We will be wrapping up the story in a couple of weeks. If you are new to it or just need a refresher, you can start at the beginning by clicking here and following the links at the end of each chapter.
Thanks to those of you who have been following all along. I hope this has been an enjoyable way to get in some free, extra summer reading.
As always, you can find all of my already finished books here on my Amazon Author Page.
We Kicked An Empty Can Down The American Road
Drenching rain flooded the gutters the first time I rode a bus in downtown Buffalo, a city taller, faster and more tightly wound than Binghamton, the town where my hometown draft board sent me on a false lead. The last forty-eight hours, I’d bounced from one unfamiliar place to the next stranger until I landed in a square where I had to figure out which building housed the local Selective Service offices.
One reason I’ll always love Buffalo, that Buffalo, was the kindness that helped me get the wobble out of my skinny legs. My witch protectors were gone — forever as it turned out. But my strangers were there, again.
Our first morning in Buffalo, Cindi and I left boxes still filled with books and vinyl records and walked for the first time through Forest Lawn, the sprawling central cemetery, the scenic route we’d walk many times, from Delaware Avenue to Main Street. We followed a map bought at a gas station to Leroy Avenue where my draft board, after turning down my own choices — VISTA, the Peace Corps and Sloan Kettering Hospital — promised me a job “in the national interest.”
Except it wasn’t.
“They send conscientious objectors here without warning me,” the executive director at the vocational rehab center said. “I wish I had jobs for all of you, but I don’t.”
“Motherfuckers,” I swore as Cindi and I traipsed back across Forest Lawn, old growth trees soaring overhead, softening the rumble of the city. “What am I supposed to do now?”
“I don’t know,” she answered. “We got this far. We’ll think of something.”
Back in our apartment, I found the previous tenants telephone still had a dial tone. Traffic on Delaware Avenue, buses the loudest, rumbled one story below. I called our landlord. After a year of waiting to get directions that turned out to be bogus, I buzzed with a need to fend for myself.
“Sorry to do this, man, but now that we’re here, I found out my draft board fucked me. There’s no job here. We have to go back home. We don’t have any money. Can we get some of our rent back?”
“Don’t panic. Maybe I can do something. I’ll call you back,” he said.
I called the Friends Committee in Philadelphia. Quakers had set up a national resource for conscientious objectors.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” the guy who picked up my call advised. “They’ll just come and get you and charge you with draft evasion. Nobody cares if they’re the ones who screwed up. They’ve got a war to run, and you’ll get zero sympathy for getting stuck in Buffalo when other guys are dying in Vietnam.”
“So, what the fuck do I do then?”
“The only thing I can suggest is finding a job there somehow, something that qualifies.”
In town for one day, I had no idea where I’d start looking and decided, on the spot, to ignore him and, one way or another, get back to Binghamton, even if Cindi and I had to hitchhike.
“Try a hospital,” he suggested. “The draft boards like to think of working in the national interest as conscientious objectors cleaning toilets and shuffling bedpans.”
“I don’t know what to do,” I told Cindi, who stood by, handing me cigarettes while I talked fast into the phone, scraping the bottom of the barrel for ideas.
I’d gotten used to the idea of not going to jail after all. Now, it was coming back, along with some guilt about what I’d accepted. Peace felt worth going to jail for, but cleaning bedpans? It was like sitting on my ass watching sitcoms while a tornado tore up the town outside.
“Great. The fucking phone’s dead.” I slammed the receiver down. “They must’ve caught me making that last call to Philadelphia.”
We looked at each other, then around the room.
“We should just pack up whatever we can carry and go catch a bus home,” I thought out loud. “What are we going to do with all the books, leave them here? I guess…”
Someone knocked on our door. Our lives were about to change.
Our across the hall neighbor, Susan, a hippie woman our age, was there. Cindi and I met her when we were unloading.
“Sorry to bug you guys, but Marty’s on the phone. He said he couldn’t get through on yours. Is something wrong with your phone?”
“With our phone and a lot more…”
Marty was our landlord of one day.
I followed Susan into her apartment, relieved to see hippie it was, with lots of cushions and color. Record albums leaned randomly against the furniture, curtains thrown open for lots of light.
“I think I can help you,” Marty said.
“Really? Like how?”
“I have a friend at Buffalo General, a doctor, but he’s also a writer, like you. He just published his first novel. He thinks he might be able to get you a job there.”
Two fast interviews later, I carried a letter to the local draft board in Buffalo, asking to get the hospital approved for my two years service “in the national interest.” It was raining like crazy outside, and I was soaked.
“This should be okay,” the clerk said. “We’ll need to confirm with your draft board in Binghamton, but I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t approve it.”
Outside, in a square dominated by department stores and a county library sprawling east like a squared off supertanker on dry land, a damp sun burned through a break in the deep overcast. There wasn’t a lot of time to think. First, I had to figure out how to get home in this complicated city with its radiant street patterns, then get my head right for starting a job for which I was manifestly unqualified.
