Ken Keasey’s bus the Further.
“I charge $30 dollars per month,” he offered, scratching his chin stubble.
“I will return tomorrow with the money,” I told him, “is it okay if I stay here tonight?”
“Sí, I don’t mind. I lock the gate at night. I will leave you a key,” Jesus agreed. “The cats,” he added, pointing beneath the bus seat, “keep them junkyard rats away.”
The only light came from a hurricane-styled oil lamp. A moth hungry to land on the beam of light was trapped inside, now pecking at the glass, refusing to die, and looking for a way out. Below the back windows where it read emergency exit, I saw a flashing, yellow snowplow light illuminate my footprints in the early fall snow.
I tried to curl up next to the cooking stove for warmth. My Woodstock spirit wandered through the bus metal — through Up North’s ribs, and down her tailpipe, the echo effect that the unchangeable past made on the ever-moving present. I blew my breath into my hands for more warmth and tried to play guitar with stiff fingers.
I pretended that I was a rock n roll tour manager.
On my head was an astronaut helmet and in the anti-gravity cabin, my hair bounced wildly over my forehead like a horse’s mane whipping flies. I gripped the steering wheel wrapped in raccoon fur and turned the ignition key, which dangled on a key chain made from an Indian dream catcher. Then I pumped the accelerator like a race car driver. Up North, I imagined, responded by making a low rumbling sound before a black cloud of smoke burst out from under the hood. Without the benefit of a turn signal, I steered the bus into heavy traffic. The rusted-out cars in front of me turned into a bumper-to-bumper congested road. Festival-goers who had been stuck waved and smiled as the bus rolled down the interstate like the pope on a float on Easter Sunday.
I drove the imaginary bus to the great music store in the sky where I was surrounded by an infinite gallery of every guitar design made. I helped myself to play whatever I wanted until the sales clerk stopped me. “Hey, are you going to buy something or not?” What I really wanted to do is steal a guitar because I couldn’t afford one. I turned off the pretend motor and crawled back into my sleeping bag. I had to get up early to catch a “real number” at the “real emergency services office.”
In the morning I made my way to the state office building, located in downtown Minneapolis near the courthouse. It was situated in a gothic-styled building above an iron gate where a sign read: Hennepin County Department of Welfare. Above a pigeon-infested exterior, the great cosmic on/off switch was definitely on and ticking: 7:30 a.m.
“Damn it, I hope I’m not too late,” I said to a person at the end of the line.
The courthouse clock gave up seven bongs and three pings. The door at the front of the line opened. It was a wooden door with no glass, just a brick-framed job with bars in front. A-line one block long made up of society’s downcast, extended from its entrance began shuffling through, as the line started moving. As I moved along with the line, I noticed young and old, half-dead, sick, some with kids, camped out along the sidewalk like a ball of used paint rags. On one side of the line, spiritual recruiters handed out time-share condo deals for the afterlife. Lured by food and promise of a better life, some of the destitute bought in.
Over 100 souls pushed and shoved their way into a filthy, matchbox-sized room. The unventilated, graffiti-covered space had 20 metal folding chairs parked under headache-inducing fluorescent lights. There were one bathroom and no water fountain. The chairs were taken, so I stood for a while, and also sat on the floor while I waited my turn. The social workers called this the “processing area.”
One social worker explained it as, “a deterrent so you’ll want to go right out and get a job!”
Everyone was assigned a case number, on a first-come, first-served basis. I received the number 89. Wow, I could be waiting all day. Maybe I should have camped in line overnight? I scouted for a place to sit down, while a radioactive cloud of cigarette smoke boiled above my head.
I was fortunate in one respect that the State of Minnesota provided the handouts. Many places in America as well as around the world did not.
My papers arrived three hours later. Fill them out wrong and it was back to the end of the line. I didn’t know my social security number and I didn’t really have an address, so I invented them. Line one on the questionnaire summarized: Is there any reason to prevent you from working today? Now it’s time to forget I’m a musician and admit I needed to be rehabilitated.
At least that’s the way it was until Mr. Vape entered the picture. Mr. Vape (he pronounced it vaw-pee) was my caseworker.
“Number 89,” announced a voice over the intercom.
“That’s me,” I called out, holding up my number like it was a bingo game. Before leaving the processing area, I checked in with security.
“Mr. Vape is straight ahead past the green partition,” an armed guard at the entrance told me, pointing to a maze of offices, “straight past the red partitions, turn left.”
The long hallway in front of me opened into a labyrinth of cubicles. Dozens of bright red, green, and gold partitions zigzagged in a crazy maze. I observed mostly women workers darting about the place armed with large files, with blank absent-minded expressions on their pasty indoor complexions. No one seemed to pay any attention to the young man in orange Day-Glo sneakers, bellbottom pants, buckskin jacket, and shoulder-length hair. I found a cubicle with the nameplate: Mr. Vape. Department of Welfare.
