Old friends smiled when I told them the news. They winked and slapped me on the back. Apparently, somebody's ship had arrived.
That following Wednesday -- with $1,400 in traveler's checks in my wallet, a carton of cigarettes tucked in the back seat, and only the vaguest sense of what exactly I was supposed to be doing -- I was steering a candy-red rental car southbound for the Oregon border through a torrential downpour, flipping wildly through corporate rock radio stations as the towering, white-capped wakes of 18-wheelers splashed across the windshield.
My final destination was the border at Tijuana, Mexico. It was like alchemy: I was contracted to translate all those miles into helpful sentences, which Rolling Stone would translate back to me in helpful riches. My pay scale was a buck a word, with a projected 4,000 words, which in the beginning seemed like a hell of a lot of money.
It doesn't seem like a lot of money anymore.
In crudest outline, my assignment could be described as follows: Drive, in as short a time as is humanly, mechanically, and legally possible, with few or even no deviations, from Seattle to the Mexican border, never leaving Interstate 5. This was to be done with the sole purpose of documenting (with a hep and racy attitude) all rest stops, truck stops, hotels, motels, restaurants, diners, radio stations, photo ops, roadside attractions, sideshow distractions, and off-kilter places of pseudo-alterna-youth-lifestyle interest encountered along the main route. This hep and racy documentation would eventually be inserted as blips, snippets, and hiccups of road-savvy text, strung like junk jewelry along a cartoon map intended as a fail-safe, fun travel guide for ovine college students -- which they could utilize and reference, should they wish (God help them), on their spring break. All this was to be published in Rolling Stone's "All the News That Fits" Spring Break Issue 2000.
Truck Stops: Mostly disappeared are the independently-owned, exotically grungy and eccentrically downbeat truck stops of the not-so-distant past; a perfect example of the new, antiseptic trend in truck stops is the Pilot Travel Center (4220 Brooklake Rd NE; tel. 503-463-1114; customer service 1-800-562-6210 extension 2799; all major credit cards accepted) just off Exit 263, about 41 miles outside Portland in the town of Brooks. And - one's nostalgia for a pre-strip mall America aside - these all-accomodating gas/store/service stations do indeed come in handy. This particular travel center houses under its single roof both a Subway sandwich shop and a Taco Bell.
I had no romantic delusions about what I was hired to do. It was obvious that I was on shit detail. From any angle, I was nothing more than an anonymous stringer sent on a free vacation. My reportage would ultimately be gutted, greased, boiled down, and cleaned up in order to squeeze the words (each one worth a whole dollar) within the colorful confines of an eye-popping graphic. This was fine by me. I was okay with all of this. In fact, I considered myself pretty damn lucky. This was opportunity knocking on the door of further opportunities, which might knock louder on bigger and better doors (who knows?), and I certainly had no right to complain about it. The right to complain, after all, is a right one earns.
The trip itself was largely a drag, and sometimes it approached the dimensions of a living nightmare. Anyone who's driven I-5 from top to bottom knows what a brutally boring stretch of road it can be; I referred to it, in my first draft, as a "varicose vein," which didn't seem to go over too well. One of the primary things Rolling Stone had requisitioned me to do was search out and document a plethora of corporate rock-and-roll radio stations all the way down the coast, presumably to save all those college students the trouble. This meant that I was perpetually shackled to commercial radio. And not only that, but I had to constantly flip and flop around the dial while speeding down I-5, knob in one hand, wheel in the other. This fruitless endeavor was both drab and suicidal.
Radio in California: Nothing much worthwhile comes in on the radio in Northern California until you hit Redding, where you'll start to pick up the classic rock of 106X.... The monotony of tracking the airwaves was excruciating. Every major city in America broadcasts the same standard unholy trinity of monopolized corporate radio: there are the local "alternative" stations (Smashing Pumpkins, Smash Mouth, Lenny Kravitz), the local "classic rock" stations (Lenny Kravitz, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin), and the "tweener" stations, usually some derivation of the dunderheaded concept of "modern" rock (Smashing Pumpkins, Dave Matthews Band, Lenny Kravitz). More than ever before, radio sucks: Even the term "local" is a misnomer. There is no local anymore -- save the local outlet for centralized programming. Local is a shopping mall. Local is a motto on a T-shirt. These commercial radio stations are all identical; cloned from tested corporate prototypes with marshmallow set-lists shoveled through hackneyed formats by gutless DJs pimping low-level irony while schlepping shrink-wrapped attitudes of privileged detachment.
