S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Someday Soon,” Park writes about how we want to be regarded, and those who can see us for exactly who we are.
We’d all prefer others see us in a certain way, maybe “friendly” or “funny” or “smart” or “good-looking,” etc. Me? I’m partial to “drifter.” This has been true since childhood, when my most persistent daydreams (and cartoons) were about being the last person on earth or, failing that, a shiftless hobo.
Which, with the aid of drugs and alcohol, is pretty much how it worked out. (The hard part was convincing friends and family this equated with success.)
I was reminded of this last Tuesday when I drove to the Safeway store in Sequim, Washington to get my first COVID vaccination. (It was an hour away but there were no shots to be had in Port Townsend: at seventy-four I’m a relative youngster here.)
There were four of us in the pharmacy waiting room, and when the nurse came in, summoned the first person in line, I was startled.
Damn, I thought, is that my old girlfriend Tracy?
This is what happens in your seventies, when you’re apt to forget how old you are. Once I did the math, realized it’d been forty years since I’d seen Tracy and she’d be seventy herself by then, I knew it couldn’t be her.
I was vaguely disappointed. I write about people seeing me in a certain way but Tracy’s problem was that she did. I met her my second year at Evergreen State, when I was the weekend manager of the building she worked in.
It housed the school’s gym, swimming pool and bookstore, but I quickly realized my presence there was unnecessary, that the Evergreen campus was a ghost town on weekends. After showing up twice I took Keith (my eager freshman assistant) aside, told him there was no sense both of us wasting our time there:
It was the excuse for everything back then, and it had bought me a good five months. Then halfway through the winter term I was browsing the bookstore’s Fiction section when a tall, willowy girl with long brown hair cornered me. I’d seen her around campus before, figured she had to be administration because she wore dresses (as opposed to jeans, overalls or potato sacks).
“Excuse me,” she said, “but aren’t you Wilson High? The student who manages this building on weekends?”
“At your service,” I said.
“Well, I’m Tracy Welker, the Assistant Activities Director, and I wondered if I could talk to you for a minute.”
I followed her upstairs to her office, and on the way we passed mine.
She stopped, swept out her hand. “Recognize this, Wilson?” she asked.
“Sure, it’s my office.”
“Uh huh. And when was the last time you were actually in it?”
“Oh, I don’t know … September, maybe?”
“So you admit it? What I’ve heard is true?” she gasped. “You’ve been collecting paychecks for work you don’t do!?”
“Look who’s talking,” I laughed.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Come on, Tracy. You’re an Activities Director at a hippie college where gettin’ high’s the only activity. Hell, you make more for doing less than I do!”
(It was an old Ned Gumbo trick—what he called his A.A. approach—i.e. “Audacity Always.” Turn it around on ’em, High, do the last thing they expect, make shock and awe your friends.)
It certainly worked on Tracy: she was so stupefied that I quietly took my leave. Didn’t think much about it afterwards because really, I’d been lucky to get away with it as long as I had, and not only would I be leaving for a farm job in California in six weeks, but I’d stockpiled enough drugs to last me ’til then.
Then I’m slouched in the front room of my east side dump the next day, nursing a cold one while staring out the window, when a yellow Chevy pulls up.
Who steps out but Tracy Welker. Ah shit! I thought, She must want to fire me in person.
My roommates were gone for the day so I walked to the front door, opened it as Tracy reached the porch.
She saw my face, stopped dead in her tracks. “Jesus, Wilson!” she said, “what happened to you?”
“What do ya mean?”
“You look like you’ve been run over.”
“Oh that. Just a hangover. Friends call it my ‘dead sailor’ look.”
“Will you be all right?”
“Soon, I think.” I looked at my wrist, remembered I’d lost my watch weeks before. “The mescaline kicks in around two.”
“That’s your hangover cure?”
“Well, I’ve been drinking Luckies since breakfast, too.”