“If I were you, I wouldn't say anything about your draft status,” the department manager told me. “A lot of the guys are veterans from World War II. They won’t understand.”
Identity scrubbed, I wandered in the next afternoon, a maintenance man on the evening shift, my specialty: cleaning air-conditioning filters in a two block hospital complex.
From the inside, I watched the America hallucination, Buffalo its microcosm, fall apart. For twenty years, I saw how destructive unfixed plumbing and ignored infrastructure can be.
Speeding southwest on the New York State Thruway, on my way to a business appointment in Meadville, Pennsylvania, I was wrong, thinking as I listened to Nixon resign that something better would struggle like a phoenix out of the disaster he created, the promise of the Sixties in America might surface.
I’d been living in Buffalo for five years. Cindi left me after one year. I married someone else and became a father. The Sixties radical who flew solo without wings in defying the draft and the war sold life insurance now, his future an island so small and fruitless you might skip it if you spotted it on the horizon. He did.
Nixon was the biggest of the worst in 1974, and in the grand American tradition of never accepting responsibility for wrongdoing or expecting it from our leaders, we forgave his crimes. Ford looked the nation in the eye and said that healing meant pretending a monster never stalked our neighborhood. His Dr. Strangelove, Henry Kissinger, walked free too, neither facing trial for killing hundreds of thousands in Vietnam, smashing Cambodia on their own authority and lying about it or even for myriad, lesser political corruptions. We were ordered to look the other way, and that was enough.
Sprawling acres of steel plants got torn down south of Buffalo. The stink and smoke that introduced you to Lackawanna as you rode high up on the skyway cleared, vistas toward the lake now marked by scars of demolished plants and wasted shoreline. Jobs went too. Nothing got fixed, although talking about fixes was a popular game at election time.
“Bedlam Steel,” as my friend George called the stretch of foundries and sheds strung across the west face of Lackawanna, was prosperous enough to pay him well for filling in for vacations each summer. He was expected to do little more than rest up before returning to school. He hid away in the rafters and edited his poems.
“It’s crazy in there, but the money’s great, especially when you consider it’s for doing nothing,” he said, smiling but puzzled.
It was a symptom, standards and values discarded.
A little to the east, Republic Steel was also flattened in South Buffalo.
Without enough Walmarts or McDonalds to absorb the slack, headlines lamented each wave of layoffs in pulsing boldface. Jobs went away. Taxes that paved roads and uniformed police and firemen blew off with them. From shore to shore, it was the same. Prosperity buffering structural weaknesses for decades went away, leaving exposed a sickly consumerist culture, its heart distributed around thousands of shopping malls. Anyone willing to look saw that America was a shattered illusion that didn’t mean anything anymore. The American Dream was a distraction for television, in reruns, waiting for a next season. The Civil War limped into a featureless phase, lead by colorless men in suits.
“As much as I saw of it — clearly,” I said, “I was mostly ambiguous. How could anyone with healthy lungs feel badly about Bethlehem Steel’s pollution no longer stinking up square miles from Lake Erie all through Lackawanna? I felt sorry that so many people didn’t have good-paying jobs to go to anymore, but why didn’t anyone come up with better alternatives? Where was the leadership?”
“You might’ve just as easily asked whatever became of America?”
“Jesus, yes, all those windbags going on and on about the American Dream and how they were going to preserve that and the family farm too. They fed their mush to an audience craving something easy to digest, some simple, half-assed fable to believe in. God forbid they’d have to turn off their televisions and think.”
“A little harsh, aren’t you?”
“It’s a reaction. As the Seventies waltzed on, I developed an allergy to bullshit. We still had a chance, I thought, for a while there. When Carter let the draft dodgers come back, it seemed like we might be growing up after all. Then, we all bought into the superannuated actor, the hood ornament, and things went downhill fast, the them versus us thing got rolling.”
“It was always there.” She waved off my argument. “Prosperity just kept it fat and quiet, but since that all depended on an open-ended state of war, when the war machine slowed down, the American illusion caved. It’s not so complicated.”
When Cindi and I packed up our books and records, leaving the boxes for her brother and stepfather to load onto their pickup the next day, we got on the Greyhound to Buffalo with just a couple of bags. Since learning where we were going, we talked about making the return trip in two years. In the fog of big changes, a fix like that keeps your head balanced. But if we looked the other way, rolling back two years, I was engaged to Maureen, about to start my last year of high school, and Cindi was in exile, staying with a family friend in Florida.
Two years was so much longer than two years, at least for us and our uncommon step styles.
We’d shucked everything except each other. It was foolish, especially in a world as much in flux as ours to guess at anything two years down the road. But we did. It kept us on our feet.
Find all my books on my Amazon Author Page
<---Previous Take the Last Exit