We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
A three-part saga of trying to see the last day of Christian Marclay’s The Clock at the Paula Cooper Gallery.
I am refusing to look at the time on my phone because it’s Thursday night, I am in Kansas City, and I have to be in New York City by Friday at midnight, to meet Zadie Smith to see Christian Marclay’s new video work, The Clock. The truck I planned to drive has a flat tire and the battery’s dead, so I run down the icy street with my backpack on, slipping in my gray Ferragamos on the hill, catch a cab at the corner and ask the driver to take me to I-70 just east of 71.
“Where on 70? You going to Liberty? I can take you to Liberty. I’ll turn off the meter if we’re going to Liberty.”
I think of a line a friend of mine used to say about New York City, that as soon as you arrived the meter started running and it didn’t stop until you left. Like Scorsese in his cameo in Taxidriver insisting that Travis Bickle keep the meter on while they sit and wait.
“All I need is a truck stop.”
Before we’re ten minutes outside downtown we see the red-and-blue TA sign in Oak Grove. There are probably twenty trucks lined up. But no trucker inside the TA is hauling to New York or nobody will cop to it, so I go outside and head for the line of semis. It’s starting to rain, I’m ten miles from home and I already recognize how eccentric, how unstable, how woebegone, how doomed this plan is; the roar of the highway is an echo of my sure failure, and I’m thinking about the trucker who’s too wise to take the little baby in Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” when I hear, incredibly, like a promise from God—there will be many of these in the next twenty-four hours, but I don’t know it yet—the elongated throaty syllables of Lou Reed coming from an amiable-looking white truck with wide mirrors coming off its nose and bumpers that give it a kind of Disney Cars effect. In the movie, the trucks are always the good guys. And, better still, a middle-aged black man with a potbelly is pumping diesel into it, listening to one of the most white-boy songs of all time. It’s the very song that Johnson uses for the title and the epigraph of his famous story collection:
And I know before I ask this guy that he’ll take me all the way.
But he says, “Sorry, son, I’m only headed to St. Louis. That’s home. I do know a truck stop there where you might catch a ride further east.” I tell the trucker I’d like to pay him but he says, “Don’t be a dumbass, you’ll keep me company, climb in. You want a cold beer? I got a few tall boys back there.”
His name is Alfred Baptiste. He has two gold teeth right in the center of his mouth (which gives him a faintly hilarious Bugs Bunny quality) and is third generation St. Louis—“my Daddy was a truck driver, too, and before him my grandfather worked at a gas station, so we’ve always had engine oil in our blood”—and it turns out the Velvet Underground is his favorite band. “Sweet Jane” comes on next.
“I’ve got eight girls,” Alfred says, “but my wife is pregnant now and I’ve got that feeling. Jesus is going to lay his hands on this one. My son is on his way.” She’s eight months along, so Alfred had thirty days of blissful ignorance before Jesus and genetics likely let him down again.
“You go ahead and take a nap if you want. I expect you won’t mind if I smoke my pipe.” Alfred takes a meerschaum pipe carved with two intertwined mermaids from the cup holder and lights up a vanilla tobacco that reminds me of my old man.
I take 10mg of Valium, recline the generous seat of the truck, and close my eyes. Alfred’s driving eighty, eighty-five miles an hour, eager to get back to his eight daughters and pregnant wife, and we’ll be in St. Louis too soon, I think.
WAKE UP, SON. I found you a ride.”
I jump up, disoriented, from a dream that had me walking around a house I was never allowed to enter, and I sit up too fast, turning my head from side to side like a frightened fish.
“Here you go. Here’s some coffee. Come on, son, time’s a wastin’.”
I am still halfway in the dream, and I realize my subconscious has stolen it from Franz Kafka and Orson Welles:
It’s a sign that I won’t make it in time for The Clock, or more likely that I’m just very worried that I won’t make it in time (I have a depressingly unimaginative dream life). We’re at the Jump Stop #2 and I climb out of the truck, miss a step, and fall flat on my hands and knees; my backpack slips off my shoulder, and my computer comes bumping out.
“Whoa! Careful there! You hurt yourself?”
I grab my computer, stand, run my fingers through my hair and shake hands with Duze.
“D-U-Z-E. Just like it sounds. That’s my rapper name, too. Alfred tells me you’re a journalist. Well I got a deal for you. You put me in your newspaper, and I’ll take you as far as Columbus. Once you’re in Columbus you can practically jog to New York City. Hell, I heard of a fella who walks his dog from Wall Street to Columbus, Ohio. You hear that one Alfred? Walks his damn Chihuahua!”
Alfred has betrayed me into the hands of a voluble idiot who is also a methamphetamine addict. The next five hours (my best guess: I’m holding my thumb over the top of my iPhone anytime I turn it on, and I’m not checking my e-mail) are too terrifying to relate. Like most committed crystal meth smokers, when he wants to share his pipe Duze does not take no for an answer.
Clancy Martin is the author of How to Sell and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. Next: “Escape to Newark.”
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