She stepped closer, looked me up and down. “My God,” she said, “it’s even worse than I thought.”
“What a waste of space you are.” Then she reached up, pulled my head down and thrust her tongue in my mouth.
Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug, sometimes you’re just lucky.
Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug, sometimes you’re just lucky. We barely made it to my room, where we had loud, messy sex on the carpet (I didn’t own a bed or mattress).
Afterwards we lay back, heads against the wall, while I smoked a joint and Tracy surveyed the room. There was a typewriter on a crate in the corner, but otherwise everything was spread on the floor: books, clothes, papers, bottles, ashtrays, cans and trash.
“I have a thing for complicated, give-a-shit losers,” she said finally. “A very, very sick thing.”
“I tried so hard not to come over here today, to just fire you and be done with it because I knew this’d happen and it’ll only end badly for me.”
She looked around again. “If it hasn’t already,” she sighed.
I couldn’t believe it: finally, a “loser groupie” of my own. I’d always wanted one (God knows I’d seen Gumbo go through a string of them), and not only was Tracy young and pretty, but the sex had been great and the mescaline even better, so by all rights this was the girl of my dreams next to me, a woman who’d not only love and appreciate me for the wastrel I was … but had an actual job.
So why wasn’t I more excited? Why did I hustle her out of there as fast as I could? We did a few movies, parties and lectures in the weeks ahead but for me it was mostly lust, as I found Tracy’s resolute, even temperedness mind-numbing. I left for California as planned and after that our relationship consisted of a series of one night stands over the next seven years.
The pattern (to my dismay) was always the same, i.e. I’d be somewhere far away, doing one lowlife job or another, and if I wasn’t getting any would inevitably start fantasizing about Tracy, convince myself that the next time would be different, that I was finally ready for a giving, adult relationship with a woman who cared about me. When I called her and shared these delusions she’d always agree to meet me (even if she was living with another guy).
So I’d quit my job, hitchhike or grab a Greyhound to Olympia, use her like a blowup doll and be gone the next morning.
I wasn’t proud of this, was, in fact, more disappointed in myself every time; thought it validated the old Groucho Marx joke, about who’d want to be in a country club that’d have you in it. In the interim Tracy never complained about my errant ways or did drugs or alcohol herself, never tried to make me into something I wasn’t, never pressed me to trade my transient existence for hers.
She’d known what she was getting into and we’d probably still be rutting if she hadn’t appeared unannounced at my Green Lake, Washington apartment in the Fall of 1980; it had been a couple years since I’d seen her and I was thrilled.
Well, until I came, anyway, which wasn’t long after we rolled onto the carpet (I still didn’t own a bed, of course). The parallels with our first assignation proved appropriate as, after catching her breath, Tracy shared her big news with me.
“I’ve met a great guy and I’m getting married next month, Wilson,” she said, “so that was the last sex we’ll ever have.”
I thought about that for a minute.
“Are you sure?” I said finally. “It’s marriage, after all, and I’ve been through a couple of those lately. You could be lookin’ for some strange real soon.”
She shook her head, stood up and began dressing. “Jesus, High,” she said, “that’s the point … you are my strange and you’ll never change! I have to grow up, put you behind me, share a real life with a real person. Even have kids, for christ sakes.”
I shuddered at that thought. “Well, good luck with that, Tracy,” I said. I started to rise myself, but she pushed me back down.
“No, Wilson,” she said, “please don’t get up. Let me be the one to walk away this time.”
She wiped away a tear, bent over and kissed me good-bye. Dropped something on the kitchen counter as she headed out the door.
It was a mix tape she’d made for me. It was labeled: ROAD KILL: A DRIFTER’S DOZEN and included songs like “Ramblin’ Man,” “Desolation Row,” “Comin’ Back to Me,” “King of the Road,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “I Have Been a Rover,” “Go Your Own Way,” “Truckin’,” etc.
My favorite was “Bottle of Wine” by The Fireballs.