Mr. Vape spoke like he was giving me an award. “Hey, everyone... look. The rock star is back,” he said with a laugh. Everyone within earshot seemed to notice, as the room around me filled with a light chuckle. Without looking up from his desk he licked his waving finger.
Weighing my case file with both hands, he gave me a sneer, and let it drop upon his desk with a loud thud. Vape’s long nose turned upward and faced me. “Looking for another free ride, I presume?” Mr. Vape scowled, obviously meaning to intimidate me. “I have news for you,” he trumpeted, “You’re to report for work next Monday morning — 7 a.m., Room C at the courthouse... basement level.”
I took off my shoes and rubbed my cold toes. “How can I do that? I questioned, “I am not old enough to legally work. I turn 16 years old in a couple of months.” Infuriated, Vape pulled at his blonde poodle-like toupee. Wondering what to do, he angrily lifted the black receiver of his phone.
“Hello... is this Becky’s Cafeteria?” he spoke into the receiver, staring at me in disgust, “Yes, I’d like to speak with Becky. Becky…Yes. This is Mr. Vape at HCW. Yes, I’m sorry, I know you’re busy. I have a new dishwasher for you. Yes, I know you’re a high-class restaurant. Um, no, he hasn’t gone through dishwashing training. What difference does that make? Hello, Becky? Are you there?” Mr. Vape set the receiver down in silence. From his shiny, white forehead on down to his pointy chin, all was rocket thrust.
“The opening was filled,” he grumbled, and like a deck of cards — he gathered up my files and shuffled them off his desk.
“You know, Vape,” I spoke up, “I wouldn’t mind going to school.”
Vape swiveled in his chair; an eye popped out. “And what type of school, pray tell, do you suggest?” he spewed, “I read your file. It said music school. That’s completely out of the question. We build future taxpayers, not vanity trips.” Mr. Vape held his head, laughing more, and teased, “Maybe you can carry a gun?” Then he hurled a set of military papers at my chest, adding, “Don’t shoot your foot off.”
“But I’m not old enough to be in the military either,” I argued.
He went through my case file again. “Where are your parents anyway?” he inquired, with more disgust on his face, “Are they dead?”
At the time my family still lived in Minneapolis, but I answered with the first idea that popped into my head. “My family moved away,” I told him.
“Why didn’t you go with them?” he challenged.
“Well, they didn’t ask me...” I explained, “I have been abandoned.”
“What are your plans then? You can’t keep coming here the rest of your life for rent credit, food stamps, and bus tokens,” he closed my file.
I knew deep inside that he was right. Tapping the system for a handful of dimes was getting old. I could have used a break, role model, even my parents — anything except the hard knock. Feeling vulnerable, I acted defensively and shouted. “Someday, I will be a success. You’ll see.”
“Listen to the rock star. Someday you’re going to wake up and find out life’s a bitch and then you die. No one cares about you or your stupid guitar,” he laughed, standing up and pointing at me like a bad joke, and the nearby office had another good laugh on me.
“Take your monthly emergency services packet and hit the bricks, pal. I don’t want to see you back here again,” he growled, handing me the packet.
“Life’s a bitch and then you die?” I repeated, stunned, “Do you play golf with President Nixon?”
“I’ve heard enough out of you. Beat it, rock star,” he raised his voice, motioning toward the door.
On my way out the door, I noticed a teenage mother with a child begging outside the emergency services office. She held her child with one arm and held out her small, brown hand with the other, and with a Spanish accent said, “Por favor, señor, my baby is hungry. Can you spare any help?”
“It’s all I have, I’m sorry,” I said, giving her half my food stamp ration.
“Mucho gracias, señor. May an angel land on your shoulder,” she blessed me.
I wandered along the river most of the day trying to come up with a plan. I returned to the folk café to see about performing there again, but when I arrived the posters were gone and the marquee empty. I looked through the glass and the tables were gone. The place was closed down. The trendy little shop of my very first stage experience and my next tentative plan for a wage had vanished.
Should I try and go back to my parents? Vape’s questions haunted me as the streets began to lose their names. I was homeless but I didn’t see it that way. I saw myself as a character inside my own existential rockumentary in the making. I thought what I was doing had some greater meaning. I bought into the image of the ramblin’ poet so often found in my music and books. If I was a delusional 15-year-old man child, then my naivety of the adult world was another one of my hiding places.
“But, who and what am I running away from now?” Nothing, I reassured myself. I am running towards rock 'n' roll.
A version of this story first appeared in the book "Guitarlo."
Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.
|Guitarlo - available where ever books are sold|
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© Arlo Hennings 2020