By the time I got to San Francisco, I was maniacally depressed, and didn't think I was doing a very good job. This makes a lot of sense, really, seeing as I hated the job I was doing. It was hard, dull, tedious work -- and it was hard, dull, tedious work on the move, which lent it an edge of woozy anxiety. The constant fear of failure I'd carried around in my back pocket my entire adult life was transforming itself, under these circumstances, into an impending Waterloo of such magnitude it would exile me from good human society forever. I was screwed, and didn't even have the time to properly panic; my itinerary was way too tight and frantic. My itinerary was also -- I was forced to admit -- really dumb. It was a dumb assignment, and I was dumb to have accepted it. More than anything, I was mad at myself. Dumb. And Rolling Stone -- as much as it hurts to admit it, because in younger days I worshipped the magazine -- has become totally dumb. Cutting edge? Now it's all tits and ass and anorexic lust and teen-killers-in-suburbia exclusives and frumpy fashion spreads. I canceled my subscription 15 years back. Fuck 'em, man.
By none of this do I mean to imply that I didn't try to do the best work I could under the conditions. That would have amounted to sabotage, and a rather hypocritical form of self-sabotage at that, because I had, after all, agreed to do the job. Nor do I particularly blame Rolling Stone for my own aggressive fecklessness: I wasn't necessarily in over my head, but I was up to my Adam's apple in bullshit from day one. I should have known better. I should have seen it coming. The whole shebang was a made-to-order travesty: Rolling Stone + Spring Break Extravaganza = Sandy-assed Bimbos and Beer-Bonging Chowderheads groping each other on the beaches of Fort Lauderdale. On this point, and perhaps this point alone, Rolling Stone didn't deceive me. They were supremely true to their odious vision. But I fantastically deceived myself, which made me complicit. It's not that I all of a sudden suspected the magazine of harboring what is called integrity. It is, however, that I somehow blinkered myself to just how deviously wrong the assignment was. In my mind, I was jumpin' aboard to work for the Man, and the Man was payin' good -- I just wanted to quit my day job.
Albie's Beef Inn & Piano Bar (tel. 619-291-1103; open Mon-Fri 11:30am - 11pm & Sat 5pm-11pm; all credit cards accepted). The dimly-lit, plush piano bar in Albie's cocktail lounge, which attracts an eccentric crowd of both young oglers and ancient boozers, is open Tuesday through Saturday evenings, with a Happy Hour (double well drinks & complimentary Hors d' oeuvres) which runs 3:30 to 7pm (Mon - Fri). The steaks in the restaurant are the real thing - big and bloody - and the whole atmosphere is haunted by the gilt-framed nude paintings of US Air flight attendants which line the walls. The second half of the trip, from San Francisco all the way to Tijuana, was a spiraling fiasco of worry, boredom, and incessant toil. I was so completely unhinged while driving through Southern California that I was incapable of distinguishing among or deciphering radio stations anymore. It was all crackle and buzz. Also, I'd seen far too many truck stops; I was involuntarily starting to drawl, stoop, and tug at my ass every time I walked through the swinging doors of another greasy spoon. I became convinced that long-haulers were the only people in the knowable universe who could understand my mind. Road dementia set in. I was never sure where I was on the map. My Rolling Stone was gathering moss.
Many, many times I was tempted to spontaneously abort the trip, or to drive off a cliff into the ocean, or to disappear into the rolling coastal hills of Big Sur, never to be heard from again -- especially by my editor in New York. What kept me going was a deep, hereditary, and therefore idiotic sense of responsibility which forced me to keep pretending, come hell or high water, that I cared about someone else's regressive, collegiate, crassly materialistic and terminally vulgar concept of a motorized good time. There was absolutely no spring left in my break -- it was broken, uncoiled.
Weed (Motto: "Weed Like to Welcome You"): Just after entering Shasta National Forest, about 44.2 miles from the border, you'll come to the exit for Central Weed (Pop. 3000, Elev. 3400). There is the New-Agey natural food store & cafe New Horizons (151 Main St; tel. 916-938-1660; open 7 days a week from 9am to 6pm) situated right on Weed's I-5 business loop. The retail/supplement section is well-stocked with all manner of natural supplements and alternative-medicine cure-alls (pure root extracts, bee pollen, ginseng, etc.) for hippie-types. Then came the 3-D pneumatic soul-vacuum of Hollywood. Jesus, I hate Hollywood: a daffy daydream sprung from a vapid, perfidious conceit. I decided it was time for some high-powered stimulants. I wanted to go native, which meant going faster. The guy I decided to hit up for blow looked like Bob Mould's dumpy baby brother. We were both standing outside a Mexican restaurant, waiting for a cab. We started talking. I liked his cynical anti-Hollywood vibe. It seemed like he might be in on the action. I asked him if he was in on the action. I was right to ask, sort of. He turned out to be an off-duty LAPD cop. To my surprise, and then gratitude, he didn't bust me. ("Don't worry," he smirked. "I'm a cool cop.") Instead, he offered to help me score, and then proceeded to take me on a frantic walking tour of the Sunset Strip, leading me here and there and pointing out all the glitzy bars where famous people had fatally overdosed. Together, my friend the police officer and I went into numerous dance clubs, where rich kids with reconstructed boobs and tiny cell phones jumped around like rutting monkeys. "Look at all these people," he kept hissing, his voice rankled by unadorned resentment. "Everybody here thinks they're hot shit. Everybody here thinks they're somebody."
Once again, this was not the sort of weird information Rolling Stone was after. Neither do I think they were much interested in what happened to me two days later, when I pulled off I-5 to check out a point of "scenic interest" overlooking the commencement of the California Aqueduct in the San Joaquin Valley, and got into a pleasant conversation about roadside attractions with a bearded guy who was leaning out the driver's side door of his Mazda pickup reading a tattered paperback. We spoke for about five minutes. And it was only when I made motions to leave that I noticed the gentleman was aggressively yet quietly whacking off, and probably had been the entire time. This would explain the wonderful redness in his cheeks, something I'd initially attributed to mere shyness.
It occurs to me, in retrospect, that this off-ramp jack-off provided the most perfect image of my trip.
San Diego came and went, as San Diego will, and then I crossed the international border into Tijuana, where I paid 3,000 pesos to a sleepy guy in a wicker chair in order to squat in a private baño and stuff the 90 tabs of diazepam I'd just bought into my tube socks. I dry-gulped three of the things while I was at it. Customs was a breeze. The next day at 6:00 in the morning, I boarded an Amtrak bound for Seattle. It was a two-day train trip. I slept like a baby.
Tijuana: It's about a thirty-minute drive to the Mexican border. Due to a recent unfortunate incident involving a fatal car wreck caused by some idiotic American teenagers on a drunken spree, tensions in this seedy, riotous border town are running higher than normal. So don't cross over into Tijuana with your car; park it at one of the huge lots on the U.S. border for $5 and just walk across into Mexico. And, unless you really know what you're doing, don't try anything funny (such as buying dope from a cab driver or trying to score pharmaceutical opiates). Now I only had to write the damn article. I figured this would be the easy part. As troubled and ill-advised as my trip had been, I'd succeeded in amassing a good amount of pertinent notes, and they were fairly well organized. All that was needed was to hammer the piece into working order. But as the deadline loomed ever closer, I grew increasingly uncertain as to what "working order" meant. Rolling Stone's hazy e-mail directive for me to come across as a "really smart, really helpful guy" didn't seem very smart and helpful. A sort of passionless paralysis set in; I pecked around on the article until two days before the deadline, and then I went apeshit.
I stayed up for 48 consecutive hours, shuffling through notebooks, transcribing tapes, and retracing my way down the coast. My consciousness was sucked to a pinpoint in the glowing center of the computer monitor. By the second day, I was spinning out. The walls started to breathe. Words, when repeated over and over, took on funny new meanings. I got the manuscript in, just under the wire. There was nothing heroic about my effort.
As California's ridiculous new law forbids the enjoying of cigarettes in all public establishments, the Ingram Creek Cafe should also be noted for its brilliant circumventing of fascistic legislation: they have rigged a covered patio which serves as a smoking section. Bravo. When I got the 24-page rough draft back, five pages of it were scratched with indecipherable corrections and notes. The rest of the draft was completely unmarked. I honed the piece down and sent in the second draft. At this point, I still hadn't seen my writer's contract, nor had I been reimbursed for expenses. Frankly, I was just glad to get the goddamn thing out of my hands; the ball was in their court. I waited. I waited for weeks. Nothing. Finally, I sent the editor an e-mail, inquiring about the progress of the editing; I also mentioned that I had yet to receive my contract or any of that ASAP compensation. The magazine's response was immediate: While I had done a good job, they said, there hadn't been enough room, they said, for the piece to run, they said, and they were really sorry that nobody had notified me about it, they said, but things were a little mixed up, they said, what with overworked assistant editors being handed the job of notifying writers that their articles had been killed and all, you know? What this amounted to was that it had been my responsibility to contact Rolling Stone to find out that I'd been fired.
Five lousy minutes after I was summarily canned, they faxed the contract to me. Five minutes! I was pissed. I signed. It was all right by me that all the news I'd collected didn't fit; actually, I was relieved, especially after I saw the Spring Break issue on the newsstands. It looked like some warped species of soft-core fascist pornography. Sandy asses! Whoopee! All I wanted was concrete fiscal acknowledgment for the two months of depressing work I put in.
And then two weeks later, when I'd all but given up hope, when I was broke, jobless, and used up, I received in the mail a surprisingly generous kill fee from Wenner Media -- just a little kiss on the cheek -- which turned the vinegar in my veins to champagne. The whole thing was such a joke, and if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't. Ever. Never. (Okay, maybe.) But I sure danced around about that money. Because I don't care what anybody says, money makes you feel better. Go ask any old whore.